Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) (UUP): I am happy to be able to share in the debate on the Loyal Address because I was beginning to think that it was actually just a little England debate, bearing it in mind that the NHS stretches across the country and that standards will affect different levels. Last Thursday, I drew attention during business questions to the problems of waiting lists, and the Leader of the House said that we could learn from England. I should be happy if those in England could help us by telling us how they have managed to reduce their waiting lists so well.

I acknowledge the fact that there has been a reduction of about 2,000 in our waiting lists in the past two years, but the Secretary of State for Health was on the watch when they were rising in Northern Ireland. Whereas waiting lists in England are down—552 people have had to wait for 12 months, according to the information given to us—we must face the fact that, in Northern Ireland, about 3,500 people have waited for between 12 and 18 months, and even beyond. On that aspect, I should like to have some guidance so that we might learn from England; or are Northern Ireland Ministers not getting the proper advice from their departmental officials, so that they can act accordingly?

I wish to raise again the issue of our primary care provision in the light of the comments made by the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor). Throughout Northern Ireland, we are trying to return primary care to the front line, yet some general practices are not properly equipped even to meet the required standards in terms of insurance and health and safety. I understand that, as money is not ring-fenced, the health boards can decide to do what they want with it and that, at the end of the day, we may be hindering the advances in the care in the community, which was one of the key factors of the Government's activity.

I wish to raise a personal issue that affects one of my constituents—a young lady who was born with a certain problem that ultimately affected her physical aspect and her vision. She attended Jordanstown school and was supposed to be statemented each year. It would appear that, somewhere along the line, the Belfast education
30 Nov 2004 : Column 589
and library board did not do its work—it claimed that it was not invited to do so, but it was always advised when the statementing was done.

My constituent was advised that she should attend the Royal National College of the Blind in Hereford, and she has done so and that will be paid for until December, but because she will be 19 years old in December, there can be no further funding from the Belfast education and library board, nor from the Department. I understand that, if she were from England, her education could be funded by different means. There is a method of doing so because the principal of the royal college in Hereford has been in touch with me on that very point.

The Belfast education and library board says that my constituent could be funded for vocational training, but not for academic training. I understand that training for her physical condition means that she is now mobile after being wheelchair-bound. With the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills supposedly working together, there should be a way forward. It is discrimination of the worst kind if a person with a physical handicap who could take the academic route is not allowed to take it because they have been shunted off into another siding.

I have raised on the Floor of the House in the past the issue of the Departments working together, and I have followed the contributions made this afternoon that dealt with sex education in schools. Love for Life, which was founded as a charity by a medical doctor to do something positive, was funded by grants particularly from the Southern education and library Board to work in schools. It met a tremendous response from teachers, children and parents but, unfortunately, the Department of Health says that it now cannot fund it because the charity deals with education issues, and the Department for Education and Skills says that it cannot fund it because it deals with health issues. A Government who pride themselves on being seamless should begin to get their act together so that youngsters are taught not simply the mechanics but all aspects of relationships. That will help them through life and save on wasteful expenditure. They may get into trouble by contracting sexually transmitted diseases because we failed them in the early days.

There are many other subjects that I would like to raise, but I think that I have said enough. However, I want to make one final simple point. Gulf war syndrome has now been recognised as an illness. I have fought on the issue for a long time, and I trust that we will no longer withhold the financial aid and help so that soldiers who served this country faithfully in the Gulf war now receive the treatment that they deserve.

6.22 pm

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury) (LD): The themes of this Queen's Speech are "opportunity" and "security", and education is primarily seen in terms of opportunity. We are no strangers to this idea. In the prelude to the party's constitution, we make it clear that "freedom from ignorance" is critical to the liberty of the individual. Education, however, is also of critical importance to security, and I intend to spend a few moments talking about that.

The other evening following the Gracious Speech, I co-sponsored a House of Commons reception to celebrate the 10th anniversary of a small
30 Nov 2004 : Column 590
non-governmental organisation, Development in Action. It is run by young volunteers who have been to India on various projects and who have returned to this country to encourage interest in global issues. They produce a quarterly magazine that goes to students, teachers and careers offices and have created a development education resource base.When I talked to some of the volunteers, I was struck by the vital links that exist between education, the idea of global citizenship and the prospects for greater tolerance and understanding across the borders of geography, imagination and economic opportunity that divide our world.

On 15 November, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills announced the international strategy for education, skills and children's services. In doing so, he said:

Proposals include twinning every school in England with a school overseas within the next five years, and sharing Britain's educational expertise and resources with the developing world. This is all very welcome, and I congratulate him on his initiative. However, it risks being little more than a public relations stunt unless there is a genuine drive to expand foreign languages provision, as proposed by Tomlinson, and to ensure that the "international dimension" becomes a fundamental part of the education reform agenda. Too much of Government policy at present seems to run counter to those principles. One example is the Home Office policy of charging international students for visas despite the fact that fees income from non-European Union students already makes up 7 per cent. of the UK higher education sector's budget.

A second example is the decline of modern language teaching, and especially—this brings us back to security—a recent report by the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies that argues that we are not training sufficient people with knowledge of the middle east and competence in Arabic languages. Clive Holes, professor for the study of the contemporary Arab world at the university of Oxford, argues that we are seeing

I hope that the Secretary of State will comment on the report in his winding-up speech and give us his assessment of the likely impact of the Higher Education Act 2004 on the situation that Professor Holes describes.

I turn to the theme of opportunity. The Gracious Speech says:

hear, hear. However, why then do the Government seem intent on erecting barriers to that opportunity? Liberal Democrats deeply regret that the Government have not used the Queen's Speech to announce a rethink on tuition and top-up fees. It was their last chance to do so before we take the issue to the country. The Liberal Democrats' alternative Queen's Speech proposed a Bill to scrap the tax on learning. The electorate face a clear
30 Nov 2004 : Column 591
choice: top-up fees under Labour, commercial interest rates on student loans under the Tories—in both cases, of course, that means that students will pay for their own education—or an end to all charges for university tuition under the Liberal Democrats, with the cost borne by the richest taxpayers.

Let us remember what happened at the last general election. Such was the hostility to tuition fees on the doorstep that the Prime Minister ordered a review of student finance, with the aim of

Quite how Ministers, proceeding from that starting point, came up with top-up fees as the answer to our woes will no doubt make an interesting case study in university politics seminars for many years to come. I hope that at least some students will enjoy spending £3,000 to discuss it. Following the by-elections in Brent, East and Leicester, South, Liberal Democrats look forward with anticipation to the doorstep reaction that the Prime Minister's loyal servants will receive from voters next spring.

One measure that Liberal Democrats very much welcome is the proposed child benefit Bill. The Gracious Speech told us that that will

That will be a step, at least, towards a more equitable system. Liberal Democrats have long championed the needs of part-time students, not least by ensuring that they are covered by the fair access arrangements in the Higher Education Act 2004. We hope that the Government will move towards activity funding so that we can end the funding anomalies that disadvantage students in colleges. We regret that the recently published grant letter to the Learning and Skills Council failed to move us in that direction. The Government's preparedness to support the further education sector will be a key test of their commitment to the principle of opportunity.

We also welcome the proposal to ensure that the charitable status of independent schools will be dependent on whether they actually do work that is commensurate with that status. We have long argued that charitable status should not simply be a means by which fees can be held down for parents who can afford private education for their children. It should be about opening services and facilities for the benefit of the wider community.

Liberal Democrats' disappointment with the Queen's Speech stems not only from the fact that it contains measures with which we disagree and fails to contain others with which we would agree, but from the more profound fact that it shows a lack of philosophical direction—a sense of what the Government want our country to look like. Instead we have a mix of reactionary illiberalism and mean-spiritedness, and one or two sticking-plaster-type measures that are welcome, but will do little to help to clean up the mess.

In education, after three years of debate and a radical Act of Parliament, we are yet to see any real analysis of what the Government think that higher education is for, beyond performing a service role for business. Moreover, the Government may be tough on insecurity,
30 Nov 2004 : Column 592
but they are certainly not tough on the causes of insecurity. We live in a world in which 115 million children have no access to education, but providing that for them would cost $5.6 billion dollars, which is comparable to the £3 billion cost to this country of the Iraq war. Was bombing Iraq a sensible priority to set if we are interested in security, let alone opportunity? Which of those priorities would have been a better investment to fight the war on terror?

Perhaps it says it all that the international agenda for education that I praised, which strikes at the heart of our shared aspirations for a world of security and opportunity, has found no place in the Queen's Speech in the run-up to the general election campaign. The Government have made their choice: they will run with the politics of fear, but not the politics of hope.

6.30 pm

Next Section IndexHome Page