Week ahead in committees

 

It's a very big week for the increasingly workaholic Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, which entertains George Osborne, and the high command of the Financial Services Authority.

With the Chancellor, the questioning will aim to discover his prescription for the future of the banking sector... does he believe Britain can carry on owning what the Commission increasingly seems to regard as semi-dysfunction semi-nationalised banks, like Lloyds TSB and RBS? What reforms does he believe are necessary to restore confidence in the sector?

This evidence session could be the first skirmish between the government and the Commission, after the long and exhaustive evidence-gathering effort they began in the autumn. The subliminal message from their questioning of key witnesses seems to be that they will recommend some pretty robust measures to clean up British banking - because they are not convinced that enough has been done after scandals over the mis-selling of Payment Protection Insurance (PPI) and interest swaps to address the problem of serious misconduct.

But they're beginning to suspect their proposals will be so robust that the Chancellor may balk at implementing them. And that would mean there is a real chance of a stand-off between the Commission and the government which created it. This is where the politics gets interesting - once upon a time governments could simply bin unwelcome recommendations from select committees (or Commissions), but in a hung parliament, and with no government majority in the House of Lords, that may prove not to be an option.

First, the Commission chair, Andrew Tyrie has the authority that comes from being elected to chair the Treasury Committee by the whole House of Commons - he's not an executive appointment who can be reined in by the whips. Second, check out the membership of the Commission - particularly the peers....

There's the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who's already proved himself no-one's patsy. There's the former Chancellor, Lord Lawson, who's already making hawkish noises about the need for tough reform; there's the former Cabinet Secretary and head of the Civil Service, Lord Turnbull, now a director of the Prudential, who commands formidable influence on the crossbenches, plus financial experts like Labour's John McFall and the Lib Dems' Susan Kramer.

My point is that, between them, these peers can raise up a formidable alliance in the Lords, capable of re-writing and toughening up any financial services regulation the Chancellor puts forward - crossbenchers, bishops, Labour, Lib Dems and at least a substantial minority of Tory peers. Mr Osborne is about to have a close encounter with the leadership of a pretty powerful parliamentary caucus, and he should beware of disappointing them...

There's plenty of interesting action elsewhere on the committee corridor next week - here's my rundown of the main events.

On Monday, the Banking Commission (at 3.45pm) hears from the Chancellor George Osborne (see above).

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee (at 2pm) takes a look at the Draft Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill - a fine-tuning measure intended to deal with various issues concerning the operation of devolution in Northern Ireland. Among other things it would end the "dual mandate" which allows some politicians to serve both on the Northern Ireland Assembly and as MPs. It would provide greater security of tenure for the NI justice minister, and improve the administration of elections in NI, following recommendations made by the NI Electoral Commission. But all this will only happen if there is cross-party consensus in the Assembly. The committee will decamp to the Senate Chamber in Stormont, to quiz the Assembly Clerk, Trevor Reaney, and the leaders of its smaller parties.

With most local councils facing a cut in their finance from central government, the Public Accounts Committee (from 3.15pm) calls in local government expert Tony Travers, of the LSE, and Carolyn Downs, chief executive of the umbrella body, the Local Government Association, plus Sir Bob Kerslake, the top civil servant at the Department of Communities and Local Government to discuss this National Audit Office report on the financial sustainability in local authorities. Can councils cope with less, and continue to meet their service obligations in, for example, adult social care?

The impending departure of the Governor of the Bank of England, Sir Mervyn King, makes the Treasury Committee's hearing on the bank's quarterly Inflation Report a rather less routine occasion than normal (on Tuesday at 10am). Will the changing of the guard at Threadneedle Street mean that the likes of Charles Bean, Deputy Governor, Monetary Policy; Paul Tucker, Deputy Governor, Financial Stability, and Monetary Policy Committee members Professor David Miles, and Ian McCafferty, speak more freely about the controversial policy of quantative easing (QE) which is being deployed to combat the recession?

With talk that the bank will now tolerate higher rates of inflation for longer, how do they view the prospects for the economy? Given the plunge in the value of the pound after it was revealed that Sir Mervyn favoured more QE, this session will be scrutinised closely, and could have real-time effects on sterling.

The Education Committee (at 9.30am) will hold a one-off evidence session on Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups, with evidence from Sue Berelowitz, the Deputy Children's Commissioner, and Edward Timpson, the children's minister.

The Health Committee (at 9.30am) looks at how the 2007 Mental Health Act is working out in practice, with expert witnesses and mental health charities.

Greg Dyke, chair of the British Film Institute, leads the witnesses at the Culture, Media and Sport Committee (at 10.30am) as it examines support for the creative industries. The Human Rights Committee (at 2.45pm) quizzes Immigration Minister Mark Harper about the treatment of unaccompanied migrant children who arrive in the UK.

The Home Affairs Committee (at 2.45pm) takes evidence from Google and Facebook about e-Crime; and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee (at 3pm) have a double-headed session. First, they hear from the Association of British Insurers, Aon Benfield and Marsh Limited about flood funding, and then from European Commission officials including Bernard Van Goethem, Director for Veterinary and International Affairs, DG Health and Consumer, about vaccination of badgers and cattle against bovine TB.

On Wednesday, the Work and Pensions Committee (at 9.30am) has its first evidence session on the draft to create a single-tier state pension. The government plans to introduce the new pension system abolishing the existing state second pension from 2017, at the earliest and replacing it with a new £144 per week payment.

The changes won't apply to people already receiving state pension when the new arrangements are introduced. The government has asked the committee to examine the proposals before the finalised bill is introduced - and their first group of witnesses include Age UK, Carers UK, the TUC, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Pensions Policy Institute, former government pensions policy adviser Dr Ros Altmann, former Labour minister Baroness Hollis of Heigham and Professor Jay Ginn (Institute of Gerontology, King's College London), Women's Budget Group.

The Banking Commission (at 9.30am) has more big name witnesses - Lord Turner, chairman of the Financial Services Authority and his Managing Director Martin Wheatley, who is also the chief executive officer designate of the replacement body, the Financial Conduct Authority. They can expect some searching questions about "conduct scandals" like the mis-selling of PPI and can expect to be asked if they are now satisfied that they have really cleaned house in the City. Commission members are known to be concerned about the lack of personal consequences for the architects of these scandals - no-one has ended up in chains and orange jumpsuits, and that has made it hard to rebuild public confidence.

The EFRA Committee (at 3pm) continues its look at the pros and cons of vaccinating badgers and cattle against bovine TB with witnesses from the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, the British Veterinary Council and the British Cattle Veterinary Council.

One for Westminster village people is the appearance of Damian McBride before the Public Administration Committee (at 9.30am). He was Gordon Brown's closest aides, before being forced to resign over emails he sent to another Labour figure suggesting false allegations about the private lives of senior Conservatives. He now blogs, intermittently, but fascinatingly, about politics and government. He'll be questioned about the relationship between Number 10 and the civil service. Alongside Carolyn Downs, chief executive of the Local Government Association and Derrick Anderson, chief executive of the London Borough of Lambeth.

Chris Grayling, the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, will be explaining how he plans to transforming rehabilitation (and slash re-offending by criminals) to the Justice Committee (at 9.30am)

And Environment Minister Lord de Mauley is back before the Environmental Audit Committee (at 2.15pm) as it continues its long investigation into the effect of neonicitinoid pesticides on pollinating insects. The committee looks increasingly likely to recommend that the UK bans this type of pesticide - and was unimpressed by the minister's performance when he last appeared before them.

The Public Accounts Committee (at 3.15pm) looks at an important report with a discouraging title - the Early Action landscape review and Autism Strategy. Early action is the early deployment of resources by public bodies to prevent problems occurring or getting worse, rather than spending money reactively, once those problems have occurred. A National Audit Office Report found that the government "has signalled its commitment to the principle of early action but there is little evidence of a concerted shift in resources to early action projects, or cross-government co-ordination". The witnesses include the top civil servants at Department of Health and the Department for Education.

Will a Severn Barrage join the list of infrastructure megaprojects favoured by the government? The Energy and Climate Change Committee (on Thursday at 9.30am) investigates the pros and cons with witnesses from the Environment Agency, the EU Commission Environment Directorate-General, and Energy Minister Greg Barker.

And the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (at 10am) has a double-headed session, looking first at the impact and effectiveness of ministerial reshuffles, with the former Cabinet Secretary Lord O'Donnell, and then at the need for a constitutional convention for the UK with Professor Gerald Holtham, advisor to Welsh finance minister and former chair, Independent Commission on Funding and Finance for Wales; and Alan Trench of the UCL Constitution Unit.

 
Mark D'Arcy Article written by Mark D'Arcy Mark D'Arcy Parliamentary correspondent

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