David Heath MP, Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for Somerton and Frome
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Constituency office: 14 Catherine Hill, Frome, Somerset, BA11 1BZ. Tel: 01373 473618
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David Heath's speeches in Parliament

Heath in Hansard: October, 2005

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

Business of the House: 10th October, Commons

On his return to the House after summer recess, David paid warm tributes to the late Mow Mowlam and Robin Cook. In David’s view they made ‘enormously distinguished contributions’ to the House and to Government.

Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill: 11th October, Commons

David enquired why the Government had chosen to exclude large families of birds, lots of which ‘are undoubtedly exotic birds in the UK’ from the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill. The response from the Minister was that the excluded species were not normally wild-caught birds, but captive-bred ones.

Business of the House: 13th October, Commons

David asked the House whether they could have a debate in Government time on the current situation in Iraq. David spoke of the ‘huge political questions’ about British involvement in Iraq and the military consequences of that.

The preparedness of Britain and the country’s ability to deal with avian flu in the event of an outbreak was also raised by David. The serious nature of the threat and the potential for it to become a pandemic made the issue one of great importance according to David. In response to David’s questions, the leader of the House Geoff Hoon said the appropriate Secretary Of State will write to him at a later date.

Police: 17th October, Commons

As a spokesman for the Party on Home Office matters, David told the House how he had been actively involved in the national debate on policing issues for sometime. David wanted to bring to the House’s attention the view that that there existed a level of crime, international and national, that required using resources that go beyond the area of an individual force. Increasing the powers of the Serious Organised Crime Agency was a measure supported by David as he believed it would allow Chief Constables to focus their attentions on local crime and on keeping the peace in rural areas and small towns.

David recognised that policing large conurbations was clearly an important issue, particularly where organised crime is linked to the drugs trade and that this was a major factor for Chief Constables to address.  However, David highlighted that those living in smaller towns and rural areas need to have confidence that an adequate level of policing will remain available.  David told the House, that he believed there to be a conception, not totally unfounded, that criminal justice system resources are increasingly being deployed away from rural areas, towards the cities – and this is putting the rural areas at a disadvantage.

David accepted that a large-scale reorganisation of the Police Service was not a practical option – although he stated his wish to see national and international crime dealt with in a different way – as it would distract the police from the things they are beginning to address properly in more rural areas.  The Basic Command Unit (BCU), with its local focus, is the most important element of policing and of immense importance.  David referred to the very good relations he had established with the Chief Superintendent who commanded the district covering his constituency.

David told the House that while the BCU was the basic building block of policing, for it to work effectively there was a need to consider global numbers of police officers.  For many years there was a clear deficiency in manpower according to David. Furthermore, David stressed how it took the Labour Government a long time to react to that deficiency and although a few extra officers are emerging, the increase is probably not equal to the public’s demands to see many extra officers on their streets.

David welcomed the introduction of police community support officers – which the Party had advocated some time ago – but emphasised that they must not be seen as a substitute for the properly trained police officer in patrolling the streets.  They are a supplement, not a replacement, according to David and provide welcome reassurance to the public through a uniformed presence on the streets, but there is a limit to what they can do, especially as they do not have powers of arrest.

David stressed the need for what he called ‘intelligent patrol’ – ensuring that the community was policed in the right place at the right time.  To this end, it was important that the number of abstractions from local policing or national duties be reduced – community beat teams needed to stay working in their area and not be diverted elsewhere.

David repeated his concerns about the police cells in Frome, which still cannot be used because the necessary custody suite officers are not available, and about the threat of closure still hanging over the local magistrate court, despite numerous protests to the Department for Constitutional Affairs.

David reported briefly on a useful meeting he had had with the new Chief Constable, Colin Port, who recognised that the Avon and Somerset force did not perform as well as he would like it to.  He was conscious of the problems that can result when public confidence in the police is adversely affected by avoidable negative experiences and agreed with David that this issue needed to be addressed.

David stressed the need for more officers in Avon and Somerset saying that they should be more locally based and should use their skills and powers in the most effective and efficient way possible, so that the whole process of criminal justice in rural areas can be brought closer to the individual and be seen to be effective.

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Forensic Science: 18th October, Commons

David recognised the important role Forensic Science played in helping to prevent, detect and prosecute crime. The ethical question regarding DNA samples was raised by David. He suggested that the only ethical position was for everybody in the population to contribute ‘to the DNA Database’, or for ‘no one to contribute’.

After being asked by Dr Gibson whether retention of DNA is fair if it later led to the prosecution of a person who had initially got off, David claimed it did not justify the current system.

David agreed with a Dr. Iddan about the potential problems with security, if the DNA Databases were to be partially privatised. David raised his scepticism over anything ‘approaching privatisation’, of ‘probably the best forensic Science Service in the world’.

The House also listened to David’s concerns over Education where he welcomed the increase in people wishing to study the new Sciences at University, though he remained concerned that this would be at the detriment of the ‘pure sciences’. Furthermore, David was unconvinced that there would be enough jobs suited to all those who studied the new sciences.

David strongly supported the idea that the courses should be readily available in the Police service, who would undoubtedly need to use the new technologies. David also suggested that Legal Practitioners should be made aware of Forensic Science techniques, particularly the vocabulary that is used. David said that access to appropriate courses to bring people up to date with the latest developments in technology was required. The amount America had spent on crime prevention techniques was evidence that more needed to be done.

ID Cards: 18th October, Commons

David referred to the serious concerns that had been expressed by Members, inside and outside the House, about aspects of the Identity Cards Bill.  In view of the fact that Hon. Members had not been given an opportunity to study the   proposals in any depth, he urged the Government to re-commit the Bill to a Select Committee for further, more detailed, discussion.  As there were such huge cost implications involved, it was important that the House had an opportunity to critically analyse the Government’s plans.

Whilst accepting that the main focus of the Select Committee should be on whether the costs ‘were robust and capable of being realised’, David hinted that resources might well be better spent on ‘other forms of detecting and preventing crime’.

The “efficacy” of the proposals also needed to be looked at, suggested David.  It was essential for Bills to have the ability to do what they were intended to do.  He cited the tests that had been used to assess the potential effectiveness of the Identity Bill as evidence that the system, as proposed, would fail.  The system could work perfectly well – as long as you were not disabled, had dark skin, brown eyes, were bald or wrinkled.  It also failed to take account of how people change over time.  David referred to the startling statistic that “one in 1000 cases results in mis-identification”.

David informed the House that Jerry Fishenden, the national technology officer for Microsoft, had said that the ID Bill would result in “massive identity fraud”.  Surely, it was experts such as Mr Fishenden that we should be listening to, not Government Ministers claimed David!

In closing, David reiterated his view that before the Bill left the House, it should be considered by a Special Select Committee which could ‘take evidence, examine witnesses and give the House the benefit of reasoned advice on this subject’. David stressed the need for the Bill to return to committee if the House is not to ‘divest itself of its responsibilities.

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Business of the House: 20th October, Commons

David suggested to the House that a week devoted to countryside issues would be a welcome introduction.  More Parliamentary time was clearly needed in order to tackle the problems faced by rural communities. David cited the shortage of rural housing, inadequate public transport and the unequal funding of public services, such as policing, in rural areas as major problems that needed to be addressed.

Bovine Tuberculosis: 20th October, Commons

David informed the House of the situation in his constituency in respect of the constantly increasing number of cases of Bovine TB being reported and the worrying implications for the huge local badger population. The massive cost implications of dealing with the problem and the fact that there was a genuine ‘animal welfare issue for’ the Badger population was a cause of grave concern. He believed it was inconceivable to allow the ‘badger population to suffer from an endemic disease and do nothing about it’.

The Armed Forces (Parliamentary Approval for participation in Armed Conflict) Bill: 21st October 2005, Commons

In the debate concerning The Armed Forces Bill, David Heath stressed the importance of the role Parliament should play in any future decisions on the deployment of British troops in times of conflict.  The Royal Naval Station at Yeovilton was located in David’s constituency and he was very concerned about the potential fate of servicemen and servicewomen based there and elsewhere in the Armed Forces.  He suggested that Members of the House should try to “put themselves in the shoes of the people” they would be committing to war.

Following questions from Mr Eric Joyce MP, David said that, in his view,   ‘Parliamentary approval’ should be required before any British troops could be committed to future conflicts.  David said that, rather than simply expect the Executive to engage Parliament, it should be made a matter of statute – as opposed to subject to the discretion of the Government of the day – Parliament must approve whether or not British troops should be commttted to conflict.

David linked the ‘the disengagement of the public’ from the political process with the lack of influence Parliament has over comitting troops to battle.  Why should the British public rely on the ballot box, if their elected representatives have ‘no say’ in decisions as crucial as this?

David was scornful of the suggestion that the Bill would somehow weaken military morale. He argued that the opposite was true, claiming the Forces owed their loyalty to the Crown and to the country, not to the ‘Prime Minister of the day’.

David concluded by urging members to support the Bill.  It was, he said, imperative that, in future times of  conflict, Forces in the field had a ‘prior indication of support from the House’.  He had no hesitation in supporting the Bill, as ‘it reflects my Party’s policy’ and if Parliament is not prepared to make such crucial decisions, one wonders what it is for’.

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Licensing Laws: 24 October 2005

David highlighted the inadequacies of the proposed Licensing laws, in particular the reliance, in the Act, on ‘police evidence’, David suggested that “in a constituency like mine’ where the rural police force ‘is rather stretched’, it is unlikely that evidence will be brought forward by the Police”.   

Electoral Administration Bill: 25 October 2005, Commons

David welcomed the Electoral Administration Bill, believing it to be extremely important, as it would form a critical element in Britain’s voting system.  However, David stressed that although the Bill contained measures that the whole House wanted to see introduced, it also contained ‘gross omissions’.

David emphasised the importance of the House remaining united in seeking to reduce fraud and maintain security. He was amazed that the Conservative Party could find any reason to decline to give a Second Reading to a Bill that clearly dealt with issues the whole House supported.

In response to Conservative MP, Mr Heald’s, view that the Bill only came about because of the noises made by the Conservative and Liberal Democrats regarding the appalling levels of fraud and corruption, David said that he agreed with the Hon. Gentleman ‘up to a point’. He readily accepted that earlier debates on the legislation had helped change the Government’s approach.  However, he was critical of Mr Heald over his reasoned amendment, as he believed it to be the wrong approach to deal with omissions in a Bill which the ‘House approves in all other respects’.

David once again appealed to Mr Heald to unite and re-establish, as far as possible, consensus. The urgency of the situation and the need to make Britain’s ‘voting system better’ was a priority according to David. The appalling turnout in key parliamentary by-elections and the continued poor turnout in both parliamentary and local elections was evidence, David suggested, that Britain’s ‘democratic system’ was at risk. David emphasised the need for parliamentary and electoral reform.

As well as identifying that reform needed to take place, David also highlighted the need for the Register to maintain its integrity as well as ‘wishing for as many voters’ as possible to be on it. David told the House that he wished to see a system whereby all those who are registered to vote are encouraged, as much as possible, to exercise their right to vote and for all those who are not entitled to vote – or ‘those who wish to abuse their vote’ – be deterred effectively from doing so.

Although in favour of  ‘novel forms of voting’ – such as postal voting in local elections – David felt it was imperative that measures be put in place to ‘combat fraud’ and ‘maintain the integrity of the ballot box. The idea of using National Insurance numbers as a ‘personal identifier’ was criticised by David. He believed that, like himself, many people did not know their NI numbers and so ‘such an arrangement would deter many people’. David pointed out, too, that many NI numbers are often duplicated or retained after ‘a person is deceased’ so the system would be unlikely to work.

David accepted that the overall level of turnout needed to increase, though he did not accept the idea that pilot schemes were necessary to establish just how the balance should operate.

David summarised his statement by noting that the Bill was welcome but there was much scope for improvement. He asked for the Conservative members would not express their distaste for its emissions by voting for the ‘reasoned amendment’. 

Prime Ministers Questions: 26 October, Commons

Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions in place of Rt Hon Charles Kennedy MP, David pressed the Government on its plans to tackle terrorism.

David attacked the Government over their failure to improve security on the national transportation system. David challenged the Government, claiming their proposed Identification Bill was a waste of billions in public money and would not stop a single terrorist. David believed more resources and manpower needed to be given to the Police and Security Forces.

Business of the House: 27 October, Commons

David brought the severe winter weather that had been predicted to the House’s attention. The potential risk to the elderly members of the community was highlighted by David, with the worrying fact that ’40,000 pensioners’ lost their lives the last time Britain experienced a severe winter. David appealed to the House that more money needed to be invested in to making ‘pensioners’ houses warmer.

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