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Tuesday, 24 September, 2002, 07:24 GMT 08:24 UK
Liberal Democrats: Ask Phil Willis

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  • Click here to read the transcript


    The prospect of war with Iraq and the current A-levels crisis have dominated the Liberal Democrats party conference./B>

    < What are the challenges facing the Liberal Democrats, their future and their policies? What about Liberal Democrat education policies and the fall-out from the A-level inquiry?

    As the conference got underway, you put your questions to the Liberal Democrats education spokesman Phil Willis.


    Transcript


    Newshost:

    Welcome Mr Willis. The issue of Iraq is hanging over this conference as with the others. MPs are being recalled tomorrow to Parliament partly as a result of the campaign kicked off by your leader, Charles Kennedy. Can I ask you first, do you think this debate will actually change anything or do you think Tony Blair and George Bush have already made their minds up?


    Phil Willis:

    Well I hope they haven't but I suspect they have. I think that all the signs coming out of Washington and particularly the aftermath of George Bush's statement to the UN was a clear ultimatum to the UN - either back a resolution that I'll write or indeed I'll go ahead without you. I think the threat of Bush to go ahead unilaterally is an issue which clearly Tony Blair has got to address and one which I think Parliament will address tomorrow.


    Newshost:

    It leaves Tony Blair on a bit of a hook really doesn't it if the UN don't fall in line? Unilateral action will not go down well with the rest of the world and certainly won't go down well, I wouldn't have thought, with his own back-benchers.


    Phil Willis:

    I think Charles Kennedy in his speech today to conference was very measured. I think one of the issues that he did raise, is this question of what happens next. He did raise the issue about the Arab world and particularly the Muslim community across the world and the divisions that that would cause. He also made reference to what would actually happen in the Middle East. I think for many of us that is one of the real worries about that there is no natural successor to Saddam Hussein and that the whole problems within that region are very, very fraught.


    Newshost:

    You fear that things might end up worse after the event, rather than better with lots of Iraqi lives lost in the interim time?


    Phil Willis:

    I think Claire Short was right was right to talk about the loss of Iraqi lives. The Iraqi population has suffered immeasurably over the last ten years. But it is really the vacuum that will be created in the Middle East - the loss of thousands of lives that will follow as a result. It will be the almighty number of small skirmishes that actually arise because it's not just an Iraq versus the United States and Britain, it in fact within Iraq there are at least four different communities all of whom will be fighting for power.


    Newshost:

    But presumably you don't agree that we can just let Saddam Hussein carry on building weapons of mass destruction?


    Phil Willis:

    I think what's amazing to myself and indeed to many people in the House of Commons of all political persuasion is that why has this crisis just arisen now. There is no clear evidence, unless it's presented tomorrow morning, that in fact Saddam Hussein is about to become more dangerous than he's been over the last five, six, seven, eight or ten years.


    Newshost:

    What's your theory as to why it has happened now?


    Phil Willis:

    I hope I can dismiss purely the oil - the economic - theory because I think that's too simplistic a way of actually looking at this. I do believe there is an issue of weapons mass destruction that needs to be addressed. When you look at how many tonnes of chemical and biological weaponry were actually destroyed when our weapon inspectors were actually there, you have to question what in fact has been produced since 1998. I think the UN is absolutely right to say, look we have to get back in there, we have to inspect and we have to make sure that this man is not only the pariah that the United States thinks he is, but that he is a pariah in the Middle East and a pariah in the rest of the world.


    Newshost:

    And the turning point, you think, for the UN on this?


    Phil Willis:

    My worry here is - I am a great supporter of the UN but also a great supporter of UN reform - it desperately needs reform, it desperately needs more teeth, it desperately needs to have new ways of actually policing the world's trouble spots. But this is a defining moment for the UN. If in fact George W Bush simply says, I am going it alone with or without Britain, what he is basically saying to the United Nations is that you are now redundant. And I wonder what other world force is available to actually fill that vacuum that will be created.


    Newshost:

    We've had a lot of questions on the A-level fiasco - as some people are calling it. One question, about Estelle Morris and her role in this. Do you think that as Secretary of State - the bottom line - she should take responsibility for this and quit?


    Phil Willis:

    First of all I think she should take responsibility. Whether she quits at the end of the day, I think, will depend on Mike Tomlinson's inquiry. I was one of the people who very vociferously called for an independent inquiry and who wanted to see that inquiry. Estelle Morris in fact basically sacked QCA in terms of having their own inquiry and said look we will have it independent, it will be thorough and we'll invite Mike Tomlinson to do so.

    I think to call for her resignation or indeed any other Minister's resignation before we've got the results of that inquiry would be wrong. But I make this very clear and I've it clear elsewhere and certainly to the conference, that if in fact there is a single fingerprint from any government Minister on this debacle this summer, then not only the Secretary of State but other Ministers responsible should in fact consider their positions and that includes the conspicuously absent David Milliband who has suddenly returned from his travels in Scotland.


    Newshost:

    A lot of people have been worried about plans to perhaps scrap A-levels as a result of this fiasco. Charles, UK asks: Perhaps we should abandon A-levels altogether now they've been completely discredited and move instead towards the international baccalaureate that is centrally administered from Switzerland and would be completely free from political interference of any sort.


    Phil Willis:

    Our party's position and indeed I set this out in January in Huddersfield at the North of England conference, is that we actually support the international baccalaureate. What I don't want us to see however - and it looks as if Estelle Morris is going to do this - is jumping from the present debacle - which has only been in for two years. The new A-level and AS-levels have only been here for two years. To simply abandon those and jump into a new system would be quite wrong.

    We need to see a comprehensive review of the whole of exam structure from 14 to 19. We need a new framework and we need variation in our examination systems because whilst the international baccalaureate is great if you are in full-time education from 16 to 19, it isn't if you are for instance a mature student who is wanting to gain qualifications to go to university. So it's not an either or, it's about horses for courses.


    Newshost:

    Claire, Gloucester, UK: It is absurd that people are now talking about changing the exam system to the baccalaureate which I believe would increase administration and paperwork for teachers without actually improving standards. The lesson the be learnt from the fiasco is that exam boards should be independent and free from government intervention.


    Phil Willis:

    Well I go halfway with her there because I think the latter part of her e-mail is clearly right. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has to go. We have to have an independent examination structure. Again I prefer to have one single board to do that - totally independent of government - an organisation which in fact monitors itself together with its schools and indeed with the business community as a whole.

    In terms of saying no to the international baccalaureate, certainly it shouldn't just be used as a panic measure by government. There are many schools who already use the baccalaureate. In Wales they are considering introducing a Welsh baccalaureate. I want to see schools have the sorts of freedoms and autonomy to be able to say - we want a curricula framework which is right for our school and then have an examination system which in fact examines the veracity of it.


    Newshost:

    John Wallis, UK: Are faith schools a force for evil in society because they are divisive?


    Phil Willis:

    Well I think people have been asking that question ever since 1870 - W E Forster's Act and clause which allowed in fact the current compromise about religious teaching in schools was created then. I think this is a very, very important issue. I don't think Church schools - as I prefer to call them - are in fact a force for evil - I think to say that is quite wrong. The vast majority of Church schools deliver an incredibly good product and are comprehensive in their intake and comprehensive in the way in which they represent their communities.

    My great worry and it came out of the riots in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley - it came out of the increased polarisation that we've seen since September 11th is that by having single faith schools which are based on ethnicity and race and religion, what we may well see are huge divisions in our society.

    I called at our Spring conference - and I think got support in spirit rather than on the floor - to actually look for reforming the issue of admissions. I don't want to see single faith schools that are just for one faith. I don't mind a faith running a school, whether it be Church of England or indeed the Muslim community or the Sikh community. But I want those schools to be open for all because the values which Islam brings, the values which Sikhism or Buddhism brings or Christianity is something which I don't think would affect children adversely. My worry is when you get extremism within those faiths which then does worry me enormously.


    Newshost:

    The one that is often raised is that if an organisation like the Nation of Islam, for example, wanted to start a school, it appears under the current system that as long as they said they were following national curriculum that would be acceptable.


    Phil Willis:

    It would and in fact I had this arguments with Stephen Timms when he was the Minister of School Standards - and I am sure he's glad he's gone at this moment in time - and that was about creationism. When you look for instance at the schools which Peter Vardy is in fact funding - a well known creationist - with heads of science who are saying that the theory of evolution must go, that the world was created and that creationism is the overriding positive theory - then it's at that point I get very, very worried indeed.


    Newshost:

    Wouldn't it just be simpler to leave religion at home?


    Phil Willis:

    Of course it would and if we were started again back in 1870, we wouldn't have this situation. But our state education system has always been a compromise. It grew out of the Church schools - the non-conformist and the Church of England - and it was the state that filled in the gap and increasingly the state has filled more of that gap, particularly at secondary level because the Churches couldn't afford to do it.

    I think there is a great difference between a school being run by a faith and a faith using a school as an indoctrinatory process. It is that element that most of the education world and indeed most of the British community would shy away from.


    Newshost:

    Paul Evans, UK: As Labour has moved to the centre ground, the Liberal Democrats have moved to the left and they've taken up what looks very much like Labour's old "tax and spend" position. How can you be in opposition if you are saying the same things as Labour and have the ambition to be the real opposition?


    Phil Willis:

    I think if we're saying the same thing as Labour, then it's time I left the party because it's not the party I want to be in.


    Newshost:

    But Paul seems to be suggesting that you're saying something even to the left of the current Labour Party.


    Phil Willis:

    In reality the new Labour Party has actually moved to the right of the Tories - it's now a centre-right party rather than a centre-left party. I'm actually proud of my centre-left credentials and I make no bones about that.

    In terms of tax and spend, we've argued really since the 1992 general election that in order to fund quality public services you really have to put money into the pot.


    Newshost:

    The Labour Party are doing that.


    Phil Willis:

    I am delighted that they have to some extent because in the 1992 election, the 1997 election and even the 2001 election - it was these Liberals, these awful people that actually wanted to raise your taxes to fund your public services. And of course Labour have had to be dragged kicking and screaming to actually recognise that to put money into health, to put money into education, taxation has to be raised in one form or another. Even the Tories are saying the same thing, so heaven help us, something must be going on.


    Newshost:

    Geoffrey Payne, UK: You should aspire to being a left-wing party, particularly in international relations. You have to be a left of centre party. The alternative will mean that you are no different to the other parties. You should not be tempted by free-market dogma, but champion public services and make the environment a number one priority. The Conservatives and New Labour are too close to the biggest villain - the USA.


    Phil Willis:

    Well we are often accused of being too close to Europe so I think we win on the last point. But I think Jeff is right in his assessment - I don't like the right and left concepts - I think they're very old hat. But I think as a party our overriding aim has got to represent the individual. We have to fight for the individual. I think for too long, not only our party but indeed the other parties, have actually been the supporters of organisations - perhaps it was the trade unions, perhaps it was business. I think that the individual has lost out in this with quality public services - it's about delivering services to people who can't advocate for themselves but who desperately need those services, sometimes just to survive.


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