- 2 May 2014
- From the section UK Politics
Even with the May Day Bank Holiday to compress the Westminster week, next week's parliamentary business once again looks a little thin - with a few legislative loose ends to be dealt with, plus the continuation of detailed debate on the Wales Bill.
Time has been found for MPs to debate a series of proposals to improve the rules of the Commons - and there may be more to come.
The subjects up for debate (See the Thursday section below) do not include proposals to give a guaranteed second reading vote to the top few Private Members Bills in each year, which are being enthusiastically pushed by the Commons Procedure Committee.
Furthermore, as yet there's no sighting of a second reading for the Anti-Slavery Bill, which has been scrutinised by a committee of MPs and Peers, and which backers hoped would be put before the Commons before the current year ends.
The rumour is that Parliament will lurch on until the morning of May 15, before the prorogation ceremony which signals the end of the Parliamentary year - after which it will return at the State Opening June 4th, for the final Queen's Speech of the Coalition. That day could see a very interesting atmosphere indeed, in the wake of the local and European Parliament elections, and with the Newark by-election due the next day.
The Commons meets at 2.30pm for Justice Questions - which could be interesting given the latest Coalition split on knife-crime. Then (always assuming no statements or urgent questions intervene) there's a Ten Minute Rule Bill from upwardly mobile Conservative MP Chris Skidmore, a member of the Downing Street Policy Board. He wants to create a new category of school pupil - pupils at risk of educational disadvantage - whose progress would be monitored in the same way as children with special educational needs. The idea is to force schools to confront educational failure by intervening faster and earlier.
The main legislating is the continuation of the Committee of the Whole House on the Wales Bill - a few votes are expected, although not necessarily ones with headline-breaking content.
Topics up for debate include: the assembly's power to set a rate of income tax, but only after a referendum; implementing the recommendations of the Silk Commission that the Welsh Government have the power to set different rates of tax for different income bands; Welsh government powers to introduce new tax credits; financing of cross-border health services; options for Barnett formula reform; and the assembly's power to rename itself.
The other event to watch is the evening's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting, into which will shuffle eight slightly uneasy Conservative MPs who are vying for the chair of the defence select committee.
This will probably be the decisive moment in this election (no-one bombed, or dominated at the equivalent 1922 Committee hustings); the post is reserved for a Conservative under the carve-up of select committees agreed by the parties after the last election, but all MPs have a vote - and with the Conservative MPs lining up behind such a large number of candidates, the contender who makes the best pitch for the Labour vote, or who Labour MPs simply like best, will probably win.
It's what you might call the Bercow principle.
In the Lords (from 2.30pm) there's the apotheosis of David Steel's House of Lords Reform (No. 2) Bill - which now looks set to pass at something like the fifth attempt. It's a very modest measure which makes provision for retirement from the House of Lords, and allows the expulsion of peers convicted of serious offences.
It will be formally discharged from its committee stage, without amendment - and the third reading will be held on Tuesday 13th.
Then peers turn to the third reading of the Immigration Bill - the government suffered two heavy defeats on this bill at report stage (on including a requirement to establish a joint committee to consider whether the Home Secretary should have the power to remove an individual's citizenship, if obtained by naturalisation, for reasons of the public good, even if this meant they would be stateless, and on adding a clause ensuring that potential child victims of people trafficking have an independent guardian to look after their interests). Further government defeats are not likely.
The real fun will come when the bill returns to the Commons and the Home Office will seek to overturn at least Lord Pannick's amendment on the citizenship issue.
The Commons meets at 11.30am for the increasingly-tetchy fixture of Scottish Questions, followed by what could be the final Prime Minister's Question Time, of this session, at noon.
The day's Ten Minute Rule Bill is from Labour's Nick Raynsford - a former Fire Service Minister - on requiring smoke alarms in the private rented homes. He notes that almost one in five privately rented homes still do not have a smoke detector, putting over 650,000 households at increased risk of death. He accuses the government of dithering in implementing a clause in the Energy Act 2013, which makes it possible for ministers to impose this.
He has said: "When installing a sealed smoke alarm with a ten year battery costs about £15, it is absurd to call this a regulatory burden. It is a matter of life and death. Without a smoke alarm, you are four times more likely to die in a fire. Private tenants know that when they move into a property, by law their landlord must issue a gas safety certificate. Let's make it the same for smoke alarms."
MPs will then deal with Lords' amendments (I assume) on the Immigration Bill (see above) allowing them to ping-pong back to the Lords on Thursday.
In the Lords the main business is the consideration of Commons amendments to the Care Bill - the main issues are the system for reconfiguration of local NHS services, the protections and sanctions around care data, and on Human Rights Act applicability in Care Homes (no vote expected on the Crossbencher Lord Low's amendment on this issue after the government offered a concession). Following is Lord Pannick's regret motion on Judicial Review and legal aid.
The Commons meets at 9.30am for Transport Questions; followed by in-house questions to Leader of the House and the House of Commons Commission (the Commons' administrative arm) and the weekly business statement.
Then MPs move on to a series of motions about Commons standing orders. Normally when that phrase appears on the order paper it is sensible to down a double espresso before reading further - but the package of proposals down for debate here could have quite an impact on the way MPs do business.
First there is the issue of how the House should handle e-petitions.
The current system is a bit of an ad hoc mess. E-petitions submitted via the Downing Street website are supposed to be considered for debate, by the Commons Backbench Business Committee, once 100,000 people have signed them. Why the Downing Street website? Second, might petitions debates crowd out subjects backbench MPs want to talk about?
Third, is a full-dress Commons debate always the right parliamentary response to an issue? Some issues might be better referred to a select committee, for example.
The thought is that Westminster needs a dedicated Petitions Committee, on the lines of the one in the Scottish Parliament - but there is no real consensus on how it would work, so the matter is to be referred to the Procedure Committee, who'll then draw up a blueprint.
It will need the support of three key Commons figures: Graham Allen, Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Natascha Engel of the Backbench Business Committee and Charles Walker of the Procedure Committee - plus the Leader of the House, Andrew Lansley. And a deal all of them can sign up to should not be impossible.
Then there's a technical looking motion on "programming," which will help plug one of the worst holes in Commons procedure - the absurdity of vast numbers of important changes to Bills being dumped onto the House at a day's notice in Report Stage debates.
The motion to require two days' notice for these changes, may not rank as a revolutionary moment to rank with the storming of the Winter Palace, but it would allow more time for MPs to digest them, and more time for the amendments to be grouped for debate in a digestible way... so it will promote somewhat better scrutiny of proposed new laws.
And finally, there is the end to a fascinating little stand-off that has been fought out in the deeper recesses of the order paper for some months. Last May, the Speaker stretched Commons rules, possibly beyond breaking point, to allow an extra amendment to be voted on in the Queen's Speech debate.
This was the Conservative backbench amendment calling for legislation to guarantee an EU membership referendum in the next Parliament. The government didn't like it, but eventually the Conservative leadership was forced to accept it, and that, in turn, led to the James Wharton private members bill for a 2017 referendum.
The Empire then decided to strike back, and the Leader of the House, Andrew Lansley, put down a motion to limit Mr Speaker to selecting 3 amendments on the final day of debate (he can pick one amendment on day 1 of the Queen's Speech debate). In effect this would mean the House would debate an official opposition amendment and a minor parties' amendment - and would foreclose the possibility of an amendment from backbenchers.
The Commons procedure Committee, jealous of its role as guardian of the Standing Orders, retaliated with its own amendment allowing the Speaker to pick as many amendments as he fancied - it was signed by the entire Committee, an ominous sign in itself, and then attracted the signatures of the Shadow Leader of the house, the Chairman of the 1922 Committee and the Chair of the PLP. Result: standoff. Mr Lansley has now mellowed and put down a motion which would allow four amendments to be debated - including three on the final day of the Queen's Speech debate.
Now, this may all seem rather techy, but tweaks in the rules on select committees (the "Wright Reforms."), and a more liberal approach by the Speaker to calling amendments and urgent questions have already transformed this House of Commons into a much livelier and more relevant institution.
Taken together, the changes proposed next Thursday could make the Commons more effective and better connected to the public. I wonder if, in a few years' time, people will refer to the "Lansley Reforms" in the same breath as the "Wright Reforms."
That will be followed by a Backbench Business Committee debate on the 20th Anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide, the 100-day period in 1994 when at least 800,000 Rwandans were murdered. The motion calls on the government to "reinforce its commitment to the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine and to working within the UN to promote international justice and to avoid mass atrocities which are still committed across the globe today."
Proceedings end with an adjournment debate on the ban on mango imports from India to the EU which has halted imports into the UK, potentially until December 2015. The ban is in reaction to infestations of fruit flies found in shipments, and the ban also includes aubergines, two types of squash, and a type of leaf used in Indian cooking. This is a big issue in Leicester and local MP Keith Vaz will lead the debate.
In the Lords (from 11am) ministers will field a rather cross-looking question on "Providing prompt, full and direct answers to questions for written answer and correspondence from members of the House of Lords," which suggests that someone is getting irritated.
Then the House will debate European Union Justice and Home Affairs opt-ins and a motion on national policy statements for national networks - on rail and road network development.
There is also a "carry-over motion" on the HS2 Bill, to allow consideration to continue in the next Parliamentary year and beyond... this is expected to be formal, but with this particular bill, you never know.
Time for the Peers to continue ping-pong on the Immigration Bill has also been pencilled in. (See Tuesday).