Committee week

 

There'll be a spasm of frenetic pre-Christmas activity on the committee corridor - with an impressive array of cabinet ministers in action, and some very big issues under scrutiny.

On Monday, the Public Accounts Committee (at 3.15pm) ponders the impact of Housing Benefit reform - will the radical changes introduced by the coalition drive the poor out of London? The committee quizzes expert witnesses and civil servants, based on this report from the National Audit Office.

And the super committee on the National Security Strategy (made up of a host of very senior parliamentarians, under former Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett) hears from Home Secretary Theresa May, in the first of her two committee outings this week.

Three cabinet ministers are on parade on Tuesday, with Theresa May back in action, this time before the Home Affairs Committee (from about 4.15pm). She can expect some robust questions about her instant dismissal of the committee's new report into drugs, which regretted the reclassification of cannabis from Class C to Class B, and called for a Royal Commission to conduct a fundamental review of drugs policy and, in particular, to look at the possible advantages of a "harm reduction policy", including the possibility of a Portuguese-style decriminalisation of possession of drugs for personal use.

Before that, the committee (from 2.45pm) has a session on immigration policy, with the new minister, Mark Harper.

Down the corridor, the Joint Committee on Human Rights (at 2.15pm) will be quizzing Chris Grayling, the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary. The European Court has become a red-line issue within the coalition, and in Tory ranks, in particular; and, unlike his predecessor, Ken Clarke, Mr Grayling is a critic. He has already talked about Britain withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights, over the insistence of the European Court that the UK allow prisoners the right to vote. And he can expect a severe cross-examination from the formidable array of human rights lawyers on the committee (Helena Kennedy, Anthony Lester) although he may get covering fire from up-and-coming backbencher Dominic Raab.

And the Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, will brief the Energy and Climate Change Committee (at 3.30pm) on the outcome of the latest climate change summit, at Doha. He's described the Doha deal, which extends the Kyoto Protocol and promises to look at compensation for poorer countries affected by climate change, as "a modest step forward". Energy policy and climate change seem to be emerging as a bit of a fault-line within the coalition, so this will be worth watching.

A number of committees are not being graced by a Cabinet minister. The Justice Committee (at 9.30am) kicks off its new inquiry into women offenders by hearing from Labour peer Jean Corston, author of the 2007 Corston Report into the treatment of vulnerable women by the justice system. She'll be giving evidence alongside Liz Hogarth, the retired civil servant who headed the inter-departmental working party which led the response to that report. Then the committee goes into private session to hear from a group of women offenders. And the Foreign Affairs Committee (at 2.30pm) has a session with two projectors of British soft power - the BBC World Service and the British Council.

Wednesday's Cabinet visitation to the committee corridor is by the dynamic duo of William Hague and Vince Cable. The foreign and business secretaries go before the special committee on Arms Export Controls at 2.30pm. This is set up every year, to vet our arms exports - this year, it's chaired by the Conservative and former Defence Minister, Sir John Stanley.

Elsewhere there are some high-powered issues in play. At the Scottish Affairs Committee (at 11am) Defence Minister Philip Dunne will be quizzed about the possibility that independence for Scotland could lead to de-facto unilateral nuclear disarmament for the remaining UK - this is because the SNP wants Scotland to be nuclear-free, but, it is claimed, the Faslane base, which services the Trident submarines carrying the UK's nuclear deterrent, cannot be re-located in the short term - so the UK would no-longer be able to run its deterrent.

The Work and Pension Committee (at 9.30am) looks at the workings of the Work Programme, which is designed to get unemployed people into a job, and the Communities Committee (at 4.45pm) looks at the implementation of welfare reforms by local councils - which can now run their own schemes to distribute council tax benefit.

And finally a mention for those diligent chaps on the Science and Technology Committee, who, while other MPs bring in board games on Thursday for the last day of term, continue their inquiry into marine science (from 2.35pm).

 
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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