- 7 September 2012
- From the section UK Politics
Week two of the Commons' September sitting, and business in the chamber is rather thin, perhaps because the government had expected to devote much of the time to the details of the now-defunct House of Lords Bill.
Instead we have a little light legislating and some backbench and opposition debates. But, offstage, there's some interesting action on the committee corridor. The Lords, remember, are still on their summer hols, and, in a robust display of independence, will resume while MPs are off for their party conferences, in early October.
MPs kick off on Monday (at 2.30pm) with Work and Pensions questions. Iain Duncan Smith and his team have seen fewer reshuffle changes than most - but this will be the first outing for the former Treasury minister Mark Hoban - now minister of state in place of Chris Grayling. Assuming there are no statements or urgent questions (and there often are, on a Monday), the House will then turn to detailed committee of the whole House discussion of the European Union (Approval of Treaty Amendment Decision) Bill.
Topping the bill on the committee corridor are Virgin Trains boss Richard Branson and Tim O'Toole of FirstGroup, on the West Coast mainline franchise affair. They're before the Transport Committee at 4.05pm. Bring popcorn.
The special committee on arms export controls, which compiles an annual report on the exports of the arms industry hears from Foreign Office Minister Alastair Burt and his officials at 4.15pm. And the Work and Pensions Committee (at 4.30pm) continues its inquiry into the implementation of universal credit - the sweeping reform to the social security system. A vast change to benefits, a new government mega-computer: what could possibly go wrong? The witnesses are Citizens Advice, the Child Poverty Action Group and the Children's Society. And the same subject surfaces again in the Commons tomorrow (see below).
There's also an interesting-looking event on drugs policy organised by the Home Affairs Committee. Speakers include the Portuguese health minister, Dr Fernando Leal da Costa; Gary Monaghan, the governor of HMP Pentonville; Professor Neil McKenganey, head of drugs research at Glasgow University and Angela Painter, the chief executive of Kenward Drug Treatment. Topics which are likely to be discussed include whether there ought to be a global debate on the decriminalisation of drug use and the changing nature of drugs misuse by young people; and whether services are able to cope with the differing demands of the various generations of addicts. The findings of this conference help shape the future recommendations of the committee on drug policy.
On Tuesday it's Treasury questions - a debut for the new Financial Secretary Greg Clark (who retains his brief as minister for cities - not to be confused with minister for The City) and new Economic Secretary Sajid Javid. That's followed by a ten minute rule bill presented by Conservative Henry Smith, on NHS Audit Requirements (Foreign Nationals). The main debates are two Labour motions: on universal credit and welfare reform, and tuition fees.
Over in Westminster Hall there are a series of short debates led by individual backbenchers. The Conservative Pauline Latham's debate on care in schools for children with Type 1 diabetes (1pm) and Claire Perry's on support for victims of domestic violence (11am) caught my eye.
On committee corridor, the sessions most likely to generate headlines are the Education Committee hearing (at 9.30am) in which head teacher representatives and Ofqual's chief regulator Glenys Stacey, will be quizzed on the controversial change to the grade boundaries in GCSE English exam results this summer.
And the Home Affairs Committee (from 10.15am) holds its final session in Olympic security (it plans to report soon after, I'm told). The witnesses are headed by Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, with newly minted Treasury minister Paul Deighton, and Lord Coe, of LOCOG. At 11.45am it's the turn of Charles Farr, director of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism at the Home Office and Nick Buckles, of G4S.
The Energy and Climate Change Committee (from 10.15am) ponders whether the government's nuclear building programme will get off the ground and the challenges involved in building new nuclear reactors in the UK with evidence from Professor Nick Pidgeon, New Nuclear Local Authorities Group, and Sedgemoor District Council, as well as from engineering experts. The Foreign Affairs Committee (at 10.15am) takes evidence on the future of the European Union: UK government policy, from the economist Professor Patrick Minford.
And so to Wednesday which opens with Scottish Questions. That is followed at noon by PMQs - which was pretty low-level this week. Then, in a ten minute rule bill, the former Conservative minister Sir Paul Beresford continues his long-running campaign to tighten up the law dealing with known paedophiles - his Coroners and Justice (Amendment) Bill would introduce restrictions on their access to written material.
MPs then move on to the report stage and third reading of the Defamation Bill. Among other things it is intended to restrict libel tourism - wealthy foreigners suing in the London courts to take advantage of tough UK libel laws, and will introduce a defence of "responsible journalism" for claims or revelations made responsibly and in the public interest. (Critics are unhappy that judges will decide what is and is not "responsible"). Expect some passionate speeches suggesting that this act makes the law more, not less restrictive.
After that MPs will debate - and presumably approve - the appointment of their new ethics watchdog, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Over in Westminster Hall there are more short debates led by backbenchers including, at 9.30am, one on international human rights violations faced by professionals and business people - led by the Conservative Robert Buckland, and one on protecting the Antarctic, led by Neil Carmichael. This looks like an hors d'oeuvre for his private member's bill on the same subject, due to be debated in November. It may be a way of persuading those who like private members' bills to be extensively discussed, that MPs have had a proper chance to examine it, thus helping it through second reading, if time is short.
Top committee hearing of the day is probably Michael Gove's appearance before the Education Committee at 9.30am. The education secretary is bound to be asked about the whole GCSE grades/grade inflation issue - although the session will run the gamut of education policy.
There's also the first evidence session of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards (at 9.30am), set up in the wake of the Barclays interest rate-fixing scandal. They open with Sir David Walker, an expert on corporate governance in banking. Sir David wrote the government report into corporate governance in UK banks and is appearing as an expert witness. He is not appearing in his capacity as chairman-designate of Barclays Plc. The commission is supposed to complete its work by Christmas, but there is already talk that it may request more time.
Newly anointed Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin appears before the Transport Committee (at 2.05pm) to give his views on everything from Heathrow expansion, to HS2, to commuter fares. How much he will be able to say, a week after taking office, is an interesting question. But his top civil servant, Philip Rutnam, will be there as well.
David Willetts, the universities minister rounds off the Science and Technology Committee's rather ominous-sounding inquiry into the so-called "valley of death" which claims many science-based business start-ups. How would he improve the commercialisation of research?
The Scottish Affairs Committee investigation into the referendum on "separation" continues. This week with Professor William Walker, and Dr Phillips O'Brien giving evidence on the implications for defence.
And the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (at 3pm) continues its dangerous dogs inquiry, hearing from police officers, pet charities and the Local Government Association.
On Thursday (from 10.30am) it's the turn of the new Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport Secretary, Maria Miller, to make her question time debut. Expect some questions to her and her newly-appointed junior minister for women and equalities, Helen Grant, to face some questions about the government's proposed bill on gay marriage. Then the new Leader of the House, Andrew Lansley, has his question time - MPs will doubtless be curious about reports that they may have to move out of the Palace of Westminster to make way for vital repairs to the building. That's followed by the weekly Business Statement and questions about forthcoming debates in the Commons.
Then it's on to backbench business, beginning with a short statement by the Transport Committee chair, Louise Ellman, on the launch of an inquiry by her committee into the government's aviation strategy. Ms Ellman is one of the few committee chairs to make effective use of this procedure, which allows the whole House to discuss the work of the committees.
Then the long campaign by the Conservative Robert Harlow for a debate on "the effects of the oil market on the price of petrol and diesel" is rewarded at last. Mr Halfon wants an inquiry into possible price rigging. Former Labour minister Michael Meacher follows on with a debate on tax avoidance and evasion - again a preliminary to his private members' bill on the same subject on Friday. He doesn't look likely to get much debating time then - so might this help him past second reading. A good try, but don't hold your breath.
Over in Westminster Hall, meanwhile, there's a debate on the state of the dairy industry.
The only select committee action is the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (at 10am) hearing with former minister Nick Raynsford - who gets awed reviews in the diaries of his colleague Chris Mullin, for his ability to decipher legislation - and political science savant Lord Norton. They'll give their thoughts on the quality of legislation. Are too many badly-drafted laws finding their way onto the statute book?
Friday is private members' bill day, with Conservative backbencher Gavin Barwell opening proceedings at 9.30am, with his Mental Health (Discrimination) (No 2) Bill. The aim of this measure is to abolish what, he says, are outdated laws which discriminate against people with mental illness - including the laws which disqualify an MP. That proposal is controversial and has led to a bit of pre-debate on Twitter. The issue has already been discussed in a backbench debate, and there is a strong lobby of MPs behind it - but have they managed to persuade those MPs who specialise in killing what they see as do-gooding private members' bills from talking it out?
The chances of there being any debate on the next bills on the batting order - Stewart Andrew's Prisons (Property) Bill and Michael Meacher's General Anti Tax-Avoidance Principle Bill depend on the answer to that question. If the awkward squad are not placated, they will kill Mr Barwell's bill by continuing to talk until time runs out, unless he can mobilise 100 members to support a motion to move to a vote. Such are the whacky procedures for this subspecies of bill.