Festive fun at Westminster

Mark D'Arcy in festive clothing Season's greetings!

'Twas the week before Christmas and all through the House, not a creature was stirring; not even a... backbencher.

It should be a relatively quiet week before the Christmas break, but with a rather noisier final Thursday, with a clash over HS2 in prospect and, perhaps, a last minute sting in the tail for the Conservative whips.

Monday

The Commons meets at 2.30pm for Defence Questions, (postponed from this week, to make way for tributes to Nelson Mandela) and then, assuming there are no ministerial statements or urgent questions, MPs move on to the second reading of the Care Bill.

The bill, which has already been considered by the House of Lords, updates and improves the law and puts in place the new 'Dilnot system' to cap the amount individuals will have to pay for their care.

Much of the debate is expected to revolve around 'devil in the detail' issues about the cap on care costs, but the key point of contention will be the level of funding needed to bring it to life.

Critics including Age UK say the system is on the verge of collapse from underfunding.

The day's adjournment debate, led by Lib Dem John Leech, is on safer seating at football stadiums.

He has called for 'safe-standing' to be reintroduced into English football.

In the Lords (from 2.30pm) Question Time ranges across the outcome of discussions with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on 6 November, recommendations for improving mental health, from the World Innovation Summit for Health, the new sanctions regime for Jobseeker's Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance claimants, and the number of people employed in tourism and hospitality.

Peers then move on to their third day of committee stage debate on the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill - this is the shadow-boxing phase before the real action begins at report stage.

And then they move on to look at Commons amendments the Banking Bill - where MPs have rejected one of the changes made by peers on the issue of professional standards in the financial sector.

Tuesday

The first business in the Commons (11.30am) is Justice Questions - followed by a Ten Minute Rule Bill presented by the Conservative MP Robert Buckland.

His Mental Health Outcomes (Measurement) Bill aims to improve the monitoring of people's experience of mental health care.

He says monitoring is vital, if the NHS is to move towards giving full parity between mental and physical health.

The day's legislating is on the Local Audit and Accountability Bill - where MPs will go through the report stage and the third reading.

The bill abolishes the watchdog quango, the Audit Commission, and imposes new controls on local council publicity - what Secretary of State Eric Pickles calls "town hall pravdas."

The day's adjournment debate is led by former prime minister Gordon Brown - who once again raises the issue of radiation contamination in Dalgety Bay in his constituency - a subject he has already raised in two adjournment debates this year (on March 6th and July 9th - as well as in 2011).

Mr Brown has called on the Ministry of Defence to pay for the clean-up of the beach after the Scottish Environment Protection Agency found that significant amounts of radioactive material remained buried on the coast and blamed the Government for contaminating the area.

More subjects chosen by backbench MPs are raised in Westminster Hall - my eye was caught by Guto Bebb's debate (9.30 - 11am) on the Tomlinson Report - Lawrence Tomlinson, an adviser to the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, criticised the state-owed RBS for pushing businesses into default.

Mr Bebb has said he's appalled at RBS's weak reaction to the Tomlinson Report and has called for an independent enquiry.

He is also chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Interest Rate Hedging Products, which were extensively mis-sold to small businesses by the big banks.

And at 4.30pm Lib Dem Simon Hughes will be calling for more affordable housing to be built in London - he's picking up on a seven-point plan for more affordable homes, published by Lib Dem members of the London Assembly, which argues that 135,000 new jobs could be created if 250,000 new affordable homes were built.

In the Lords (from 2.30pm) questions to ministers cover the disproportionate number of ex-public school pupils in top government posts, the recommendations of the report of the Independent Panel on Forestry, and ticket touting in the sport, music and entertainment industries .

Then peers move on to their second report stage day on the Children and Families Bill, with lots of amendments on the issue of children and young people with disabilities and special educational needs.

And that is followed by the second reading debate on the Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Bill - which extends the regulation of internet and remote gambling.

Wednesday

The Commons meets at 11.30am for Scottish Questions, followed by the final Prime Minister's Question Time of 2013, at noon.

With increasing numbers of military personnel running into financial trouble, Gareth Thomas, the Labour MP who leads to Co-operative group of MPs, has a Ten Minute Rule Bill to set up a Credit Union for members of the Armed Forces, to give them an alternative to borrowing from payday lenders.

He wants the government to set up a credit union similar to the Navy Federal, the US institution which more than four million members.

He argues that it could make a real difference to the quality of life for service personnel.

The day's main debates are on Labour motions on the accident and emergency services and on food banks

The Commons day ends with an adjournment debate on coastal flooding in Waveney - local MP Peter Aldous says the storm surge had a significant impact on many coastal communities, including in Lowestoft, and that Parliament has yet to look closely as what he believes was a "narrowly averted national crisis."

In the Lords (from 11am) ministers field questions on ensuring small businesses are not penalised by late payment of bills, training for the extra jobs to be created by HS2, and reducing the number of children born with neural tube defects and considering fortifying white bread flour with folic acid

Then peers continue their preliminary skirmishing over the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill with their fourth day of committee stage debate.

And there will also be a short debate commemorating the role of armed forces and other personnel from the Indian sub-continent in the First World War, led by the Conservative, Lord Sheikh.

And after all that is done peers, for once, begin their holiday break before the Commons - they will return to Westminster on 7 January.

Thursday

MPs gather at 9.30am for Transport Questions, followed by the in-house question time for the Leader of the House and the Commons administrative arm, the House of Commons Commission.

This looks very much like an opportunity for the sotto voce griping about MPs' pay to become properly audible.

The party leaders' combined opposition to the Ipsa recommendation for a one-off 11% increase is not popular with the troops, but their angst has mostly surfaced only at party meetings.

A question time devoted to parliament's domestic issues would be a suitable venue for complaints from anyone prepared to brave the wrath of the media.

And that's followed by the weekly business statement from the Leader of the House, Andrew Lansley.

Sparks may then fly as the chair of the Transport Select Committee, Labour MP Louise Ellman launches its latest report "High Speed Rail: On Track?" which says the controversial HS2 scheme is needed to provide a long-term increase in the capacity of the railway, but they suggest construction should start from the north towards the south as well as northwards from London.

HS2 opponents, notably former Cabinet Minister Cheryl Gillan have already accused the committee of "a lack of critical analysis and a bias towards government spin among."

Cheryl Gillan is promising to be in the chamber to make those points.

Then MPs move on to their traditional end of term debate, at which they can raise any subject they like.

These debates used to be rather amorphous affairs with a hapless junior minister expected to respond to all kinds of subjects, but thanks to the Backbench Business Committee (and particularly to ex-member Phillip Hollobone), they've now been given a bit of structure, so that, for example, MPs who want to talk about NHS issues will be grouped together and will get an answer from a health minister.

I say minister, but it may for some sections of the debate, be a government whip who answers.

The whips, I'm told, rather enjoy the rare chance to speak, and the result is rather more useful to everybody than the old-style debate that ended with a minister - usually the Deputy Leader of the House - spraying out promises to get other ministers to write back in response to the various speeches.

Meanwhile temperatures may rise a little higher in Westminster Hall (1.30pm) where there will be a backbench debate on Immigration from Bulgaria and Romania - this could produce an end of term embarrassment for the whips - even though debates here are "non-controversial," in the sense that votes are not normally held.

So far 73 MPs, mostly Conservative, have signed an amendment to the Immigration Bill from backbencher Neil Parrish, on this issue.

The bill has yet to re-appear in the Commons for its report stage, and this debate seems designed to keep up the pressure, with a succession of backbenchers putting the boot in.

Among the Conservative frank and file there is increasing concern about the potential for a real debacle in next year's European elections, and this will not be the last occasion when groups of backbenchers attempt to offer tougher policies to the electorate than their leaders.

Then it's off for the Christmas holidays - with MPs back on Monday 6 January.

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

Week ahead

What's on the agenda in the Commons and the Lords next week?

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