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: January 2007

January 8: Leader of the House Questions

David was visibly chomping at the bit to get into the Chamber. He didn’t take long to get involved – the new term was barely an hour old when he challenged Jack Straw during Leader of the House questions.

David once again used one of his favourite subjects, the war in Iraq, to make Mr Straw feel uncomfortable. The exact topic of conversation was the (quite frankly necessary) proposals to require the Prime Minister to seek parliamentary approval before going to war. I know it’s hard to believe but at the moment the Prime Minister does not need the approval of the elected representatives of the people to take the country into ill-judged illiberal conflicts like the one in Iraq.

Jack Straw asserted that these ‘prerogative powers’ dated back to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 but that they had been substantially reduced over time. Mr Straw argued that ‘the powers exercised by prerogative are subject to much greater constraint by statute now.’

This was David’s chance. A memory like a steel trap and a sharp tongue allowed David to quote something Mr Straw said in 1994 – that ‘the royal prerogative has no place in a modern democracy.’ David agreed. In response to Mr Straw’s claims that seeking parliamentary approval was ‘becoming a convention’ David expressed his alarm that this convention might be bedded in with ‘more wars and therefore more parliamentary approval.’ These comments were enough to earn David a mention in the diary sections of the Telegraph, Guardian and Independent on Tuesday.

David then went on to make his main point. He pointed out how ‘extraordinary’ it was that in a democracy with an Executive President, like the United States, ‘war-making powers must be approved by the legislature, but in this country, where the Prime Minister and his colleagues derive their authority from this House, there is no formal arrangement for our agreement.’

Mr Straw found it difficult to defend such a ridiculous position (and when Gordon Brown is leader probably wont have to) but urged David not to look at the US example through rose-tinted spectacles. As if David would. He noted that our practice was similar to Canada and Australia’s, which didn’t fill me with confidence. He concluded that we can move forward but that that ‘required a sensible approach on both sides of the House.’

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January 11: Business of the House

David was toe-to-toe again with Jack Straw on Thursday, as he always is during Business Questions. David admitted that he felt he could not lead with anything other than a damning critique of the ‘hapless Home Secretary and his hopeless Ministers.’

David rightly noted that it is ‘simply not acceptable’ for the Home Secretary to claim that he applied for extra resources to deal with the police national computer entries as a matter of urgency, when it has since been revealed that resources were requested back in October.

David also noted the number of abscondences by dangerous prisoners from open prisons. He did not criticise the open prison system but suspected that many of those who absconded were in an open prison because of a ‘failure of assessment or overcrowding in the secure estate.’ He called for a debate on public safety.

This obviously touched a nerve with “former Home Secretary” Jack Straw, as he began his response with some fairly tetchy comments about the Liberal Democrats not getting into government in the next fifty years. He didn’t say what would happen then. I assumed people would tire of Labour’s lies before then. Mr Straw (and he should know) then argued that it was ‘impossible’ for a Home Secretary to ‘be fully aware’ of everything going on in their Department. I accept this but he did fail to mention why they weren’t fully aware of the most urgent crises and engaged in cock-up after cock-up. Perplexingly he opted to finish by quoting Donald Rumsfeld. Mr Straw, however, was similarly unable to bring any coherence out of the ‘known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns’ rubbish.

David then (as always) mentioned Iraq, welcoming the debate but lamenting the lack of a ‘substantive motion’ and the Prime Minister’s absence. He urged Mr Blair to make a statement on the implications of President Bush’s decision to send an extra 22,000 troops to Baghdad, contrary to the advice of his military commanders and the Baker report. David does not accept the PM’s conviction that American ‘action in Baghdad can have no conceivable effect on the security position in southern Iraq.’ That is why the statement is needed. Mr Straw maintained that the PM had said that the situation in Basra was ‘different’, not having no conceivable effect. As an example Mr Straw pointed out that civilian casualties had actually fallen in Basra, while they had soared in Baghdad.

David also called for a debate on the subject of corruption, to learn ‘when Britain intends to meet its Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development commitments on bribery and explore the roles and actions of the Attorney-General.’ Regular readers will know that this is in response to the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) cancelling its investigation into BAE systems and the sale of the Euro Fighter Typhoon to Saudi Arabia. David cheekily suggested that it would be to the benefit of businesses to have a ‘list of those countries in which United Kingdom companies can, apparently, engage in corrupt practices in the national interest, and those in which they cannot.’

Astonishingly, Mr Straw responded by accusing David of ‘unnecessarily and unjustifiably damaging the reputation of this country.’ He quoted the SFO and the Attorney General (who obviously doesn’t have a vested interest!) as saying there would be ‘insufficient evidence to justify a prosecution.’ It all made it sound more suspicious to me, as did the final, desperate plea that Transparency International, the Scooby Doo of international political corruption investigation, rated Britain ‘very highly’, better than many countries in Europe. That’s alright then - a good rating from Transparency International is justification for some highly dubious dealings with an unpleasant regime.

David managed to make his final point about the traffic light system (media briefing scheme, HIH passim) at the DWP for answering parliamentary questions, despite Theresa May walking all over it (obviously without making a point) moments before. An answer to another PQ had forced Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Anne McGuire, to admit that there were no formal records or numbers kept of the trial. David concluded that this was ‘a trial of which the Home Office would be proud.’ Suppressing a smirk, Mr Straw admitted that he would have to ‘have a conversation [with the DWP] about the wiring of the system.'

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January 16: Foreign Office Questions

David was asked by Michael Moore, our Foreign Affairs spokesman and a scarily tall man in real life, to fill in for him during Foreign and Commonwealth Office Questions this week. David was only too happy to oblige.

David decided to jump in on a question about Syria, and cunningly linked it to his favourite stick for beating the Government with – Iraq. He pointed out that the UN’s estimate that 35,000 civilians were killed in Iraq last year dispelled ‘any lingering doubt that Iraq is in a state of civil war, and the resolution of that will desperately need Syria’s involvement.’ He asked how it was possible to reconcile the Government’s position (and the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group) of favouring engagement with Syria and the ‘White House's rejection of that policy and engagement with a strategy involving, apparently, "seek and destroy" and hot pursuit across Syria's borders?’

Minister of State for the Middle East, Kim Howells MP (great voice, poor Minister) responded by expressing his pleasure that Condoleezza Rice was prepared to ‘go anywhere to pursue peace in the Middle East.’ He admitted that she might not have been specific about Syria. He then reminded David that the Government was responsible for British, and not American, Foreign Policy and acted in ‘the best interests of the British people.’ This drew jeers from the assembled ranks as many felt this was a bit rich from a Government who seem intent on being America’s lap dog.

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January 17: Conventions of Parliament

After ten years as an MP and one of the most frequent speakers in the House, David is well qualified to talk about the conventions of Parliament. Jack Straw introduced this debate, which was based on the report of the Joint Committee on Conventions of the UK Parliament. The Committee was made up of MPs and Peers from all three major parties and the report offered ‘clarity on the key conventions that must govern the relationship between this House and the other place.’

David’s contribution was over the issue of ‘ping-pong’, which is where Bills are batted back and forth between the Commons and the Lords, normally because a Bill has been passed in the Commons but defeated in the Lords. David disagreed with Tory Nicholas Winterton (always a sensible position), who had maintained that ‘good sense has prevailed in the process of ping-pong.’ David’s been involved in enough Bills over the years to ‘know that the process is often extremely flawed.’ David explained that it was flawed because ‘there is no recognition of the value of each House's consideration, no respect for each House's consideration, and no attempt at reconciliation of views, which ought to be an essential part of the process.’ The question was put to the House and agreed to – the Committee’s report was approved.

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January 18: Business Questions

David finished his week in the Chamber with a typical mauling of Jack Straw during Business Questions. He began by saying that he ‘did not want to make the Home Secretary’s life more difficult’ but then did.

He asked for a debate on prisoners being ‘locked out of jail’ in response to the news that the Prison Service have again asked the police to house 450 convicts, when only 264 police cells are available. David noted that this week 330 prisoners were locked out of jail and that there is obviously ‘an overcrowding problem yet again.’ David concluded that ‘the first thing that we need to do is provide more secure accommodation for those with mental illness, who are quite wrongly in our jails.’

Mr. Straw responded by engaging in his usual bout of Lib Dem bashing – accusing us of ‘making public protection and the responsibilities of the Home Secretary much more difficult.’ He said the Liberal Democrats couldn’t complain about a shortage of prison places when we campaigned against an increase in those places and would ‘probably’ campaign against increasing the amount of secure accommodation. Obviously, Mr. Straw missed our point about needing less prison places by increasing the availability of spaces for those with mental illnesses and those on drug rehabilitation programmes.

David then, out of touch with his normal behaviour, concurred with Theresa May, whose choice of blouse I thought ill-judged. David asserted that customers on First Great Western trains ‘should not have to put up with having to pay £5,000 a year for a season ticket, only to be told by an official from the Department for Transport that they have no entitlement to a seat.’ David raged that this was ‘not the way to run a rail service’ and the subject should be debated.

Jack Straw admitted that he was ‘also concerned about rail services.’ He has travelled on First Great Western trains and found their service ‘poor and among the worst in the country.’ He pointed out that the Government was responsible for investment in the railways and investment in and control of Network Rail (a de facto public company) but not for private companies. He admitted it wasn’t the Lib Dems but the Tories who voted for the idea. He also thought it was a ‘ludicrous decision’ to take new stock out of commission and replace it with fewer, older carriages, but delegated responsibility to First Great Western.

Responding to the news that fireman in Humberside cannot use ladders because of health and safety legislation, David asked for a debate on the Better Regulation Commission report, “Risk, Responsibility, Regulation: Whose Risk Is It Anyway?” David said it had some sensible things to say about this kind of nonsense, including ‘a campaign against inconsistencies and absurdities.’

Mr. Straw admitted that he would be happy to see the matter debated and pointed out that Health and Safety Commission head, Bill Callaghan, also wanted a common sense approach to health and safety and ‘deprecates just as much as the House such ludicrous over-interpretation of the regulations.’

Finally, David went on the attack over the issue of the BAE Systems Saudi Arabia case and the response he got from Mr. Straw last week on this issue (see the last issue of HIH). Mr. Straw had told David that the Director General of the Serious Fraud Office said that ‘there would be insufficient evidence to justify a prosecution.’ David pointed out that Robert Wardle had in fact said that his team found significant evidence in the Saudi arms inquiry and hoped to find more from Swiss banks.’ David then invited Mr. Straw ‘to correct the record and perhaps to deprecate the use of spin by the Attorney-General in what is becoming an increasingly sordid episode.’

Mr. Straw promised to look at what he said and correct it if necessary. He then harrumphed that he thought the SFO and the Attorney General were agreed that continuing the case would not be in the national interest and ‘would be very unlikely to produce evidence that could secure a prosecution.’ He then, slightly threateningly, ordered the Liberal Democrats, defenders of civil liberties, to be ‘very careful before they continue to spray around allegations of culpability by anyone, including BAES and the Saudi Government.’ David looked annoyed and rightly so – it’s clear that something is not quite right here and the public need to know. He’s just doing his job Mr. Straw.

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January 19: Sustainable Communities Bill

Now MPs don’t really like being up in Westminster on a Friday but most, David included, wanted to be present at the second reading of the Sustainable Communities Bill, introduced as a Private Member’s Bill by Tory Nick Hurd MP. It follows, however, from an EDM introduced last year by Julia Goldsworthy MP that was signed by every Liberal Democrat MP. We support the Bill because of its support for sustainable communities and community participation in politics.

Anyone who would like to know more about this Bill can do so by following this link

David interrupted Nick Hurd to talk about the crossover between environmental concerns and social exclusion. David pointed out that people in small rural communities ‘are obliged to drive to get to essential services.’ He then used the example of many of his constituents who do not have access to either cars or public transport and, as a result, ‘are socially excluded and do not have access to the services that they need.’ Mr. Hurd politely agreed that David had made ‘an extremely important point.’

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January 22: Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill

Ruth Kelly MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, had just asserted that ‘the best councils already engage with their communities, and the Bill proposes to require all local authorities to inform, consult and involve local communities as appropriate.’

David decided that was the time to talk about the Somerset Association of Local Councils’ important point ‘about parish councils' inability to enter into a guarantee.’ David pointed out that parish councils ‘are often involved in partnerships and charity work usually undertaken by companies that are limited by guarantee, but they cannot become full participants because of that legal bar.’ He asked the Secretary of State to look into it.

She admitted that David had made a ‘valid point that we are actively considering with local parishes’ and promised to correspond with David on this issue.

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January 23: Health Care-acquired Infections

This is a topic that has been much in the news lately, with some particular scaremongering about super-bugs and MRSA.

David started his contribution to this debate in conciliatory fashion, agreeing that ‘there has been a huge effort by staff and the Government to improve infection control.’ The ‘old soldier’ then went on to talk about his experiences in an operating theatre 25 years ago and how he was ‘surprised by the laxity of procedures now’, citing the wearing of jewellery while in uniform or wearing scrubs outside of theatre.

David asserted that ‘a St. Thomas's-trained sister would have scalped people for such surprising practices a few years ago, but the procedures that she enforced do not appear to be part of basic training today.’

David’s next intervention was fairly technical. He agreed with Patricia Hewitt MP, Secretary of State for Health, ‘that proper interventions and protocols can reduce bacteraemia in the hospital environment.’ He also agreed with the point Paul Burstow MP (Lib Dem Chief Whip) made about this being made easier by the capacity to isolate cases, something not possible when there is a high degree of bed occupancy. David then asked whether anything could be done ‘to reduce the proportion of the resident population of Staphylococcus aureus that is methicillin resistant’ and whether there was ‘any public health measure that has been shown to be effective in achieving that?’ Ms Hewitt replied that there are guidelines already in place to screen high risk patients, such as the elderly and those coming into hospitals from nursing homes.

David’s final contribution to this debate was to outline the possible differing medical methods between theatres and wards. David’s experience of theatres is that the work is ‘very much a shared endeavour, and that the surgical team, the anaesthetist, the operating department's assistants and the theatre nursing staff all understand that they have a shared responsibility for asepsis.’ He pointed out that this may not always be the case on the wards.

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January 25: Business of the House

There was the usual engaging banter between David and Jack Straw during Business Questions this week.

David started by giving the Prime Minister the haranguing he deserves for missing Wednesday’s debate on Iraq. He asked Jack Straw if he would consider using a colour-coded system on the Order Paper, ‘so that debates are clearly marked as being suitable for the Prime Minister.’ He compared it to the symbols on menus that explain whether something is suitable for a vegetarian!

David rightly pointed out that the PM’s spokesmen said that ‘he does not do Back-Bench debates’, then that ‘he does not do foreign affairs debates’ and then that ‘he never attends such debates, whatever the topic may be.’ Cue uproarious laughter from the House and an appearance for David in the Telegraph’s political sketch.

David then asked to be assured that there are ‘at least some debates that the Prime Minister would feel it appropriate to attend, rather than chumming up to the CBI’ (where he was on Wednesday afternoon). David then asserted that ‘one of them might be a debate on four years of war in which brave British soldiers are being killed on every day of every week.’ After Ming’s sterling performance at PMQs on Wednesday, it’s been a good week for us challenging the Government over its ill-judged actions in Iraq.

Mr. Straw wheeled out the facts that the Prime Minister must urge him to do when faced with such criticism – he’s attended 23 debates since becoming PM; made more oral statements than any other PM (probably because his Government has made more crass errors); and missed fewer Prime Minister’s questions (probably because by merging what used to be two sets a week into one on a Wednesday, he had fewer to attend). Mr. Straw then admitted that he would welcome another debate on Iraq. He also highlighted the article in The Independent on Thursday by Lord Ashdown lambasting our policy over Iraq, in an attempt to embarrass the Lib Dems. In fact, our stance on Iraq is one of the most popular with the general public and I thought it was a little bit unnecessary of the former leader to wade in with his two-pence worth when Ming had had such a good day on Wednesday. Missing the limelight, Paddy?

David then asked whether there could be a debate on air passenger duty. The Lib Dems favour a tax on the pollution caused by planes rather than on passengers. David’s quibble was with the retrospective nature of the passenger duty, which he feels ‘will cause chaos in our airports and great difficulties for travellers and airlines, as well as huge financial disadvantage to tour operators.’ He cites the example of a constituent, Gerry Copsey, who as a tour operator has to absorb the first two percent of any surcharge, which he did not collect, because the tax did not exist. David believes that it cannot be right to impose such a ‘direct and substantial windfall tax on tour operators.’ This point, inexplicably, earned David a mention in the Birmingham Post!

Mr. Straw bizarrely accused the Lib Dems of ‘logic chopping’ – saying that the problem with our policy was that only people, not planes, had bank accounts. Mr. Straw completely failed to see, even when pointed out by David Howarth MP, that companies have bank accounts too, claiming they would merely pass it on to people. Mr. Straw feels that air passenger duty is ‘a good idea’ and that ‘previous changes to APD have always applied on the basis of when the flight takes place, irrespective of when it is booked.’

Now, I’m a big fan of the Big Man but I did find his next link rather tenuous – he used the American President’s State of the Union address last week to call for a debate on the Act of Union between Scotland and England. David is a big fan of the Union and wants a debate to ‘explore the huge advantages to both Scotland and England of the Union and to address those who wish to split us asunder on any basis, some explicitly and some implicitly.’ David feels we need to ‘look at the ways in which we could improve the Union to ensure that every part of the Union feels that it has a fair voice.’ Mr. Straw was positively beaming as he admitted that this was a good idea and promised to consult the Secretary of State for Scotland about the possibility.

David’s final point related to a written question his colleague Don Foster, MP for Bath, had asked about how many libraries had closed in London. The reply from Culture Minister (and former lover of T4’s June Sarpong), David Lammy MP, could not provide the information because ‘focusing on the number of closures is less helpful as a measure of overall provision than the net number of public library service points in each year.’ David quipped that ‘Departments now want to provide not only the answers, but the questions.’ He asked Mr. Straw to ‘remind his colleagues that we ask the questions and they are supposed to answer.’ David sat down to mirth, seemingly on all sides. Mr. Straw agreed with David – he did not know ‘why a Department could not answer a question about how many libraries had closed or how many remained open’ and promised to follow it up.

Fraud Bill

Simon Hughes MP and David led for us on this Bill – talking in the House and in Committee and tabling a number of amendments. The Bill is highly complex and, to be brutally honest, only of interest to people with ridiculously large brains like David and Simon. Laymen like myself found it a bit drab. David made no fewer than eleven contributions to this debate, which would take up most of working week to summarise here. His contributions can be read here.

For anyone unfamiliar with this website, it is excellent. It is called www.theyworkforyou.com and contains details all of David’s (and indeed all other MPs) appearances in the House; questions he’s asked; his voting record and alike. For those interested in politics, it’s well worth a look. It also makes my job a lot easier, so I don’t mind giving them a free plug.

The Fraud (Trials without a Jury) Bill is rather self-explanatory – it seeks to remove the use of a jury in complex fraud trials, a measure the Government has consistently tried to introduce. Now obviously we oppose this – we’re liberals and the principle of trial by jury is at the heart of our judicial system. We accept that some reform may be needed to the management of complex fraud trials but the question of guilt should always be one for the jury. More can be read about the Liberal Democrat position here.

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January 30: Sale of Radar System (Tanzania)

Tuesday was an opposition day, where the second debate held was entitled ‘the government decision on the sale of a radar system to Tanzania.’

Regular readers will know that David has done a lot of work recently on the Serious Fraud Office’s decision to drop the investigation into BAE Systems’ sale of fighter planes to Saudi Arabia. David was, therefore, unlikely to let this examination of BAE Systems’ activities in Tanzania pass by him without contributing. More can be read about the highly suspicious dealings here.

Hilary Benn MP, Secretary of State for International Development and most surprisingly, a man, was waffling on about the Government’s commitment to criterion 8 when David interrupted him. Criterion 8 requires the Government to consider whether the export will ‘seriously undermine the economy or seriously hamper the sustainable development of the recipient country’ and Mr. Benn argued that the air traffic control system for Tanzania did not.

David pointed out that ‘there is not a criterion requiring the applicant to be a fit and proper person to hold a licence, but operative provision 10 of the EU code of conduct allows the Government to take other factors into account.’ David asked if ‘in the light of what has been revealed about the general working practices of BAE Systems in a number of recent cases; is it still the Government's view that BAE is an appropriate recipient of a licence?’ A good question that Mr. Benn answered blandly by saying that each licence had to be considered ‘on its own merits.’

David’s other contribution was partly motivated by a cunning understanding of parliamentary procedures that gave Roger Berry MP the time to finish his speech about prior scrutiny. David noted that this applies in Sweden and is ‘no impediment to Swedish arms sales.’ David said he saw no reason why the Committee on this subject should not have prior scrutiny rights. Because of parliamentary rules I don’t understand, this intervention allowed Mr. Berry to finish his speech.

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January 31: Prime Minister’s Questions (Prison Places)

The Big One for the Big Man – PMQs. David confessed to me that he didn’t think he would get called as he was twelfth in line and very rarely do they ever get past about ninth or tenth. As a result he didn’t have anything prepared, which makes his pertinent question all the more remarkable.

He rightly noted that ‘successive Home Secretaries have produced about 3,000 new criminal offences—at the rate of about one a day for 10 years—but they have not delivered enough prison places to prevent another crisis.’ He then asked the Prime Minister if he believed ‘that the one prisoner in 10 who is assessed as functionally psychotic should be in a prison, or in a secure mental unit?’

Mr. Blair is now an old hand at evading important questions and here was no different. He accused the Liberal Democrats of voting against all the new criminal offences and that under us no one would go to prison. He may call his Government the party of ‘law and order’ but Mr. Blair completely missed the point here. If all mentally ill prisoners were re-housed in secure mental health units, it would be beneficial to their rehabilitation and it would free up much needed prison places for the genuinely dangerous criminals this Government has to let roam the streets because of overcrowding. This Government needs to spend money increasing the provision of secure mental health units, not increasing the amount of prison places.


This debate was a discussion of the Police Grant and Local Government Finance Reports and was one David took very seriously because of its potential ramifications for Somerset policing.

After the Minister, the feckless Tony McNulty MP, introduced the topic, David was the first to speak. He informed the House that there was ‘considerable anxiety in several police authority areas—not least in my area of Avon and Somerset—about the change of policy on the provision of community support officers.’ David was then challenged by Welsh nobody and Labour yes-man Chris Ruane MP, who told him that we ‘were against’ PCSOs.

David easily corrected him by pointing out that he spoke for us when we considered the relevant Bill and ‘we were very much for them.’ David admitted that he would not challenge the Minister’s decision because he understood ‘why it has been taken.’ David, brilliant mediator that he is then sought a compromise – asking about the possibility of ‘deploying unused funds from elsewhere to support the recruitment of community support officers in areas that can recruit and want to meet the Government's original targets’, such as I Avon and Somerset. Mr. McNulty promised to consider the proposal.

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