Week ahead in committees
- 12 July 2013
- From the section UK Politics
It may be the last week of term for MPs, but there's still a decent helping of select committee action...
My pick of the week is the Home Affairs Committee's triple session on Tuesday, which could generate major headlines from any one of its three subjects....and watch out too for the committee stage debut of the EU Referendum Bill. It may not get to the wicket if the bickering about the membership of the committee isn't resolved, but if it does arrive, we could be in for an epic clash of the anoraks with procedural manoeuvre and counter manoeuvre, as the experts on the Commons rulebook try to outsmart each other...
Here's my rundown of the week's main action:
It always used to be pretty entertaining when the Public Accounts Committee delved into the finances of the royal family...there were often disputes about Parliament's right to scrutinise, and when the committee included a phalanx of hard core republicans, they tended to enjoy themselves.
With the departure of such luminaries as Iain Davidson, today's session on the Duchy of Cornwall Accounts (at 3.15pm) may be a touch gentler. The committee has just been on a visit to the Duchy's pioneering Poundbury new town (where they feasted on Duchy Original biscuits) but they may still want to pose questions about whether the Duchy should pay corporation tax - the Prince of Wales already pays income tax. The witnesses are William Nye, HRH's Principal Private Secretary, Keith Willis, Finance Director of the Duchy and Paula Diggle, Treasury Officer of Accounts.
The Communities and Local Government Committee (at 4.15pm) ponders the Knight Review of Fire and Rescue Service, with its author Sir Ken Knight, the former Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser.
Since his report floated the idea of some privatisation within fire and rescue services, this could be quite a charged occasion. Then, at about 5.15pm, they turn to evidence from Julian Ashby, the chair of the Regulation Committee of the Homes and Communities Agency - he'll be facing questions about the impact of recent housing benefit changes (the so-called "bedroom tax") on the finances of housing associations. In May, the ratings agency Moody's downgraded 26 UK Housing Associations, listing a "weaker regulatory framework" among its reasons.
The super-committee on the National Security Strategy (4.30pm) will be focusing on energy security, with evidence from Dr Fatih Birol, the Chief Economist and Head of the Economic Analysis Division at the International Energy Agency.
Over in the Lords the special committee on the Olympic and Paralympic Legacy (at 3.30pm) hears from a series of London councillors, and the Committee on Soft Power and the UK's Influence (at 4.20pm) takes evidence from Martin Davidson, of the British Council, Peter Horrocks, of the BBC World Service and Dr Jonathan Williams, of the British Museum.
The House of Lords EU Committee (at noon) will take evidence from Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey, on issues including the EU Emissions Trading System and the changes the UK government would like to see, the EU's 2030 emissions reduction agreement and the government's opposition to the committee's recommendation that a renewable energy target be included in the agreement, and what the government will do to boost investment in energy and gas storage capacity, to support their policy on exploiting shale gas reserves.
It's another multi-headed session of the Home Affairs Committee - with considerable interest in each of the three subjects they will be exploring. First, at 2.45pm they quiz David Wood, the Interim Director General, Immigration Enforcement, on the work of the rebranded Immigration Enforcement Directorate, on backlogs in the system and the target to cut immigration by a third.
At 3.15pm they usher in the Chief Constable of Derbyshire, Mick Creedon, who's leading the inquiry into undercover policing - he'll face questions about the latest revelations about police activities following the Stephen Lawrence murder.
And at 3.45pm, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, moves in for questions on anything from Abu Qatada to opt outs from EU Policing and Justice powers, to asylum. And watch out for questions about her recent decision to ban khat - a stimulant drug used by an estimated 90,000 people in the east African and Yemeni communities in the UK. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs reported this year that "on the basis of the available evidence, the overwhelming majority of Council members consider that khat should not be controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971". The old issue of evidence-based policy making on drugs is resurfacing.
Foreign Secretary William Hague is before the Foreign Affairs Committee (at 2.30pm) - with Syria and Egypt bound to be among the main subjects for discussion. The Treasury Committee (11.30am) continues its look at the policy of quantitative easing with Bank of England officials. Home Office Minister James Brokenshire gives evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights (2.15pm) on the TPIMs - Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures - which replaced the previous government's control orders. And the Culture, Media and Sport Committee (10.30am) has its annual hearing with Channel 4.
In the Lords, the committee reviewing the Mental Capacity Act 2005 (at 10.30am) hears evidence from Mencap, the Down's Syndrome Association, the National Autistic Society, Mind, Headway and the Alzheimer's Society. Meanwhile, the Lords Communications Committee (at 3.15pm) continues its inquiry into media plurality with evidence from BSkyB and the Ethics Council of the NUJ.
The scheduling has not been confirmed yet, but James Wharton, who's promoting the private member's bill for an EU referendum, hopes to have his first day (and perhaps only day) of committee stage debate on Wednesday. For that to happen, the Committee of Selection, which decides the membership of bill committees will have to reach agreement... and, unusually, there is a bit of a dispute. Normally promoters of private members' bills simply nominate members of their bill committee, reflecting the balance of the Commons, and the rubber stamp is wielded. But given the political tensions over this bill, it's not been so simple. Watch this space, and in particular the choice of Labour MPs to sit on the committee.
Former home secretary Jack Straw and former shadow home secretary David Davis resume their long standing cooperation on the issue of prisoner voting with a joint appearance before the special select committee looking at the Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill (9.40am). The bill is the government's response to the European Court of Human Right's ruling that the blanket ban on prisoner voting in the UK is illegal.
In 2011, the two combined to obtain a backbench business committee debate on a motion that: "This House... is of the opinion that a) legislative decisions of this nature should be a matter for democratically elected lawmakers and b) that on the merits of the issue the current policy... is confirmed."
The Science and Technology Committee (9.30am) has called in the broadcasters to discuss the way they report "Climate: public understanding and policy implications". And at the Education Committee (at 9.30am) there's a follow up session to their "great teachers" inquiry - with evidence from academics and head teachers. And the Environmental Audit Committee (2.20pm) explores the notion of well-being as a guide to environmental policy with academic experts.
The temperature is rising at the Work and Pensions Committee, as it monitors the reformed welfare system and the role of Jobcentre Plus in getting the unemployed into jobs. This week's session on the implementation of Universal Credit - another key component of the system - produced some ill-tempered exchanges between Labour committee members and the Secretary of State, Iain Duncan Smith, and led to claims that the government's flagship back to work programme was "collapsing".
This session (at 9.45am) will see evidence from charities including Oxfam GB, Scope, Church Action on Poverty, Centrepoint and Gingerbread - topics for discussion include the use of benefit sanctions to enforce conditions on looking for jobs, attending courses etc, and the impacts on claimants. And "digital exclusion", in the context of the online system for Universal Credit implementation.
The Public Accounts Committee (2.15pm) will be looking at progress in developing rural broadband, based on this report from the National Audit Office, which concluded that: "The rural broadband project is moving forward late and without the benefit of strong competition to protect public value. For this we will have to rely on the Department's active use of the controls it has negotiated and strong supervision by Ofcom."
One concern is that the money to build the infrastructure seems to be being released very slowly and MPs will be keen to explore that. There will be evidence from BT, TalkTalk, Ofcom, and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport
Fresh from announcing the postponement of any government decision on requiring plain packaging for cigarettes, Public Health Minister Anna Soubry is before the European Scrutiny Committee (2.15pm) to talk about the EU Tobacco Products Directive. At issue is whether the committee should allow a "scrutiny override" to allow her to sign up to a compromise. She has argued that the wording on the table would be "good for public health" but the committee feels a number of important issues remained unresolved.
With renewed concern over lobbying and influence on government and Parliament, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (at 2pm) has a session on the government's lobbying bill, with Chloe Smith, the Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform at the Cabinet Office.