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What is corruption?

Mark D'Arcy | 15:31 UK time, Wednesday, 30 March 2011

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Passed in the dying moments of the last Parliament, in the fast-track, last-minute legislating known as the "washup", the Bribery Act was hailed as a world class anti-corruption law.

But it has yet to come into effect because ministers have been consulting on the "guidance" over what constitutes corruption and what constitutes acceptable conduct.

Now the guidance has appeared - to cheers from the CBI who are relieved that British business will not be swamped by an onerous compliance regime, and that corporate hospitality will not be criminalised. Ken Clarke, the Justice Secretary says that in implementing the Act "the UK government and British business [are] striking a blow for the rule of law and the operation of free markets". So the Act will now come into force on 1 July.

But there are fewer hosannas from the watchdog group Transparency International - who accuse the government of using the guidelines to overturn the intention of the legislation.

Part of the moral of this tale is that passing a law is quite often only the beginning of the legislative process - codes of conduct, official guidelines and regulations flesh out the skeletons provided by the laws passed by Parliament, but they seldom get anything like the same attention.

The trouble is that the devil is often in the detail and Transparency International UK's Executive Director Chandrashekhar Krishnan argues that the guidelines provide a series of loopholes which allow companies to get away with practices like bribing officials of foreign governments, which are supposed to be outlawed by the Act.

On the other side of the argument, there is considerable relief that the government is not going to impose burdensome regulations - but will provide a system that complies with the demands of major trading partners like the US and Germany which take an increasingly dim view of companies which engage in bribery.

The guidelines are not law, not even the kind of secondary legislation which passes through Parliament every day, so they don't have to be debated. I suspect they will attract plenty of comment in both houses of Parliament - but even the critics want the Act to come into force and won't want to provide any pretext for further delay.

Next week: Budget vibes and the Lords on Libya

Mark D'Arcy | 14:55 UK time, Friday, 25 March 2011

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The final full week before Easter recess: and there's plenty going on in Westminster.

Monday and Tuesday in the Commons sees the continuation of the Budget debate: on Monday MPs will be concentrating on regulation and economic reform, while on Tuesday the topic will be work incentives and employment. Not room for much else - but John McDonnell's adjournment debate on the future of rail engineering jobs could be interesting on Tuesday.

While this is going on, the Lords will be looking at the Public Bodies Bill at report stage on Monday - and on Tuesday, the Building Regulations (Review) Bill and the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill - another big constitutional reform proposal which may run into trouble.

If the budget doesn't tempt MPs into the chamber, there are always committees. But there's no escaping the budget on committee corridor: the Treasury has sessions on Monday and Tuesday examining the implications of George Osborne's decisions. On Tuesday, they'll be interrogating Mr Osborne himself.

There are also sessions with university representatives including the Russell Group (the British Ivy League) as the Business Committee continues its inquiry into higher education and the Home Affairs Committee will step where the Culture Committee did this week by talking to Acting Deputy Commissioner John Yates about phone hacking. Only the Home Affairs Committee will also have alleged hacking victim and Labour MP Chris Bryant before them, too. Since Yates of the Yard dismissed Mr Bryant's attacks on his investigation at the Culture Committee hearing, sparks could fly (in an orderly manner, of course).

Budget discussions will be over by Wednesday and MPs can turn their attentions to PMQs and the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill. In the Lords, they are back on the Pensions Bill and there are plenty of committees to chew over.

Science and Technology will be looking at the Forensic Science Service, which is facing closure and replacement by a private company; the Culture Committee will be talking to Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt; the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee will interrogate NI Secretary Owen Patterson and the Environment Committee will be talking to Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman about the spending review. It was that review that propelled Ms Spelman onto the front pages with her suggestions about the UK's forests - plans that were then chainsawed to the ground and pulped by public opposition and an adroit Labour campaign. Could be interesting to see if she repeats her rather dignified Commons performance after that debacle in front of the committee.

By Thursday, MPs will be back on the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, after the Business Statement and questions to the Business team. The Lords' Thursday debates will be on supporting economic growth and the standards of care and commissioning of services in the NHS from Lord Turnberg.

There's also some sporadic action on the committee corridor, where the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee explores Parliament's role in decisions to go to war - should a requirement for a vote in the Commons on conflict decisions be enshrined in law?

Legal experts give their views. And Business Secretary Vince Cable will appear before the BIS Committee to answer members' questions on the Budget. The committee will focus on whether the measures announced by the Chancellor amount to a co-ordinated growth strategy.

The Lords provide the big event on Friday, when they debate Libya. An impressive list of peers are already signed up to speak - including such luminaries as Lord Hannay, the former ambassador to the UN, and former Chiefs of the Defence Staff Lord Craig of Radley and Lord Stirrup.

The Commons is also sitting to debate private members' bills from Mark Lancaster and Christopher Chope. Mr Chope's is Broadcasting (Public Service Content) Bill - which I'm assured is not an April Fool's Day jape.

Next week also sees a goodly harvest of select committee reports - watch out for: the Culture Media and Sport Committee offering on Funding of the Arts and Heritage on Monday; the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee verdict on the constitutional implications of the Cabinet manual - the new volume of governing guidelines penned by the Cabinet Secretary, on Tuesday; the Justice Select Committee on the government's proposed reform of the legal aid budget, on Wednesday; and the Treasury Committee report on Competition and Choice in the Banking Sector. This is the inquiry for which Barclays' unrepentant Bob Diamond and other banking bosses appeared, and some interesting reading can be anticipated.

Is payment due?

Mark D'Arcy | 16:52 UK time, Thursday, 24 March 2011

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A very rough ride for Treasury minister Mark Hoban in the Chamber today, as he fielded questions from MPs about the bill Britain could face for helping bail out the stricken Portuguese economy. But that could just be the appetiser for a bigger row, when the actual bill arrives, stamped in red letters with the words "payment now due".

This could be the row the hard core of Eurosceptics on the Conservative benches have been preparing for. Not an arcane constitutional dispute centred on the small print of a treaty or the meaning of some ancient parliamentary precedent, but an issue centred on hard cash at a time of dire economic hardship.

It could rouse the same new wave Tory backbenchers who roll their eyes when crabbed euro-rebels of vast seniority sink their teeth into the likes of the European Union Bill. Explaining to constituents why their public services are being cut, while perhaps £3.5bn of British taxpayers' money is being spent to help foreigners is not something they want to do - so a sharp rebellion may be on the cards.

If the occasion for rebellion arises. I hear whispers of attempts to secure a debate on a substantive motion from the Backbench Business Committee - but the vagaries of the Commons timetable means that there is no time to offer until May. For some reason Westminster is on holiday for most of April and then off again for a two week Whitsun recess in late May. So that approach may be a dead end.

In any event, this country may be unable to resile from a commitment to chip in to future euro-bailouts. But the catch is when that commitment was made. It was Alistair Darling, Labour's Chancellor, who signed Britain up to the European Stability Facility, at a meeting after the general election, but before the Coalition had emerged as the next government. But as an outgoing minister acting at a moment of constitutional limbo between governments, he would surely have needed the agreement of his probable successor, George Osborne, to go ahead. Civil servants could not, properly, have committed an incoming government to something so significant, on the instructions of a defeated administration.

So the question then arises: are Mr Osborne's dabs on the bailout bill? We may not be able to wriggle out of the commitment, but did he agree to it at the time, and did he decide to stick with it on taking office, when he might have had an opportunity to repudiate it? And what advice was he given by Treasury civil servants? If freedom of information requests put down by anti-EU backbencher Douglas Carswell produce evidence that the Chancellor either acquiesced to joining the bailout mechanism, or didn't dare disturb it, for fear of upsetting his new Lib Dem partners in government, his rising political stock could plunge very fast.

Not entirely delighted...

Mark D'Arcy | 10:42 UK time, Thursday, 24 March 2011

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I spoke too soon. It turns out the announcement of four extra sitting Fridays, for debates on private members' bills has failed to delighted at least some backbenchers. The Conservative Peter Bone last night objected to the motion to add those days to the Commons calendar - arguing that pro-rata there should be eight more such days in the current extra-long parliamentary year. And he's now put down an amendment to that effect.

But he and his colleagues had put down a whole list of bills to be debated on particular days - even when they were expected to be non-sitting days, something you're allowed to do under Commons rules. Now their speculation has paid off and they have pole position for a series of debates on hyper-Thatcherite causes and will be able discuss them at length.

They even suspect the government may have chosen the days they named in their motion - 9 September, 21 October, 25 November and 20 January 2012, on the basis that those were the days when the bills they found least embarrassing were scheduled.

Lansley's woes

Mark D'Arcy | 16:55 UK time, Wednesday, 23 March 2011

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Health Secretary Andrew Lansley's radical shake-up of the NHS, contained in his Health and Social Care Bill, could be summed-up in a Lenin-like soundbite: all power to the GPs.

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He wants to scrap the present Primary Health Care Trusts (PCTs) and put consortiums (consortia?) of GPs in charge of commissioning health services for patients in their area. The idea is that "clinical leadership" not central targets will drive local spending priorities in health. And the uber-wonkish health secretary, lauded by David Cameron as the man who really understands the NHS, has devised a new system which he believes puts power at the grassroots.

But when he appeared before the Health Committee to talk about his plans, he did so under a palpable cloud of doubt and fear. Many other MPs - and not just on the opposition benches - question whether his system will work, and whether, if it does, the public service ethos of the NHS - its soul if you like - would survive. The Health Committee, under one of Mr Lansley's predecessors, Stephen Dorrell, has been taking a long and (sometimes excruciatingly) detailed look at the NHS commissioning process.

The MPs gave Mr Lansley a long and sometimes tetchy going-over. And he noticeably declined to give Lib Dem Andrew George any promise that he would amend his bill to take note of Lib Dem concerns - expressed at their spring conference - about the "marketisation" of the NHS and the handing to GPs of control of billions of public money without sufficient democratic oversight.

One interesting question is whether that decision is any longer his to make. A reform that pitched the NHS into chaos would be political poison to the Coalition - and it's worth remembering that the Lib Dems say the Lansley proposals are no part of the Coalition Agreement - so they're not bound to support them. Which means that a bill which does not win their approval could have a tough time in the Commons and could be filleted in the Lords, where lurks Lady Williams (the artist formerly known as Shirley Williams) and a squadron of unhappy Lib Dem peers, who could yet amend the bill, and send it back to the Commons.

I must admit I felt a bit out of my depth listening to the debate on the arcana of NHS management. This is not a subject I know much about. But there did seem to me to be a bit of a comprehension gap - Mr Lansley wants a system so different, and so bottom up, that those marinated in the current system cannot imagine how it can function. I'm in no position to judge who's right - but the scale of the concern by the BMA and others is clearly causing serious concern in the Coalition high command.

The Health Committee may yet have a role. Some of its members are rumoured to be considering putting down amendments as a committee - the hot new fashion on the committee corridor. And their judgement on the plans could itself be vital in swinging opinion on the bill one way or the other. But, as happened a couple of times in the Blair years, we have a bill before Parliament which could be substantially re-written on the floor of the House.

One final thought. One of the main critics of the bill in the Health Committee is the Conservative Sarah Wollaston - the Totnes GP who was selected as a Conservative candidate by an "open primary" process in which all her local voters were invited to take part in a postal ballot. Her criticism of the bill has been notably independent and pretty fearless. Which may explain why the government seems to have lost its earlier enthusiasm for Primaries as a device to "reconnect" voters with Parliament. But she's doing just what the voters probably hope their MPs should do - and which they in fact to all too seldom.

More for backbenchers...

Mark D'Arcy | 13:16 UK time, Wednesday, 23 March 2011

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One non-budget announcement, which will have pleased a few people, was slipped out this morning. The government is proposing that the Commons sit for several extra days to debate private members' bills.

A number of MPs have been arguing that only having the normal quota of private members' bill days in an extra-long parliamentary year (from last May to May 2012) effectively reduces backbenchers' opportunities to introduce bills. The Leader of the House, Sir George Young, has heard the arguments and responded - so the proposed extra dates are 9 September, 21 October, 25 November and 20 January 2012. Bills will have precedence on those days in accordance with standing orders.

I'm not quite sure what that will mean in practice. Normally eight days are devoted to second readings, the initial debates on bills, and another eight to "remaining stages", the report stage and third reading - and if the bills get through those, they're sent off to the Lords. If this announcement means more second readings, it's rather good news for Chris Chope and his backbench allies, (see previous posts) who have put down a whole phalanx of bills on the off-chance. Some of those will now be debated - and maybe even passed. Which would at least make those Commons Fridays rather more entertaining.

The government is also mindful that, due to that longer-than-usual current session, extra Opposition days and backbench business days will be needed. Sir George will announce extra time through the weekly business statement as usual.

Next week's business - an update

Mark D'Arcy | 13:10 UK time, Friday, 18 March 2011

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It's all change as the House of Commons now devotes most of Monday to a debate on the UN resolution authorising intervention in Libya. It will be on an amendable motion - an important parliamentary point - and I will do my best to publish the text of the resolution here, as soon as I get it.

(MPs will still debate the resolution on their salary at 10pm - but I doubt much time will now be spent on that, and there were calls for the Leader of the House Sir George Young to allow an unlimited debate on Libya, so everyone who wanted to speak would get the chance.)

The Government also plans to publish a summary of its legal advice on the UN resolution and the legality of use of force. One interesting piece of choreography in David Cameron's statement today (Friday) was that the Government's top legal advisor, the Attorney-General, Dominic Grieve, was prominently placed one seat down from the PM - a visible attempt to reassure MPs that the legality of the war was fully established, so dispelling some memories of the Iraq debate, exactly eight years ago.

The change to Monday means the debate on the Budget Responsibility Bill is pushed back to Tuesday - and the remaining stages of the Scotland Bill have been kicked into the long heather. I imagine that will resurface the following week. (Incidentally, I'm told the report by the Scottish Select Committee on the Bill will be published at 10am on Monday.) The Budget remains on Wednesday and the scheduling for the rest of the week is unchanged.

Next week's business

Mark D'Arcy | 17:54 UK time, Thursday, 17 March 2011

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A big week next week: it's the Budget, one of the big Commons set pieces of the year. And it's a big deal not just for George Osborne, but for Ed Miliband, who will face one of the toughest tests for any Opposition leader when he responds for Labour, as soon as the Chancellor sits down.

It's worth watching his reaction as notes from his team of researchers with the latest nuggets of analysis are passed to him, and he digests them. The notes will even continue after he starts his speech, and he will have to simultaneously orate and compose the next section of his response - it's a horrible task for any Parliamentarian, made worse by the merciless glare of the spotlight.

The debate on whatever Mr Osborne has to say about the economy and taxation will dominate the following week in the chamber as well - plus, of course, there will be the usual fast-track inquiry by the Treasury Committee with outside experts, Treasury officials and finally, the man himself.

That is on Wednesday, after PMQs. But before then, there is much afoot in Westminster.

On Monday, MPs kick off the week with questions to Education Secretary Michael Gove, then discuss the remaining stages of the Budget Responsibility and Audit Bill - which puts the new watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility on a statutory footing. Following that, there is a motion on members' salaries - always a contentious subject - but in this instance mostly because MPs are miffed at once more being asked to vote on their own pay and conditions. The Senior Salaries Review Body has recommended that they should get a 1% increase - but with a public pay freeze on, the government wants them to forego it...

Over in the Lords, questions on pig farmers and HMS Endurance in the Antarctic lead on to committee stage debate on the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill.

When it comes to select committees, the Public Accounts Committee will be looking at the Olympic Games 2012, as part of its continuing monitoring of this prestige mega-project. Unusually for the PAC, they even conducted a site visit last week. And a lively session of the Communities and Local Government Commission is in prospect, when it quizzes trade unions and the Taxpayers Alliance pressure group about the implications of abolishing the financial watchdog the Audit Commission.

On Tuesday, George Osborne and his Treasury team will be answering questions in the Commons, and doubtless repelling any attempt to extract revelations about the Budget. Then it's the remaining stages of the Scotland Bill - the measure which gives extra powers, particularly on tax, to the Holyrood Parliament. (Watch out for the verdict of the Scottish Affairs Committee, due to be published just after midnight, on Monday.)

Their lordships will be looking at the National Insurance Contributions Bill at third reading and the European Union Bill at second reading. This will be their first look at the proposals for a "referendum lock" on further transfers of British sovereignty to Brussels - and there could be an interesting clash of views between Euro-phile and sceptic peers, both within the Conservative ranks, and beyond. Helpfully, the Lords Constitution Committee has just reported on the bill, describing it as "a radical step-change for the UK in adopting referendum provisions on such a large scale...inconsistent with the government's statement that referendums are most appropriately used to decide fundamental constitutional issues".

Up on the committee corridor, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee continue their inquiry into football governance, with a promise of "famous names" as witnesses.

The Education Committee will be pondering the implications of Michael Gove's creation of an English Baccalaureate - his new basic qualification of GCSEs in basic subjects. The MPs will be asking school heads, college principals and others about the implications for pupils, teachers, employers and international comparisons.

The Business Committee is talking to Lord Browne about higher education; the Justice Committee has a hearing on the working of the family courts. And, perhaps most politically sensitive, the Health Committee is talking to Health Secretary Andrew Lansley on commissioning in the NHS - perhaps there will be some hints about whether he will amend his Health and Social Care Bill, in the light of the strong criticism from the Lib Dems at their spring conference, last week.

And so to Wednesday. Northern Ireland questions start the day - then PMQs and the budget. Expect a packed house and plenty of drama. These days, any Chancellor worth his salt has to provide surprises and thrills, but hopefully, no spills.

Undisturbed by all the vulgar financial business down the corridor, the Lords will be sailing on serenely, looking at the Public Bodies Bill at report stage; followed by the Ecclesiastical Fees (Amendment) Measure, Care of Cathedrals Measure and the Mission and Pastoral Measure - brought by the Bishop of Exeter.

Not much excitement on committee corridor. MPs on the Science and Technology Committee will be discussing the winding down of the Forensic Science Service, while the Lords Constitution Committee will be looking at constitutional reform.

Thursday sees the continuation in the Commons of the Budget debate, while the Lords will be using their Thursday afternoon debates to discuss government policy to promote enterprise (introduced by Lord Lawson - no stranger to budget excitement himself) and the EU Committee report on adapting to climate change.

Committees include the Treasury Committee's first stab at investigation into the Budget and the Business Committee's look at student visas - this follows hard on the Home Affairs Committee's stern warning in their latest report, that tightening the visa system could have a devastating effect on the number of overseas students who opt to study (and spend) in Britain. In Westminster Hall, MPs will (finally) be debating the future of the coastguard service.

Nothing for Friday - MPs will be heading back to their constituencies to take the post-Budget pulse of their constituents and gird their loins for a final week's business before the Easter recess.

That Friday Feeling....

Mark D'Arcy | 16:36 UK time, Wednesday, 16 March 2011

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Hyperactive Tory backbencher Christopher Chope looks set to dominate proceedings in the Commons on Friday - with not one, but three of his private members' bills down for debate.

Christopher Chope

Mr Chope, a charter member of the Conservative awkward squad, is one of a group of backbench MPs seeking to provide their colleagues with the occasional sip of (what they doubtless regard as) the heady wine of True Toryism.

This week he's offering the Training Wage Bill, which exempts people on a training wage from the national minimum wage. Then he hopes to move on to the Compensation (Limitation) Bill, which aims to prevent conditional fee agreement success fees, and after-the-event insurance premiums being recoverable from the losing party in civil litigation. And then he has the Local Government Ombudsman (Amendment) Bill which would "extend the powers of the Local Government Ombudsman to provide redress against local authorities which unreasonably ban events on the grounds of health and safety".

All good clean fun - and it will be interesting to see how many of these propositions he gets onto the floor of the Commons....

Most of these bills don't have sufficient priority to allow them to be taken very far, so it is safe to assume Mr Chope's main aim is to have the debate and get a government response to the issues he raises. But does the government want to have all these debates? Because the rather baroque rules under which private members' bills are considered ensure that there are a number of ways to frustrate unwanted debates - or at least use up the limited time available.

It is these procedural games which can make Commons Fridays (the normal day for private members' bills) so baffling. Step one, which now has the status of ritual, is to move a motion that "the House do now sit in private" the moment Mr Speaker opens proceedings with his traditional call of "Order, order". In the right circumstances this motion can be a kind of silver bullet, to kill off a bill - because if fewer than 40 MPs vote (40 being the current quorum for the Commons) during the consideration of a bill that bill then falls.

And remember, debates on most private members' bills are pretty poorly attended, because most MPs have gone back to their constituencies - and only a very big issue will normally tempt large numbers to stay. But the motion can only be moved once per day - so moving it before the House has started talking about any bill effectively fires that silver bullet harmlessly into the air.

But even in the act of voting there can be an opportunity for time-wasting - and if MPs try they can spin out a division involving a grand total of perhaps 20 MPs into a 20-minute exercise, Sometimes it takes an irate order from the chair for the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay, to put a stop to the deliberate dithering. And watch out later on, to see whether MPs force further divisions - the Speaker or Deputy Speaker will normally try to call a vote on the strength of the shouts of "aye" and "no" when the question is put.

They will normally say "I think the ayes (or noes) have it," but if MPs keep shouting, a formal division is called, and they all have to troop into the lobbies to cast their vote. Those who want to waste time will press for a division, those who don't will agree with the chair. But some have not yet figured out that every vote is a chance for tactical game-playing.

But that's just the icing on the cake. The main game-playing is around the limited time available on Fridays (proceedings in the Commons close at 2.30pm that day.) So, if you're opposed to the second bill on the order paper, you spin out the debate on the first - you may not care very much about it, but there are always talking points, and there are no limits on how long you can speak, apart from personal stamina, unless the chair decides you are straying from the subject or repeating yourself.

And the really smart operators wait until the "shift-change" when one deputy speaker takes over from another, and discretely slip pages of their speech that they have already read out back to the top of the pile, and read them out again....

Another classic sign of time wasting is when speeches are punctuated by rather mannered interventions: "Will my right honourable friend, who is making a most excellent speech, give way?" "I am always delighted to give way to my honourable friend who is a great expert in these matters...." It's easy to waste several minutes with a decorous exchange of parliamentary compliments around some helpful interjection, and a well-organised filibusterer will have a platoon of helpers ready, to allow them a few welcome moments relief.

The only way to beat these tactics is to have enough support on hand to force through a closure motion - but this requires 100 MPs to vote in favour of the motion "that the question be now put" and the chair will not "entertain" such a motion until they consider a proper debate has taken place. Otherwise, as long as time-wasting isn't too blatant, they can drone on as long as they are physically capable. And once debating time runs out, a bill usually has little chance of regaining pole position on a future order paper so the debate can be concluded. This is what is known as "talking out". And if you're subtle, you can pad out a debate early in the agenda to reduce the time available for something you oppose later on.

Which is why the backers of less exciting private members bills, the ones unlikely to lure 100 MPs away from their constituencies, try to strike backstairs deals with potential opponents - promising to amend their bills to meet their concerns, or pledging support for some other bill, or making arrangements that bill number one on the agenda will finish its consideration in time to leave two hours for bill number two. Normally Mr Chope, who regards most private members' bills as flabby, vexatious, well meaning and burdensome, is one of the most accomplished talkers-out of bills - but if he turns gamekeeper, he has the nous to ensure his bills go the distance.

Trouble brewing?

Mark D'Arcy | 12:42 UK time, Wednesday, 16 March 2011

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Is Euro-rebellion brewing in the Commons tonight? The rival tribes of Conservative Eurosceptics have made common cause against a motion to approve European treaty changes to beef up the system for bailing out tottering eurozone economies.

There's quite a backstory to this. First the Eurosceptics are unconvinced by Treasury protestations that the bailout mechanism would not require a British contribution. Second, they are very concerned that Britain does not appear to have extracted any concessions in return for signing up.

The treaty changes are being made via the "passerelle" mechanism under which the Lisbon Treaty can be changed - in some areas - simply by unanimous agreement of all member states. Yesterday at Foreign Office questions, the Conservative backbencher Peter Bone asked why the government hadn't demanded a relaxation of the EU working time directive in Britain as the price of British agreement, and was batted away by the Europe Minister David Liddington. In this respect, at least, they say, the British should be more like the French.

MPs will get the chance to debate the issue for 90 minutes tonight, and there is an amendment down declining to approve the treaty change. Interestingly, it is signed by both the old guard Maastrichtista Eurosceptics like Bill Cash, Richard Shepherd and Bernard Jenkin, and by former Europe Minister David Davis, as well as by new wave Eurosceptics like Richard Drax and Douglas Carswell. (Plus Labour's Kelvin Hopkins.)

The benchmark for Euro-rebellion so far in this Parliament was the 37 Conservatives who voted against the government on Britain's contribution to the EU Budget last October. That is just short of half the government majority - or to put it another way, close to being enough to tip the balance in a vote where Labour didn't side with the Coalition. Of course, you're then into looking at how much backing the government might have from minor parties who count as the "opposition". It is possible to imagine the government being able to withstand a major rebellion with the assistance of, say, the DUP or Nationalists - perhaps at a price.

My point is that the continuous rumbling of Euro-discontent that has been present in the background throughout this Parliament, shows no sign of going away. There is little expectation of a government defeat - but there could be a substantial shot across its bows.

Next week's business

Mark D'Arcy | 14:56 UK time, Friday, 11 March 2011

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Monday's business starts with questions to the defence secretary - always interesting at the moment, with much disquiet over Libya and the Strategic Defence and Security Review bubbling away.

That's followed by the Scotland Bill - it is day two of the committee of the whole house, and the Commons will be moving on to the real meat of the bill - the tax and borrowing powers proposed for Holyrood. The SNP are unhappy with them - on Today in Parliament tonight (Friday) their Finance Spokesman Stewart Hosie tells me they're "deflationary" and "dangerous". At last check, the adjournment debate is all about the discontinuation of the BBC's Hindi service - but the service, it was announced just this week, has been given a reprieve.

It is likely that we could have a ministerial statement on the unfolding events in Japan and across the Pacific, after the devastating earthquake that hit the country on Friday and the subsequent tsunami.

The Lords will be talking about the National Insurance Contributions Bill and the Postal Services Bill. They will also be discussing orders and regulations: the Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order and the Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order.

Committee-wise, the Transport Committee continues with its inquiry into the impact on transport of the winter weather experienced this year. Transport Secretary Philip Hammond will be giving his verdict on, among other things, the performance of the airports.

On Tuesday, MPs will be putting questions to the team from the Foreign Office, including the under-fire Foreign Secretary William Hague. Will the usually imperturbable Commons performer deploy his skills to flummox his detractors? Following that, the Scotland Bill will be debated in the third day of a committee of the whole house.

The Lords will be dealing with hefty pieces of legislation once again - first the Energy Bill at third reading. This is the legislation to allow people to pay for new boilers and other energy-saving improvements to their homes, in effect, from the savings on their gas and electricity bills. Then peers move on to the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, in a committee of the whole house. On bills relating to the lifespan of the Commons, MPs cannot invoke the Parliament Act in order to over-ride their Lordships, so watch out for some interesting tussles, in particular over whether the fixed term should be five years, or four.

And on a busy day on committee corridor, there are a few highlights. The Health Committee will be discussing commissioning, with witnesses drawn from the Royal College of Surgeons and other important health organisations and NHS foundations. Andrew Tyrie's Treasury inquisitors will be talking about accountability at the Bank of England, which becomes even more important as the Bank absorbs the Financial Services Authority. The Business Committee's talking to executives from Kraft about their takeover of Cadbury's and the broken promises over the deal - and that should provide a fairly sparky encounter. And the chief executive of the NHS, Sir David Nicholson, who seems to be taking up permanent residence on the committee corridor, is before the Public Accounts Committee to talk about NHS Trust Procurement. At issue is a potential £500m saving, if the NHS was smarter in its purchasing... according to a report by the National Audit Office.

And with nervousness rising about the Coalition's NHS reforms, the Health Committee's looking at how the proposed changes will affect hospital services by merging and centralising some (eg A&E and maternity services) and moving others into the community and at attempts to eliminate debt from the NHS at local level.

The Lords Communications Committee will be examining the governance and regulation of the BBC with media expert Steve Hewlett and two former BBC chairmen: Sir Christopher Bland and Gavyn Davies.

On Wednesday, PMQs will be followed by an opposition day debate - subject still to be announced. That will be followed by a motion to approve a document relating to Section 6 of the European Union (Amendment) Act.

The Lords will be working through day three of a committee of the whole house of the Postal Services Bill, after questions which include one from Lord Soley on the rule of law in countries of the Middle East.

It will be another busy day for committees: the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee will be talking to minister Richard Benyon about the fisheries policy; this after the EU moves to end the much-debated discards system. The Treasury Committee are looking at the effectiveness of HMRC, the Foreign Affairs Committee is looking at developments in UK foreign policy, with Foreign Secretary William Hague - another test for Mr Hague, because that subject allows them to talk about pretty much anything.

And Eric Daniels, from Lloyds TSB and Stephen Hester, from RBS, will be appearing before the Public Accounts Committee answering MPs' questions on banking support and asset protection. Will the committee be able to avoid mentioning bonuses?

Thursday's question session is on the environment, food and rural affairs, followed, as ever, by the Commons Business Statement. Following that, a Presentation Bill from Caroline Lucas on tax and financial transparency - and then a debate on North Africa and the Middle East and events there. The Lords will be debating legislation regarding bribery, tax avoidance and corruption, then the impact on quality of life of early intervention in a child's life. Nothing of huge note when it comes to committees - although the Westminster Hall afternoon debate is about the importance of communication between MPs and constituents with regard to Articles 9 and 13 of the Bill of Rights. That means a thorough moan about the recent Telegraph sting which netted Vince Cable and other high-profile Lib Dems in its net.

The Commons is sitting on Friday - private members' bills from Therese Coffey and Christopher Chope to come.

Libya concerns

Mark D'Arcy | 12:28 UK time, Thursday, 10 March 2011

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Shades of Iraq? MPs are demanding a Commons vote before possible military action in Libya. At Commons Business Questions this morning, the Leader of the House, Sir George Young, assured MPs the Commons would be given an opportunity to debate the commitment of British troops.

(I assume that would include RAF personnel, if the operation in question was the enforcement of a "No-Fly Zone".)

The Conservative veteran, Tony Baldry, called for a substantive motion to be put to MPs in a debate next Thursday, setting out the international obligation to intervene to prevent war crime and crimes against humanity. Mr Baldry - a former chair of the International Development Select Committee - thought that might strengthen the position of British ministers and diplomats arguing for intervention at the UN.

It does call to mind the sort of exchanges that took place in the Commons in the run-up to Iraq.

Questions, questions...

Mark D'Arcy | 12:21 UK time, Thursday, 10 March 2011

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Should MPs' questions to ministers be limited - or even rationed? That's the suggestion from the Commons Procedure Committee in its latest report, in an effort to combat the tidal wave of written questions now swamping many government departments. Today, there were complaints that the Department for Education had 183 unanswered questions on its books.

The committee proposes a three month trial of a daily quota system, giving each MP the chance to put down five written parliamentary questions (WPQs).
The underlying issue is that while questions are unquestionably a vital part of parliamentary scrutiny, there is a feeling they are being devalued. The report points out that 60,305 questions were put by MPs in 2008-9, the last year for which data was available. And it adds that there's no sign of this abating, with 2,536 questions of all types put down by MPs in the week beginning 24 January this year - 1,113 of them ordinary written questions.

"The danger is that good, sharp questions may get swamped by the sheer volume of questions published," it says.

And that's before it notes that the average cost of processing and publishing the answer to a question averages £230, rising to £525 for an oral question. That boils down to £110,000 per parliamentary sitting day.

There's also a damning quote from the former Leader of the House, Jack Straw, suggesting that the Table Office (which handles the questions put down by MPs)

"...has the impression that Members may on occasions countenance the tabling of questions in their name, of whose content they have little or no knowledge, since, when asked to discuss questions about which there is a problem, it is evident that they are seeing them for the first time. On other occasions, the content is such that it is hard to believe that it could have been seen and approved by a member..."

Or to put it more bluntly, a lot of WPQs owe more to the activities of interns from obscure universities in the US mid-west, than to the MPs they serve. And the only purpose of some may be to improve the individual MP's statistics on monitoring sites like They Work For You.com

At Business Questions this morning, the Lib Dem Duncan Hames added another point - suggesting a Commons debate on "the Hive Mind" after he noted the suspicious similarity between questions put down by Labour MPs in a couple of recent question times.

Between whips, shadow ministers and researchers, it seems, MPs can notch up, or put down, an impressive number of questions without ever having to devise them themselves.

But if there is to be such a trial, the Commons will have to debate and vote on the proposal. It will be fun to watch.

Female fightback

Mark D'Arcy | 19:33 UK time, Wednesday, 9 March 2011

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The women struck back yesterday, in the behind-the-scenes battle over the Commons debate on International Women's Day. Having seen the debate bumped to the second spot on Thursday afternoon, at last week's meeting of the Backbench Business Committee, its backers managed to reverse that decision this week - but only after some venomous exchanges and a knife-edge vote.

To recap, the debate has been a fixture in the Commons calendar for quite a while, but is now scheduled by the Backbench Business Committee, and some of its members think it is politically correct time-wasting. And when the committee decided to schedule a debate on the coastguard in the first half of the afternoon, supporters of the Women's Day debate smelled a rat. They feared an attempt to spin out the first debate until there was little time left for the second.

So, yesterday, they turned up in force at the committee to argue for the reinstatement of their debate - with Conservative Eleanor Laing accusing some members of the committee of conspiring to frustrate what they saw as a "silly women's debate" and thereby "wind up the women" in a sparky exchange with Conservative Philip Hollobone. Mr Hollobone insisted that the whole rescheduling exercise had been intended to shield the Women's Day debate from losing time to ministerial statements or votes - and he objected to any suggestion of less worthy motives, as did his colleague Peter Bone.

In the event, backers of the coastguard debate got the committee off that hook when they agreed to reschedule their event to later in the month in Westminster Hall, rather than the main chamber. But later there was an attempt to put a debate on the Western European Union in ahead of Women's Day. That was only defeated on the casting vote of the chair, Natascha Engel, and I gather some recrimination followed.

There were recriminations outside, too. The SNP's Angus MacNeil raised a point of order today, to complain about the postponement of the coastguard debate: coastguard cuts are a major constituency issue for him - and the whole fandango highlighted the fact that the smaller parties are completely unrepresented on the Backbench Business Committee. The rules may have to be changed to ensure they have a voice.....

Raising a laugh

Mark D'Arcy | 15:15 UK time, Wednesday, 9 March 2011

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Having tickled the Commons with his question to the prime minister today - about how most Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and his lady wife all supported holding an in-out referendum on Europe - Conservative awkward squaddie Peter Bone was basking in the congratulations of his colleagues.

He has also caused a few titters with a written question to the deputy prime minister, which was answered, pretty unambiguously, yesterday:

Mr Bone: To ask the Deputy Prime Minister if he will bring forward proposals to abolish his post.

The Deputy Prime Minister: No.

Mayoral ambitions

Mark D'Arcy | 16:39 UK time, Monday, 7 March 2011

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You read it here first. The Leicester South MP Sir Peter Soulsby is to leave the Commons to run for mayor of Leicester. Sir Peter spent 17 years, on and off, leading Leicester City Council in the distant era before elected mayors, and last weekend he cruised to victory over a field of local worthies.

The ensuing by-election could be interesting from any number of points of view. The Liberal Democrats briefly held Leicester South after winning the by-election which followed the death of Jim Marshall (also a former Labour leader of the city council) in 2004. They lost the seat in 2005 but remain in second place, ahead of the Conservatives, who held the seat until 1987. Sir Peter - against the trend - extended his majority last May. It's also worth noting that Leicester South covers the main campus for the University of Leicester and for De Montfort University - so student and university staff opinion could be an important factor.

But leaving all that aside, the Localism Bill, currently in its committee stage in the Commons, calls for referendums to be held in the 12 biggest English cities (including Leicester, who have now pre-empted the bill by moving to a mayoral system) so it is not impossible that other MPs may follow Sir Peter's lead (and indeed that of Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone) in leaving the Commons to become a powerful executive mayor at some city hall.

The former Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth has been mentioned in connection with Coventry, and I'm sure there will be others who might choose local power over backbench status in Westminster.

Next week's business

Mark D'Arcy | 14:13 UK time, Friday, 4 March 2011

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An action-packed parliamentary week is in prospect - particularly on the committee corridor, where several of the scheduled hearings touch on very sensitive issues for the Coalition: defence cuts and health reforms and broadcasting....

The week begins on Monday with Home Office questions but after that moves on to discussion of the Scotland Bill in a committee of the whole house. This bill is really causing much interest north of the border and Scottish politicians of all hues will be keeping an eye on it - although the most controversial parts of the bill, relating to the new powers over income tax proposed for Holyrood, don't come up until the two committee days scheduled for the following weeks. The SNP is strongly against the way those powers have been configured, so expect a phalanx of amendments from their Treasury spokesman, Stewart Hosie.

Laura Sandys will be leading the adjournment debate on Monday night of the future of the Pfizer site in her east Kent constituency - this was the subject of two select committee meetings last week, because it raises a knotty industrial policy problem for the government. In an interview for this Friday's Today in Parliament, she tells me that the government is hoping to turn the former Pfizer research facility into a hub for independent scientific research, conveniently located on the London-Paris rail link.

The Lords kick off the week with questions, including one from Baroness Jones of Whitchurch on the number of young people to be affected by the cancellation of the Education Maintenance Allowance - a subject that has concerned many opponents of the Coalition's plans. The main legislation of the day is the Public Bodies Bill - peers will be discussing the bill for the eighth day in a committee of the whole house.

On Tuesday, MPs turn their attention to the European Union Bill at report stage and third reading. This is the bill which is supposed to provide a "referendum lock" against EU encroachments on British sovereignty.

Their lordships, meanwhile, will be debating the Energy Bill at report stage and the Postal Services Bill in a committee of the whole house. Following that, Baroness Neville-Jones will ask peers to renew the anti-terrorist control order powers set out in the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005.

Tuesday is a busy committee day - as ever. High flyers in the airport industry will be appearing before the Transport Committee, answering questions as to why the winter's snow closed down our airports for so long. BAA chief Colin Matthews will be one of those grilled, in what promises to be an entertaining blame-game.

Another highlight is the Culture, Media and Sport Committee's inquiry into football governance; as well as the Home Affairs Committee's investigation into the implications of Turkey's proposed accession to the EU, where there are worries that it could boost organised crime and people-trafficking. The Joint Committee on Human Rights will be looking at the UK extradition policy, while the Health Committee will be talking about commissioning - witnesses include, once more, Sir David Nicholson, the NHS's chief executive. This last is an increasingly sensitive subject for the Coalition, where the warnings about proposed NHS reforms are causing some jitters.

Wednesday sees PMQs come round again, preceded by Scottish questions. .The PM's regular session will be followed by the second reading of the Welfare Reform Bill - another hefty piece of legislation. It could spark some interesting debate on what the welfare system should look like.

Perhaps it would be naughty to suggest that Lord Shipley's question in the Lords on Wednesday morning - about British pensioners living abroad - has particular resonance for many of their lordships. Suffice to say, it is sandwiched between Lord Beecham's question on redundancy cuts and budget restrictions on local authorities, and another on the Royal Horticultural Society's Britain in Bloom campaign. Who else would be asking it but Baroness Gardner of Parkes? Tee hee.

After such frivolous diversions, peers will settle down for day nine of the Public Bodies Bill in a committee of the whole house; then the second reading of the Consolidated Fund Bill.

Three hefty committee sessions provide Wednesday's highlights: Work and Pensions inquisitors talk to Pensions Minister Steve Webb about the government's plans for pensions reform; the Foreign Affairs Committee discussing the BBC World Service Cuts with union bosses and its Director, Peter Horrocks; and finally there's a galaxy of stars at the Defence Committee hearing on the Strategic Defence and Security Review and the National Security Strategy - which have included a series of controversial defence cuts. Defence Secretary Liam Fox, Foreign Secretary William Hague, International Development's Andrew Mitchell and Cabinet Office Minister Oliver Letwin will all be appearing before James Arbuthnot and chums.

With more and more Conservative MPs deeply unhappy about the SDSR and muttering that there should be a "review of the review" this session could turn nasty, and possibly expose some serious cabinet divisions....and their eventual report could tip the balance of opinion on the Coalition benches.

As if that's not enough, Wednesday also has the Public Accounts Committee returning to its favourite subject of failures in multi billion pound defence projects. This time the subject is the Typhoon fighter aircraft - which, as a National Audit Office report revealed this week, won't become fully effective for several years. And there's also the delightful prospect of the Science and Technology Committee talking to a host of eminent scientists and young people about astronomy and particle physics.

And finally on Thursday - for the house is not sitting on Friday - we see Transport questions, the Business Statement - and then backbench business. Two debates here: first the future of the coastguard service which has caused a great deal of angst (did Prince William lobby David Cameron over proposed changes?) and the second, a motion relating to UN women (see previous posts on the wranglings over a Women's Day Debate). The week finishes with an adjournment debate from Chris Bryant on the interception of mobile communications. Mr Bryant has been terrier-like in pursuit of facts concerning the alleged hacking of MPs' mobile phones, his included - and here is another chance for him to air his concerns.

After questions, peers will be debating two subjects: recent developments in British Overseas Territories and the situation in Zimbabwe.

And watch out for some barbed questioning at the Culture Committee, which will hold a pre-appointment hearing with the government's preferred candidate for chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten. There's been a lot of muttering among Conservatives about the choice of Lord Patten, so this is definitely one to watch.

Today in Parliament...

Mark D'Arcy | 11:33 UK time, Friday, 4 March 2011

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Speed legislating in the Commons today, where the Conservative Jonathan Lord's Sports Grounds Safety Bill finished its Commons consideration in 12 minutes flat; and Greg Knight's Estates of Deceased Persons Bill was polished off in half an hour.

Over in the Lords, meanwhile, the Lib Dem peer Rupert Redesdale's Dog Control Bill - which would reform the Dangerous Dogs Act with a new system to prevent dogs attacking human beings - ran into opposition from the government and flak from Labour peers.

I'll be reporting on those debates in tonight's edition of Today in Parliament on BBC Radio 4 at 11.30pm. And I'll be previewing the Welfare Reform Bill, Iain Duncan Smith's mega-reform of the benefits system, which is due to be debated in the Commons next week; as well as hearing more about the developing row over the International Women's Day debate (see post below).

Behind the scenes

Mark D'Arcy | 11:19 UK time, Thursday, 3 March 2011

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The government's decision on the sale of BSkyB will be the subject of a Commons statement later today, from Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Unusually, the statement will be made after the DUP's Opposition Day debate on support for the armed forces and veterans, rather than in the usual slot, after question time...so at about 3pm or 3.15pm - more than seven hours after the Stock Exchange was told.

Meanwhile, a behind-the-scenes row is developing over next week's International Women's Day debate - scheduled by the Backbench Business Committee for next Thursday.

After Tuesday's meeting of the committee, the Women's Day debate was scheduled to run after a debate on the future of the coastguard - leading some to suspect that the idea is to spin out the first debate, to minimise the time available for the second.

When the debate was first discussed at the Backbench Business Committee meeting, Conservatives like Phillip Hollobone were distinctly dubious - arguing that it was a ritualistic waste of time (I paraphrase) and it would be better to have more pointed debates.

On Tuesday, when, I understand, the committee's chair Natascha Engel was unavoidably absent, the batting order for Thursday was changed. And there may even have been an attempt in private session to cancel the debate altogether - although that was not put to a vote. Backers of the Women's Day debate now fear a plot to make a mockery of their set-piece occasion. We shall see.

Course correction coming?

Mark D'Arcy | 14:29 UK time, Wednesday, 2 March 2011

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With George Osborne's second budget looming on 23 March, a lot of MPs are beginning to wonder just how much ducking and weaving can be crammed into a single event.

There's already much speculation - fuelled by folk memories of the 2000 fuel blockade - that he will introduce some kind of fuel duty stabiliser to take the edge off soaring fuel prices - and after David Cameron's Commons statement on Libya on Monday, he may have to find extra dosh for the armed forces too.

The Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, all but had canary feathers protruding from his mouth as the PM speculated on no-fly zones and even some form of armed intervention.

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Despite the (inherited) financial meltdown detailed in last week's blistering Public Accounts Committee report on Ministry of Defence major (weapons) projects, the government may have to stump up more cash in order to maintain defence capabilities which seemed destined for the breaker's yard under the Strategic Defence and Security Review.

Certainly the SDSR runs contrary to the instincts of many backbenchers and Conservative-leaning newspapers - and several key players have gone very quiet. Perhaps the man to watch is the chair of the Defence Select Committee, James Arbuthnot. His committee is hard at work on a report on the SDSR which could well add to the pressure on ministers, which may explain why the normally media friendly Mr Arbuthnot has been rather less vocal of late.

But watching the visible discomfort, indeed outright squirming, on the Tory benches as Dr Fox answered an urgent question on redundancies in the armed forces, I can't help wondering whether some kind of backbench uprising is brewing.

So, potentially, there are at least two multi-billion pound course corrections which could be forced on Mr Osborne in a few weeks time. And there may be others lurking off-stage. Dare he relax the government's aim to cut the national debt? Or will he have to tighten the squeeze still further in some departments, in order to keep petrol affordable and avert cuts in the armed forces?

A nasty case of deja vu

Mark D'Arcy | 12:19 UK time, Wednesday, 2 March 2011

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It's a bit like one of those flashbacks you got in the Rambo movies - the Lords are debating the constitution. Again.

Yesterday I watched a bit of the second reading debate for the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill, and there was Lord Falconer thundering away for Labour, usual suspect Labour backbenchers weighing in, Lord Rennard for the Lib Dems reminding Labour that they were, at least partially, in favour of what the Coalition is proposing, and clashing sharply with Lord Rooker; and even a Conservative ex-Cabinet minister (in this case Geoffrey Howe) sounding very dubious about the bill. Déjà vu...all over again.

Watching their lordships in action, I was struck by the quite un-lordly nastiness of some of the exchanges. The hostilities which grew so venomous during the endless debates on the Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Act have not abated - even if they have not yet resumed the fever pitch reached at the height of the deadlock. But this bill should not produce a similar level of crisis, because it is not up against a tight deadline, so there is little point in a naked filibuster.

That is not to say that the proposal to fix the lifetime of a parliament at five years is guaranteed a straightforward journey into law. From the tenor of the debate so far, it is quite possible that peers may vote to change the fixed term from five years to four. The crossbencher and constitutionalist Peter Hennessey has been arguing that four years is more in tune with what he called the "bio-rhythms" of British politics - an argument that drew strong murmurs (a phenomenon I've only really encountered in the Lords) from across the House.

And there's an interesting technical issue lurking here: this is not a bill which the Commons can ultimately force through in the form MPs want, by invoking their power to over-ride the Lords, the Parliament Act. Bills to extend the life of a parliament are exempt, so the Lords can stop a House of Commons perpetuating itself. It's an arcane point, but one which could matter very much if the Lords amend the bill in a way the Coalition doesn't like - because the Lords cannot be over-ridden, even though MPs might think it a bit impertinent for the non-elected house to interfere in a measure about elections.

Lord Falconer concluded his speech with a clear warning that the Lords were "the guardians of the right length of parliamentary terms" and his party, at least, would not simply roll over. And judging by the debate, there are plenty of crossbench peers and quite a number of Conservatives who might support him. So brace yourselves - here we go again.

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