UK Politics

Week ahead

Parliament enjoys a half week, next week, with MPs departing for their Easter break on Tuesday evening, and peers at the end of Wednesday's business.

MPs return on 16 April for a short session; before a mini-break, marking the end of prorogation of the current session of Parliament starting on 3 May.

But there's some quite heavy business to get through, even in a short week.

On Monday, the Commons kicks off with defence questions. Labour's Chris Evans has a ten minute rule bill. His Banking (Disclosure, Responsibility and Education) Bill is aimed at boosting transparency and consumer rights. Then comes the conclusion of the Budget debate - with the theme of the final day "technology and growth".

Up on the committee corridor the headline hearing is the Treasury Committee's post-Budget grilling of Robert Chote of the Office for Budget Responsibility at 3.30pm.

Mr Chote is the independent arbiter of the Chancellor's budget figures, and the OBR also produces the economic forecasts for coming years. The committee chair, Andrew Tyrie, is known to be sceptical about forecasts - and doesn't regard the OBR's as any more likely to be correct than those of other delvers into the economic entrails; so his reception will probably not be reverential. This is phase one of a rapid succession of Treasury Committee hearings, which should result in a report to MPs published during the Easter break.

Elsewhere, the Public Administration Committee (4pm) continues its probe into government ethics with a look at business appointments rules. Witnesses include Lord Lang of Monkton, chairman of the advisory committee on business appointments and Cabninet Office Minister Francis Maude.

And the super committee of high powered ex-ministers, the National Security Strategy Joint Committee, takes evidence from Sir Kim Darroch, National Security Adviser, at 4.30pm.

In the Lords, peers begin report stage of the Scotland Bill. The barrage of hostile amendments continues - including the Conservative former Scottish secretary Lord Forsyth's proposal that if Scotland moves to a different income tax rate to the rest of the UK, there should be a referendum; and the Labour peer Lord Barnett's proposal that funding for Scotland should be on the basis of a needs assessment, not the famous 1970s formula which bears his name. Lord Forsyth has his own amendment on that point as well.

On Tuesday, MPs question Health Secretary Andrew Lansley - expect more scratching at the scars from the Health and Social Care Act.

Their day's main business is a backbench motion on the law on assisted suicide. At the moment, guidelines allow discretion for prosecutors not to charge some people who assisted someone to die. But the guidelines were issued not by Parliament, but by the Director of Public Prosecutions, an appointed official. The debate is on a motion supporting them, but there are amendments down calling for their enshrinement in law, and for greater emphasis on palliative care. This has been on the Commons schedule for quite a while - the Backbench Business Committee allowed a long lead time so that all the many groups with an interest in the debate could decide what line to take.

The final event of the day is a tantalising-sounding adjournment debate led by the senior Conservative David Davis entitled "Foreign secret intelligence and state secrets privilege".

For the last day of term, there's a startling amount of select committee action. The indefatigable Treasury Committee presses on with its Budget inquiry (at 10am) with cross-examination of a series of experts and interest groups, including witnesses from the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

They reconvene at 2.15pm to hear from Chancellor George Osborne himself, accompanied by a supporting cast of Treasury mandarins. Expect some pretty stern words about the comprehensive leaking of the Budget details - the committee has been pretty peeved about this on several occasions, including at the last budget and the autumn statement last year.

The Justice Committee (at 10.30am) contemplates the working of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, with constitutional guru Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, and former Cabinet Secretary Lord O'Donnell - plus several witnesses from NHS trusts.

The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee (at 10.30am) takes evidence on apprenticeships with witnesses including Stephen Uden, head of skills at Microsoft UK, and others.

In the Lords (from 2.30pm) the big event is the third reading of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. Expect more big votes on what is already a much amended bill Worryingly for the government, most of the amendments expected to be pushed to a vote claim cross-party support. The nine government defeats so far on this bill have come when crossbenchers have combined with Labour peers, often with a smattering of Conservative and Lib Dem rebels. It's the crossbench vote that is decisive, but they seem more likely to come out to bat when the issue is not completely polarised along party lines.

The issues in play include:

Children and Legal Aid - an amendment that would ensure that where children are involved in a legal dispute they will get publicly-funded help. This may be in disputes over benefits, education, housing dispute or other major areas.

Actions against British-based companies relating to their activities abroad - a group of peers will argue that they should be exempted from the "compensation culture" reforms which would limit the ultimate payout to victims of, for example, serious pollution in a developing nation. The argument is that otherwise it would become impractical to bring such actions in this country.

Privacy and defamation - the former Deputy Prime Minister Lord Prescott will lead an attempt to make a similar argument that privacy and defamation should be exempted from the compensation culture reforms.

And there's also a proposal to allow other areas of law to be exempted if the reforms are found to cause serious problems: the example cited is insolvency law (and the pursuit of dodgy directors who cause a business to fail). Labour sources warn that many areas of law will become impossible for the average person to access.

Peers will also debate the Parliament Square (Management) Bill at report stage. This is a bill proposed by the Conservative Lord Marlesford, designed to prevent permanent protest camps outside Parliament, while allowing demonstrations. It has yet to go to the Commons, and with Parliamentary time fast running out, seems to have little prospect of becoming law. Then peers turn to the Water Industry (Financial Assistance) Bill at second reading. This is the bill to cut soaring water rate bills in the south-west. The bill has cleared the Commons and the government is aiming to get this into law before the end of the session.

The Commons will be long gone when Wednesday arrives - but the Lords legislate remorselessly on... it's the second and final day of report stage scrutiny of the Scotland Bill.

Parliament returns on 16 April - and MPs plunge straight into the Finance Bill: the detailed measure to enact the Budget.

This could be fun. With a number of Conservative backbenchers already grumbling about the pensions and child benefit changes, Labour will have an unusual opportunity to make merry, because, by tradition, the Opposition decides which parts of the bill are considered by a committee of the whole house and there is no timetabling (ie guillotine) applied to the debates.

So expect some pretty late nights and some cunningly crafted amendments, designed to lure coalition dissidents into the lobbies with Labour. It would take a pretty significant rebellion to overturn the coalition's normally comfortable majority, so much depends on how much heat is generated over the Easter break.

(And someone asked if the Steel Bill - a limited Lords reform package - would be considered in the Commons; it's theoretically possible, but I'd be astonished if it was.)

Meanwhile the Lords are aiming to clear the remaining legislation before them by 26 April - which means polishing off the Legal Aid etc Bill and the Scotland Bill with reasonable efficiency - and getting the ping pong accomplished well before the scheduled end of term. Already timings are tight enough for the Opposition to contemplate sticking to their guns on the changes to LASPO, which could mean still more late evenings, as the two Houses clash over the bill. Watch this space.

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