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

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David Heath's speeches in Parliament

Heath in Hansard: April 2007

April 19: Business of the House

David’s weekly exchange with his opposite number, Jack Straw MP, began with David asking why we ‘have not had sight of two major Bills announced in the Queen's Speech: the criminal justice Bill and the counter-terrorism Bill.

David accepted that there may be confusion over which Department would be responsible (following the Home Office split) but given the importance of the bills and given ‘how often we have slipshod and spatchcock legislation from the Home Office,’ David thought it ‘proper that the House should have an early sight of what the Government intend so that we can debate it properly.’

Mr. Straw explained that both Bills would be ‘brought forward in due course.’ He thought it ironic that David was asking this when he ‘normally complains about the number of Home Office Bills and the speed with which they are brought forward.’ That is, Mr. Straw, because they are by and large unnecessary pieces of authoritarian legislation cluttering the statute book. Mr. Straw predicted that David was ‘looking for an opportunity to vote against yet another couple of sensible measures.’ He’s half right there I suppose.

David then asked for a debate on ‘Home Office IT procurement.’ He was specifically referring to the Phoenix programme, under which a national shared service centre was set up in Newport between the Home Office and the Prison Service to find “new ways of working in finance, procurement, and HR, to reduce costs while providing consistent high quality support.” David discovered that, despite being in place for almost a year, it ‘has no IT services to enable it to deal with about 400,000 paper invoices every year.’ Instead, ridiculously, 34 people are doing it by hand on paper. David asked for a debate ‘yet again on the incapacity of the Home Office in respect of IT.’ The Leader of the House promised to write to David about this issue.

David then mentioned a terrible revelation that I can’t believe hasn’t been bigger news. A public inquiry has been opened, ‘chaired by Lord Archer of Sandwell, into those who were sadly infected with HIV or hepatitis C through contaminated blood products in what has been suggested to be the worst treatment disaster in the history of the NHS.’ Some sections of the media have suggested that this has been covered up by successive governments for 20 years. Noting it’s importance, David asked for the Health Secretary to ‘make a statement to the effect that her Department will provide full co-operation with the inquiry and will be committed to responding efficiently and effectively as the Government, and that there will be an opportunity for this House to debate the outcome.’ Mr. Straw assured the House that the Health Secretary had said that there would be ‘the fullest co-operation with the inquiry.’ For more info on this go here.

David was sure that Mr. Straw would agree with him that ‘no Member of the legislature should be non-resident for tax purposes.’ He was referring to the revelations that Lord Laidlaw, a Tory peer, was still a tax exile three years after agreeing to become a resident. For more information, see the good old BBC.

The Big Man thundered that time should be found to debate the Life Peerages (Residency for Taxation Purposes) Bill first introduced in 2004 by Lib Dem Peer Lord Oakeshott, which the noble Lord now plans to reintroduce. David feels that ‘such a debate would enable us to make it absolutely clear that those who seek to sit in either of the Houses of Parliament and make laws in this country should pay tax in this country.’ Mr. Straw noted that he didn’t always agree with David but did wholeheartedly about the ‘need for at least life peers—those who sit in this legislature—to pay tax in this country.’

He said everyone was ‘surprised and shocked’ that a Tory peer ‘should turn out to be a tax exile.’ Were they? I wasn’t – the Tories in dodgy financial dealings. I’d be surprised if any of them weren’t. Mr. Straw then made a very valid point about his surprise that the ‘hapless Shadow Chancellor on the radio yesterday washed his hands of the matter and said that Lord Laidlaw's tax status was a matter for him and for the House of Lords Appointments Commission.’ I agree with the Leader of the House on this one – it should be a matter for the hapless George Osborne as well.

Points of Order

The Big Man loves a point of order. He’s something of an authority on parliamentary matters and has a sharp eye for cover-ups and spin. It’s a good job really, given the current Government’s preponderance towards both.

David noted that at the morning’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions there was ‘considerable interest was expressed in the report on the epidemiology of the recent avian flu outbreak.’ This was released to the press at 10am and Members were told that it was available to them. David, however, knew different – noting that ‘at least ‘up until five minutes ago, it was not available in either the Vote Office or the Library.’

David asked the Speaker to do all he could ‘to impress upon DEFRA Ministers the need to ensure that the report is made available to all Members.’ The Speaker, Michael Martin MP, is normally an oafish figure who won’t be told but even he was quaking in his boots at the Big Man’s fury. Mr. Martin admitted that he was ‘very disappointed’ and that he ‘would instruct the appropriate officials to look into the matter.’

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April 23: Leader of the House Questions

David began the week with Leader of the House Questions, a sort of ten minute, junior version of Business Questions. He took the opportunity to call for a business Committee, which would discuss possible forthcoming business in the House.

To support his argument David quoted the late Robin Cook, who was a strong advocate of such a Committee – “one of the ways in which the executive retains its control over the Commons is to make sure that only it can propose the business before the House.”

David noted that ‘a business Committee is normal for most democracies and legislatures’ and that they existed in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. David asked why it had taken ‘so long for this Government to consider properly the merits of having a business Committee for this House?’ Paddy Tipping, Jack Straw’s PPS, noted that this was being considered by the Modernisation Committee and that ‘the matter will be explored carefully and thoughtfully.

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April 24: Modernising Medical Careers

Regular readers of this column will know that I’m not the biggest fan of the Tories but even one-eyed commentators have to admit they got it right with their choice to talk about the Government’s disastrous ‘modernising medical careers’ programme on their Opposition Day. More about this ill-judged guidance for junior doctors can be discovered here.

Patricia Hewitt MP, the Secretary of State for Health, has been forced to publicly apologise for the mess the system (of how junior doctors apply for jobs) is in and she looked uncomfortable throughout the debate.

The Big Man wasn’t going to go easy on her. He pulled her up when she was talking about ‘cardiothoracic work, which has always been oversubscribed’ and challenged her to give other examples. He also reiterated a question asked ‘at least three times this afternoon.’ He asked her ‘what planning did the Department make to deal with the double cohort issue?’

A flustered Ms. Hewitt admitted that ‘with hindsight’ it would have been better if her Department had predicted ‘that almost everybody in a non-training post would take the opportunity of this year … to make an application.’ She ‘apologised for the problems and distress that that has caused’ but promised that the Government was putting it right. Judging by the amount of junior doctors protesting outside Parliament this week I’m not sure they are.

David caused further embarrassment to Ms. Hewitt with one of his favoured points of order. After she left, David asked if it was ‘customary in the House for a Member who has made a contribution to remain in the Chamber long enough at least to hear the subsequent contribution from another Member’ and whether it applied to Secretaries of State.’ The Deputy Speaker agreed that it was an ‘accurate reflection of the Speaker's views about how Members should behave in the House but noted that ‘it is not the Chair's responsibility as to whether Ministers remain for the debates.’

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April 25: Prime Minister’s Questions

David interrupted a love-in about closing crack houses between the PM and Kerry McCarthy, Labour MP for Bristol East, to ask Mr. Blair why ‘so many Labour MPs have Lib Dem councils?’

A clearly exasperated Blair noted that David voted against the anti-social behaviour legislation being praised by Ms. McCarthy. The Prime Minister told David that ‘he should be getting Liberal Democrat councils to stand up and thank the Labour Government for introducing the powers’ and urged him to back any similar powers in the future.

This was typical Blair, cite one aspect or one success story of a piece of authoritarian legislation and argue it was a success. I think David enjoyed it; this may be the last time he gets to rile the outgoing PM.

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April 26: Solicitor General’s Questions

Simon Hughes asked David to cover these questions for him and it gave the Big Man the opportunity to tangle with the dullest man on the front bench, Mike O’Brien, the Solicitor General. David jumped in on a question about the accountability of Law Officers (agreeing they should be) to talk about the cash-for-peerages investigation.

The Attorney General has ‘rightly’ made it clear that he would ‘take independent counsel's advice’ about taking a decision over the dossier from the Director of Public Prosecutions. It is a ridiculous situation where the Attorney General could be left with the decision about whether to investigate his boss. It would be like me investigating David and I can assure you I wouldn’t press charges. In the interests of accountability, David asked if he would ‘make that advice available to Members, either immediately if no prosecution takes place, or, if it does, on a Privy Council basis until such time as the trial would not be prejudiced by the contents?’

Mr. O’Brien correctly stated that it was ‘premature to speculate on precisely what will happen in this case.’ He went on to say that if the decision is taken not to prosecute, then the Attorney General ‘would wish to publish counsel's advice in so far as it is in accord with the principles of justice’ and that he would ‘ensure that the whole process is as objective and transparent as possible.’

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Education and Skills Questions

It was an extremely busy day for David during questions on Friday. He spotted the opportunity amongst a very empty chamber during Education Questions to raise the issue of education in Somerset. David began by pointing out that ‘standards are not directly related to resources, but they help.’ David asked the Minister, Jim Knight MP, if he remembered the letter David also received ‘from Mr. Glyn Ottery, the chair of the Somerset Association of Secondary Heads’, which ‘points out that, because of the underfunding in Somerset compared with other areas, his school, Stanchester, receives £254,740 less each year than the English national average.’ David asked how that ‘extraordinary differential be justified.’

Mr. Knight promised the letter his ‘personal attention’ and noted that the ‘improvement in resources in real terms per pupil in Somerset is approximately £1,000.’ He did, however, accept that ‘we do not fund equally on a per pupil basis throughout the country.’ Mr. Knight cited a current consultation about how the Government is trying to ‘balance the need to achieve stability across the system with any need for redistribution to ensure that areas of deprivation get the necessary money.’

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Business Questions

David had to begin his weekly tussle with the Leader of the House, Jack Straw MP, with the story dominating the news this week - the leaks to the press about anti-terrorism operations. David asked that ‘the Home Secretary come to the House on Monday to confirm that a police investigation has been launched.’

David continued with his Home Office riff and cheekily asked to ‘have a debate on printing facilities in the Home Office and whether they are fit for purpose.’ He did so because the ‘deadline has been breached’ for the Home Office ‘to lay before the House at six-monthly intervals a report on the costs of ID cards.’ He also noted that another deadline had passed - the Home Secretary made a commitment ‘on 10th January that 27,500 files on offences committed abroad would be added to the police national computer within three months.’ This has not been done and he asked the Home Secretary to report on both issues on Monday.

Mr. Straw, predictably, was unable to ‘give any undertaking that the Home Secretary will be able to make a statement on Monday.’ He promised to follow up the printing delays and promised that either he or the Home Secretary would write to David.

David then asked for ‘a debate on coroners’, not just in the context of the Princess Diana inquest but ‘the deplorable backlog in military inquests, which still persists and causes enormous distress to many families.’ David also added another example - the ‘awful train crash at Ufton Nervet.’ The families of the victims ‘went to the High Court to secure legal aid for representation at the inquiry, and have now been told that the Government intend, disgracefully, to appeal against that grant of legal aid.’ It is outrageous that ‘one family which lost a mother and a daughter in that crash will not be represented, if the Government have their way.’

Mr. Straw noted that the Lord Chancellor ‘is well aware of the backlog of inquests, particularly military inquests dealing with deaths in action.’ As a result, the Government has shifted ‘the site of the incoming flights carrying the coffins of those who have been killed in action from Brize Norton to Lyneham.’ Mr. Straw agreed on the need for prompt inquests but also emphasised the need to be thorough, to ensure ‘proper respect to the young man or woman who was killed in action and to their families and comrades.’ After getting confused between Devon and Berkshire, Mr. Straw promised to take it up with the Secretary of State for Transport and the Lord Chancellor. David made it onto BBC Berkshire, which can be seen here. That link also provides links to other pages about the crash and ongoing legal battle.

Finally, David asked for ‘a debate on engineering and innovation, this being science and engineering week.’ He was inspired by an excellent exhibition from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers the night before, where he met a constituent, ‘Andy Green, exhibiting a remarkable vehicle that does 5,353 miles per gallon, which ain't bad.’ David remarked that ‘we often fail to recognise the critical role that engineers and scientists play in our society, dealing with problems that face us in the future.’ As a result he was asking for ‘a debate on the way that we encourage engineering in this country and encourage people to follow that career path.’

Mr. Straw said he would look for the opportunity but urged everyone to ‘understand and appreciate the extraordinary role that science and engineering have made in the development of our society.’ He then couldn’t resist a quick plug for Blackburn (his constituency) by mentioning that ‘industrial revolution and therefore Britain's greatness began in Blackburn.’

The Big Man’s final contribution of the week was just one word and exactly the right one. He shouted ‘rubbish’, which, in my opinion should be the standard response to anything coming from the mouth of Tory MP for South Holland (who knew the Dutch had a seat), John Hayes. He claimed that ‘the Liberal Democrats are going around the country campaigning for murderers, paedophiles and rapists to be able to vote.’ That is so wide of the mark, I’m not even going to bother refuting it, and not just because it’s 5pm and I’d like a pint.

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April 30 : Home Office Questions

David challenged John Reid to a full public enquiry to investigate the lead-up to the July 7th bombings and the failure of the security services to prevent it. While paying tribute ‘to the work of the intelligence services and the police’ David asserted that the recent trail of those involved had ‘opened up several areas of questioning from which it is absolutely essential that we learn lessons if we are to protect people effectively in the future’.

The campaign for a public enquiry is backed by the Liberal Democrats, Conservatives, and many of those affected by the terrorist attack that day. John Reid replied that the Intelligence and Security Committee of MPs would be holding a full investigation at the Prime Ministers request, and therefore the enquiry would be worthless. Clearly many on all sides disagree, and the fight for answers goes on.

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