- 12 April 2013
- From the section UK Politics
The shape of the Commons week will be a little different, with the House expected to postpone its normal sitting-time on Wednesday to allow for the funeral of Lady Thatcher, and to cancel prime minister's questions that day, because the normal knockabout would be inappropriate.
A motion to make those changes to the schedule, in the name of the Leader of the House, Andrew Lansley, is down on the order paper, and must be agreed by the whole House.
If there is one objection the government would have to find time to debate the motion on Tuesday and vote on the rescheduling.
In other circumstances, I would nominate one of the Tory awkward squaddies like Chris Chope, who, rather admirably, makes a point of not nodding through whatever changes to parliamentary business the executive happens to fancy. But on this occasion the uber-Thatcherite Mr Chope may decide not to intervene; although it appears that Respect MP George Galloway might.
On the other hand, Labour MPs who have regularly accused David Cameron of dodging his weekly question time, whenever possible, may make an issue of the fact that the last PMQs was on 20 March. If this slot is lost, Mr Cameron will only have one more PMQs in this session, on 24 April, and won't be back until after the state opening, on 15 May - so one PMQs in eight weeks.
Elsewhere, we're in the tidying-up phase that marks the end of the parliamentary session, with the Commons and Lords likely to devote considerable time to "parliamentary ping-pong" over bills amended in the Lords....which may mean late nights and regular outbreaks of irritable legislator syndrome.
* With no House of Lords (they're not back until Monday 22 April) and the select committees winding down a little as the end of the Parliamentary year looms, I'm doing a combined preview of the Commons and the committees. When normal Westminster service resumes, I'll default back to separate posts previewing the Commons and Lords, and previewing committee business. But this week I offer it to you in a single blog McNugget.
The Commons meets at 2.30pm for Defence questions - and given the long Easter break, there may be a number of ministerial statements and urgent questions to deal with before they move on to the second reading of the Finance (No.2) Bill - the measure which puts the changes announced in the Budget into law. This measure reappears again later in the week for further stages of consideration - and there are important issues around the banking levy, the help for home-buyers scheme, the top rate of tax and on tax avoidance to be fought out.
The day ends with an adjournment debate on community pharmacies and NHS reorganisation led by Labour MP Stephen Pound - he's concerned that the pharmacies, which have helped deliver big improvements in preventive care in recent years, are not represented within the new structures set up to run the NHS in England, and that other NHS interests like GPs might muscle in on them, leading to a turf war.
The Public Accounts Committee (at 3.15pm) has a session on the Civil Service reform plan with high-powered witnesses including Sir Bob Kerslake, the head of the Home Civil Service, and Lord Browne of Madingley, lead non-executive director, Efficiency and Reform Board, Cabinet Office. On the face of it, this is another rather techie machinery-of-government session, but the PAC is increasingly finding that the issues it deals with in management and value for money, mainline straight back to the nature of the civil service. In a recent session on cyber-security a group of mandarins giving evidence were asked if they had ever written computer code themselves; only one had, and that was 20 years before. So PAC members are increasingly questioning whether hyper-smart Oxbridge generalists are the right people to manage the state in the 21st Century.
The Communities and Local Government Committee (at 4pm) will take a look at the Coalition's record on localism - its promise to hand power back from Whitehall to town and city halls. The key witnesses will be Greg Clark, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who has retained the brief he held in the Communities and Local Government Department, as cities minister - he was the architect of the coalition's "City Deals", which handed extensive powers to particular local authorities, and he retained responsibility for that programme, even after his promotion to the Treasury. (Confusingly, he is both minister for The City and for, er, cities). Also giving evidence is Lib Dem Communities Minister, Don Foster,
And the session will look at the progress and implications of the transfer of powers and follow up on the ideas emanating from Graham Allen's Political and Constitutional Reform Committee on codifying the relationship between central and local government - is there any enthusiasm in the coalition for enshrining localism in some new constitutional deal?
The Transport Committee (at 4.15pm) hears evidence on access to transport for people with disabilities from Transport for All, Leonard Cheshire, Passenger Focus, Confederation of Passenger Transport, First Group, National Express, ATOC, Eurostar, Network Rail.
And the Welsh Affairs Committee (at 11am) has decamped to the National Assembly for Wales, in Cardiff, to quiz Carl Serjeant, the Welsh Minister for Housing and Regeneration, and other witnesses, on the impact of changes to housing benefit in Wales. (They take further evidence on the issue in Wales on Tuesday).
Commons business begins at 11.30am with Health Questions and that will be followed by a Ten Minute Rule Bill, proposed by the Conservative Fiona Bruce, on abortion statistics. She's concerned about "the extensive practice of abortions carried out solely on the grounds of gender, otherwise referred to as female gendercide, in countries such as China and India leading to an imbalance of millions fewer young women than men". The motion highlights evidence that this illegal practice may be growing in the UK and calls on the government to investigate.
Then MPs spend the rest of the day dealing with changes made by the House of Lords to the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (ERR) Bill, the Defamation Bill and the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill. All legislation has to be approved in identical form by both Houses of Parliament and where a bill is changed by one, those changes are sent to the other for approval - if there is no agreement, the bill bounces between them, in so-called parliamentary ping-pong. There's a lot of this at the end of the parliamentary year, with the added spice of brinkmanship, because if agreement is not reached by the end of the session, the bill is lost, a fact which gives dissident peers considerable leverage.
All of the bills (except the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill) saw government defeats in the Lords, and it will be interesting to see whether the coalition wants to reverse all of the defeats, or whether it will take some of them on the chin. In particular, peers struck down a clause of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill which allows employees to become "employee shareholders" when they receive £2,000 or more in shares, and requires that in so doing they forego some employment rights over things like redundancy payments and unfair dismissal.
On the Defamation Bill, the government will have to decide whether to accept a new clause allowing profit-making organisations to sue for defamation only where they can prove substantial financial loss, and barring public bodies - like local authorities - from taking any defamation action. Conservative MP, former Solicitor-General and former Sun libel reader Edward Garnier has already put down an amendment to strike it down.
And on ERR there were four government defeats - including one which reinstated civil liability in breaches of duty of health and safety regulations. In each case the Lords may kick back, if MPs vote to reject the changes they have made, and the whole process may turn several times.
If someone does force a debate on the timetable for the Commons on Wednesday (see above), it will probably be slotted in around the discussion of these bills.
The day's adjournment debate looks interesting. Conservative Robert Buckland wants to question ministers about moves to impose UK visa restrictions on Russian officials implicated in the case of Sergei Magnitsky, the accountant and auditor who was was arrested and died in Moscow's notorious Butyrka prison after alleging there was a large-scale corruption and theft by state officials. The United States and Canada are among countries which have passed laws banning individuals said to be involved in the death - and Mr Buckland wants to know if Britain intends to follow suit.
In Westminster Hall there are a series of debates led by backbenchers - my eye was caught by Lib Dem former minister Sir Nick Harvey's, on free school meals and the pupil premium (11am - 11.30am).
The day's top committee business is the Culture, Media and Sport hearing on the press regulation system agreed between the parties before Easter (11.15am). The witnesses are the Culture Secretary Maria Miller, Cabinet Office policy guru Oliver Letwin, and Harriet Harman, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. It's a little bit after the fact, given that the legislative changes for the Royal Charter system they agreed between them have already been voted through, but events have moved so fast that the committee is playing catch-up.
There's another multi-headed session of the Home Affairs Committee (starting at 2.45pm). First they hear from a galaxy of experts and interest groups about e-crime issues including privacy and security on social networks, digital forensics, measuring the cost of e-crime and international cooperation. Some of the key evidence will come from the financial industry. With card fraud estimated to cost the UK £340m a year the committee is keen to quiz the banks and card providers about the quality of their security and the arrangements for refunding their customers if they become victims of fraud. At about 4.15pm discussion will turn to asylum, with evidence from John Vine, the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration.
Elsewhere, there's more civil service reform, this time at the Public Administration Committee (at 9.30am) where the star witness is Tony Blair's former Downing Street majordomo Jonathan Powell.
The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee (9.30am) continues its inquiry into Open Access, the practice of providing unrestricted access to research via the internet - a host of witnesses from the publishers of peer-reviewed journals and research institutions will give their views. The Defence Committee (2.30pm) considers the education of service personnel as part of its continuing look at the workings of the Armed Forces Covenant.
Also on Tuesday, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Breast Cancer is taking evidence from Public Health Minister Anna Soubry, as it looks into concerns that many older breast cancer patients are not receiving the same level of treatment and support as younger patients and are not benefitting from advances in radiotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery that have dramatically improved the survival chances of younger patients. The risk of breast cancer increases with age and currently a third of all breast cancers occur in women aged 70 and over. The questioning is likely to revolve around future plans for cancer awareness initiatives for older people - there are already pilots of an initiative called BCLEAR, and the APPG is keen to see if the government regards that as successful and therefore to continue it. The inquiry will also hear from Professor Julietta Patnick, the Director of NHS Cancer Screening Programmes on the priorities in relation to older women, and from Dr Lindsay Forbes, the Co-Director, King's College London Promoting Early Cancer Presentation Group, on targeted initiatives to raise awareness of breast cancer in older women, and from Amanda Boughey of Cancer Research UK on the Be Clear on Cancer awareness campaign aimed at women over 70.
Assuming the government gets its way, Wednesday's Commons action will begin at 2.30pm with questions to the Scottish Secretary. There will be no PMQs, so the next business will be a Ten Minute Rule Bill from Labour's Meg Munn to allow schools to register as Co-Ops (Industrial Provident Societies) and then it's on to committee of the whole House consideration of the Finance Bill.
I'm not quite sure what happens to the Westminster Hall debates scheduled for Wednesday - the current running order starts at 9.30am with Labour's Fabian Hamilton leading a debate on the role of local bus services in supporting young people in employment, education and training in Yorkshire and Humber, with four more debates to follow. How they'll be affected by the proposed change in sitting hours is not clear yet.
And the same may apply to the day's select committee sittings. At the moment the Environmental Audit Committee is due to meet at 2.15pm to hear evidence on Sustainability in the UK Overseas Territories, and the Public Accounts Committee (also 2.15pm) is scheduled to look at Subject: Digital Britain Two - the usability of government online services, based on this report from the National Audit Office - with Baroness Martha Lane-Fox, the UK Digital Champion, and Richard Heaton, the Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office due to give evidence.
And so to Thursday, when the Commons meets at 9.30am for Culture, Media and Sport and Women and Equalities questions. There will be the usual statement from the Leader of the House, Andrew Lansley setting out the Commons agenda for the coming week, and then it's back to the committee of the whole House on the Finance Bill.
It's a relatively quiet day in committee-land, with even more on the Civil Service at the Public Administration Committee at 9.30am. They'll be quizzing the Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, and Sir Bob Kerslake, head of the home civil service on .....the future of the civil service.
The International Development Committee (at 9.30am) is looking at Global Food Security, with evidence from Transport Minister Norman Baker, International Development minister Lynne Featherstone, and experts including DFID's Food and Nutrition Security Team. And the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (at 10am) takes evidence from the Better Government Initiative, Unlock Democracy and Democratic Audit on the impact of the Wright reforms, which beefed up the legitimacy of Commons select committees.
Neither House is sitting on Friday.