Week ahead

How much life is left in the 2013-14 Parliamentary Year? The speculation that Parliament may adjourn as early as May 8th continues at Westminster, as MPs grumble incessantly about the lack of legislative meat for them to chew on.

But this week holds a few morsels to exercise the parliamentary molars.

The long-awaited launch of the HS2 Bill should test the diplomatic and procedural skills of ministers, while the detailed debate on the Wales Bill, under the shadow of the Scottish independence Referendum, may prove to be the appetiser for a much more wide-ranging debate on devolution within the UK.

This will be a Commons-only week, with their Lordships not due to return until May 6th. Here's my rundown of the week ahead:

Monday April 28th

The Commons re-opens at 2.30pm for Home Office Questions - and after the Easter recess, it's likely there will be ministerial statements or urgent questions on a couple of issues.

Then MPs will move on to the day's main business - the Second Reading of the High Speed Rail (London - West Midlands) Bill - this is a hybrid bill (ie a bill dealing with both public issues and specific private interests) and so the procedure will be a little different from the usual run of legislation.

In particular there will be a very long committee stage, perhaps extending beyond the next General Election, which is possible with this species of legislation.

The bill is backed by all three main party leaderships, but expect strong resistance from MPs with seats along the proposed line - there are two amendments down, calling for the bill to be denied a second reading.

One objects to the proposed route and a second complains that MPs have not been given access to a key report from the Major Projects Authority.

And watch out for coded messages or third-party smoke signals from the several ministers with constituency issues. These include the Europe Minister David Lidington, the Attorney-General Dominic Grieve and the Justice Minister, Jeremy Wright.

Plus, Mr Speaker's Buckingham seat is affected - so will he have to recuse himself from chairing the debate, selecting amendments, etc?

With considerable numbers of backbenchers wishing to speak there has been pressure to make this a two-day debate. The government has agreed to allow debate to continue for an extra hour - until 11pm, but any statements or urgent questions will, inevitably, reduce the time available.

So expect considerable chuntering if this debate is shorter than normal, and then the Commons peters out early for lack of interest in the debates scheduled for later in the week.

The day ends with an adjournment debate led by the Conservative Sir Roger Gale, on the future of Manston Airport - which is threatened with closure.

Tuesday April 29th

For several weeks three have been snark-like sightings of the Transport for London Bill, a private bill to give new legal powers to TfL to manage its finances and, in particular, its considerable property portfolio. Every now and then a formal second reading is set down on the order paper, but it never actually happens.

This is because a group of MPs, Labour's Andy Slaughter and John McDonnell, and the scourge of private bills, the Conservative, Christopher Chope, keep signalling that they will attempt to postpone the Bill for six months, thus forcing a debate.

Mr Slaughter is pressing for the removal of clause 5 of the Bill which allows them new powers to develop their land , arguing that it is a bad deal for the public in general and the local communities in particular.

The bill is once again down on the order paper as the first business for Tuesday - but, once again, it may be pulled if the objectors persist. If not, it will pass second reading in a couple of seconds.

After that (11.30am) its Treasury Questions. And an hour later - barring any statements or urgent questions - the Labour MP Alison Seabeck will present a Ten Minute Rule Bill to exempt Safe and Sanctuary Rooms from the Housing Benefit Under-occupancy Penalty, known to some as the "bedroom tax".

Then it is back to the High Speed Rail (London - West Midlands) Bill - and a series of motions to do with the procedure and the parameters within which the bill committee will operate. See my previous blog on this.

MPs will also have to approve or reject Lords amendments to the Defence Reform Bill - and the government looks set to play its trump card, financial privilege, to quash the most important change made in the upper house, which was to require a further report from the Defence Secretary to parliament, before greater use of contracting-out in defence procurement.

Financial Privilege is parliament-speak for the Commons' sole right to control the purse-strings of government - and will normally over-ride peers' objections to legislation.

Over in Westminster Hall there are the usual series of debates on subjects chosen by backbenchers - my eye was particularly caught by the Conservative Robin Walker's morning debate on fairer schools funding and the f40 campaign. f40 is an organisation representing local councils with the lowest funding for primary and secondary pupils, and it argues for a significant change in the way the government distributes the money .

Later (at 4pm) the Labour MP Kevin Brennan will raise the restrictions on the kind of guitar strings prisoners may keep in their cells.

The Ministry of Justice rules allow nylon strings, but not steel ones - and Mr Brennan doesn't see any good reason for that. His debate comes as campaigners, including the musician Billy Bragg, seek to promote the value of music in prisons in helping rehabilitate inmates.

Wednesday April 30th

The Commons meets at 11.30am for Cabinet Office Questions, followed, at noon by Prime Minister's Question Time. The Lib Dem Greg Mulholland will present a Ten Minute Rule Bill on Community Involvement in the National Planning Policy Framework.

Then there might be a bit of fun around the "Motion relating to Section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993," - this is the economic data the government will send to the EU Commission to show the UK is honouring its commitments under the EU stability and growth pact, a requirement rather resented by Eurosceptic MPs.

The day's main legislating is on the Wales Bill - which makes some changes to the devolution settlement. As a constitutional measure, it will be debated in detail over two days, by a committee of the whole house (Day 2 is pencilled in for May 6th).

The deadline for amendments does not elapse until Monday - but a number have already appeared. Shadow Welsh Secretary Owen Smith wants to give the Assembly control over setting the precise dates for its elections (within a limited term) and prevent individuals from running both for particular constituencies and as PR regional list candidates.

Labour sources point to the election in Clwyd West in 2003, when their candidate won the seat, and the three other candidates all ended up in the Assembly via the regional list.

Interestingly the former Constitutional Affairs minister, Mark Harper, currently a backbencher, has an amendment down on the same issue calling for a review of the balance between constituency and regional List AMs, and a look at the possibility of abolishing the five regional lists in favour of a national list of AMs.

There are also amendments down from the Chair of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, David TC Davies on the financing of cross-border health services, for example people who live in England, but are registered with a GP in Wales.

Plaid Cymru's MPs have signed an amendment to remove the need to hold a referendum on devolving powers over income tax if that meant only being able to vary the three rates together (that is, the 'lockstep'); to remove the lockstep on the three income tax rates - in order to preserve the Silk Commission's recommendation that the Welsh Government should be able to vary individual income tax rate bands.

Any referendum held would therefore be on the original Silk proposals without a lockstep;

The party will also be tabling an amendment which would give the National Assembly the power to rename itself should it wish - the amendment does not rename the institution automatically - from the Welsh Assembly to the National Parliament of Wales, to reflect its status as a full law-making body.

Plaid MPs also want give the Assembly Government more power to vary the rate of income tax - in line with their policy to reverse the Coalition's decision to cut the top rate of tax from 50p to 45p, for the highest incomes.

The day's Westminster Hall debates include: Type 1 diabetes and young people (9.30 - 11am); protection of bowling greens (11 - 11.30am) and admissions in Catholic schools (2.30 - 4pm).

On the latter, the Conservative MP Damian Hinds is concerned that the government now prefers new schools to be Free Schools, which may only admit up to 50 per cent of pupils on grounds of religion; this could mean that it is hard to maintain the Catholic character of new Catholic schools - traditionally they have been Voluntary Aided Schools, but he believes it has become harder to get approval for new schools of this type.

Finally, at 4.30pm Labour MP Shabana Mahmood leads a debate on the Rana Plaza disaster and working conditions in the garment industry - a year on from the tragedy in Bangladesh.

Thursday May 1st

The Commons meets at 9.30am, when the newly anointed Culture Secretary Sajid Javid will make his despatch-box debut in his new role, at Culture, Media and Sport Questions - and Nicky Morgan will debut at Women and Equalities Questions.

That is followed by the weekly Business Statement, from the Leader of the House, Andrew Lansley.

The rest of the day is devoted to debates chosen by the Backbench Business Committee. First the Labour MP Steve Rotherham leads a debate on cervical cancer screening tests and the case of Sophie Jones - the 19 year-old woman who died after being refused a test, which might have detected her cancer in time.

Then there's a wide-ranging debate on freedom of thought, conscience and religion - Naomi Long, Mark Pritchard and Julian Lewis have secured a debate on the persecution of Christians and of other faiths.

In Westminster Hall (2.30-4.30pm) MPs will debate two reports from the Welsh Affairs Select Committee on the impact of the Government's welfare reforms, and on the Work Programme in Wales.

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

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