In the news

September 24, 1999

At the interview for his first teaching job, Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat higher and further education spokesman, was handed a cane by the headmaster and instructed to hit him. Caning, his future employer informed him, was such an important part of school life that he had to learn how to do it properly. Willis was not happy with the experience, but he really wanted the job.

He is unlikely to face a similar trial if, as expected, he is asked to replace Don Foster in the Liberal Democrat education brief next week. While he strongly opposes corporal punishment, his verbal caning skills have been well proved. He has used them on the education select committee against schools inspection chief Chris Woodhead, against mobile tele-phone companies - which he accused of overcharging customers for hands-free sets after fears about health risks - and against the government's under-funding of higher education. He even used them against Paddy Ashdown for cosying up too much to Labour, saying, "We are not going to be a rollover party."

He has earned praise for his hard work, asking more than 20 parliamentary questions in his first six months as further and higher education spokesman, compared with his Conservative counterpart Stephen Dorrell, who asked none.

Educated at City of Leeds and Carnegie College, the University of Leeds - where he took a certificate of education - and the University of Birmingham - where he studied for a further degree as a mature student - he taught history at various boys' secondary schools in the Northeast. At 36, he became one of the youngest headteachers in the country in 1978.

His defeat of Norman Lamont to become MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough was one of the shocks of the last election.

A former leader of Harrogate Borough Council, he is a Leeds United season ticket holder and fan of ballet and fishing. He has a son and a daughter.

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