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Ethics in Politics: Report on David Heath's speech to the Quakers

Thursday 1 January 1970, 01:00
By Stephen Tate


After another tumultuous week at Westminster that saw fresh allegations of the expenses fraud knock public confidence in the British parliamentary system, David Heath MP warned voters to consider the consequences of letting our democratic institutions fall apart.

The Liberal Democrat MP for Somerton and Frome said the public had every right to feel angry with the political elite at Westminster.

"I understand why people are losing faith in politics but we must be careful what we wish for. We are sleepwalking into something profoundly dangerous.

"The current system is rotten. It needs root and branch reform but I still believe in democracy.

"We need to persuade people that there is a point to politics. We need a crusade for democratic renewal that will cleanse the system. Otherwise what would you have instead?" he said.

Heath called for a referendum on electoral reform, favouring a system of proportional representation known as the single transferable vote (STV).

"We need an electoral system where your vote counts. Having never had the disgusting pleasure of a four-figure majority, I can say with honesty that votes in this constituency [Somerton and Frome] do count! The level of complacency in safe seats, however, is staggering," he said.

Heath was first elected to the House of Commons in 1997 with a majority of 130 votes. At the last general election, his majority increased to 812.

STV is designed to minimise wasted votes in so-called ‘safe seats’, and gives voters the power to vote for individual candidates rather than party lists.

The system initially allocates an elector's vote to his or her most preferred candidate and then, after candidates have been either elected or eliminated, transfers surplus or unused votes according to the voters' stated preferences.

STV is the preferred option of the Electoral Reform Society. Critics of the voting system say voters find it difficult to understand.

Scotland and Northern Ireland use STV in local government elections, while the Republic of Ireland has used it in parliamentary elections since 1919.

Asked whether MPs should be limited to a fixed term of duty, Heath said: "I still get a buzz from going into the House of Commons. If I cease to feel that buzz, I know it would be the time to stand down."
Mr Heath made his comments during a talk on Ethics In Politics at the Friends Meeting House in Wincanton on Friday 16 October.

He said politicians required an ethical standpoint on four levels: personal integrity, legislation, national policy, and international responsibilities.

Earlier in the week, he and other MPs had received letters from Sir Thomas Legg, the auditor appointed by the government to review MPs’s expenses.

"My letter says I have done nothing wrong. It does query a payment made in 2006, which I will pay back if it proves to be true.

"Though I sanction the audit, Sir Thomas made several schoolboy errors. One colleague was asked about expenses backdated to before they became an MP," he said.

Heath condemned the practise by some MPs of ‘house-flipping’. "Home is where your family is. There should be no argument. Those who have transgressed should face the law rather than the court of public opinion."

Heath proposed a series of reforms to overhaul the present expenses system, including a ban on claiming for mortgage payments, and food expenses.

He also suggested that all MPs should rent their second home in London, and that the House of Commons pay the rent on their behalf.

"An MP would find somewhere to rent and notify the House of Commons. If the property fell within appropriate guidelines, the House would deal with the rest," he said.

The Daily Telegraph’s dossier of MPs’s expenses published earlier this year says that Heath "rents a flat near Barbican in east London, which he designates as his second home. He claims £1,785 a month in rent, £1,170 in council tax and £550 a year on utilities bills – but very little else."

When asked how the media could help re-establish confidence in the political process, Heath pointed to a worrying decline in political coverage, especially at a regional level.

"Except during conference season, I cannot remember the last time I was asked by local media for a comment on a political story," he said.

Another member of the audience questioned the efficacy of televising Prime Minster’s Questions. Heath agreed that the weekly ‘Punch and Judy Show’ presented a false impression of the work of Parliament but he said it should stay.

When it came to drawing up legislation, he said party politics tended to take a back seat. "The aim is to produce laws that work. With regard to the ethics of issues such as abortion or stem cell research, you have to come to your own decision," he said.

In March 2008, Mr Heath paid a political price for his ethical conviction over the Treaty of Lisbon, which will change the structure of the European Union and include the creation of a President of the European Council.

One of three Liberal Democrat spokesmen to defy the party whip and vote in favour of a referendum on the treaty, he lost his frontbench post, and spent nine months on the back benches. He has since been appointed the party’s Shadow Leader of the House.

"Politics is about persuading others to go with you. I did not have enough people with me, so I had to accept the consequences," he said.

On foreign policy, Heath said the UK had a responsibility as a rich and powerful nation to be "an agent for good in the world". When questioned on the war in Afghanistan, he believed government policy lacked "a clear political and military objective".

Later in the evening, a man in the audience stood up and said the expenses scandal had undermined the UK’s international reputation. "We have lost our right to accuse other countries of corruption," he said.

When challenged to list the qualities required of a good MP, Heath said: "A sense of conviction, an ethical standpoint and experience outside of politics. I am concerned about the rise of career politicians in all the three main parties."

Before entering politics, Heath trained as an optician and practised for 17 years.

"I think it is still an honourable state to be a politician. Most MPs are in it for the good. Maybe I am naive. I hope I am not."

Written as a press release on behalf of the Wincanton Quakers by freelance journalist Stephen Tate.


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