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: November, 2005

These are digests of what David Heath said in Parliament during November.

Terrorism Bill: Wednesday 2nd November 2005

David urged the Home Secretary and the Government to take note of the disquiet felt in the House about the Terrorism Bill, particularly in respect of the proposal to detain Terrorism suspects for up to 90 days without charge. David was not convinced that to reach a compromise would mean that consensus in the House had been achieved. For David, if something was wrong, it was wrong, ‘It is as simple as that’, he said.  The Government needed to convince parliament that detention periods should be extended at all and any offer of more than four weeks was not acceptable.

David acknowledged the serious threat that the country faced from Terrorism and that ‘the most appropriate and effective action’ was required in order to deal with it. However, the Liberal Democrats differed from the Government over what the right response should be.

Implementing a 90 day detention without trial and without charge, was a partial victory for the Terrorists, according to David. He emphasised the rights of the citizen, whoever they may be, to a proper hearing before the Law.

David conceded that a twenty-eight day detention period was preferable to the 90 day option, but he stressed that it was still not what he would like to see in the Bill.

On being asked by Mark Fisher MP whether the Police’s endorsement of the 90 day detention period persuaded David to support the Government’s proposals, David responded that it did not. David told the House of the great respect he had for the Police and how he had worked within the National Criminal Intelligence Service, but he suggested that the Police always wanted ‘increased powers’. The key was to find a ‘balance’ between granting extra powers and any potential effect they would have on the liberty of the individual.

David was doubtful about whether an encrypted message could be deciphered within 90 days. He told the House of an amendment that he had suggested, whereby an extension of detention could be granted. He suggested three scenarios in which an extension could be granted – when delays occurred due to the need for forensic analysis, encryption delays and delays that might be necessary in order to acquire International data or mobile phone records.

The view of Dan Norris MP, that a 90 day detention was not necessarily going to be used by the Police and that it was only in ‘exceptional circumstances’ that the Police would make use of it, was greeted with scepticism by David. He believed that the fact that ‘a power’ was being instilled in the Police made the issue a very serious one

In summary, David stated that the Bill, in its present form, was unacceptable for all sorts of reasons. He said that he would, given the opportunity, support an amendment to reduce the period of detention to 28 days. He hoped a consensus could be reached in order to produce an ‘acceptable, effective and appropriate defences against terrorism’.

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Business of the House: Thursday 3rd November 2005

David wanted there to be a debate on the application of the Ministerial Code of Conduct because people did not understand the point of having a code that ‘may be broken with impunity’.

David also asked the Leader of The House, Geoff Hoon, if Monday would be a convenient day for a statement on the funding of the Council Tax. The expected Council Tax rise next year – which, on average, would be more than £100 – was cited by David as evidence that a statement by the Government was needed.

The Constituents who had visited Westminster this week were also praised by David. He said they deserved greater recognition for ‘raising the important issues of trade justice and ending poverty’.

Terrorism bill: 3rd November

David supported proposed amendments to the Bill, viewing them as ‘sensible adjustments to the original text’. However, he was disappointed that The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, which was enabled not long ago, had been introduced in haste and so failed to tackle many of the issues that were currently being debated.

Counter Terrorism: Monday 7th November 2005

David asked the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, about data retention by mobile phone companies. In particular, he enquired whether the British agreement with O2 would survive any takeover and whether it could be extended to ‘other telefonica-owned companies’. David concluded by asking whether CC accepted that an agreement wouldn’t be reached during the British Presidency.

CC responded that the Government currently had agreements with telecommunication companies on the retention of data. CC also confirmed that the Council of Ministers had said an agreement would be reached by the end of the year.

Council Tax

David attacked what he perceived to be the unfairness of the current Council Tax system which created ‘winners and losers’ – with the winners not, necessarily, being concentrated in certain geographical areas and the losers in others.  David mentioned that ‘in his area of the world’, the West Country, property prices had been increasing at a very rapid rate and because of the way the Council Tax system operated, those on low incomes were suffering as a result of these soaring house prices.

David highlighted the unfortunate plight of an elderly lady who lived in a desirable village in his constituency.  She had never improved her house or received any form of income, but because the idea of living in such places appeals to people with ‘London salaries’, the value of her property had become greatly inflated, resulting in higher Council Tax charges being incurred. David asked if there was an answer to that sort of problem in the Council Tax framework.

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The Electoral Administration Bil: Tuesday 8th November 2005, Commons

David was concerned that the Committee was seemingly getting into ‘an either/or position’; either to maintain the integrity of the registration process and the ballot, or to maximise the number of people available to vote. David said that, as a Liberal, he did not want ‘under-registration or over registration’: he wanted the right balance. Therefore, David sought provisions to maximise the integrity of the registration process whilst, at the same time, ensuring as many people as are ‘eligible to vote’ are actually on the register and able to vote.

David agreed that the introduction of too many security measures could have an adverse affect on the number of people ‘prepared to climb the hurdles in order to register to vote’. He rejected the Conservative proposals relating to the use of NI numbers.

The issue of ‘multiple entries’ on the register was a major problem. David’s experience of the 2005 General Election, where his opponent had appeared on the register twice, was cited as evidence that ‘multiple entries occur’.

David also wanted an amendment to provide clear guidance for registration officers to look after people with disabilities in the registration process as well as in the voting process. David said that canvassing officers need the appropriate skills to communicate with people with disabilities and that registration officers ‘may need to use means of communication that are not the obvious ones’.

The idea that someone who applies for an anonymous registration and fails should be removed from the register altogether, was attacked by David. As far as he was concerned, this would be going against the expectation of the Bill that voter registration should be maximised. Furthermore, when someone ceases to be registered anonymously, they are required to be removed from the register but they can’t simply be added to the register as an ordinary registration. This went against all logic, according to David.

David supported the Government’s view that the maximum time possible should be allowed for late registrations. He believed that if someone was ‘entitled to vote, they should be able to do so’, within the constraints and practicalities of the registration process.

The impact of the present voting system, on the armed services was seen as a problem by David. He wanted to know why the Minister of Defence was not extending the franchise to the people in his care.

The potential for fraud in the voting system, particularly in relation to postal voting, was a major worry for David. The Electoral Commission’s proposals and all their recommendations needed to be examined by the Government according to David. He thought the issue of personal identifiers, such as a signature or a birth certificate, would not be difficult to overcome and would not influence the number of people wanting to register.

The idea of using National Insurance numbers as a personal identifier was again rejected by David. He suggested that not everyone knew their NI number. For example, women from an ethnic minority community would perhaps never have used their NI number. To David, it seemed perverse to put a barrier in the way of the very groups they were hoping to reach to increase registration.

David also spoke of other problems associated with NI numbers. For example, how they are sometimes given to more than one person or can persist after death. These could create new opportunities for electoral fraud.

The Government received electoral credit from David for introducing new offences in the Bill to tighten up on fraud. However, David wanted to see returning officers and registration officers being given more power to detect fraud.

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Funding (Political Parties)

David wanted consensus on the issue of funding of political parties. He was worried, however, that self-interest would get in the way – at the expense of ‘the interests of the country’.  A proper and effective system was needed that inspired the confidence of the electorate and, at the same time, ensured a vibrant, democratic system.

David claimed that there was a bias in favour of maintaining the ‘huge disparities’ in funding. According to David, this was because some parties held ‘monopolistic positions in this country’. As a result, some parties were able to ‘attract more funding’ which, David suggested, ‘reduced genuine democratic competition’.

The issue of large donations was also highlighted by David. He argued that large donations colour the public’s perception of the political parties and, ultimately, leads to the electorate losing confidence in the political parties and the political system generally.

The influence that large donations can, potentially, have on a political party, was also a concern of David’s. Using the Conservative Party as an example, he illustrated the degree of influence that large donors can exert. The previous Conservative administration had donors who threatened to stop making donations unless there was a change of leadership.  Once their demand was met, the donations resumed.

There was a real concern amongst the public, David felt, that donations actively influenced Government policy. David was concerned that, with enough ‘financial clout’ to back any strong views they might have on particular issues of policy, donors’ views ‘may prevail’.

The direct influence that large donations can have on the conduct of elections was also highlighted by David. He suggested that, during an election, ‘direct funding’ played a key role, particularly in relation to marginal seats. David cited his own experience at the previous General Election as evidence that direct funding does happen.

The affect that a large donation could have on a fringe Party was also mentioned by David. He flagged up the dangers if a millionaire or multi-millionaire, ‘bought’ a small fringe Party and then funded it out of all proportion. This would, essentially, mean that ‘one very rich man’ could put forward an extreme position in constituencies throughout the country.

David went on to talk about the ‘link’ between patronage and the expectation of honours. Many individuals who had donated large sums of money to political parties, had found themselves on ‘this year’s honours list’.

David shared the view of those who felt there should be a ‘cap’ on large donations. He did appreciate, however, that there was a danger this could result in ‘a funding gap’, which could affect how the political parties did their work.

David went on to talk about public funding of political parties and how this was a new concept. David thought it was ‘nonsense’ that public funding cannot be extended to ‘ensure that the greater political will is done’.

David was, however, opposed to the idea that large donations, from public funds, was the answer. He argued that ‘linking funding to money raised from members of local parties or through local fundraising, is very appropriate’.

He believed that ‘match funding’ was a much better way of raising funds, because it was ‘simpler, more transparent and more obvious’. The potential 10 per cent cut in the Government’s £200 million advertising budget would, suggested David, be a potential means to raise funding.

David concluded by stating that the public would benefit from political parties being free from the ‘confines of large donors and perceptions of sleaze’.

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Terrorism Bill: Wednesday 9th November, Commons

David agreed that terrorists needed to be detained; his concern however, was of the detention of people who were not terrorists.

The Government were criticised by David, for trying to secure the support of all members in the House and then ruining everything by quite ‘extraordinary drafting’.

David was critical of the unwillingness of prosecuting authorities and the Police to use existing powers to deal with incitement offences. The failure to fully define terrorism or terrorist offences was criticised in the House by David.

The Prime Minister was also criticised for appearing to value the advice of Police officers above Law Lords. This was not a sensible approach according to David.

Business of the House: Thursday 10th November

David expressed his surprise that a decision had apparently been taken on September sittings without the House being properly consulted.

He was very concerned that the Terrorism Bill would pass to ‘another place’ without a ‘significant number of clauses and amendments being considered’.

The issue of climate change was also brought to the House’s attention by David. He referred to the views on this matter expressed by Lord May and how he was of the opinion that the country was failing to meet its Kyoto targets. This was, said David, an important issue and one that should not be constrained to the House of Lords.

In response to David’s questions, Geoff Hoon said that September sittings had strong support in the House. On terrorism GH said that the Bill, although not being exactly what the Government wanted, did contain a wide range of measures that would help tackle terrorism.

On climate change, GH said that the Government did not share the same views as Lord May. The Government was of the opinion that the Kyoto targets could be met.

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Violent Crime Reduction Bill: Monday 14th November, Commons

David spoke of the danger of ‘imposing unnecessary restrictions’ on the sporting use of guns in order to deal with the problems arising from the increased use of illegal guns in inner cities. Using an airgun in an inner city estate was surely different from using one in a constituency such as his. David suggested that people in his constituency used airguns ‘responsibly’ and as part of ‘their sport’.  David was concerned that the House should not go down a road that it had ‘already gone down before’ when dealing with the issue of violent crime.

Ministerial Code: Tuesday 15th November

David regretted that the Government did not support the motion to make Government and Members more accountable. The failure to unite behind a common view and recognise the concerns held by many people outside the House was disappointing, according to David.

David gave credit to the Government for what it had done to make Ministers more accountable, such as the publication of the Ministerial Code. However, he reiterated his view that genuine concerns still existed about the Ministerial Code outside the House. David didn’t want the debate to descend into party-political tit-for-tat, as it would do ‘none of us any good in the end’.

According to David, the previous Conservative Government was seen by the public as a Government ‘enmired in sleaze’. Although not every Conservative MP had been caught up in sleaze during the John Major leadership, many, according to David, felt they were.

David drew the comparison between the previous Conservative Government and the current Labour Government. He did not agree with the assertion by John Major, former Conservative leader, that ‘Labour was now more sleazy than his own Government’. However, he did concede that the Government was ‘moving in a direction that none of us would wish to see’.

It was imperative that the experience of the previous Conservative Government – where public trust diminished because of constant allegations of sleaze – was not repeated. David suggested that such experiences lead people to view all political parties in the same light. 

The view amongst the public, according to David, was ‘why have rules if no one is enforcing them?’ David attacked the Government’s claim that the Prime Minister enforces the Ministerial Code. David suggested that because the PM has shown himself to be immensely loyal to his colleagues, it is not an adequate way to regulate the Ministerial Code. The investigations carried out by the PM into Cabinet colleagues over recent years, highlights how the Ministerial Code can be broken ‘with impunity’. This, David felt, reflected badly on the PM himself and members of his Government.

A matter of genuine concern to David was the view that Ministers were more lightly policed ‘in respect of their adherence to standards’ in public life than the average ‘parish councillor’. In David’s eyes, it was plainly wrong that a parish councillor, who controls very little beyond ‘some donations to the local village hall or local recreation field’, is regulated to a greater extent than a Minister who wields considerably more power.

On what action needed to be taken, David supported the idea that the Ministerial Code ought to stipulate, not that Ministers ‘should’ do something, but that they ‘must’.

In addition, David told the House that there must be an absolute ban on Ministers taking up ‘paid directorships or employment for two years’ after leaving office, unless the ‘advisory committee’ has said that doing so is acceptable.

David argued that the general public ‘questions’ whether decisions are being made in the interests of the country when Ministers can leave their posts, and then join companies that are directly related to the Departments they ‘have just left’.

The appointment of individuals to the House of Lords was also touched upon by David. He suggested that it was important that those appointed to the Lords were not tainted by the suspicion that they only got their job because of the large sums they had donated to ‘one or other of the parties’. David suspected, however, that this may well be the case.

David summarised his argument by reinforcing his view that some things ‘could and should’ be done to make the Ministerial Code better able to police the activities of Ministers. It was also important to show that Ministers’ conduct was of the ‘highest integrity’. Above all, David wanted the House to send out a clear signal to the PM, that ‘our patience is running out’.

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Business of the House: Thursday 17th November

David attacked the Government over its failure to fully understand the term “urgency” in relation to the Child Support Agency (CSA). The Prime Ministers reply to questions posed by Charles Kennedy at PMQ’s, was seen as totally inadequate by David. Furthermore, David was scornful of the fact the CSA had been in ‘crisis’ since 1998 and still the PM had failed to implement the necessary reforms. David felt it was time that the CSA was ‘replaced’ in order to stop ‘our constituents being affected adversely’.

The remarks made by Dame Stella Rimington, former head of MI5, on the controversial Identity Cards Bill, was also brought to Members attention by David. Dame Stella’s view, that any form of ID cards would be ‘absolutely useless’, was evidence enough according to David, that the ‘efficacy of ID cards’ should be debated in the House.

The likely response by the Pensions Commission that it would be necessary to increase the pension age was also spoken about by David. He suggested that it was important to do something to combat age discrimination in employment, to ensure people have the opportunity to work in ‘their late middle age’ to contribute to the economy.

Finally David asked for a debate on what was ‘going on in the Cabinet Office’. David highlighted the absence of a Duchy of Lancaster, ‘after well over a week’, and the failure of the Government to make any comments regarding Sir Christopher Meyer’s book.

In response, Geoff Hoon said the CSA had made improvements although he admitted that there was still much to do.

On the subject of ID cards GH suggested that not all of what Dame Stella said was negative, and he concluded by commenting that Members will get a chance to debate the ID card bill once it has returned to the House.

On the potential rise in the retirement age, GH said he would not comment on leak documents, however, he admitted that the issue of pensions and the fact that people were now living longer, made the issue one that needed to be discussed.


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