- 10 March 2012
- From the section UK Politics
The pattern set for most of this year continues - with peers facing long days at the legislative coalface (their agenda warns of early starts and late nights); while MPs frolic their way through opposition days, backbench debates and house business debates, leavened only by a little light legislating on Wednesday.
Some select committees are taking advantage of the minimal business in the main chamber to hold evidence sessions away from Westminster (the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee venture to Northampton this week) and to draft contentious reports, as the Parliamentary year winds down.
On Monday, Commons business opens with questions to the Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles and his team. It's a fair bet there will either be a statement from the prime minister on the Nigeria hostages rescue tragedy, or an urgent question summoning a minister to explain what happened.
After that, and any other statements or UQs, MPs deal with a series of internal housekeeping motions on the Commons Backbench Business Committee, the Committee on Standards and Committee on Privileges and the code of conduct for all-party groups. This all sounds fairly innocuous, but there is a bit of a row brewing over the proposal to change some of the rules governing the Backbench Business Committee - the motions would require that the chair of that committee should be an opposition MP, (a rule that already applies to the chair of the Public Accounts Committee) and that its members should be elected from within party groups, rather than by the whole house, as at present. Conservative committee member Peter Bone detects an attempt to weaken the committee and put it in the hands of pliable party placepersons. Watch out for fireworks.
It's not a busy day on the committee corridor. The Public Accounts Committee (at 3.15pm) is looking at the quality and take up of the free entitlement to education for three and four-year-olds, based on this report from the National Audit Office.
And the Communities and Local Government Committee (at 4pm) has a second session on Park Homes (mobile homes in caravan parks) with another panel of park home residents; followed by Consumer Focus Wales, various resident associations including the founder of the park homes' justice campaign and, in a separate panel, various (larger) site owners or their trade associations.
In the Lords, it's the third reading of the Protection of Freedoms Bill - watch out for new amendments on stalking (see previous post). Being a privy councillor, Elfyn Llwydd, who led the all party group inquiry into stalking is allowed to sit on the steps to the throne in the Lords chamber, and may well be there to see the amendments into the bill.
That's followed by another bite of the report stage of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. Expect big battles around the rules for legal aid for debt advice, benefit claims and immigration cases. And having just seen the Welfare Reform Bill into law, some peers are set to argue that with sweeping changes to the benefit system under way, now is not the time to make it harder to mount legal challenges to benefits rulings.
The Commons kicks off on Tuesday with Justice questions - when Ken Clarke and his team may come under fire over the issues in the Legal Aid etc Bill in the Lords. Then there's a ten minute rule bill from the Conservative Damian Collins. Mr Collins is a member of the Culture Media and Sport Committee and his Football (Financial Transparency) Bill draws on concerns raised by the committee's inquiry into the running of football clubs. In particular, it would require clubs to make it clear who their owners are - last year the Football League was unable to tell him who owned Coventry City FC, and there are similar issues with other clubs.
That's followed by a Labour Opposition Day debate, calling on the government to drop the Health and Social Care Bill.
Then it's on to opposed private business - in this case, a bill to give more power to local councils in London, which has been harried by a backbench guerrilla campaign led by Conservative Christopher Chope. He complains the bills tend to be badly drafted and give too much power to local officials.
In the parallel debating chamber, Westminster Hall, there are a series of debates, including one led by Labour's Madeleine Moon on the issue of police practices for the investigation of suicides.
Highlights on the committee corridor include the Home Affairs Committee's double-headed session (at 11am) looking at police pay and conditions, and at private investigators.
The Welsh Affairs Committee has a session (at 10.30am) on support for armed forces veterans in Wales, with evidence from medical professionals. And the Culture, Media and Sport Committee (at 10.30am) rounds off its inquiry into library closures with DCMS minister Ed Vaizey.
The Transport Committee has a well-timed session scrutinising the performance of Network Rail and the Office of Rail Regulation. With talk of more fare rises and spending cuts in the air, the witnesses include David Higgins, chief executive, Network Rail; and Anna Walker, chair; plus Richard Price, chief executive, Office of Rail Regulation. A hot ticket.
It's an early start for peers (at 11am) as they perform the final report stage rites over the Health and Social Care Bill in the seventh of seven long days of debate. The only respite is half an hour of questions at 2.30pm. So far the coalition peers have stuck together and repelled boarders. Labour are planning a final attempt to ditch the bill, but after their defeats this week, they are not expecting success - although they hope a turbulent Lib Dem conference at the weekend might shake loose some Lib Dem peers.
Most of Wednesday in the Commons is devoted to pushing through the Water Industry (Financial Assistance) Bill - which aims to cut water bills in south-west England. A committee of the whole House is followed by a third reading, and then the bill will be rushed over to the Lords, to speed it through by the end of the parliamentary year. But before that business opens (at 11.30am) with International Development questions and, at noon, PMQs.
Then Labour's Kerry McCarthy presents a ten minute rule bill on food waste - it would place a legal obligation on large supermarkets and food manufacturers to donate surplus food to charities or for redistribution to individuals in food poverty. Food which is unfit for human consumption should be made available for livestock feed in preference to disposal. The Water Bill follows and then the adjournment debate led by Conservative Eleanor Laing is on the Control of dangerous dogs.
As usual on a Wednesday there's an extensive menu of committee action on offer. Top of the list as mortgage rates begin to rise is the Treasury Committee hearing (at 10am) on the Mortgage Market Review with Lord Turner, the chairman of the Financial Services Authority. It's a busy day for the Treasury Committee, who reconvene at 2.15pm to take evidence from UK Financial Investments - the public holding company that now controls much of British banking. Perhaps they'll venture a view on Vince Cable's proposal to break up one of those banks - RBS.
At 9.30am, the Education Committee rounds off its inquiry into attracting, training and retaining the best teachers with evidence from Schools Minister Nick Gibb. The Justice Committee (at 10.30am) is looking at how the Freedom of Information Act 2000 is working in practice - with evidence from the Information Commissioner Christopher Graham. At 2.30pm, the European Scrutiny Committee has an evidence sessions with Mark Hoban, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury on reinforcing the eurozone.
And at 2.30pm, the Scottish Affairs Committee has an intriguing-looking session on the Referendum on Separation for Scotland, talking to two campaigners from the AV referendum last year - Matthew Elliott, from NOtoAV and Katie Ghose, from Yes to Fairer Votes - about how these battles are fought out. Perhaps some clues to the political strategies underlying current events in Scotland may surface.
In the Lords, it's back to the Legal Aid etc Bill - with the new "Jackson reforms" on paying for legal action under the microscope. The changes are designed to deal with the compensation culture. Should victims of industrial injury or illnesses like asbestosis have to use a portion of their damages to pay their costs? Former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott is expected to speak in the debate, to make the point that his recent phone-hacking claim would not be possible under the new rules, because he would have ended up out of pocket, even after winning.
Thursday in the Commons begins with Business Innovation and Skills questions - and doubtless the BIS Secretary, Vince Cable, will face cross-examination about his leaked letter criticising government efforts to promote economic growth, and about anything else pertaining to his activities that's leaked out in the intervening period. The Leader of the House will announce the business for the Commons for the coming week - and then it's on to two debates scheduled by the Backbench Business Committee - on charging for visits to the Clock Tower (aka "Big Ben" - although that is actually the name of the bell, not the tower, if we're being pedantic); and then there's a motion on reform of the Common Fisheries Policy. Proceedings end with an adjournment debate on the effect of reductions to legal aid on legal aid providers, led by Labour's Karl Turner.
There's only one committee hearing - the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee take evidence on the government's proposed register of lobbyists, from lobbying umbrella groups - who mostly regard the whole exercise as pretty pointless. The register, that is.
In the Lords (from 11am) peers debate the motion that an humble address be presented to Her Majesty to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. And then it's on to day four of five committee stage days on the Scotland Bill - with prospects of another late night debating its contents.
And so to Friday, when the Commons is not sitting, but the Lords are. At 10am peers take their seats to debate the Airports (Amendment) Bill proposed by the Ulster Unionist Lord Empey. It gives the transport secretary powers to issue directives to airport operators in the interests of national security or the national transport infrastructure. That is followed by a debate on "recent developments in the Middle East" opened by the Foreign Office Minister Lord Howell of Guildford.