Week ahead in committees

  • 11 January 2013
  • From the section UK Politics
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It's a pretty busy week up on the committee corridor, with a fair sprinkling of visitations from big names, and much grappling with heavyweight policy issues - everything from banks, to pensions to airports to fracking.

On Monday, the Public Accounts Committee (at 3.15pm) has a hearing on "Progress in making NHS efficiency savings", another example of the committee looking at wider policy issues, rather than just focusing on individual cock-ups. The NHS is supposed to make efficiency savings of around £20bn in the next two years - and there'll be evidence on how they're doing from Sir David Nicholson, the chief executive of the NHS in England, and a variety of other NHS folk and patients' representatives.

One focus will be on "outliers" - NHS Trusts and individual hospitals that seem notably more, or less, efficient than most. Committee members will be examining whether Sir David and those at the centre have the information they need to assess performance at the coalface, and bring the worst performers up to the level of the best.

The Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards (from 4.40pm) will quiz Gavin Shreeve, Principal of IFS School of Finance and Simon Thompson, chief executive of the Chartered Banker Institute. And after about an hour they'll turn to Anthony Browne, chief executive of the British Bankers Association - who has criticised some of their early findings. That might be sparky - although I find myself wishing they could provide subtitles for those of us who don't speak fluent banker.

The Transport Committee (at 4.05pm) continues its examination of one of the most toxic policy issues facing the government: aviation strategy - and the issue of airport capacity around London. Witnesses include the CBI, the British Chamber of Commerce, the Institute of Directors, London First and a good geographical spread of airport operators.

Along with the implementation of the huge reform to replace many existing social security benefits with the new Universal Credit, the Work and Pensions Committee is also scrutinising the implementation of workplace pension provision - their latest hearing with consumer groups, unions businesses and regulators is at 4.30pm. The committee has been one of the most impressive in this Parliament, doing a lot of very detailed scrutiny. But that good work clearly caught the eye of higher powers and many of its members have been promoted - so it will be interesting to see if its new intake can keep up the standard.

On Tuesday the big event will be the appearance of Bank of England Governor Mervyn King and acolytes before the Treasury Committee (at 10am). Formally, he'll be answering questions on the Bank's November 2012 Financial Stability Report, but there may be a valedictory flavour to his appearance as his term of office draws to a close.

Elsewhere, the Welsh Affairs Committee (at 9.30am) has a one-off evidence session on the recent Tata Steel Ltd restructuring proposals and their potential impact on the steel industry in Wales, their wider impact and whether the UK government and Welsh government are helping to provide the right conditions for the steel industry to prosper. Recent job losses at Port Talbot were a major blow to the local community (500 managerial and admin posts were scrapped), but the news has not all been bad and earlier this week the plant's second blast furnace was re-lit, and is expected to be back at full production soon.

The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee (at 10.15am) concludes its evidence taking on Women in the Workplace by hearing from the Women's Business Council, and then from two ministers - Lib Dem Jo Swinson, from Vince Cable's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, noted for her strong support for tougher equalities legislation; and Conservative Cabinet minister Maria Miller who doubles as Minister for Women and Equalities. The committee's heard a lot of evidence about whether or not having a good gender balance in the workforce, and in particular, in the board room makes a company more competitive - and it will be interesting to see whether the two sides of the Coalition sing from the same hymn sheet.

The Transport Committee (at 2pm) tackles another controversial issue - rail franchising. They'll hear from Richard Brown, the chairman of Eurostar - who concluded in a government review, published this week, that rail franchising is 'not broken'. Given the continuing row over the West Coast mainline franchise, and some strong criticism about the level of public subsidy to the railways, this will be a hot topic.

The Foreign Affairs Committee (at 2.30pm) continues its inquiry into the foreign policy implications of an independent Scotland with another panel of expert witnesses - the committee's planning to hold hearings in Edinburgh at the end of the month, and I hear they're a little miffed that they won't be using the facilities of the Scottish Parliament, and that members of the SNP-led Scottish government don't seem too keen to talk to them.

Watch out, also for the Home Affairs Committee's pre-legislative scrutiny hearing (at 2.45pm) on the draft Anti-Social Behaviour Bill. This kind of scrutiny hearing is intended to allow problems to be teased out of legislation and improvements to be suggested, in a relatively non-partisan environment, before it's fed into the parliamentary sausage machine. There'll be witnesses from local government and the housing sector.

And at the end of the month a Home Office minister will appear to answer questions and react to the committee's thoughts.

On Wednesday, the most important hearing might prove to be the Energy and Climate Change Committee hearing (at 3pm) on the impact of shale gas on energy markets. It's dawning on a lot of MPs that they could well have to deal with proposals to bring "fracking", the controversial process to extract shale gas from rocks, in their constituencies. So the examination of whether there is enough gas locked away underground, and the economic potential there, will be of enormous interest. There will be a series of witnesses from the industry - followed by the Conservative energy minister John Hayes, whose performances are always worth watching, both in terms of technical merit and artistic impression.

A close second will be the appearance of Sir John Vickers, former chairman of the Independent Commission on Banking, before the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards (at 9.30am). What does he think of the state of the debate about regulating the banks? Again, subtitles may be needed.

Elsewhere, the Education Committee (at 9.30am) holds a promising-looking one-off evidence session with three recently defenestrated education ministers: Tim Loughton, Nick Gibb, and Sarah Teather. I wonder if we'll get an inside take on quite why the clear-out of the junior ranks in Michael Gove's DfE empire was quite so sweeping? Vengeance is a dish best served cold... and in this case, possibly, in buffet form.

Another Cabinet minister might enjoy an easier time at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee (at 2.30pm). Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin will give follow-up evidence on air transport strategy for Northern Ireland. The committee is delighted that he had implemented its advice to scrap air passenger duty there.

It will be interesting to see whether they devote much time to praising him before pocketing that concession and demanding another, perhaps on fuel duty. And they might suggest his decision should form a precedent for the government to cut Corporation Tax in Northern Ireland to levels competitive with those across the border, in the Republic.

One for the insiders is the Procedure Committee hearing (at 3.05pm) on private members' bills. Listeners to Today in Parliament may recall an item about backbench MPs sleeping overnight in a Commons office to get priority slots for their private members' bills. Several of those involved, Thomas Docherty, Charlie Elphicke and Ben Gummer will give evidence about the whacky procedures for this kind of legislation.

Public Accounts is back in action at 3.15pm with a hearing on "the effectiveness of consumer credit regulation". This doesn't sound like classic PAC territory, although you can rationalise them investigating pretty much anything within their mandate to look at the efficiency and effectiveness with which public money is spent. They'll hear from witnesses from Provident Financial and Wonga, and then at 4pm, from Clive Maxwell, chief executive at the Office of Fair Trading, and Lesley Titcomb, acting chief operating officer of the FSA. Given that at least one member of the committee is a vocal critic of payday loan companies, and several others come from constituencies where payday loans are a big issue, this looks likely to be a pretty sparky session.

There's more pre-legislative scrutinising from the high-powered Joint Committee on the Draft Care and Support Bill (at 2.45pm). This is the bill to sort out the system for care for elderly and disabled people - under the chairmanship of the Lib Dem former health minister, Paul Burstow. It will hear from a variety of voluntary groups. And they will have another hearing on Thursday.

On Thursday, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (at 10am) pursues its inquiry into the need (or otherwise) for a Constitutional Convention for the UK, with evidence from Paul Silk, the chair of the Commission on Devolution in Wales, which recently produced new recommendations on taxation and spending powers for the Welsh National Assembly.

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