Week ahead

 

There's quite a lot of action packed into a half-week before MPs and peers depart for their Easter break.... with the Budget and some interesting backbench debates in the Commons, and some tight-looking votes ahead on several Government measures in the Lords.

Here's my rundown...

The Commons meets at 2.30pm on Monday for Home Office questions, after which the Conservative Mary Macleod proposes to follow-up the Succession to the Crown Bill by removing male preference in the inheritance of hereditary peerages and estates.

The day's main event (assuming no statements or urgent questions) will be the final phase of the Budget debate, which will focus on the housing proposals announced by George Osborne. The adjournment debate, led by by-election winner Andy Sawford, is on energy intensive industries.

In Westminster Hall (at 2.30pm) the Backbench Business Committee has used new powers to hold two debates on subjects raised in e-petitions which have attracted 100,000 signatures. The first subject is preventable cardiac deaths caused by Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome (SADS) and the debate is led by Liverpool Labour MP Steve Rotheram, who's supporting a campaign by the Oliver King Foundation, set up in memory of a 12-year-old boy who died in March 2011, from SADS.

The objective is to get the government to commit to installing defibrillators in all public buildings - because these can save people who collapse as a result of the condition. SADS is caused by heart rhythm abnormalities, which can lead to the sudden death of young, seemingly healthy people - usually between the ages of 12 and 35. An estimated 12 young people die each week from SADS - and the Foundation argues that some lives could be saved if more defibrillators were available (there are 16 distributed around the Parliamentary estate). Mr Rotheram says he will push for a further debate in the Commons chamber, to give MPs a chance to vote on the issue, if he's not satisfied with the government response.

Second up is a general debate on the e-petition "Stop mass immigration from Bulgarian and Romanians in 2014, when EU restrictions on immigration are relaxed". The Conservative Mark Pritchard leads proceedings.

Over in the Lords (from 2.30pm), questions range across infrastructure spending, suicides in prisons and the definition of poverty in the UK.

The Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill will probably be given its third reading in a matter of minutes and then peers move on to deal with changes made by the Commons to the Crime and Courts Bill.

The main bone of contention is likely to be on the powers it gives to the Home Secretary to change the new National Crime Agency's anti-terrorism role. The government suffered a surprise defeat on this issue when the bill was last before the Lords, and fought back to reverse that defeat in the Commons.

Peers now have to decide whether they want to press the change - there was a majority of 21 votes against the government, which may not be a big enough margin to embolden them to have another go. There may be as many as five votes on various components of the bill - on issues ranging from the treatment of women offenders by the Probation Service to the regulation of bailiffs.

There'll also be considerable debate on the new clauses introduced in the Commons on press regulation - the Conservative peer Lord Lucas has put down a series of amendments dealing with the problem of applying the new system to the internet. One amendment proposes capping the fees bloggers would have to pay for arbitration at a quarter of 1% of turnover; another excludes small businesses from the system altogether, and a third would prevent small publications which have been refused membership of the voluntary regulation system from facing exemplary damages.

Lord Lucas warns that, as it stands, the system would allow "anyone with deep pockets to sink a blogger, by exposing them to the likelihood of punitive damages…"

He also wants to exclude publications which are not substantially about events in the UK, so foreign newspapers are not caught by the system.

Lords procedures require that the clauses will be debated - and Lord Lucas's aim is to get some kind of response to the internet issues raised by the new system. If one of his amendments is carried, the government will have the three-week Easter holiday, in which to respond, and possibly offer its own solution. It will be interesting to see how the Lords reacts, and how the parties vote.

The fun doesn't stop there: the next business is the committee and remaining stages of the emergency bill to deal with a recent High Court judgement on penalties for Jobseeker's Allowance claimants for failure to participate in the Work Programme.

That ruling could cost the taxpayer an estimated £130m in repayments, but the bill to address it came in for strong criticism from the Lords' influential Constitution Committee - which thought it was being rushed through too rapidly. The bill had quite a narrow squeak on Thursday, in a thinly-attended house - and could run into trouble if more peers, particularly on the crossbenches muster against it.

The result could be a late night sitting.

On Tuesday, the Commons meets at 11.30am for questions to the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, and to the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve.

Labour MP David Hanson has a ten minute rule bill requiring candidates in elections who stand as independents to declare if they are members of political parties - his Local Police and Crime Commissioner is Winston Roddick, a Liberal Democrat member who ran as an independent (although there was no particular secret about his party involvement). Mr Hanson has tabled questions to the deputy prime minister on this issue and hopes to put down an amendment next time there's a suitable bill before the House.

The day's two main debates are scheduled by the Backbench Business Committee. The first, led by the Conservative, Dominic Raab, will be on flood insurance.

It's on a motion calling for a rapid agreement between the government and the insurance industry, to renew the long-standing deal under which the industry insures homes in areas at risk of flooding, in return for a government commitment to spending on flood defences. If agreement can't be reached, hundreds of thousands of homes could become uninsurable, with dire implications for their owners, and Mr Raab is concerned about brinkmanship in the talks. His motion has cross-party support and calls for both sides to negotiate in good faith and strike a deal.

There's also an interesting point about environmental spending, with Mr Raab arguing that money might be better spent on flood defences to improve the UK's ability to deal with climate change, rather than on subsidies to low carbon energy.

That's followed by the usual pre-recess adjournment debate - a chance for MPs to raise the issue of their choice. These used to be horrible, flabby, unstructured occasions, with some beleaguered junior minister having to promise to write to backbench MPs about some local A&E or bypass or immigration case, or whatever. Since the advent of the Backbench Business Committee, it has become much better organised, with a relay of ministers answering groups of speeches related to the work of their particular departments.

The final event is an adjournment debate on energy infrastructure and the UK supply chain, led by the Conservative, Peter Aldous. He's worried that UK businesses won't get the full benefit of new government investment in the energy sector and much of the work may go to overseas companies. And after that MPs depart for their Easter break - and will not return until 15 April.

The Lords (2.30pm) begin with the introduction of two new peers - Martha Lane Fox, who was appointed to be the UK Digital Champion, advising the government on the online delivery of public services, and the composer and broadcaster, Michael Berkeley. Both will sit as crossbench or independent peers.

After the ceremonial, it's on to questions to ministers, which cover the deployment of autonomous weapon systems (drones) by UK armed forces and UK government discussions with the Scottish government on the arrangements for the referendum on independence.

Peers then turn to the third reading of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill - where there may be an attempt to press an amendment for a "sunset clause" on the changes it makes to planning powers to impose a quota for affordable housing in new developments. That means a time limit after which the powers expire or have to be reviewed...

Then peers deal with Commons amendments to the Justice and Security Bill. Peers rejected the government's plans for so-called "secret courts" or Closed Material Proceedings, in which a judge can consider evidence, in civil cases with national security implications, that is not revealed to those pressing a claim against the government. The kind of cases involved include claims relating to kidnapping and torture in the war on terror.

The majorities against the government in the votes last December were 87, 99 and 105, which suggests that peers may take some persuading to accept the latest version of the bill. There could be several rounds of "parliamentary ping-pong," with the bill bouncing between the Commons and the Lords, before a final version is agreed.

This can be a time-consuming process, and the end of the Parliamentary year is looming, so it is a little surprising that the Upper House has been given an extra week off, over Easter; because if there is no agreement between the Lords and Commons, the whole bill could be lost. Labour wants to ensure only last resort...

There will also have to be ping-pong on quite a few other bills, so this could be the first of several protracted disagreements between the two houses.

And so to Wednesday, when peers arrive at 11am for question time. The subjects include increasing quantitative easing by £25bn, increasing the proportion of biofuels in road transport fuel and reconnection and rehabilitation programmes for Polish rough sleepers.

Then peers will debate a series of orders and regulations under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act. Several are the subjects of motion to regret - which don't actually stop them but put down a marker if problems arise later.

Labour's Lord Bach has one on access to legal advice for people challenging rulings on their benefits, an issue which has led to some ill-tempered exchanges with the Lib Dem leader in the Lords and Justice Minister, Lord McNally.

The crossbencher Lady Grey-Thompson has a regret motion on the "gateway" phone system which will filter some legal advice claims, and the Labour former Attorney General, Lady Scotland, has another regret motion on legal aid entitlement for family law cases, where she's arguing that the proposed rules will deny help to some women facing domestic violence. This last one is extremely likely to be forced to a vote.

The Lords then begin their holiday break, returning to Westminster a week after MPs, on 22 April.

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

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