David Heath's speeches in Parliament
Heath in Hansard: May 2007
May 1: Rates of Air Passenger Duty
David did the unthinkable for a Lib Dem MP, when he spoke up for low cost airlines during a debate on the rates of air passenger duty, which have placed an additional tax on every passenger that flies.
He pointed out that the current system penalises the low cost airlines, who use efficient new aircraft and normally fill their planes to capacity, and rewards the major ‘flag carriers’ who ‘are going round the world with virtually empty planes, causing a great deal more pollution per passenger’.
The Liberal Democrats propose altering the legislation to penalise the inefficient airlines and force them to reform their practices.
Criminal investigations: powers of Revenue and Customs
Later that day David used his immeasurable knowledge on Home Affairs and policing to contest several points made in the ‘Criminal investigations: powers of Revenue and Customs’ debate.
The Lib Dems proposed an amendment to the bill, which grants extra powers to customs officers to help prevent crime, in order to change the wording. The original bill stated that those in customs can use their powers if they ‘think’ somebody is breaking the law.
Julia Goldsworthy proposed it be changed to ‘'has reasonable grounds for believing', and David supported her, telling the House that as a ‘veteran of countless criminal justice Bills’, think ‘think’ something was far below the usual standard of proof.
May 9: UK Borders Bill
David’s first contribution of the week was to assist Paul Rowen in calling for a ‘public interest test’ when determining whether those seeking asylum should be automatically deported after serving a prison sentence.
David noted that the ‘public interest test is applied in every prosecution in this country—it is one of the requirements that the Crown Prosecution Service must meet before it mounts a prosecution, so it is hardly alien to our legal system.’ Our seeking of clarity and fairness on this issue became lost in the Government’s desperation to ensure the headline grabbing ’12 month test’ was forced through. More info on the UK Borders Bill can be found here.
May 10: Business Questions
Even I was struggling to concentrate on watching Business Questions as the Prime Minister prepared to announce his resignation on another channel. Against this backdrop, perhaps it wasn’t surprising that this was not a vintage exchange between David and Jack Straw MP.
David began by asking for ‘a statement about electoral arrangements in England.’ David felt that ‘it should deal with the isolated but quite serious instances of alleged fraud—to which the only response from all parties must be zero tolerance—and the mismanagement in many areas that resulted in postal and proxy votes not being sent in time, and in polling cards sometimes being sent in multiple numbers or not at all.’ David cheekily argued that this was needed ‘sooner rather than later’ as he predicted a general election following the change in Administration. Cheeky but unlikely I would have thought.
Jack Straw agreed that 'all parties take very seriously any allegations of electoral fraud or mismanagement' and promised to raise the matter with the new Secretary of State for Justice (sadly, still Lord Falconer) and to 'invite him to consider making either a written or an oral statement.' Mr. Straw stressed the importance of learning 'the lessons in respect of fraud, which is isolated but which needs to be investigated, and any failures in the administration of postal voting.'
David then asked for the Finance Bill to be examined, due to it, uniquely among public Bills, it is ‘not open to evidence sessions.’ David thought it was important ‘that those who are affected by the Finance Bill should be able to give evidence so as to facilitate an informed debate.’
Mr. Straw's response to David's point about the Finance Bill was long and fairly tedious. He asked David to remember that parliamentary proceedings on the Finance Bill are 'more extensive than those on almost any other Bill.' As evidence, Mr. Straw cited the seven days of time allocated on the floor of House for debate. He felt the Bill was 'examined very extensively.'
In keeping with a theme that David has been pursuing for a few weeks, he asked for a debate on ‘legal aid.’ David accused the Government of ‘precipitating a crisis of their own making in what is one of the key fundamentals of the welfare state.’ David hoped for a debate ‘to forestall a very serious result arising from the changes to legal aid.’
Jack Straw pointed out that legal aid was the subject of a Westminster Hall debate in January but also admitted that he was 'aware that there are some concerns about the future of legal aid.' To counterbalance this he was keen to note that the 'budget has been vastly increased in recent years, with no commensurate increase in court proceedings.'
David also expressed his surprise that Mr. Straw did not give a date for ‘a statement on the future of post offices.’ David pointed out that it is ‘a matter that affects the constituencies of all Members’ and demanded a ‘clear date for the Government's response.’ Mr. Straw declined to respond.
David’s pay off line was to reveal that ‘today we have finally learned the date of departure of the man who has characterised and epitomised the Labour Government for a decade.’ David was not referring to Tony Blair but called for a ‘debate on what exactly is the role of the Deputy Prime Minister, and why he costs so much?’ I think Jack Straw missed the point slightly because his response was a fairly bland - 'the role of Deputy Prime Minister goes back to a time way before this Administration.' But what does he actually do?
Tributes to Speaker Weatherill
David was asked to lead the Liberal Democrat tributes to the former Speaker of the House, Lord Weatherill, who served in the 1980s and early 1990s, and who died this week. David admitted that he ‘did not have the privilege of serving in this House while Lord Weatherill was Speaker’, but he did have ‘the great privilege of meeting him, in rather odd circumstances,’ soon after he was elected. David suspected that ‘he was a very good Speaker of a very bad Parliament.’ It was dubbed “the bad Parliament” because it introduced cash for favours and the poll tax, ‘so it was very bad indeed.’
David met Lord Weatherill at Farleigh Hungerford castle on a bitterly cold December, ‘to celebrate the life of Sir Thomas Hungerford, the first recorded Speaker of the House.’ In ‘not the most congenial of surroundings,’ what struck David first ‘was his stoicism under the circumstances.’ David thought that ‘he also gave the impression of being a kind, courteous man.’ David was impressed by the interest Weatherill showed in him as ‘a new Member in a way that he had no need to be’ and as a ‘punctilious parliamentarian,’ as demonstrated by his appearance in Somerset on a cold December evening.
David paid tribute to the former Speaker’s ‘preparedness to ensure that the people who make life difficult for Speakers, for Governments and for the Opposition were properly heard.’ That is the sort of testament that any Speaker would wish to hear. David concluded that ‘we Liberal Democrats send our condolences to Lady Weatherill, and we mourn the loss of a great parliamentarian.’ More info on Lord Weatherill can be found here.
Points of Order
David loves a point of order and used the opportunity to highlight this Government’s latest sneaky tactic – burying a report about the soaring costs of ID cards on the day Tony Blair announced he was standing down. David asked about the whereabouts of the report in Business Questions a couple of weeks ago and it was only published in a written ministerial statement today.
David’s valid query was to ask what recourse ‘Members have when the Government fail not to fulfil an expectation of providing material to the House but a statutory duty to provide material in a timely way.’ David asked that the matter be examined. The current Speaker, Michael Martin MP, thanked David for raising the matter and vowed to look into it.
David faced Jack Straw in his role as Shadow Leader of the House. He started congratulating Straw on his successful role as campaign manager in Gordon Brown’s hard-fought uncontested leadership election. He then went on to ask for a debate on two important issues.
First, the announcement that around 2,500 Post Offices faced closure in a Government review, many of which will likely be ‘disproportionately located in rural areas’ like Somerton and Frome. And second, the excessive amount of packaging on foods which simply do not need it. David lamented about ‘absurdities that we hear about such as coconuts and Swedes being wrapped in plastic and a melon being labelled as ‘produce of more than one country’. Fellow Lib Dem MP Andrew Stunell has introduced a Bill on this issue, and David asked it be debated.
David also slyly asked for a debate amongst Conservative MPs on Cameron’s grammar school policy u-turn, and concluded by asking for the Government to continue their review into Parliamentary procedure to make Parliament ‘more effective and more relevant’.
Jack Straw did his usual best to deflect and dodge, only commenting that the Post Office closures ‘reflect changes in the circumstances in which the Post Office has to trade’, which is of great use to villagers who rely on the service every day.
He confirmed the Government was looking at excess packaging, and a new waste strategy would be unveiled in the near future.
May 18: Freedom of Information Act
On Friday, the most talked about Bill of the week, aimed at exempting Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act.
Along with a small band of MPs from all sides, David played a major role, speaking more than a dozen times with numerous interventions. In his main speech, David started by explaining how hard he had fought on committee back in 2000 for the Freedom of Information Act, leading to him being ‘loth to accept anything that water down its provisions, especially when the arguments for doing so are so sparse, so badly expressed and so vacuous in nature’.
With that forceful start, he proceeded to outline why the Bill was so badly thought through. Not only would it make Parliament look hypocritical, passing a law for everyone else whilst exempting itself, but it simply did not make sense. David argued that the safeguards to stop correspondence between MPs and constituents being disclosed were already in place, and that it would not stop this illegal act taking place- ‘somebody who is ignorant of the [current law] is just as likely to be ignorant of the provisions of this law’. He saw no merit in the Bill whatsoever, but as the Government and the loyal opposition both remained ‘neutral’ when it came to vote, there were not enough MPs in the noes lobby to reject it, and the Bill will continue to its next stage of deliberation.
Finally, David did a good deed this week, alerting the speaker to a badly placed bucket in the middle of the corridor in the No Lobby next to the chamber, which he was concerned was a ‘substantial trip hazard’ for all members. The Speaker assured David it would be moved soon, but was essential to collect water due to the leaky Palace roof. Hopefully disaster averted.