Week ahead in Parliament

 
Disabled groups protest The government's welfare reforms have prompted protests: this week may see the last round of parliamentary ping-pong

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Not the heaviest legislative load in history in the Commons; while the Lords (back from its week off) binges on detailed scrutiny of controversial bills.

The Commons kicks off on Monday with questions to the Education Secretary Michael Gove before moving on to two "estimates day" debates on funding of the Olympics, and Paralympics and on the Forensic Science Service. (Estimates days are when MPs, theoretically, at least, approve public spending. In practice, debate focuses on particular spending items or on a matter raised in a select committee report.)

The Commons day ends with an adjournment debate led by the Conservative former minister, Sir Paul Beresford, who's concerned that the supply of certified photographs for driving licences and passports should not be left as a Post Office monopoly, and that commercial organisations should be allowed to bid to provide them as well.

On the committee corridor the big event of the day is the appearance before the special committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill of the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, and his junior minister, Mark Harper. It looks increasingly as if there will be a Lords Reform Bill in the next Queen's Speech - absorbing much of Parliament's time in the coming year.

One rumour is that there could be as many as 25 days (shudder) of committee of the whole house on the bill in the Commons - although Mr Harper insists no such figure has been decided. This hearing will be pretty much the final act of pre-legislative scrutiny by the committee, under the senior Labour peer, Lord Richard - and I suspect that it will really be the opening skirmish in what promises to be a long and intricate battle to enact Lords reform.

Questioning may revolve around whether it is possible for the Upper House of Parliament to be elected and not become more assertive in the use of its existing powers. The bill may say that it doesn't change the fundamental relationship between the Lords and Commons; but, critics argue, the reality may be gridlock - and deadlock - in future Parliaments. This is a hearing which merits close study.

There will be more heavy-duty constitutional controversy at the Scottish Affairs Committee (1pm - in rooms in Edinburgh) as it takes evidence from academics on the proposed independence referendum. (The Committee makes a point of using the word "separation".)

At the Public Accounts Committee there's a hearing (at 3.15pm) on reforming the Ministry of Defence, with evidence from Ursula Brennan, the Permanent Under-Secretary, and senior MoD mandarins.

Back from their half term break, peers waste no time in sinking their teeth into the Health and Social Care Bill. The big issue of the day looks like the rules for conflicts of interest for people serving on the new clinical commissioning boards - should the rules on disclosure of interests parallel those in local government? What sanctions should be available where a conflict of interest is revealed? Should professional bodies like the GMC be involved?

A galaxy of amendments have been put down by backbench and crossbench peers, on issues ranging from information given to patients to the bonus payments made when commissioning groups perform well. Labour's peers, Lord Warner, a former health minister, and Lord Patel of Bradford, have amendments down on the holy grail of health policy: the integration of health with social care - removing the barriers that keep people in expensive hospital beds, when they may be better looked-after in care homes. The debate on these will bear watching because the whole issue of integration is the next big health policy controversy after this bill is finally dealt with.

All this could take a while - and with the government reluctant to allocate more debating time, that could mean a few very late nights for peers, as ministers try to keep the bill on schedule.

The Commons is not much more exciting on Tuesday. Business begins with Foreign Office questions and then there's a ten minute rule bill on the eradication of slavery from Labour former minister Fiona MacTaggart. Then more estimates day debates - first on transport and the economy and then on the Rio Plus Summit on sustainable development - to be held in Rio de Janeiro in June.

The day's debates end with an adjournment debate on supermarkets and public land in Scotland, led by Labour's Michael McCann. In Westminster Hall the debate to watch (at 11am) may be Labour MP Chris Bryant's, on media regulation. Mr Bryant is one of the victims of the hacking scandal and has emerged as a strong critic of the Murdoch newspapers.

There is a good crop of committee hearings. In the second and final evidence session into stamp prices and network transformation, the BIS Committee will be taking evidence from the chief executive officer of Royal Mail, Moya Green.

Bus users, consumer groups, passenger transport executives and key consultants open the oral evidence for the Transport Committee inquiry examining competition in the local bus market at 10.05am.

Developing countries lose an estimated $160bn each year through tax avoidance by multinational companies (including those based in the UK) with undisclosed payments from extractive industries raising particular concerns. The International Development Committee begins its inquiry into tax in developing countries with evidence from ActionAid, Christian Aid, and Centre for Trade Policy and Development; and the Institute of Development Studies, London School of Economics, and School of Oriental and African Studies.

The Justice Committee (at 10.30am) continues its post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, with evidence from academics and investigative journalists including Martin Rosenbaum from BBC News, and David Hencke, National Union of Journalists

The Home Affairs Committee (at 11.20am) continues its highly topical look at the problems around extradition. Witnesses will be Sir Menzies Campbell, the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, and Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions (at 12.30 pm). And former Army officer, Andrew Robathan, now minister for defence personnel, welfare and veterans, will be quizzed by the Defence Committee (at 2.30pm) on soldiers' accommodation.

David Cameron Last week's PMQs saw clashes over the NHS and health reform

In the Lords, peers continue debating the Scotland Bill - they should finish off most of the provisions other than the really controversial issue: an independence referendum. Formidable numbers of amendments have been put down, particularly by the Conservative, Lord Forsyth, a former Scottish secretary and by Labour's Lord Foulkes. But one of the problems with Lords debates is that the SNP do not nominate their members to the House of Lords - and their input into discussions is mostly limited to contributions from Plaid Cymru peers.

Wednesday's highlight (sic) will be prime minister's questions at noon. This week the Labour MP Kevin Brennan suggested that MPs might be allowed to bring in board games to fill up their time around PMQs, and looking at this agenda, I can see his point. PMQs is preceded at 11.30am by questions to the Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan - and followed by the second reading of the Water Industry (Financial Assistance) Bill, which aims to cut bills to water consumers in the south-west of England.

The main event on the committee corridor is the Treasury Committee's session (at 9.45am) with the Governor of the Bank of England, Sir Mervyn King, and Monetary Policy Committee members. They'll be questioned about the latest round of money creation of Quantitative Easing - is it inflationary? Is it working? The chief inspector of schools appears to give evidence to Education Committee about the Ofsted annual review and Cabinet Office Minister Oliver Letwin, the government's policy co-ordination czar, appears before Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee as it rounds off its inquiry in the natural environment white paper. Is the government planning a radical cull of UK of environmental regulations?

The Treasury Committee reconvenes at 2.15pm to examine the work of credit rating agencies - the bodies which can alter how much it costs for nations and institutions to borrow in the blink of an eye. Witnesses include the National Association of Pension Funds, the Financial Services Authority and the European Securities and Markets Authority. Some observers blame the agencies for the whole financial crisis for, initially, giving a clean bill of health to the "toxic assets" which later poisoned many big banks.

Could rising global temperatures clear the way for a new oil and gas gold rush in the Arctic, as the ice caps melt and what can the UK do to protect its environment? The Environmental Audit Committee (at 2.15pm) hears from WWF-UK and environmental law specialists Client Earth.

And the European Scrutiny Committee, still smarting from the non-appearance of William Hague, will hear from Financial Secretary to the Treasury Mark Hoban (at 2.30pm) about how the eurozone crisis is developing and the possible consequences for the UK.

Finally, the Public Accounts Committee (3.15pm) will take evidence on mobile technology in policing. The NAO have already reported that the programme to equip frontline police officers with BlackBerrys and personal data assistants, has yielded some benefits. But are they value for money?

The Lords return to the detail of the Health and Social Care Bill - and if they stick to the timetable, they should reach the preliminary skirmishing over the most contentious section, on competition. Their scrutiny of that section of the bill should continue well into the following week. As an appetiser, peers will also be debating the proposals on public health.

And that's followed by what may be the last round of parliamentary ping-pong on the Welfare Reform Bill. One issue remains: the so called "bedroom tax" - cuts in benefits for people in social housing with spare bedrooms. The crossbench peer Lord Best is considering whether to put down another amendment to water down the government's proposals, having failed to win over the Commons on two previous occasions. Much will depend on whether he can continue to mobilise the support of fellow crossbenchers, who are often reluctant to continue pressing a point, after a couple of rebuffs from MPs.

The excitement continues in the Commons on Thursday, starting with Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions - plus the regular and short outings of the MPs who speak on behalf of the Church Commissioners, the Public Accounts Commission and the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission. Then the Leader of the House, Sir George Young, will announce the Commons business for the coming week. He must be hoping to offer MPs something a bit chewier than this week's meagre fare. The main debates are a backbench business debate on the price index used for pensions uprating - a subject chosen by the Backbench Business Committee at the urging of the Labour MP John McDonnell.

Then there's the St David's Day debate on Welsh affairs - which for once actually falls on St David's Day. This debate is no longer an unchallenged fixture in the Commons calendar - every year the Backbench Business Committee has to be convinced of the case for it.

The week's last Commons rites are performed by the Labour former home secretary, Alan Johnson, who has the adjournment debate, on the treatment of the Hazara people in Quetta, Pakistan.

There are a couple of select committee sessions: Political and Constitutional Reform (at 10am) continues examining the proposals for a statutory register of lobbyists, with Mark Adams of standup4lobbying; Mark Ramsdale, lobbyist, and Elizabeth France, chair of the industry body, the UK Public Affairs Council.

The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee (11am) launches its inquiry into apprenticeships with evidence from JTL Training, the Forum of Private Business and the association of Employment and Learning Providers.

In the Lords, peers hold their annual International Women's Day debate, focusing on women's contribution to economic growth. Then they turn to a report from their Communications Committee on the governance and regulation of the BBC. And finally, the third reading of David Steel's House of Lords (Amendment) Bill - a private member's bill which would see the removal of peers convicted of serious offences and allow peers to retire from the House. The bill was the subject of a fearsome procedural fandango at its report stage, but is now expected to clear the Lords without much further ado.

 
Mark D'Arcy, Parliamentary correspondent Article written by Mark D'Arcy Mark D'Arcy Parliamentary correspondent

Week ahead at Westminster

There's still time for a soupcon of high-powered politics as MPs and peers prepare to decamp for their Easter break.

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  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 7.

    You're quite right, Ian R - busted! I reported on it at the time, so I really should have remembered. The bill is now pared down to removing peers convicted of serious offences and allowing peers to retire from the House. Apologies - and I'm amending the post above.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 6.

    The only reforms remaining in the bill are to expel Lords who are imprisoned for more than a year (in parity with MPs) and to allow peers to retire voluntarily - currently they may only leave the House when the Grim Reaper gets them.

    I'm not sure whether if one of the remaining hereds was to retire or be expelled under the new provisions, this would trigger an election, as occurs when they die?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 5.

    "House of Lords (Amendment) Bill - a private member's bill to stop the remaining hereditary peers in the Lords from being replaced... is now expected to clear the Lords without much further ado."

    It will only get through 'without further ado' because the clause allowing for hereditary peers to die out over time was removed at Report, pending more major Lords reforms in a government Bill.

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 3.

    Well, I don't know Mr D'Arcy - but I am becoming more scared of this current government and the impotent opposition allowing rabid and rampant NHS reforms even before the ink was written, let alone dried.

    No need to kill the Bill - it's already being enacted. The Bill is now just a legal formality being forced to circumvent legal challenges and obviate Ministers' responsibilities for the NHS.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 2.

    If the Commons really do get 25 days in committee on the Lords reform bill I dread to think what the Lords will get, unless of course they're hoping that by giving the commons so long it would reduce the need for too much debate in the lords. Lord Campbell-Savours and others might disagree tough.

  • Comment number 1.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

 

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