David Heath MP, Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for Somerton and Frome

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David Heath's speeches in Parliament

These are digests of what David Heath said in Parliament. Click on the link to the Hansard search engine below to read the full text of his speeches.

Click here, or on the speeches archive link in the navigation panel on the left, to read summaries of what David Heath said in Parliament in previous weeks during this session.

Heath in Hansard: July 2007

July 2: Leader of the House Questions

This was David’s last appearance in the Chamber as Shadow Leader of the House and he began by welcoming Harriet Harman MP to her new role, though I suspect he was glad to be told he wouldn’t have to shadow her!

David noted that ‘her predecessor was firm about Ministers abiding by the ministerial code of conduct’ and argued that there was ‘now a strong case for strengthening the code, for stopping it being under the sole jurisdiction of the Prime Minister, and for introducing in addition a code for Cabinet Government that respects the role of Cabinet Ministers within Cabinet.’

The new Leader of the House, as I suspect will be her style, dodged the question and merely gave a list of her responsibilities. As Leader of the House, she felt that issues she needed to address were: ‘that there is the right relationship between Ministers and this House; that Members have an opportunity generally to raise issues of concern to their constituents; and that Ministers with responsibility for matters come to this House and give an account of themselves.’ She thought that the other issues David raised were not for her ‘to address.’ I felt those were interesting thoughts from the Leader of the House, a position that is supposed to oversee the running of the House of Commons and decide what subjects are to be debated. I’m delighted we don’t have to shadow her!

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July 10: Prevention and Suppression of Terrorism

David’s first intervention, was to discuss an argument often put forward ‘by people outside the House in support of an extension to the 28 days’ [allowed for questioning by the police].

Their argument is ‘that if a suicide bomber survives an attempted bombing but is injured, and so is not available for questioning, the extension would be necessary.’ David argued instead that ‘if we introduced post-charge questioning, those circumstances could not possibly apply, because someone who was injured while planting a bomb clearly has a prima facie charge against them.’ The response from the Minister of State, Tony McNulty MP, was a firm ‘maybe.’

When the discussion progressed onto lists of proscribed organisations as an order, David identified the procedural flaws of presenting organisations together on a list. Parliament is often presented with organisations for discussion that are not necessarily coherent as a set. ‘The list of proscribed organisations is presented as an order, which is unamendable. If the same order lists organisations that are not related to one another, it is not possible for the House to apply discretion as to the merits or otherwise of the bodies listed.’

Instead David proposed that ‘it would be much more satisfactory, in procedural terms, if separate orders were provided for each organisation, which could be debated in a single debate.’ This pressed Tony McNulty into admitting he would have to ‘look at the procedural elements’ in question. Whether the Government could consider the issues under separate orders and so have a wider review, was considered a fair point that ‘should perhaps take up through the usual channels.’

Developing the discussion of the lists of organisations Chris Bryant, Labour MP, wondered whether Ministers would consider presenting the whole list again each year, ‘so that we could refer regularly to all the organisations that are proscribed, rather than simply to any new organisations as they are being proscribed.’ Subsequently, David identified that theoretically the process would be reversible where orders could be put forward by ministers to de-proscribe organisations. Therefore, ‘it is incumbent on the Government to review periodically all the organisations on the list to which he refers to see whether the conditions still apply.’

However, as outlined by Tony McNulty, the POAC is a special tribunal of three members, including a senior member of the judiciary, which determines whether the Secretary of State's decision to refuse to de-proscribe is flawed, when considered in the light of the principles applicable to judicial review applications. Concluding that ‘that is the process; there is no duty on the Government to be proactive in considering such cases.’

Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill

David wasn’t going to let the Government get away with taking on a Bill introduced by a Liberal Democrat Lord without getting in a quick plug. David said that it is enormously to the credit of the Government and the Conservative Opposition that they have been prepared to take forward the Bill introduced by my noble Friend Lord Lester. We are grateful for the interest that has been shown—it has been a shared endeavour across the House.’ More info on the Bill can be found here.

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July 11: Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill

Another week, another contribution from David on this Bill, the details of which were provided in last week’s HIH.

David began by slamming Labour backbencher, Andrew Dismore MP, for an illogical position where ‘he has no confidence in their [the Government’s] arguments and yet he will support them to demonstrate the will of the House.’ David then accused the Government of ‘obstinacy in maintaining a position that has no logical credibility in terms of what they say they want to achieve. It betrays an unfortunate dog-in-the-manger attitude in the face of what has clearly been demonstrated to be broad support for both the Bill's general principles and the measure under discussion.’

David then demonstrated the ridiculousness of the Government’s position, where they ‘accept the arguments made in all parts of the House that death in custody should be part of the remit of the Bill—and they trumpet that as being a great concession—but then to say that they are not prepared to give any indication of when or if the part of the Bill applying to death in custody will ever be implemented.’ He compared them to ‘St. Augustine of Hippo - they want to be chaste, but not yet.’ He asked ‘what is the reason for that delay? What is the conceivable purpose in saying, "We think it is wrong to allow gross negligence of a corporate nature in the management of the prison or police services that results in death in custody when a duty of care should apply, but we will let a few people die in the meantime while we think about whether we will implement this measure?" That is, in stark terms, what the Government are saying.’

David pointed out that this was a corporate manslaughter Bill and that it would not be individuals found wanting but ‘management, policies and the structures that are in place.’ He also noted that the Government had been criticised throughout the debate, even from the Labour backbenchers – ‘they have been roundly condemned by every contributor to the debate because their position is absurd.’ He also noted how ridiculous it was that the Government wouldn’t even name a date for when the legislation would apply to prisons and police custody. David claimed that ‘if the Government named a date, the House would be satisfied. The obstinate refusal to name a date is what makes people so very irritated with the Government's position.’

David concluded that ‘the best thing we can do is ensure that this Bill, in its entirety, including the duty of care for those in custody, passes through both Houses of Parliament. It could do so tomorrow if the Minister would simply say the right words in responding to this debate.’ In the end, the Government finally conceded the point, though the Bill will not apply to police and prison custody for three years. More information on our position can be found here.

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July 23: Fixed-term Parliaments

It was reported that there have been no recent discussions held by the Electoral Commission on fixed-term Parliaments. With the proposal of whether fixed terms should be introduced for the House of Commons, David was quick to state that ‘many of us believe that the case for a fixed-term Parliament, rather than reliance on the whim of a Prime Minister, is unanswerable.’

However, on the lack of discussion David ‘doubts very much whether it is a matter for the Electoral Commission rather than the political system.’ Instead David identified a ‘desperate need for the Electoral Commission to be strengthened so that it can perform a much stronger regulatory and monitoring role.’

When challenged whether the Electoral Commission’s transition to a stronger role was ‘now well in hand’, Peter Viggers MP, Conservative, assured David that there had been a change of emphasis. Rather than taking a lead role in public policy development, the Electoral Commission will contribute their expertise and experience to inform new legislation and offer independent evaluation of the Government's own policy initiatives.

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July 24: Conservative Opposition Day - Penal System

The Conservatives decided to use of their two debates on their opposition day to discuss ‘the Government’s handling of the penal system.’ This allowed David to talk at length about his new portfolio in the House for the first time.

The main issue in the debate surrounding the penal system addressed the issue of the high prison population and subsequent prison overcrowding. The Government has provided 20,000 new prison places- ‘some of the places are in new prisons, some are in additional units in existing prisons, and some are the result of doubling or trebling in prison cells’. According to the new Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw MP, prison overcrowding has resulted from more offences and offenders than ever before being brought to justice, and more of the most violent and dangerous offenders being sent to jail for longer.

Troubled by the ‘crisis in our prison system’ that has ‘developed… in the past few years’, David addressed the failings of the Government in providing more places for prisoners and their response to the problems of overcapacity. However, what David ‘cannot agree with or accept’ was the ‘simplistic demand’ for more and more prison capacity. ‘It does not make sense. It is not a logical response to the situation in the country.’

David criticised Conservative Members ‘blithely’ saying that they would like to double the prison population, and spend an extra £3.4 billion on building prisons, which would ‘support a policy of failure.’ Alternatively he identified the need to find ways of making our penal policy more effective. ‘Only one aspect of prison is effective; protecting the public from the activities of those who are locked up. It does not act as a deterrent and it does not reduce re-offending.’ He mentioned the need ‘urgently to stabilise and then reduce’ the prison population, emphasising that the public do not want more people in prison but less crime on the streets.

David proposed a series of measures to reduce the prison population and problems of overcrowding. Having high numbers of prisoners in prisons, exceeding the prisons intended capacity, causes problems. Essentially, ‘there cannot be effective rehabilitation and overcrowding.’ However, David argued, these problems, and great issues relating to crime, cannot be solved effectively through building more prisons to contain higher levels of prisoners.

Firstly, ‘it does not deal properly with those with mental illness in our prison estate.’ 90% of prisoners have some symptoms of mental illness, ‘for that reason we should have more treatment centres that are capable of dealing with mental illness.’ Additionally, one in 10 of Britain’s prisoners are functionally psychotic, David stated that when put ‘in ordinary cells, it does not do them, the Prison Service or society any good.’

Secondly, David insisted ‘we need secure drug treatment centres’, of which there is a substantial lack within the current system. Ten thousand prisoners are in prison for drugs offences. Three quarters of all male prisoners took illegal drugs in the 12 months before their imprisonment. Yet secure drug treatment centres have only 2,500 places. David proposed that ‘instead of building more bog-standard prisons, we would deal with the problem, which clogs up the system.’ People cannot be sent for the drug treatments that the courts prescribe through legislation as ‘insufficient’ drug treatment places are available. In response Humfrey Malins MP, Conservative, agreed with David, but outlined that although 2,500 drug rehabilitation places are available, because of Government under-funding, not nearly all of them are occupied; ‘as well as more beds, we need more funding.’

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Proceeding with his criticism of Government measures, David acknowledged the shortfall of education in the current penal system – ‘we hugely underestimate the need and capacity for training and education in prison.’ Many prisoners under perform in their scholastic achievement; reading age is generally 50% below what is expected of an 11-year-old; numeracy is 66% below, and writing is 80% below. ‘A major factor in the propensity for criminality is finding it difficult to cope with normal social behaviour because of that lack of attainment.’ Therefore, David proposed that the scope for education should be increased, ‘which cannot be undertaken in an overcrowded system.’ David identifies that those who work in the prison education service ‘give a despondent and discouraging view of what they can now provide and of what they could provide, given appropriate support.’

The issue of work for prisoners was also tackled, following on from the need for better education. ‘We must make much of the work in prisons compulsory, and expand it so that it is much more focused on things that are socially useful.’ As a further development of this policy David proposed that prisoners should be paid properly for their work in prison, and let it contribute to compensation funds; ‘not only to help prisoners manage their affairs on entry to prison and make sure that their homes and loved ones are properly cared for’, but also ‘to prepare them effectively for release so that they do not suffer an immediate crisis on leaving prison, which, without proper support, results in re-offending.’

The fourth element proposed for reducing the prison population was to make community sentences ‘much more appropriate to the crimes that are committed and much more related to the communities in which they are committed.’ Restorative justice procedures ‘could make people put right the damage that they have done within the community’, and be ‘seen to be making amends.’ Extensive evidence supports the view that perpetrators would be far less likely to offend, than they would be after a short prison sentence. Evidence wholly shows that sentences of less than three months have ‘very little deterrent effect—in fact, quite the reverse.’ They ‘tend to encourage a sense of criminality and identification with criminality among those who might otherwise be diverted from more serious offences.’ David subsequently concluded that this is ‘something on which we need to concentrate.’

David’s final point about reducing the numbers in the estate, related to the position of children, where there are 2,200 people under 18 in prison. ‘That is not the right place for children’ David began. While accepting that ‘there are young offenders who make the lives of people in communities a misery’, he identified the need to do something effective to stop them from re-offending. Also, particularly if they are persistent offenders of a certain type, he agreed to remove them from the community, ‘so that they can no longer inflict damage upon it.’ However, he does not think that prison is the right or appropriate way of doing that, alternatively restorative justice processes have been shown to be “particularly effective” with young people.

‘We have a community justice panel in Chard in Somerset, where there is a 5% re-offending rate.’ He challenged ‘let us compare that with the rates for prison and consider which has the most effective outcome.’ George Howarth, Labour MP, agreed that it is essential that we focus interventions on what has been shown to be most effective, ‘using interventions that have a strong evidence base.’ David concluded that if those various measures were put in place, we could see a substantial and sustained reduction in the prison population, adding that there is a need of more research on the subject of early release.

The end of custody license involves the early release of prisoners serving less than four years, 18 days before the date when they would have been released in any event. Eligible prisoners under the scheme would have been released two and a half weeks earlier than under normal circumstances. If prisoners earn good behaviour and have to be reintroduced to the community, they are released before their full term. David condemns the ‘shambolic’ early release of prisoners, criticising the ‘system's lack of ability to cope with the risk assessment of some of those released.’ He asserted that the Government has not shown themselves in the best light through their ‘inability to perform their basic duties appropriately.’ David continued that Judges should construct sentences so that there is a clear term that is going to be served and the public understand that.

As an alternative he proposed ‘there should also be an additional term that will be served if there is not appropriate behaviour on the part of the prisoner. If the system made it clear that a prison sentence of a certain duration meant precisely that.’ He affirms that the public would have ‘much more confidence in our system and would believe that justice was being done’ if this proposal was put in place. However, at the moment he ‘do[es] not believe that they have any such confidence, and the events of the past few weeks have served to undermine that confidence still further.’

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July 25: Debate on CSR and Aircraft Carriers

Speaking because he represents Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton, David ‘warmly welcomed the announcement on the future carriers.’ He then asked the Secretary of State for Defence, Des Browne MP, if ‘a decision been taken on the future use of the existing carriers?’ He was particularly interested in ‘what assessment the Secretary of State made of the need for a second helicopter carrier to supplement HMS Ocean?’

Des Browne was his normal succinct self when he said that ‘no decision has been made on the future use of the carriers’ and that he would write to David ‘on his question about another helicopter carrier.’

Financial Assistance to Industry

David intervened in Simon Hughes’ criticism of Harriet Harman’s handling of choosing the new Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, rumoured to be Keith Vaz MP. David pointed out that the Committee had been going about its business without a Chairman and that it was capable of doing so while the Government engaged in due process to find a replacement.

In the last week, they quizzed the new Home Secretary on her plans for the next year. David thought it was ‘a serious bit of business, not a trivial matter, yet it was perfectly competently handled by the Committee as it stands.’ Simon Hughes agreed – ‘the Committee is served by very good officers, who are well established in their posts. It clearly decided that it did not need to wait for a change of personnel to get on with its work after the change of Government. It clearly decided that it wanted to address the major issues on its agenda, and it did so.’

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