- 21 February 2013
- From the section UK Politics
Suddenly the end of the parliamentary year is beginning to loom - and with it the prospect of a fair amount of "ping-pong" between the two houses of Parliament over changes made by the Lords to a variety of bills...and in particular the Defamation Bill.
This is the moment when the Lords' power is at its greatest, when brinkmanship by the Opposition or rebel groups can force ministers into concessions, for fear of losing an entire piece of legislation because it's not agreed as the session ends. Any government defeats on the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill or any other bill could be leveraged into concessions as the year totters to its end - particularly if there's a bit of intra-Coalition tension around the subject at issue.
Here's the run-down of next week's action:
On Monday, the Commons meets at 2.30pm for Defence questions. It's highly likely that will be followed by one or more ministerial statements, or answers to urgent questions on issues that have cropped up during the parliamentary half term... watch out for announcements from mid-morning.
The day's big law-making event is the second reading debate on the Children and Families Bill - which deals with a wide range of child-related issues including removing barriers to adoption and boosting the educational achievement of children in care. But the key section is probably the one dealing with the Special Educational Needs system. It would provide new leave and pay entitlements for parents.
In the Lords (from 2.30pm) it's quite a heavy legislating day - but first, there's an eclectic selection of questions to ministers, with peers asking about cultural diversity in the media and creative industries, progress in discontinuing funding for the Republic of Ireland's aids to navigation, discussions with energy providers about recent price increases and the shortage of midwives.
Then it's on to the main event - the third reading of the Defamation Bill - as amended at report stage, courtesy of Labour's Lord Puttnam. The bill now includes a Levesonesque press regulatory body, a recognition commission intended to validate voluntary press regulation - and there's been some rather inflated comment about the chances of "saving press freedom" by reversing the Puttnam amendments.
Given that they were pushed through by a majority of 131 votes, with substantial support from crossbenchers (and the votes of six bishops) with a majority of Lib Dem peers sitting on their hands (they turned out in much greater numbers on another amendment) the chances of overturning them look slim on numerical grounds alone. And in any event that isn't what their lordships normally do at third reading. In fact, the government's best chance of removing the changes will be when the Commons considers the amendments - and then only if the Lib Dems vote with the Conservatives....who knows what might happen if they're in a snit after the Eastleigh by-election?
Meanwhile, watch out for an amendment from the Conservative former Cabinet minister Lord Fowler, a former journalist who's a supporter of the Leveson recommendations. He is planning to remove the requirement for pre-publication checking of material, on the grounds that this all too easily shades into paralysing caution, if not outright censorship.
One interesting straw in the wind is the new legal opinion that the provision that publishers who don't join a self-regulation system could face tougher damages in the courts, if they're sued for libel, may break human rights law. This is because one of the QCs who delivered that opinion is the crossbench peer Lord Pannick, who's increasingly influential in swinging the crossbench vote for or against a particular clause of a bill. It's not so much that his intervention could allow the Puttnam changes to be overturned; more that he could bolster a set of arguments which could help the government get that reversal in the Commons, and then get it accepted in the Lords.
After that it's on to a committee-stage debate on the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill - with Labour continuing their rearguard action against the cap on benefit increases to 1% - below the rate of inflation. And the day ends with a short debate on anorexia and eating disorders, led by Labour's Lord Giddens
On Tuesday, the Commons day opens at 11.30am with Health questions, and then the Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn has a ten minute rule bill on the Regulation of the Private Rented Sector - he's concerned that the housing shortage in London means a third of his Islington constituents use the private rented sector - and many tenants have to put up with high rents, low environmental standards and insecure tenancies. His bill aims to highlight the issues facing tenants, so that regulation and registration of landlords and letting agents moves up the political agenda. He might call for a Royal Commission to investigate.
Then MPs will complete their consideration of the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill which has been plodding through Parliament since last May. They'll take the report stage and third reading one after the other. The bill is intended to stop the large supermarkets' squeezing their suppliers and the Adjudicator will enforce the groceries supply code of practice and will have the power fine retailers that do not treat their suppliers lawfully and fairly.
After that, time has been set aside to consider private bills - which may be the cue for another Chope-athon, with the indefatigable Conservative MP and a small band of allies staging another ambush against legislation they regard as too restrictive or financially irresponsible. He has forced a series of votes against bills promoted by an assortment of local councils to regulate street pedlars, arguing that they discourage enterprise and give too much power to local authorities - and I imagine this will be more of the same. And since Mr Chope seems to have taken a dislike to some parts of the Humber Bridge Bill, which is due to have its second reading in this slot, its promoters had better watch out - and be prepared to answer his concerns.
There's a good clutch of backbench debates in Westminster Hall - starting at 9.30am with Labour MP Ian Lavery on responsible dog ownership. The Conservative John Penrose will talk about the role of planning in preserving urban views and regenerating high streets at 2.30pm, and Labour's Steve Rotheram asks about the Director of Public Prosecutions' interim guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media at 4.30pm.
It's a less intense day in the Lords (from 2.30pm). Questions range across self-immolations in Tibet and China's approach to human rights, the new UK citizenship test and ending the use of the death penalty worldwide. Then peers will canter through the committee stages of a couple of private members bills which have already cleared the Commons; the Presumption of Death Bill and the Mobile Homes Bill.
Then it's back to government legislation, with the third reading of the Public Service Pensions Bill - the startlingly low-key measure to cut the cost of public-sector pensions. A minor Opposition amendment on the position of Ministry of Defence firefighters was passed at report stage, but given the sums of money dealt with in this bill, there have been remarkably few bangs for the buck.
After that, peers continue with the report stage of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill - here there might be some votes on issues around the Green Investment Bank and on whistleblowers.
There'll also be a short debate on a subject which will probably start to crop up rather a lot in Parliament - HS2. Now that the proposed route from Birmingham to Sheffield has been unveiled, a whole host of new concerns about it have emerged as well.... and the Labour peer Lord Truscott's debate on the cost/benefit ratio and environmental and social impact of High Speed 2 could be but a foretaste of things to come in both Houses.
The Commons meets at 11.30am for Welsh Questions on Wednesday, followed at noon by PMQs. Lib Dem backbencher John Pugh presents a ten minute rule bill on local authority devolution and powers. And then Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party have an Opposition Day on a subject to be announced.
The day ends with an adjournment debate led by Stoke MP Tristram Hunt on misleading origin of country labelling. He's concerned that foreign manufacturers are using the brand "England" to mislead consumers, and wants the trading standards authorities to investigate. This is a big issue in the Potteries. Mugs and ceramics have to be "first-fired" in England to qualify as "made in England," and there's considerable resentment at the misleading labelling of goods made elsewhere.
Once again there are some decent debates in Westminster Hall, in particular the first one (from 9.30am) on asylum support for children and young people. This will be led by Lib Dem former minister- Sarah Teather, who chaired a cross-party parliamentary inquiry into the issue, under the aegis of the Children's Society. The aim of the debate will be to get a government response to some if its key findings. Their report warned that the system was driving children and families into destitution.
It found that benefits for asylum seekers had not been uprated since 2011, and highlighted problems with the cashless system used to provide for failed asylum seekers who have not been deported. It also encountered complaints about the lack of privacy for asylum seekers in accommodation provided by the UK Border Agency.
Other debates include government policy on letting agents, a subject raised by the new MP for Rotherham, Sarah Champion, and relations with the Arab world - a debate led by Respect's George Galloway.
In the Lords (from 3pm) question time covers the role of ratings agencies and the impact of any downgrade of the UK's credit rating and the 200th anniversary of the birth of Dr David Livingstone.
Then peers turn to the committee stage of the Antarctic Bill - a private member's bill from the Commons dealing with environmental safeguards in Antarctica, followed by the first of three days devoted to the report stage of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill. Here the issues which may go to a vote include the provision allowing the communities secretary to determine planning applications if he decides that a local authority is being consistently anti-development, and local authorities' powers to insist on quotas of affordable homes in new housing developments.
The day's short debate is on the government's response to the Independent Panel on Forestry, instigated by the panel's chair, the Right Reverend James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool. So, as with Sarah Teather (above), this is an attempt to get an on-the-record government response to a weighty report. The panel highlighted "untapped potential within England's woodlands to create jobs, to sustain skills and livelihoods, to improve the health and wellbeing of people and to provide better and more connected places for nature". And it called for government investment to kick start the process...
It looks a pretty thin day in the Commons on Thursday, which opens for business at 9.30am. Expect plenty of empty seats with many MPs opting to help their party at the crucial Eastleigh by-election. Question time is shared by the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin, the Leader of the House Andrew Lansley, and John Thurso of the House of Commons Commission - who could well be asked if any horsemeat has made it into the various parliamentary canteens. Then Mr Lansley delivers his weekly Business Statement, setting out what MPs will be discussing in the coming week.
MPs then turn to debates chosen by their representatives on the Backbench Business Committee - this week's subjects are the Kesri Lehar Campaign for the abolition of the death penalty in India, followed by the 25th anniversary of the Kurdish genocide - when Saddam Hussein's forces used poison gas against the Iraqi city of Halabja.
The motion, to be moved by the Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi, who is of Kurdish descent, says that Parliament "formally recognises the genocide against the people of Iraqi Kurdistan and encourages governments, the EU and UN to do likewise".
In Westminster Hall there's more backbench business - MPs will debate the Communities and Local Government Select Committee's report on the European Regional Development Fund, and the government response to it. That's followed by a debate on nuisance phone calls, led by the Conservative Alun Cairns who's had complaints from his constituents about cold calling. He wants to clarify the responsibilities of the industry regulator OFCOM and the Information Commissioner, in dealing with the problem.
In the Lords (from 11am) question time covers the position of the Kachin, Shan and Rohingya ethnic national peoples in Burma, assistance for people with dyslexia who're taking apprenticeship qualifications and UK support provided for the International Rare Diseases Research Consortium.
Then there's a chance for peers to address their own overcrowding problem. There's simmering discontent at the increasing membership of the House of Lords and the former Liberal leader, Lord Steel of Aikwood, has put down a motion to block any more additions. Readers with long memories may recall I highlighted this a couple of weeks ago. The motion was to have been debated in January, but was withdrawn after behind the scenes consultations; now it's back...
This looks like a continuation of Lord Steel's long guerrilla campaign to bring in a modest reform of the membership of the Upper House. On more occasions than even he cares to remember, Lord Steel has proposed a bill which would allow peers to retire, to be expelled from the House if convicted of serious criminal offences, and to exclude the 92 hereditary peers who continue to sit in it...that last provision was pulled in the face of a determined rear-guard action, the last time the bill went through.
Lord Steel's bill languishes in the Commons, with no real prospect of being debated, let alone passed. And he is pretty miffed about that...hence his motion that: "notwithstanding the normal practice of the House, this House resolves that no introductions of new Peers shall take place until the recommendation in paragraph 67 of the First Report of the Leader's Group on Members Leaving the House, chaired by Lord Hunt of Wirral (HL Paper 83, Session 2010-12), have been followed."
Essentially those recommendations call for a new deal to reduce the size of the House, offering pensions to peers who retire from it, and allowing the possibility of a vote by peers on which of their numbers should be culled, and an understanding that life peerage should not mean automatic membership of the House, without a significant commitment to service in it (ie turning up...)
With the prospect of 50 new peers being created, there are increasing worries that the membership of the Lords has risen at an unprecedented rate. Labour are circulating figures suggesting that since the general election, David Cameron has appointed 128 new peers - 43 a year, compared to the 18 a year created by Margaret Thatcher. Lord Steel may well be able to tap into that concern.
And now Labour have weighed in as well - front-bencher Lord Hunt of Kings Heath has put down an amendment saying "restraint should be exercised by all concerned in the recommendation of new appointments to the House"; and calling on the government to support the Steel Bill on retirement and exclusion from the House.
After that peers can settle down to one of their favourite activities: detailed constitutional debate, in the committee stage of the Succession to the Crown Bill. And there will also be a short debate on the Implications of Research Council UK's open access policy - led by the scientist and crossbench peer, Lord Krebs.
With the Parliamentary year petering out, the Commons sits at 9.30am on Friday with a vast number of private members' bills on its agenda. In practice, only the first two or three are likely to be discussed at any length, and the remainder will be quietly axed when time is called at 2.30pm.
First up is the Human Rights Act 1998 (Repeal and Substitution) Bill - proposed by the Conservative, Charlie Elphicke. He was one of a group of MPs who spent the night in the Public Bill Office, in order to win priority for a series of bills, behind the MPs who won better positions in the annual ballot for private members' bills (this is every bit as bizarre and arcane as it sounds - but it's the way debating priority has been allocated for decades, however silly it seems to outsiders, and indeed insiders).
Second in the batting order is the Green MP Caroline Lucas, whose Landlord Accreditation Bill would require local authorities to operate landlord accreditation schemes guaranteeing minimum standards for tenants. Her constituency includes a fair chunk of bedsit-land, so this bill addresses an important local issue.
Given the first two bills are pretty chewy, I doubt there will be much time left for Mark Hendrick's International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Bill, still less for Barbara Keeley's Social Care (Local Sufficiency) and Identification of Carers Bill or Douglas Carswell's European Communities Act 1972 (Repeal) Bill, or the considerable number of other bills on the order paper.
So - pressure groups and their supporters take note - there's not much point in a busy MP spending a morning in the chamber to dance attendance on a bill that won't even be discussed, let alone voted on. This is not a betrayal, simply sensible time management.