Week ahead in Parliament
Another week where the main action is in the Lords - with four heavy legislating days, plus a private members' bill day on the Friday. The Lords must brace themselves for plenty more of this - especially with the Health and Social Care Bill due back for report stage (when most of the serious amending will be attempted by its critics) on 8 February.
The priority for the Coalition will be to get it into law before the final stage of campaigning for the various local and mayoral elections in May, which may mean some late nights and prolonged clashes with the Commons. Sensible peers will already be arranging for camp beds, thermos flasks and changes of clothing...
Monday's business in the Commons opens with questions to the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith. Then, after any ministerial statements, there are Opposition Day debates with shadow Environment Food and Rural Affairs Secretary Mary Creagh opening a debate on rising food prices and food poverty - a theme Labour plans to develop - followed by a debate on another policy initiative on youth unemployment and taxation of bank bonuses. Labour wants an employment programme funded by a windfall tax.
There's not too much action in committee-land. The Public Accounts Committee (at 3.15pm) examines the financial management of the Ministry of Justice with Permanent Secretary Sir Suma Chakrabarti and other top officials. The Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions (2:15pm) hears from Sly Bailey, chief executive at Trinity Mirror, and Richard Wallace, the editor of the Daily Mirror; and executives of online newspapers. And the Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill (at 4.35pm) has another session with the high priests of Parliament: David Beamish, Clerk of the House of Lords and Robert Rogers, Clerk of the Commons.
In the Lords, question time and any ministerial statements precede day five of report stage consideration of the Welfare Reform Bill. Peers will be examining one of its most contentious provisions - for a cap on the total benefit payable to a single household. The government believes this is a key element in its strategy to make sure work always pays more than life on benefits; critics say the idea is unworkable. The key amendment, from the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, would exclude child benefit from the cap. Expect new amendments to surface on the morning, and a very serious attempt to strike the cap down.
And in the week before the government launches its new Civil Aviation Bill into the Commons, the Labour peer Lady Gibson of Market Rasen will lead a dinner time debate on civil aviation.
On Tuesday, Commons proceedings open with Chancellor George Osborne answering Treasury Questions. MPs will then move to their second day of committee-stage debates on the Local Government Finance Bill - the bill to localise the system for paying council tax benefit and restore local control of business rates.
The day's committee highlight is probably the opening session of the Home Affairs Committee inquiry into drugs policy (at 11am). Richard Branson, who has long argued for liberalisation of anti-drug laws, is the star witness along with the former president of Switzerland, Ruth Dreifuss. Both have served as commissioners in the Global Commission on Drugs Policy, which last year declared that the war on drugs has failed and urged a new approach. Their report can be found here. The second panel of witnesses (at 11.45am) are Dame Ruth Runciman and Roger Howard of the UK Drugs Policy Commission. They have recently published work on novel psychoactive substances (so-called legal highs) and the effect austerity measures will have on UK drug policing.
The last time the Home Affairs Committee looked at drugs policy - back in 2000, when the redoubtable Chris Mullin was in the chair - it recommended "that harm reduction rather than retribution should be the primary focus of policy towards users of illegal drugs". Among those signing up to that conclusion was a bright young Conservative MP named David Cameron. Keith Vaz says this inquiry will look at "hugely controversial" alternatives to current policy. Whether it will recommend them is, of course, another matter.
The Transport Committee (at 10:05am) continues its road safety inquiry with a series of pressure groups and experts, including Richard Cuerden, Technical Director for Vehicle Safety, Transport Research Laboratory. This inquiry's been throwing up some interesting nuggets - last week's hearing produced some startling data about young drivers, accident rates and the cost of insurance payouts; as well as the government's proposals to reform the MOT system, particularly concerning the proportion of cars that fail their first MOT (20% fail at the first test, ie at three years old when many are still under warranty!).
The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee (at 10:30am) launches a new inquiry into the Insolvency Service; while the Culture Media and Sport Committee has a progress report on Olympic preparations from Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
Peers will be looking at a much-criticised proposal in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, to means-test legal advice given to people detained in police stations. This is one of the most contentious sections of the bill, but, at committee stage, opponents may not attempt to force a vote, not least because three-line whips are likely on Monday and Wednesday, for amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill.
Wednesday in the Commons opens with Northern Ireland Questions, and PMQs follow at noon. MPs then move on to consider a document on EU criminal policy - another example of the increasing volume of EU policy issues being referred to the full House of Commons by Bill Cash's European Scrutiny Committee. Then the House will debate opposed private business- the London Local Authorities Bill, which gives extra powers to the London boroughs on everything from dog-related offences to public health.
The Education Committee examines proposals to institute a chartered teacher scheme. The Science and Technology Committee (at 9.15am) has an intriguing-sounding session on risk perception and energy infrastructure and the Work and Pensions Committee (at 9.30am) looks at the progress towards automatic enrolment in workplace pensions and the National Employment Savings Trust, with Pensions Minister Steve Webb.
The Lords return to the Welfare Bill at the final day of report stage. They will deal with the Social Fund, child maintenance and child poverty. Third reading of the Welfare Bill is due on 31 January...when opponents will doubtless make a last ditch attempt to make changes.
There's also a motion "regretting" the Police Protocol Order 2011. This is the order setting out the boundaries of responsibility between the Police Commissioners due to be elected this November, and their Chief Constables; Labour say it's to prevent the commissioners interfering in operational policing. It will be interesting to see if the motion attracts Liberal Democrat support - because they have never really liked the idea of elected commissioners.
Thursday begins with Chris Huhne taking Energy and Climate Change questions before the Leader of the Commons sets out the business for the coming week.
The main business is a debate on Progress on Defence Reform and the Strategic Defence and Security Review. This is a Backbench Business Committee debate, and it will be opened by the chair of the Defence Select Committee, James Arbuthnot, who has been pressing for some time for a wide-ranging debate on defence issues.
The only committee business is the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee's second hearing (at 10am) on the government's proposals for the recall of MPs - a system allowing aggrieved constituents to force a by-election. This week's first hearing saw several witnesses, including MPs Douglas Carswell and Zac Goldsmith give the plans a good kicking, as entirely inadequate and far too Westminster-centric. The next set of witnesses include Kevin Barron MP, chair of the Standards and Privileges Committee, John Lyon, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and, in his second committee appearance of the week, Robert Rogers, Clerk of the House.
There's an promising question in the Lords from the former UKIP Leader, Lord Pearson of Rannoch; he wants to know if the government has contingency plans for the disintegration of the EU. That could produce an interesting few minutes in the overwhelmingly europhile Upper House.
And then, with a resigned sigh, peers move on, not to their usual Thursday debates, but to more legislative slog. They will begin the first of five committee stage days devoted to the Scotland Bill, which, after nearly a year in legislative limbo, will resume its journey through Parliament. Watch out for a series of ambushes from unionist politicians, including Conservative former Scottish Secretaries, Lords Laing and Forsyth, and Labour's Lord Foulkes. Lord Forsyth has an amendment down to stop the committee stage. Remember, the SNP refuses to nominate peers, so there will be few voices putting their case - although a pro-independence Liberal and a couple of Plaid Cymru peers may have a go.
Only the Lords sit on Friday when they will rest from their earlier labours by debating three private members' bills - the second reading of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims (Amendment) Bill will be proposed by the convener of the crossbench peers Lord Laming. Lib Dem Lord Newby has the Public Services (Social Value) Bill and the Conservative Lord Reay, the Wind Turbines (Minimum Distance from Residential Premises) Bill.
UPDATE: I've just heard that the Wind Turbines Bill will now be replaced in the batting order by a committee stage debate on Lord Marlesford's Parliament Square (Management) Bill which would outlaw protest camps outside Parliament and set up a management system which would allow demonstrations, but not occupations.