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: February 2007

February 1: Business Questions

David’s weekly tussle with Jack Straw wasn’t the most engrossing exchange they’ve ever had but David still managed to raise a few valid points.

He began by talking about the big issue in Somerset at the moment – unitary authorities. David thanked Mr. Straw for explaining the benefits of a unitary authority in his area (Blackburn) but also asked for ‘a statement to be made on the process of local government reorganisation.’ David noted that 26 bids have been submitted, ‘including two from Somerset, where the Conservatives say that a county unitary is unthinkable, although next door in Wiltshire they are not only thinking of it, but bidding for it.’

David pointed out that the most important issue was not the ‘merits or demerits of reorganisation, but whether there is an opportunity to consider those bids properly.’ David asked if it was sensible to do so in the middle of a hard-fought district council campaign. He also urged the Government to provide an opportunity for local people to give their views, because at the moment they only seem to be canvassing councillors, MPs and Ministers.

Mr. Straw explained that local government reorganisation had been set out in the local government White Paper and agreed that ‘opinions vary markedly on the issue, and not necessarily according to party.’ He cited the example of the Conservative Government making Blackburn a unitary authority in 1996 against all-party opposition. He then asserted that someone ‘has to make a decision, because otherwise there will be paralysis and no change.’ Using the example of Blackburn again, Mr. Straw argued that ‘there is never a right time to make such decisions’ as there is an election every year (bizarrely).

David then asked for a debate on the British Library, describing it as ‘one of our greatest cultural institutions.’ David felt that as ‘it is not a place of entertainment, so it is not a place where admission fees are appropriate.’ David urged the Government to see that the British Library is properly maintained ‘in the interests of scholarship.’ Mr. Straw responded by noting that the Government had increased resources for the British Library and museums and argued that the ‘Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport would not do anything to damage the services provided by the British Library.’

David then asked for a debate on the ‘tarnished role of the Attorney-General.’ This question was prompted by yesterdays ‘revelations about the improper pressure put on the Attorney-General to reverse an opinion’ and Harriet Harman MP’s (herself a former Solicitor General) claims that public trust in the position had been undermined and that the Attorney General’s advice should be routinely published. Mr. Straw wholly ‘resented and rejected’ David’s remarks, maintaining that the Attorney General had ‘carried out the duties of his office to the highest standards of propriety.’ He claimed the role was ‘well settled’ and praised the cowardly Tories for supporting the Attorney General’s role during the recent Saudi investigation. Mr. Straw said it was impossible to ‘detach some considerations from the prosecution system, such as considerations of national security, and of national or public interest’ as we suggest. He then told David to ‘look abroad, at countries where prosecutors are allegedly entirely independent of Ministers, and see what criticism they are under, because they end up making political judgments, but are totally unaccountable in respect of those judgments.’

Finally, David called for a debate on e-petitions, which have been hugely successful on the Prime Minister’s website, where there are a profusion of them on all sorts of subjects. David cheekily asked ‘how many signatures are required on an e-petition before anything actually changes?’ Anyone interested in e-petitions can find out more here.

Mr. Straw admitted that he had recently had a discussion with some minions from No. 10 about linking e-petitions to petitions in the House, which he claimed was an ‘important function’, even though in reality they do nothing with them. The Procedure Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into petitions and Mr. Straw promised to get those running the No. 10 website ‘to talk to the Clerk and the Chairman of the Procedure Committee about how we can better link the two together.’

Business of the House (MSC Napoli)

David finished the week in convivial mood, asking the Minister of State for Transport, Stephen Ladyman MP (do you have to have a silly name to be in this cabinet) why he didn’t have the Western Morning News served with his breakfast. Mr. Ladyman promised ‘to put that right in future.

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February 5: Leader of the House Questions

David did quietly admit that he forgot it was Leader of the House questions when he entered the Chamber on Monday afternoon, which makes his coherent plea for the need for parliamentary approval before going to war all the more impressive.

David began by dismissing Jack Straw’s argument about the ‘idea of a developing convention.’ He cited the example of Afghanistan, ‘which has never been subject to a resolution of the House’ but admitted that he ‘and my colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches would vote for it.’ He also pointed out that European legislatures manage to deal with it as a matter of urgency, such as the Riksdag in Sweden. David then urged Mr. Straw to revisit the ‘Executive Powers and Civil Service Bill, introduced by Lord Lester of Herne Hill,’ which ‘seems to be a potential statutory basis for the proposals that the Leader of the House is suggesting.’

Mr. Straw agreed to look again at Lord Lester’s comments but admitted that the Ministry of Defence did not want to get into the situation that other European countries are in, ‘where there is amendment to the rules of engagement by the elected Parliament.’ As an example of the risks this system poses, he offered the example of some members of the NATO international security assistance being unable to do their job. I would suggest to Mr. Straw that there was somewhere in between these two positions.

UK Borders Bill

David was the first to intervene during the second reading of this piece of legislation, after it was introduced by the hapless Immigration Minister, Liam Byrne MP.

David used his intervention to urge the Minister to introduce something advocated by both us and the Conservatives – ‘a single, integrated border force, encompassing police functions as well as the functions discharged by the immigration and nationality directorate.’ He then asked Mr. Byrne to ‘explain why he rejected that option’ and asked him ‘whether it remains under consideration for introduction.’ Mr. Byrne admitted that he hoped to debate the subject in Committee and had ‘kept an open mind about proposals on it.’ More about this fairly draconian piece of legislation can be found here.

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February 6: – Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Bill

This week’s edition is lengthy enough and a detailed description of the amendment David tabled to this Bill and the subsequent debate might bore many of you. That’s not to suggest it wasn’t making an extremely valid and necessary point but the finer points of ouster clauses such as this leave laymen scratching their heads. The entire text of the debate on this subject (for the extremely clever among you) can be viewed here.

More on our position on this piece of legislation can be found here.

Needless to say, the amendment that David contributed to was defeated but he remains, as ever, a large thorn in the Government’s side – seemingly on any issue.

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February 7: The Government’s Record on Crime

Wednesday was one of our allotted opposition days and after an uncomfortable discussion for the Government about BAE Systems and Al-Yamamah, we scheduled a debate on crime to coincide with our local campaigning about this issue.

David was visibly desperate to get involved in this one, bouncing up and down on the front benches. He interrupted the Home Office Minister, Tony McNulty (possibly the most inept man in Government and that’s quite a field), when he was talking about mentally ill people in prison. David, quite rightly, pointed out that Mr. McNulty couldn’t get away with saying that ‘something should be done about people in prison with mental health difficulties, when the problem has been pointed out year after year in every report of Her Majesty's inspectorate—and nothing gets done about it.’ As with so much in the Home Office, the problem remains. A flustered Mr. McNulty then claimed that something was being done but was extremely vague when explaining what.

After more meandering spiel from Mr. McNulty, David intervened again to ask him why he wasn’t being ‘honest about the criminal justice system's requirements.’ David argued that the DNA Database ‘should either genuinely encompass everybody, or be restricted to those convicted of a criminal offence.’ David admitted he could see logical arguments for both. What he cannot see the logic for was ‘a DNA database not only of those who have been convicted of a criminal offence, but of those who have been arrested but not charged, and those who have come before the courts and been found not guilty.’ To finish, David quipped that ‘if the police have followed proper procedures, a few people who work in No. 10 should now be on the DNA database’ and asked ‘is the Minister?’

Mr. McNulty said he was not but would have no problem being on the database, before citing a few examples of where it has helped solve crimes and completely avoiding the point David made. More on our opposition to the DNA database can be found here.

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February 8: Business Questions

Jack Straw recovered from his illness in time to have his usual Thursday tussle during Business Questions.

David began by asking for a debate on the health service because it ‘is the only level of democratic accountability for the decisions that are taken.’ He echoed Theresa May’s concerns ‘about community hospital closures and maternity units.’ David noted the comment of Dr. Sheila Shribman, the Government’s maternity tsar, last week that ‘If you have to travel to get the best care then families are more than willing to do that.’ David noted that this showed ‘a fine disregard for the fact that some families cannot do that, particularly in rural areas, where proximity is a key part of health care.’

David also admitted that he was concerned about dentists after statistics revealed that ‘the number of calls to NHS Direct from people desperate to find an NHS dentist rose to well over 200,000 in the past six months.’ David then pointed out that 2,000 dentists left the NHS last year and that a further 860 are in dispute. David asserted that ‘these are serious matters for our constituents and we ought to have the opportunity to debate them.’

Mr. Straw claimed that we had missed an opportunity to have a debate on the NHS during our opposition day on Wednesday, rather missing the point that the Government schedules the vast majority of debates. Mr. Straw then gave his account of the ‘shredding’ we took during the debate on crime. He must have been watching a different debate because I thought we did rather well.

Mr. Straw then rightly pointed out that Frome has a new community hospital, to replace the one that was over 100 years old. He then accused the Liberal Democrats of believing in ‘magic wands and fairies’ because they want ‘new community hospitals everywhere all at once.’ He maintained that the Government was ‘providing them as we can.’ Now I like Mr. Straw but this attack was completely unjustified. Having a community hospital in Frome does not stop David from being concerned for rural communities that don’t and it was the Government, not us, that promised 50 new community hospitals and then shelved the plans.

David then asked for a statement from the Chancellor ‘on the report from the National Audit Office, which reveals that of the £13.3 billion of savings trumpeted for the Gershon review, £10 billion are dubious or fictitious.’ David said he was concerned about the planning of Government finances. Mr. Straw, perhaps realising he was on unsure ground, kept his answer short and perplexing, merely stating that the ‘Gershon targets are targets, and the time span for the implementation of Gershon has not yet been fulfilled.’

David next asked for ‘a statement on the outcome of the judicial review of the Government's refusal to accept the ombudsman's report on pension compensation.’ He pointed out that ‘the Government have chosen to ignore the ombudsman, the European Court of Justice and the Public Administration Committee of the House.’ Even David didn’t believe that they could ‘ignore a judicial review.’ He called for a statement ‘in the interests of pension justice.’ Mr. Straw’s response to this question was similarly short, as he maintained that a ‘judicial review was under way’ and he would ‘not anticipate the outcome.’

David’s final request was for a debate on the important environmental matter of whales. This was not a partisan request and David praised the Government for their ‘good record’ in this area. He urged further scrutiny of a Government document published this week, ‘which argues that the nations around the world that are engaged in the Whaling Commission should resist attempts by whaling nations to re-open commercial whaling.’ David pledged his support to the Government’s attempts to help ‘these special mammals.’ Mr. Straw promised to think about his request.

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The Future of Buses

David’s final contribution of the week was to get in quickly on a debate on the future of bus services before he headed back to the constituency early in an attempt to beat the weather.

David wanted to talk about the problems in rural areas regarding buses. His comments followed Stephen Ladyman, the Transport Minister’s claim that ‘he wanted every community to benefit from bus transport.’ David pointed out that his constituency had 120 villages and that ‘a large number of which have no bus service at all.’ He then used the example of his own village, Witham Friary, which officially has a ‘bus service’ but in reality has only one a week, a service which is ‘not of enormous value.’ David asked Mr. Ladyman ‘how can we provide a proper public transport system with the flexibility that people need in rural areas’ and whether the Government had a real strategy for that?

Mr. Ladyman wanted ‘to provide improved services for every community and every type of community’ but admitted that ‘doing so cost-effectively is obviously a problem.’ He urged David to consider community rather than commercial transport and encouraged him and the local council to ‘respond to the consultation document by suggesting ways of dealing with problems in rural communities.’

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