Week ahead

 

For once the week's biggest excitement arrives on Friday - with James Wharton's private members bill to hold an EU membership referendum in 2017.

Otherwise both Houses have a week of worthiness and detailed legislating that seems to offer little in the way of thrills and spills. Here's my rundown of the main events.

Monday

The Commons meets at 2.30pm for Work and Pensions questions. If there are no ministerial statements or urgent questions they will then move on to the day's big event - the report stage of the Finance Bill, the measure which enacts the tax changes made in the Budget.

As well as the usual flotillas of technical changes made by the Chancellor himself, there's a new clause down from former minister turned backbench rebel, Tim Loughton. This would require the next budget to deliver the Conservative promise that married couples should be able to transfer their tax allowances to each other, or at least require some progress towards that goal. The idea seems to be to get a system in place to deliver some transferability - however limited - before the 2015 election.

I've seen the "Dear Colleague" letter he circulated to Conservative MPs, which includes this comment: "I am pleased that the Minister, David Gauke, has written to colleagues to reaffirm the Government's commitment to this measure which also formed part of the Coalition Agreement. However, many colleagues remain disappointed that the mantra of 'in due course' is wearing increasingly thin with no indication of when the tax relief will come into force even if the actual enabling legislation is passed this side of the Election."

The amendment has heavyweight backbench support, in the form of 1922 Committee Chairman, Graham Brady, and other prominent figures like James Gray, Nick de Bois and Philip Hollobone. It is unclear whether it will be pushed to a vote, because even strong internal critics of the government might balk at amending a Finance Bill for fear they might attract underwhelming support. But Mr Loughton will certainly be hoping to extract stronger assurances than have so far been given by Treasury Minister David Gauke.

In the Lords (from 2.30pm) ministers will field questions on the Leveson Report and the prime minister's contacts with editors, owners or senior executives of newspapers, and on when the government will announce its decision on opting out of EU Justice and Home Affairs co-operation.

The main debate is on the situation in Syria and the Middle East - and there will also be a short debate on the report of the Lords EU Committee on the UK opt-in to the Europol Regulation - led by former diplomat Lord Hannay. (The same issue also surfaces in the Commons on Wednesday - see below).

Tuesday

The Commons opens (at 11.30am) with justice questions, followed by a ten minute rule bill from Labour ex-minister John Healey, on letting agents. Then it's back to the report stage of the Finance Bill, to be followed by what will probably be a pretty perfunctory third reading debate.

In Westminster Hall (9.30am - 11am) there is a debate on the "Implementation of the Wright Committee's outstanding recommendations", led by Labour MP Graham Allen, who chairs the Commons' Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee.

The Wright Committee was the high powered group that recommended important changes to the working of Parliament before the last election - including the creation of the Backbench Business Committee and the election by MPs of the chairs and members of select committees. But its proposal that the Commons agenda should be organised by a House Business Committee, rather than be carved up between the main parties via the so-called "usual channels" seems to have been quietly shelved. So this occasion may mark the start of an attempt to revive the idea, or to get the government to either set a timetable or admit it is not going to move on this.

In the Lords (from 2.30pm) there is a pointed question from Lib Dem peer Lord Greaves on the impact of the under-occupancy charge (aka the "bedroom tax") on properties with spare bedrooms

And then it's on to the second reading of the Children and Families Bill - key issues include childcare (including the still-controversial staffing ratios), PSHE, Special Educational Needs, the role of local authorities, adoption and family law. Meanwhile, the Energy Bill starts its committee stage in the Moses Room. The key issue will be decarbonisation.

Wednesday

The Commons meets at 11.30am for Welsh questions, followed by prime minister's question time, at noon. Then the Conservative Rehman Chishti proposes a ten minute rule bill on Drink Driving (Repeat Offenders) - it is designed to increase the possible sentence for repeat offenders; after the third offence it will give magistrates the power to refer someone to the Crown Court where a judge can sentence them to up to two years in prison.

That is followed by two Estimates Day Debates. In theory these provide the Commons mechanism for holding the government to account over the use of taxpayers' money; in practice they usually provide a chance to discuss suitable reports from select committees - and the subjects today will be the Health Committee's report on public expenditure and healthcare services, which warned that a major transformation of services was needed if the NHS was to continue to deliver without a major increase in funding, and that simply freezing staff salaries would not do the job...

MPs will then debate the Transport Committee's report on "Rail 2020: a vision for the future", following on from the McNulty Report, which pointed to a yawning gap in efficiency between the UK rail network and its European equivalents.

The next business is to approve a European document on Europol, the European Police Office, which supports cooperation between national law enforcement on terrorism, organised crime drug trafficking people-smuggling, cybercrime and financial crime. The issue has been referred to the Commons by the European Scrutiny Committee, which is a little miffed that the Government won't say whether it wants to opt into Europol or not and it will be interesting to see whether the coyness continues during this debate.

Over in Westminster Hall what promises to be a prolonged low-level guerrilla war over the controversial HS2 rail scheme rumbles on (from 9.30am) with a debate on High Speed 2 and ancient woodlands led by the Conservative Michael Fabricant. This is the first of the usual series of backbench debates - my eye was also caught by the one on the effect of cooperatives on the economy, led by Labour's Chris Evans (2.30pm - 4pm).

In the Lords at 3pm, questions to ministers include one from the Bishop of Wakefield on co-operation between Georgia and the EU and a question on the quality of healthcare available to diabetics with eye problems. Then it's on to day four of their detailed committee stage scrutiny of the Care Bill - the key issues will include: local authority social care responsibilities; integration of health and social care, including housing provision; and meeting and assessing care and support needs. There will also be a short debate on the London Finance Commission report Raising the Capital.

In the Moses Room - the Lords equivalent of Westminster Hall - there will be a Grand Committee debate on the 2013 Spending Review, followed by a combined debate on the EU report on the application of Protocols 19 and 21 to the EU Treaty and the Treaty on EU functioning in relation to EU justice and home affairs matters.

Thursday

In the Commons (from 9.30am) question time is one of those rather bitty affairs where MPs quiz one of the smaller departments (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, this time) and then lob a few questions at their colleagues who speak for the Church Commissioners, the Public Accounts Commission and the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission. With the Gay Marriage Bill now in the Lords, Tony Baldry, who speaks on behalf of the Church Commissioners, may still not be back to the usual rather eccentric fare of questions about crumbling churches and rat-infested graveyards.

Then the Leader of the House, Andrew Lansley, delivers his weekly Business Statement - expect continued pressure for more debating time for the Banking Bill, to allow changes suggested by the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards to be built in.

The main business of the day is a trio of backbench debates: first, on NATO (led by Hugh Bayley and Jason McCartney); then Labour Treasury Committee member John Mann leads a debate on the use of corporate structures in the UK and money laundering, tax evasion and other financial crime; and finally on the economic implications for the UK of an EU-US Trade and Investment Agreement (led by John Healey, Guto Bebb and Jonathan Edwards, who've set up a new all-party group to consider the implications of any deal, which will be huge).

In the Lords (from 11am) questions to ministers cover the impact on foreign domestic workers of the one-employer visa regime, the effect of the Comprehensive Spending Review on the delivery of devolved services in Wales, and the need to ensure women are represented on the Advisory Board of Public Health England.

Then it's the usual Thursday selection of debates on subjects suggested by backbench peers - today's subjects are preparing young people for the world of work, effective immigration controls and the interests of the security of the UK, and the social and economic impact on families of recent changes to immigration rules.

Friday

Private members' bills return to both Houses - but the big event will undoubtedly be the Commons debut of Conservative James Wharton's European Union (Referendum) Bill - the second reading debate should start a little after 9.30am, after MPs have disposed of a ritual motion to sit in private (don't ask...)

This looks pretty certain to absorb most of the day's proceedings, with Conservative MPs whipped to attend, to guarantee the bill gets voted through to committee stage consideration. Labour and the Lib Dems are supposedly letting the Conservatives get on with it, dismissing the bill as a "Tory stunt".

Under the slightly whacky rules for private members' bills, the debate does not end until everyone who wishes to speak has spoken - and given that there are no time limits on speeches, that means opponents of the bill can keep on talking till time runs out, unless 100 or more MPs support a motion to move to a vote - a closure motion. I suspect a number of MPs will want to at least force that device to be used... watch out for Labour MP Mike Gapes, a veteran of the Maastricht debates 20 years ago, and a former chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. The party line notwithstanding, he plans to put the pro-EU, anti-referendum case "at length".

If the Conservative whips are being cautious, (and when are they not?) the closure motion will probably come around an hour before the close of business, so at perhaps 1.30pm, allowing plenty of time for that vote, and for the substantive vote on the second reading itself. And that might leave a little time left over, in which the Conservative Peter Bone can at least make a speech to launch his Margaret Thatcher Day Bill - renaming the August Bank Holiday in honour of the Iron Lady.

The adjournment debate, led by Labour former minister David Lammy is on support for young fathers.

Over in the Lords (from 10am) peers will debate Lord Dubs' Extension of Franchise (House of Lords) Bill which would end the ancient ban on noble Lords voting in general elections, and Lord Clement-Jones Cultural and Community Distribution Deregulation Bill.

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

Week ahead at Westminster

There's still time for a soupcon of high-powered politics as MPs and peers prepare to decamp for their Easter break.

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