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Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): I want to send one clear message to my hon. Friend the Minister. I commend the Government for at last taking seriously our national weakness in education and training. I think that they have got the message that we have a problem, which they are addressing. It is instructive to examine how we used to deceive ourselves about how well we were doing. We have a talent for national self-deception in our ability to, for example, play football or run railways. We are not good at it, but we think we are. We thought that we were good at education, but we were not.

When Professors Sig Prais and Claus Moser of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research conducted research in the 1980s, they gave 30 electrical apprentices from France and 30 from Britain a simple mathematics test. The French apprentices got all the sums right and the British apprentices got all the sums wrong. There was an enormous difference. A subsequent comparison of kitchen manufacturers was featured in a television documentary. Workers on the shop floor in Germany could calculate, measure and produce a bespoke kitchen from a plan in English. In Britain, the equivalent workers could assembly standardised units and no more. The comparisons were stark. We deceived ourselves then, but things are getting better and I like to think that we will not deceive ourselves in the future.

One of the differences between Germany, France and Britain in those days was the rigour of the teaching. The classroom pedagogy was endless hours of rigorous mathematics. That is difficult and unpopular, but it is necessary. If one is to succeed in such things, one must do mathematics. I used to teach economics and statistics at A-level. One of the basic problems was that the youngsters I taught were not numerate. Many of them did not have good English either. Those problems are being addressed and that will come through in the future.

We must have rigour in the classroom from pedagogic teaching and rigour in practical skills. I should like to say much more, but that will have to suffice.

6.56 pm

Mr. Ivan Lewis: With the permission of the House, I shall do my best to respond to the contributions, but it is unlikely that I will get through them all. If that is the case, I shall write to those hon. Members whom I do not mention.

The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) made the valid point that we must not simply have a collection of existing initiatives and that we need a step change in our approach to skills. He made the Conservative party's proposal on higher education a big part of his contribution. Its policy will deny universities the significant income that they need and cap the aspirations of many young people. When the announcement was made, we heard that the money would be used to invest in vocational education and training, the implication being that money for university

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graduates would come from a different pot because they are a different cohort of young people from those who take vocational courses. That is not the message that we should send.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) made an extremely good point about the positive contribution of trade unions. They have been incredibly effective, especially in respect of the trade union learning fund and the individual learning account intermediary. This is a good opportunity to pay tribute to the work of John Monks at the TUC, who adopted a progressive and positive view of skills. He will soon move on to his new job and I have every confidence that Brendon Barber will adopt a similar approach.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) said far too many nice things about my political future. Many people do not know that my in-laws are voters in his constituency, which may influence what he says to me because his seat is so marginal. They have admitted to voting for him from time to time. He made valid points about the importance of the ILA successor scheme, and I agree with him. He said that funding and other organisational arrangements might have a negative effect on the 14 to 16 flexible work-related learning pilots. Those are being evaluated and evidence is emerging about a positive college-school relationship. We will present that evidence to the House.

The hon. Gentleman set five tests for the skills strategy. I expect us to meet all of them with one exception—the provision of finite resources without regard for the financial consequences. No member of the Liberal Democrat Treasury team was in the Chamber to influence his comments. He wants us to fund everything for everyone without regard to the financial consequences. That is why he is such a good Liberal Democrat.

My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) will no doubt hold me to account for the skills strategy. He was cynical about our capacity to deliver it in June. We are going to deliver it in June. However, I am not cynical about his capacity to hold me and other Ministers to account on the skills agenda.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) rightly cited examples of good practice in his constituency—Greenacres primary school, Alderwood school, and the work that Greenwich community college and Charlton Athletic are doing. Linking children's education to adult learning is a means of tackling intergenerational underperformance and deprivation. If my hon. Friend can raise aspirations in his communities and get adults learning alongside kids, that is in the best interest of our creating a lifelong learning culture and society and doing something about intergenerational—

It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.



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7 pm

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): The Office of Fair Trading has recommended to the Government proposals that would allow the unrestricted opening of pharmacies able to dispense NHS prescriptions. If the proposals were accepted, many local pharmacies such as Scott's pharmacy of 35 High street, Bromyard, and the Westfield Walk pharmacy, may well be at risk. That could mean that instead of prescriptions being dispensed just a walk away, they would have to be dispensed at a supermarket pharmacy or at an out-of-town shopping centre. I am grateful to Mrs. Janice Lucas, who has collected more than 2,000 signatures, including those relating to the Leominster pharmacy.

The petition declares:

To lie upon the Table.

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George Atkinson

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

7.1 pm

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): I have come to the House to speak on behalf of my constituent, Mr. George Atkinson, whose birthday, incidentally, it is tomorrow, and who will have spent six years, two months and 15 days in prison in Dubai. He is our longest-serving prisoner in the middle east region. I know that not from the answer that I received from the Minister on 5 March at column 1070W, because he chose to withhold the information on the grounds that it was privileged—on the grounds of privacy; I know it because I was told it by Fair Trials Abroad.

I owe the House an explanation, because I have raised the matter before. I raised it in Adjournment debates in the House on 12 June 1998 and on 13 January 1999. In those debates I concentrated on my conviction that Mr. Atkinson's conviction was entirely unsound and unjust, and my concern about his arbitrary detention. But that is all water under the bridge. What I owe to the House now is an explanation of why I have been silent these four years. Having raised the matter twice, why have I been silent for so long?

I have been silent because Ministers told me to shut up. I distinctly remember being given that message clearly by Ministers at meetings—"Be quiet, Mr. Swayne. Leave it all to us. Keep quiet about it, and we'll fix it." We were promised as a quid pro quo for not raising the matter, for not asking parliamentary questions, and for not raising it in the House and outside, that we would be provided with a package of support. People may raise their eyebrows, but I distinctly remember Baroness Symons promising that we would be provided with expertise from the Arabists to assist us in framing the right approaches to the right people. We got nothing. As a consequence of my silence, Mr. Atkinson's release date has come and gone, but I shall return to that shortly.

As I have been silent for so long, I shall briefly update the House about two events that have taken place in the intervening period. First, those who study these matters may recall—and if they check the record they will find—that Mr. Atkinson was convicted largely on the evidence of one Steven Trutch. That evidence was supplied to the court in Dubai by affidavits, so Mr. Atkinson's lawyers were unable to cross-examine him. Since I raised the matter in the House, Steven Trutch has been convicted and imprisoned in this country for swearing false affidavits. I think that that thoroughly undermines Mr. Atkinson's conviction.

Equally—it was shameful that I was silent about this, but I stuck with the advice that I was given by the Minister—I was silent when, last year, Mr. Atkinson was taken from his cell and savagely beaten. I asked the Minister about the matter only recently, and he replied on 3 April:

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That might be strictly true, but it creates an impression that is entirely false. Mr. Atkinson was not the victim of getting caught in the crossfire of a riot in a Dubai jail. He was deliberately taken from his cell and beaten by police officers with rubber truncheons. I wonder why. That event took place not long after the United Nations working group on arbitrary detention reminded the Government of Dubai of its opinion 17/1998, which said that Mr. Atkinson had been arbitrarily detained. I wonder whether those two events are connected.

As a consequence of the opinion that Mr. Atkinson had been arbitrarily detained—this is the only time when the Foreign Office acted with any spunk, if that is a permissible term, during the entire process—the Government presented to the Government of Dubai a note verbale. I recently made an inquiry of the Minister about the note verbale and I received an answer on 12 May. I had asked him what happened and

He replied:

Apparently, everything is all right, as the working group and the Government of Dubai have agreed. Mr. Atkinson is in prison and it is okay. What a false impression to give. The working group has written to me and told me that its original opinion stands. It has confirmed that opinion in its subsequent opinion 16/2002.

In trying to pursue the matter, I asked another question of the Minister. Again, he replied on 12 May:

We have pursued the interpretation through legal representatives. Indeed, I now have an opinion from Professor W. M. Ballantyne, QC, the primary jurist with expertise in jurisdictions under Arabic laws. His opinion is that Mr. Atkinson's sentence was completed on 31 August 2001, after his having served four and half years of a six-year sentence and obtaining one quarter of it in remission for good behaviour. That is the learned gentleman's opinion.

The question arises about whether that remission for good behaviour is discretionary or mandatory. Professor Ballantyne says that article 44 of the relevant law is absolutely clear. Only two conditions have to be met—public safety and good behaviour, for which the Arabic term is "mugim", which literally means "going straight". It is mandatory for all prisoners to have that relief if those two conditions are met.

The Attorney-General in Dubai argues that an extra six months must be served owing to the non-payment of a fine. Professor Ballantyne has considered that issue, too. Article 302 of the relevant law provides for the maximum of an additional six months, but it is not automatic—it must be the result of a formal process that is properly initiated and notified. The professor concludes that as there was no such notice or formal

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process in the case of Mr. Atkinson, he should have been released on 31 August 2001. Those are the facts. Let us imagine that there was a formal notice procedure whereby Mr. Atkinson was advised, "You haven't paid your fine, so you're going to serve an extra six months." That would take us to 28 February 2002—but Mr. Atkinson is still in prison. The Attorney-General said that Mr. Atkinson should not only get an extra six months for the non-payment of his fine, but lose his remission for good behaviour. We know that that cannot be true, because it would be double jeopardy. Professor Ballantyne is absolutely clear. He says:

The fact is that the Dubai authorities were working to the assumption, however mistaken, that Mr. Atkinson would receive an additional six months for the non-payment of his fine. That might be wrong, but it was nevertheless their assumption. Towards the end of February 2002, the prison authorities told him that he had to cough up another smaller fine of £16,000, and that if he paid it he would be released. He therefore paid it. The prison authorities wrote to the Attorney-General in Dubai asking for the return of Mr. Atkinson's passport so that they could release him and deport him. So why is he still in prison?

Ministers have told me throughout this business that they cannot interfere and have referred me to the interpretation of the law by our legal representatives. The difficulty in dealing with the authorities in Dubai is that they will not respond. On 10 July last year, the Attorney-General wrote to Mr. Atkinson's legal advisers in these ringing terms: "This correspondence is at a close: we are not interested any more." For 10 months, we have had no communications because they simply do not reply; they do not deal; they are not prepared to talk. It is no good the Foreign Office saying, "You've got to talk to legal representatives and sort it out with them", if the other side will not respond.

Ministers cling to the idea that we cannot interfere, must not get involved, and can do only what is proper in consular terms. That is a load of nonsense, because we do it all the time. I recall that when there was an outrage in Yemen in which a number of British subjects were rounded up, the next day the Secretary of State came to the House and told us that he had been on the phone to his counterpart in Yemen. We continually make representations on behalf of people in prison in Morocco, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Gary Onions came back on 9 May as a result of such action. Why has Mr. Atkinson been left behind? Why should not he have a fair deal? He was a businessman who paid his taxes: why is he not getting the benefit of the protection of the British authorities?

Dubai—and the United Arab Emirates, of which it forms part—is a friendly nation. We do an enormous amount of trade with Dubai. There are not only formal trading links but a huge amount of social intercourse between our nations. A formal and an informal network could be exploited. Why has that not happened?

During the six years in which Mr. Atkinson has languished in a foreign jail, how many ministerial visits have been made to Dubai? How many times did Ministers raise Mr. Atkinson's case with their counterparts, as I urged them to do through faxes to their offices whenever I discovered that they were going to Dubai?

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The position cannot be allowed to continue. A British subject cannot simply be abandoned in that way. It is monstrous and an outrage.

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