David Heath's speeches in Parliament
Heath in Hansard: March 2007
March 7: Dental Services
David called on the Secretary of State for Health to make a statement concerning the dental service for private and NHS patients and the number of dentists in England and Somerset in particular.
He received a response from Rosie Winterton, the Minister of State for the Department of Health, who claimed that data was not recorded centrally although she somehow produced results on the issue from 6 months ago and declared that the next set of results were next due in June. She claimed that “information on the dental workforce under the new dental contractual arrangements, introduced on 1 April 2006, is published at every quarter by The Information Centre for health and social care.
The latest information is as at 30 September 2006 and is provided in the following table, with the primary care trust (PCT) boundaries as at 30 September 2006. The Information Centre for health and social care will publish information as at 30 June, 30 September and 31 December 2006 by the new PCT boundaries (PCT boundaries as at 1 October 2006) on 23 March 2007”.
Post Office Closures
On such an historic day in which the future of the House of Lords was decided (all elected), David was once again in the House defending local post offices against the threat of closure by the government.
Presenting a petition from his constituents and parish councils to the chamber, David drew the attention of the House to his early-day motion 1031 before reading aloud the letter urging the Government “to reconsider the matter before irreparable is done to local communities”.
March 8: Business of the Houses
David began his time in the speaking by pulling up the government on the absence of Jack Straw from the House.
David wittily got one over on Straw by stating that “after last night's votes, I can fully understand why the leader of the House wants time away to think. To mark what was clearly an historic vote, whatever its consequences in this place—I hope that there is not now a queue of noble Lords asking for a refund—there is a need for a statement, as the Deputy Leader of the House suggested, from his right hon. Friend after the Lords have had their debate and vote”.
Seizing the moment to make real headway in Lord’s reform, David was quick to call for legislation rather than a white paper on the Lord’s Reform to “resolve the matter once and for all”. Showing that he did not believe the House of Lord’s to be a complete waste of space, David trumpeted support for the two bills emanating from “the other place” and called for required “proper discussion” Piling pressure on the government, David stated that “to show that I believe that some good work does happen in the other place, may I ask the Deputy Leader of the House whether he will find time properly to debate two private Member's Bills that emanate from the Lords? The first is the Cluster Munitions (Prohibition) Bill in the name of Lord Dubs, which builds on the intergovernmental conference on cluster munitions and the Oslo declaration. Many of us feel that it is time that cluster munitions were banned. The Bill will provide the opportunity to do so”.
Nigel Griffiths, Parliamentary Secretary and Labour MP in the House in place of Jack Straw, replied with “on the Lords, I recognise that the hon. Gentleman, who had problems with some of his Back Benchers concerning the definition of predominance, is on very weak ground. It is not the Government whom he must persuade to have this issue debated here; he will have to go 300 yd away to the other House and persuade some of his noble Friends, such as his former leader, Lord Steel, who said that the minute that there was an elected second Chamber, it would destroy the relationship between the two Houses”.
Promoting the just cause for more and better doctors, David asked the Health Secretary “may we have a statement on the future of the medical training application service? It is in complete disarray. Many junior doctors find it impossible to make proper applications for the jobs that they should be pursuing in order to further their careers. The Secretary of State has said in a statement that the service is to be reviewed, but the appointment process is continuing. Can she be brought to the House to explain why she is not suspending the process until such time as proper arrangements can be made before irreparable damage is done to the careers of many young doctors and some of them are lost to the country?”
Nigel Griffiths got his claws out to label David’s call to suspend the Junior Doctor application process as “cuckoo” since “many dozens—indeed, hundreds—of young doctors are going through that process, so to suspend it without replacing it would be absolute folly”. Griffiths continued by stating that the Health Secretary was “revising the procedures to take on board the criticisms that have been made, and the British Medical Association and other organisations are very much part of that process”.
He ended his business by raising the contentious issue of government funding. David stated that “a lot of play was made in the debates of the past two days about the importance that the House attaches to its right to vote on supply. Will the Deputy Leader of the House explain why on Monday we will have an estimates day, but we will not consider the estimates that are put before us? We will not have a debate on those estimates. We will not have any real opportunity to amend them, and many of us would like to have the opportunity, for instance, to look at the supplementary estimate of £587,000 extra to go to the Deputy Prime Minister's office for functions that, frankly, elude most of us in this House?”
Griffiths was quick to shift the blame on the estimates issue and the Lords’ Reform issue by claiming that “the Liaison Committee of this House can examine the estimates issue, as can its other Committees; it is less a Government matter than a Committee one”.
Continuing on from his strong support for the important bills coming from the Lord’s on cluster munitions and the Oslo declaration, David asked what government assistance would be made to the bill concerning the issue coming out of the House of Lords. Griffiths replied rather predictably that “the Ministry of Defence obviously keeps the effectiveness of, and the consequences of the use of, munitions under constant review and acts accordingly”.
Women, Justice and Gender Equality
David took the gender equality issue further by asking Vera Baird, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs ”what form the Government's assistance to the Bill would take. Will it have Government time? Will the Government take over the Bill and introduce it as a Government Bill, or does it run the risk of losing out in the normal scramble on private Members' Bills, which means that whatever the Government's good intentions, it will not reach the statute book?
Baird launched into a speech stating that “we are considering exactly what to do and how appropriately to deal with the Bill. All that I can assure the hon. Gentleman is that there is the political will to see that it comes into force. Human trafficking is another example of violence against women. We recently announced our intention to sign the convention against human trafficking, which will help us build on our current measures and create a framework for future rights. There is a sense that we are moving forward in that respect. Half of all women who go to prison have suffered from physical abuse. A third have suffered from gender violence or sexual violence. There is such a fine line in these cases between a victim whose trauma throws her into chaos, and one who descends from chaos into crime. Statistically, women who go to prison are far more likely than men to lose their home and family. Seventy per cent. require detox, and 55 per cent. of the self-harming incidents in prison involve women, though women make up only 6 per cent. of the prison population. Seventy-six per cent. of women in custody are there for less than a year and are largely non-violent, yet the prison population of women increased 126 per cent. between 1995 and 2005, compared with 46 per cent. for men. It is easy to see that they have been doubly wronged—we are slow in starting to intervene to support them out of their trauma, and when they flounder through that trauma and into crime, we send them to prison”.
David rightfully questioned the time taken to bring legislation against domestic violence into action when he asked “why it has taken so long to bring that part of the Act into force. Is there are a system in place for civil injunctions made as a result of a criminal offence to be notified to the local police, so that when someone asks for help, the police are aware that there is an injunction which gives them the power to act immediately to constrain the potential offence?”
Baird agreed of course that it is “imperative” since domestic violence “happens now in some cases because injunctions are often backed by a power of arrest, so there is a system in place but it will need firming up before the measures come into force, in June, I think. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the use of restraint orders after conviction, but they have a further advantage even if there is no conviction. Many women are not very strong in the witness box, they do not really want to see the perpetrator sent to prison—he is probably the father of their children—they may not give high calibre evidence and they may be unsure what they want. If, although there is an acquittal, the court none the less has an apprehension that there is a danger from that individual, a restraining order can be imposed. That is a concrete step. In a secondary way, it encourages the police, who would bring the case to court, then find that the complainant was not too sure, and they would get nothing from it, so to speak. It is now their public responsibility. The restraining orders given them some pay-back for persevering, which I hope will encourage them”.
March 12: Leader of the House Questions
The reform of the House of Lords remains the hot topic for David in his role as Shadow Leader of the House and it was no surprise that David chose to raise the issue during Leader of the House questions.
David began by extending his best wishes to the former Deputy Leader of the House, Nigel Griffiths MP, who was the one Labour Minister who had the decency to resign over the Trident fiasco. David cheekily added that he hoped that nothing that any of us said on Thursday (when Mr. Griffiths filled in for Jack Straw during Business Questions) precipitated his decision.
David then noted that in ‘the euphoria that followed the surge of radicalism last Wednesday’ (referring to the vote on Lords reform), the Leader of the House promised to reconvene the all-party group (of which David was a member) but that he could not ‘pre-empt the Queen's Speech by announcing legislation.’ David urged Mr. Straw, regardless of the outcome of the Lords vote (who voted for a fully appointed upper chamber this week), to reconvene the cross-party group before Easter and to ‘make it clear that legislation will follow in the next Session of Parliament.’ Mr. Straw promised to reconvene the all-party group as soon as possible to discuss the production of a draft Bill.
Supplementary Estimates (Local Transport)
When the Government has expenditure that is not included in the Budget, it has to ask Parliament for additional funds. The result is a debate on supplementary estimates, where the Government has to detail the amount required and what it is for. This is then debated. David intervened during the estimates on local transport. In a discussion about the problems faced by Reading train station, David quickly pointed out the ‘massive inconvenience … caused to constituents in the West Country and Wales who do not have a proper rail system simply because of the blockage in the system that is Reading.’ Robert Wilson (Conservative, Reading East) agreed with him.
March 13: Health Questions
David was successful in obtaining an oral question to the Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt MP, on Tuesday.
David asked ‘what percentage of NHS trusts have (a) deferred operations, (b) made redundancies and (c) restricted provision of treatments in 2006-07 on grounds of reducing costs; and what percentage plan to do so in 2007-08?’ Ms. Hewitt quoted the latest financial report which suggests that ‘the NHS will achieve the three financial targets set for this year while maintaining key service standards.’ She maintained that this year’s financial balance will leave the NHS in a far stronger position next year, allowing it ‘to make substantial progress towards achieving the target of 18 weeks maximum from GP referral to hospital operation.’
David was apoplectic. He thought it typical – asking ‘three specific questions and received not a single reply from the Secretary of State.’ David expected at least some reference to a recent survey of Primary Care Trust (PCT) chief executives, which revealed 50% are delaying operations; 47% have made or are going to make redundancies; and 73% are restricting access to treatment. David asked how it could be possible that ‘when there is record cash going into the NHS and welcome investment in capital projects, we nevertheless have cuts in treatment?’
Ms. Hewitt looked uncomfortable and again avoided the question, thanking the Liberal Democrats for voting for ‘those extra resources.’ She, pettily, pointed out the increase of £120 million in NHS funding for Somerset, which has lead to improvements at Minehead and Taunton hospitals and the new community hospital at Frome. She called for fair funding for the NHS and the ‘best care for patients within the budget available.’
Instead of dealing with David’s extremely valid point she criticised the Lib Dems for being ‘not very keen on sound public finances’ and promised to ‘ensure that patients get the best possible value from the record investment that we have made.’ David looked extremely miffed that his question hadn’t been answered for a second time.
March 15: Business Questions
David was still obviously smarting from Ms. Hewitt’s answer on Thursday because it was the first point he raised with Jack Straw during Business Questions.
He cited it as ‘evidence of Ministers failing to give answers.’ He told Mr. Straw that of the three specific questions he tabled, he ‘did not get a reply to a single one of them.’ David characterised the responses as ‘evasive.’
Mr. Straw couldn’t comment on a question he had not seen but emphasised that ‘Ministers are making every effort to ensure that accurate answers are given.’ He also noted the huge increase in questions asked - a rise of 40,000 in three years, which Mr. Straw felt placed ‘an unacceptable burden on everyone involved.’ He felt it was affecting the ‘quality of answers’ and noted that it was something that the Procedure Committee is trying to resolve.
Nigel Griffiths (while filling in for Jack Straw last week) had accused David of being ‘absolutely cuckoo’ in calling for a suspension of the medical training application service. David could not resist noting that it was Mr. Griffiths who ‘flew the nest.’ David noted that if he was cuckoo, so was the BMA and junior doctors. David urged Jack Straw to look again at this issue – a review has been published but ‘there has been no suspension of the system that is causing so much damage to doctors' careers.’ Mr. Straw welcomed the review but admitted that Ms. Hewitt was ‘well aware of the problems that have arisen, and she has said that she will seek to tackle them.’ More information about this deeply flawed system can be found here.
David then commented about the Government’s intention to ‘appeal against the administrative review High Court decision on pensions.’ David noted that this would have ‘profound consequences for pensioners who are still waiting for recompense’ and the progress of the Pensions Bill. David called for a statement on how the DWP ‘intends to proceed, so that it can allay the pensioners' fears that they are again being ignored by the Government.’ Mr. Straw confirmed that they were appealing, as they ‘are entitled to do.’ He claimed that he understood the concern of pensioners in that position but argued that if ‘we are to try to recompense them fully - we have already achieved partial recompense - that entails a very substantial cost to the public purse, so the issue of fairness arises.’
David then asked for a statement about ‘the formal rebuke to the Government issued yesterday by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on the discontinuation of the investigation into the al-Yamamah arms deal. David noted that the OECD wanted to question the Attorney General ‘about why the UK outlawed bribes of foreign officials in 1998, yet not a single prosecution has ensued.’
Mr. Straw argued that ‘it has not reached any conclusion that the decision was incompatible with the OECD convention, and no other state has come out and said that they thought the decision was incompatible with it.’ He went on to visibly anger David by suggesting that the Liberal Democrats were seeking ‘to damage the country's reputation for probity and integrity across the world.’ As evidence, he cited the ‘rankings of Transparency International, which ranks us sixth in the world, only just behind Canada, Sweden and Switzerland, above Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the United States, and well above France.’ He then implored David to ‘take that into account and cease to damage our reputation.’ I found this hypocrisy of the highest order – I think you’ll find, Mr. Straw, that it is the war in Iraq and our reluctance to investigate dodgy dealings with BAE Systems (among other things) that has damaged our reputation abroad and not the questions of Mr. David Heath MP.
Finally, David expressed his dismay that the ‘Government's response to the Lyons report on local government spending will be encompassed within the Budget statement and debate.’ He noted that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government would not be participating in that debate. David pointed out that this report mattered a great deal to people worried about council tax bills. David called for a statement and ‘a debate on local government finance.’ Mr. Straw chose not to comment on this. Perhaps he agreed with David?
Political Parties (Funding)
On Thursday Sir Hayden Phillips published his report into the financing of political parties. This was ordered by the Prime Minister after the cash-for-honours scandal. Sir Hayden was unable to find consensus among the parties and instead published his own suggestions, which would revolutionise the funding of political parties. The headline recommendation is that no individual or organisation should be able to give more than £50,000 per year to a political party. Trade unions are covered by this limit but members affiliation fees are exempt as they are classed as individual donations. No party would be allowed to spend more than £20 million on elections over the course of a Parliament. Finally, every £5 raised by donations is to be matched by £5 of state funding and parties would also get 50p a year state funding per vote in a general election. A decent summary of Sir Hayden’s proposals can be found on the BBC here.
Jack Straw opened the discussion with a statement on the Phillips report before opening it up to debate. The Conservatives supposedly welcomed the recommendations of the report but then spent a lot of time bleating about Labour’s relationship with the unions, which they feel is the principle obstacle to reform. Ironic then that I feel the principle obstacle to reform is (as always) the Conservative Party.
David opened his speech by observing that the ‘opening exchanges do not immediately instill confidence in consensus being reached.’ David thanked Mr. Straw for his statement and welcomed the Phillips report. David asserted that ‘Sir Hayden correctly identifies the lack of public confidence in the party political process.’ As evidence, David cited the cash for peerages allegations, the loan scandal, the perceived influence of big donors and the ‘increasing resentment of the spiralling costs of campaigns.’
David noted the discrepancy between parties moaning about a lack of cash and yet spending more and more on national campaigns. David agreed with Sir Hayden that nothing should be agreed until everything is agreed on contentious issues but urged the Leader of the House to press ahead with non-contentious matters in the report, where there was consensus, such as in ‘strengthening the policing role of the Electoral Commission.’
David urged all parties to engage with the report ‘in a constructive way’ before he identified the three areas where he felt it would be difficult for all parties to reach agreement. The first issue is that of a limit on individual donations, which we have always supported. Sir Hayden has maintained that the ‘principal defence against avoidance will be public opprobrium [reproach].’ David disagrees and felt that ‘public opprobrium is insufficient and that we need statutory support and clear regulation if limits are to be introduced.’ David noted that the trade union issue was important in terms of public perception but admitted that the understood the some of the Labour Party’s reservations. He did not think, however, that it would prevent a consensus.
The second issue David identified was that of a limit of campaign spending. He felt it was ‘outrageous that in individual constituencies, particularly marginal ones, we have a gross, continuing and routine abuse of the spirit of electoral law by the application of massive expenditure from central sources in campaigning in order to affect the result without it appearing on the accounts of individual candidates.’ David asked for this to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
The third, ‘less difficult’ issue was the ‘linking of future funding to membership.’ David supports the view that we should encourage local engagement but admitted that he could see ‘serious difficulties in defining membership and avoiding abuse of that process if simple membership of a party leads to the unlocking of state resources.
David concluded that we could now ‘proceed from the basis of a firm starting point.’ He asked if Sir Hayden would be involved in any future cross-party discussions, given his expertise. He called for ‘good will and determination on the part of all parties if we are to produce a system that is transparent, fair and restores public trust.’ David believes that ‘no party should have a veto on the grounds of partisan advantage, but nor should any party's legitimate concerns be ignored. This work is essential and urgent’ he concluded.
Jack Straw thanked David for his ‘constructive response.’ He then praised David for accurately describing the decision making process – ‘no party should have a veto on sensible reforms that are likely to carry public support, but at the same time the discussions and any agreement that can be reached have to take account of the legitimate interests of all the parties.’ He told the Conservatives to ‘bear that in mind.’ Mr. Straw pointed out that the Tories had ‘never introduced any changes in the financing regime that have adversely affected them’ but would if they adversely affected Labour. He praised the Liberal Democrats for at least being consistent about the issue. He noted that when the Liberal Democrats advanced our proposal for donation limits in 2000, it was met by opposition from Labour and the Tories. Mr. Straw pointed out that the Tories thought until recently ‘that donation caps were a sideshow and spending limits were not the issue.’
He urged the Tories to move from their position and base discussions on ‘what Sir Hayden says, not on the basis of a partisan interpretation of what he does not say.’ Mr. Straw concluded by asserting that after legislation and changes in the Labour Party, there is now ‘almost zero concern about trade union spending, because it is the most transparent arrangement.’ Mr. Straw thought there was too much regulation of the unions rather than too little. Anyone really interested in this subject can read the full text of Jack Straw’s statement on party funding and the debate that ensued here.
March 19: UK Borders Bill
David knows as much about parliamentary procedure as any MP and was quick to note his surprise that the ‘Minister moved the motion formally without any explanation of why the Government have introduced an additional Ways and Means motion for this Bill.’ David was amazed by the evening’s ‘extraordinary procedure.’ He felt that it did ‘not allow for debate on a matter that Members on both sides of the argument wish to debate on the Floor of the House.’
David found ‘it extraordinary that yet again the Government are making proposals that were not included in the original Bill and were not therefore the subject of a Ways and Means resolution on Second Reading.’ The new clause the Government was introducing was to allow for ‘the Government to introduce fees and charges for those who are seeking to emigrate to this country.’ David felt that the Government was doing this ‘in the certain knowledge that people are in no position to argue with the imposition of such fees and charges.’
David knew that it was not proper to debate the new clause that evening but that it should be debated in Committee. He felt, however, that it was ‘not proper for this House, which prides itself on its ability to scrutinise when given the opportunity to do so, to allow to pass without any comment whatsoever a Ways and Means resolution that allows the Government, yet again, to ride roughshod over the House's ability to scrutinise its business properly.’ David rightly felt that the clause should have been introduced in the original Bill. David criticised the Minister for giving no explanation and simply putting the motion before the House formally. An incensed David called it an improper way of doing business and felt the least the Minister could do was ‘explain why we have this motion before us tonight.’
The blithering idiot that is the Immigration Minister, Liam Byrne MP, harrumphed that the ‘powers contained in the new clause are not especially radical’ but failed to offer an adequate explanation for the Government’s underhand tactics. He stated that the Government had a right to ‘cost-charge’ and that they were ‘trying to bring to bear a degree of flexibility and intelligence in how charges are set.’ He hoped that our representative in Committee, Paul Rowen MP, would be able to ‘forensically interrogate our proposals.’ The motion was put before the House and agreed to but you could tell David was still annoyed.
March 22: Business of the House
This was an excellent exchange between David and the Leader of the House, Jack Straw MP. David didn’t really raise any new points but he did press the Government on the big questions of the week that they have still yet to answer.
David began, where else, with the Budget. He noted that when Gordon Brown introduced the 10p rate in 1999 he said that ‘nearly two million people will see their income tax bills cut in half, and take home 90p of every pound they earn.’ David said that Mr. Brown had ‘now removed it by sleight of hand’ and cheekily noted that David Cameron did not notice but ‘we did.’ David criticised the effect as it would ‘increase higher marginal tax rates for the low paid, discourage work and increase in-work poverty.’ He went on to call for a debate on inequality because it is ‘increasing in this country, as the Young Foundation report on rural poverty – often hidden in this country – pointed out yet again.’ David encouraged it as ‘a debate on the effects of what the Chancellor is doing.’
David then called for a debate on the position of small businesses, which after the Budget ‘are facing a £900 million hike in corporation tax.’ David was outraged at the ‘preposterous argument from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry that that would somehow benefit small businesses, who would be delighted to pay £900 million more, because they might be able to claim some of it back in allowances.’ The debate was necessary, David claimed, because ‘the increase will hurt small businesses.’
Mr. Straw obviously took a different view about the ‘excellent Budget statement yesterday’ and claimed that the National Audit Office backed the Chancellor’s statement and figures. He went on to claim that ‘small businesses, and business overall, have benefited, as have the majority of working people.’ As evidence, he cited the ‘individual examples given by many newspapers, not necessarily Labour-supporting, in their Budget analysis.’
Next on David’s hit list was the Lyons Report. David noted that last week Mr. Straw said that it would be encapsulated in the Budget debate but that the Budget statement ‘did not mention council tax once.’ He noted that the council tax has ‘the biggest impact on pensioners and those on fixed incomes up and down the country.’ David was bemused that ‘after long cogitation, the Lyons report says that the answer to reforming council tax is to carry on with council tax.’ David feels that ‘the only answer to council tax, however, is to scrap it’ and asked for a debate.
Mr. Straw correctly pointed out that there was ‘every opportunity to debate the issue of the Lyons report in the next three days of debate on the Budget.’ He did, however, miss David’s point that it was worthy of a debate on its own. He accepted ‘that it is not a particularly popular tax’ but felt ‘that it is infinitely better than the alternative so often trumpeted by the Liberal Democrats—a local income tax.’ He then quoted the Lyons Report that a local income tax "might mean substantial increases in tax for the working population." Mr. Straw obviously wasn’t as worried by the word ‘might’ as I am.
He also quoted the Lyons Report on small businesses: “Particular attention should be given to the likely costs to employers, and particularly small business, of administering locally-variable income tax rates." He then boldly claimed that ‘if ever we had a local income tax, a Liberal Democrat Government would not last a week.’ I must admit that I would like to see that bold statement tested in reality. In my opinion, a local income tax is much fairer and would do more than just put new bands at the top and bottom of the council tax. After three years that is all the Lyons Report recommended. Perhaps, Mr. Straw, it is time for a party to take power that actually has some (wait for it) ideas?
David seamlessly switched to humour and had the whole House chuckling when he asked for a debate on surveillance. He was prompted by the ‘innovative plans by the Conservative-run Ealing borough council to put spy cameras in tin cans to catch people putting out wheelie bins early.’ I can’t tell you how proud I was of David when he shoe-horned in the pun that ‘Ealing borough council, beans means fines!’ Underneath it was a serious point, however, and David feels a debate is needed on ‘whether Big Brother is getting out of hand.’
Mr. Straw could not hide his mirth and awarded David ‘the Leader of the House's prize for a very good line: far better than the ones that we get from the Conservative Front Bench.’ He went on to mention that the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee ‘is about to announce an inquiry into issues of surveillance.’ Mr. Straw hoped that he would ‘ensure that the activities of Conservative-controlled Ealing borough council and its spy cameras in tin cans are given a wider audience.’
The Budget: Debate on Education
During the debate on the impact of the budget on education, David leapt in to once again raise the issue of funding per pupil and the discrepancy between what children in Somerset receive compared to kids in other areas of the country.
The Chancellor said in the budget that the average funding per pupil would be raised to £6,600 per pupil by 2010. David called that figure ‘unrecognisable in Somerset where the current figure is about half that.’ David welcomed the increased expenditure on education but he wondered ‘when it will be distributed fairly across the country so that poorly funded education authorities catch up.’
The Secretary of State for Education, Alan Johnson MP, pointed out that this figure of £6,600 was a significant increase from £2,500 when Labour took over but admitted that David had raised an ‘important point question about the distribution.’ Mr. Johnson told David that they were currently putting out a consultation ‘on a review of how spending is allocated.’
March 26: Business of the House (Northern Ireland)
In an historic week for democracy in the UK which saw devolution return to Northern Ireland following the momentous agreement between Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley to establish a power sharing government, David was quick to celebrate the occasion as ‘extraordinary and welcome news.’
He echoed all our thoughts by saying that ‘we very much hope that it comes to fruition.’ David then ‘put on record our appreciation to all concerned, in all parties, who have worked so hard to achieve a result.’
David outlined his skepticism about deadlines for this kind of resolution but felt that ‘the country would expect us to put aside any consideration of the order of business in order to accommodate what might be an historic settlement.’ He did not, however, want it to be ‘at the expense of giving proper consideration to the Budget.’ He asked the Leader of the House if more time would be set aside for the Budget debate on Tuesday or Wednesday. Mr. Straw promised to extend Tuesday’s Budget debate and David’s appeal came back to haunt him as the debate ran until midnight with votes afterwards, meaning David didn’t get home until 2am!
Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation
David was not going to miss the opportunity to confront “rising star of the Labour Party” and “boyish Environment Minister” David Miliband at the Despatch Box.
He chose the subject of aggregates tax. David agreed with the Minister ‘that we need to reduce the use of non-sustainable resources’ but queried that ‘given that the prime driver is transport costs, is there any evidence to suggest that the aggregates levy has actually reduced the take of virgin stone or increased the use of recycled stone?’
David then asked whether ‘removing the direct environmental benefit for the local communities affected by quarrying’ would create a pointless levy. Miliband admitted that that there was evidence and promised to write to David with the ‘extensive details.’
March 29: Business of the House
David began with a pun about the transition ‘from Camelot to Spamalot’ but to explain the basis for it would take too long. All you need to know is that it got a good laugh.
David then returned to ‘the serious issue of the changes in the machinery of government.’ David rightly pointed out how unacceptable it was for a statement to be made on the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) in the non-elected House.
David then talked about the big issue of the day – the proposed split in the Home Office. David thought a more sensible approach (rather than just a written ministerial statement) towards machinery of government changes that affect Departments, costings and organisation, would be to ‘put forward in costed form in a consultation paper that sets out the advantages and disadvantages and allows the House to have scrutiny of such changes before implementation.’ David dismissed the current plans ‘as back-of-the-envelope stuff just before a change of Administration.’
Leader of the House, Jack Straw MP, retorted that this was ‘classic Lib Demory.’ He accused us of having ‘two views, one in favour and one against, and they cannot make up their mind which, so they leave aside the merits.’ He said he had listened to our Shadow Home Secretary, Nick Clegg MP’s argument but that he ‘was none the wiser at the end of it, nor was I any better informed of the Lib Dem's position.’ This was a cunning way of avoiding acknowledging the fact that we have long favoured splitting the Home Office (Labour stealing our ideas again) but are unhappy about the way the Government went about it (an argument which has a great deal of validity).
Mr. Straw asserted that ‘the matter has been the subject of detailed consideration and of a detailed written ministerial statement and praised the Prime Minister for handling it ‘more openly today than was ever the case in the past.’ He reiterated the Home Secretary’s claims that under the Tories ‘there were repeated examples of changes to machinery of government without any announcement to the House.’ This may be true but they were hardly splitting up the largest office in Government.
David then asked for a debate ‘on ethical leadership.’ He was prompted by the news that David Blunkett MP, ‘an ex-Cabinet Minister one day being the advocate of a new policy on ID cards and two years later turning up as an employee of an ID card company.’ David feels it is ‘time for a civil service Act and a strengthened ministerial code of conduct’ and the opportunity for the House to debate it.
Mr. Straw said he would always welcome a debate on ethical leadership but accused David of coming to the House ‘week after week’ to ‘in one way or another try to denigrate the standards of public life.’ This is deeply unfair. David was merely questioning how David Blunkett could introduce ID cards as Home Secretary and then become a consultant for the company that produces them, all while still an MP. A perfectly valid question I think. Mr. Straw claimed ‘our standards are higher and better than in almost every other country in the world, and that is shown from independent monitoring.’ He said that any Cabinet colleagues would only take business appointments that ‘have been vetted and approved by the Appointments Commission.’ This is a dubious claim given John Prescott’s recent record.
David’s next call was for a ‘debate on rural housing.’ A new rural housing advisory group has been announced but David pointed out that ‘we have not yet had a Government response to the affordable rural housing commission that reported only last year.’ David pointed out that this was ‘a serious issue for many people in rural areas.’ Mr. Straw accepted that ‘rural housing is a serious matter’ and promised to raise the matter with ‘the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.’
David then asked for a debate on rail services. I suspect it was just so he could shoe-horn in the (admittedly excellent) quip ‘man is born in free and everywhere is in trains.’ He then quoted TravelWatch South West who said that ‘the Government does not seem to care about public transport in the South West’ and cited as evidence ‘drastic timetable cuts, plummeting reliability and chronic overcrowding.’ This is a serious issue for the South West and David called for a debate ‘not only on the narrow issue of rail fares, which the Leader of the House has announced, but also on the wider issue of what is happening to our rail services.’
Mr. Straw admitted that the Government ‘recognise that there are problems with train services as a result of overcrowding.’ He noted that the timetable changes introduced by First Great Western (admittedly a private company) and ‘its failure to ensure sufficient rolling stock inconvenienced a great many Members,’ including himself and Conservative Shadow Leader of the House, Theresa May MP. He then delved into some stats, saying that ‘spending on track support has increased by 55% in the last 10 years and rail passenger journeys are up by 35% He also noted that to combat overcrowding ‘the Secretary of State for Transport recently announced that an extra 1,000 rail carriages are to be purchased.’
Easter Adjournment Debate
At the very end of each parliamentary session, the day-long adjournment debate allows members to raise an eclectic mix of issues relating to their constituency- some high profile, some obscure, some downright bizarre. As you would expect, David managed to make useful contributions a numerous topics, from the dairy industry to water prices.
David started by adding his support to a speech by veteran Tory MP Patrick McLoughlin, who chastised the Government for breaking its promises on road upgrades in rural areas. Spotting a chance to raise the age-old issue of the dire state of the A303, he reminded the House that ‘villages along the road, such as Holton, Maperton, Compton Pauncefoot and South Cadbury’ were still without the ‘low-noise’ road surface promised in 2004, with no sign of any action. Several other MPs chimed in to agree. It seems that Somerset is not the only county to be ignored by the Government’s transport policy.
After making a quick intervention to refute an interesting (but all too common) distortion of Liberal Democrat crime policy (ex-Minister Keith Vaz had the nerve to call the Liberal Democrat Home Office policy ‘illiberal’) David went on to his main issue of the day, the plight of the farming industry, and particularly the Somerset dairy farmers who are often being forced to work at a loss due to artificially deflated prices.
He bemoaned the monopoly of big supermarkets, who ‘take 50 per cent of the liquid milk in the country, apply a limit to the amount that they are prepared to pay, maintain high profitability in the supermarket through the retail price of milk, but do not pass that on to the primary producers’. He pointed out the absurd excuse made by supermarkets, claiming that a small increase of the price of milk would damage business. As David rightly pointed out, nobody will abandon Tesco or Sainsbury's if their milk prices rose by a few pennies to benefit our farmers.
He concluded by stating in stark terms that without firm intervention to prevent price-fixing, the industry would struggle to survive. In a rallying call, David called the family dairy farm ‘the building block of British agriculture. It is what is best for this country in terms of both produce and our environment. I want it to be maintained.’ The Minister agreed, telling David that ‘something must be done’, though he went on to provide no ideas for a solution. The Minister also went on to say that like David he too ‘would like’ a wide-ranging debate on agriculture in the Commons. We won’t hold our breath.
David then went on to highlight a number of other agricultural issues, including the spread of TB (and the record of inaction and indecision by DEFRA on the matter) and the sad lack of young farmers, as today’s generation ‘cannot see a future in farming and are leaving to do other things entering the industry’. He also called for clearer food labelling to make British foods more distinctive, and finally criticised the over-regulation of the industry. David was- as ever- unafraid to challenge the EU to reduce time-consuming red tape, and called for an end to ‘duplicate’ farm inspections by numerous agencies. In total, he piled through almost a dozen different issues in less than 20 minutes. Nobody can say that Somerton and Frome’s farmers don’t have a strong voice in Parliament. It should be noted that two Conservative members attempted to engage David in a debate over whose constituency was home to the best cheese. Secure in his knowledge that only Somerset produces the nation’s finest cheeses, he wisely turned down their invitations.
Finally, David joined other members in expressing concern at the high water costs faced by those in the South West and the West Country, despite high rainfall in the region. He said South West Water customers were being ‘penalised’, and the Government were not taking the concerns of MPs and the public at large seriously. The Minister said the the Government would take action ‘quickly’.
All in all, a very busy day for David, wrapping up a long and challenging parliamentary session.