Week ahead in committees

It's a quieter week on the committee corridor, with many committees braced to examine the impact of the latest Comprehensive Spending Review, when it is announced on Wednesday.

Others are polishing off their latest reports and the Transport Committee is off to Brussels to talk to the European Commission...

As I write there are no specific select committee sessions scheduled to look at the CQC-Morecambe Bay cover-up allegations, but an inquiry by the Health Committee seems certain, and the Public Accounts Committee may well take an interest too.

I understand the Health Committee hasn't actually met since the story emerged, so I doubt they'll be able to organise a hearing next week. But committee members probably wouldn't be keen to wait until the annual accountability hearings, which are due in the autumn...so my guess is there will be some hastily organised hearing, leading to a short report.

A secondary issue is whether they actually have the power to call witnesses who no longer work for the CQC - another gaping hole in the web of out of date laws and dusty precedents which entangle the select committee system.

In the absence of any hearings on that issue, my pick of the week is the Treasury Committee's valedictory hearing with the outgoing Governor of the Bank of England, the soon-to-be ennobled Sir Mervyn King. Will he use his farewell appearance to tell us what he really thinks of Coalition economic policy, QE, the prospects for recovery etc? Or will he wait till he takes his seat in the Lords? He's usually good value at these visitations, so watch on Tuesday at 9.30am....

Here's my rundown of the week's excitements in committee-land:


The Public Accounts Committee (at 3.15pm) takes a look at tobacco smuggling, which is both a serious threat to the national tax base and a major means by which Northern Ireland paramilitaries raise cash.

HM Revenue & Customs Chief Executive Lin Homer and Sir Charles Montgomery, the director general of the UK Border Force, will field questions based on this National Audit Office report, which concluded: "HMRC's ... performance on the ground is disappointing. It has not capitalised on extra reinvestment funding available under the 2010 spending review settlement. And it still cannot properly assess how effective its strategy is in tackling tobacco smuggling and the trade in illicit tobacco products in the UK." This subject is a bit of an old faithful for the committee, so members will be checking what they said a decade ago, and measuring subsequent performance against it....

The Communities and Local Government Committee (at 4.10pm) continues its look at Community Budgets, the concept of putting all public spending in a particular area into a single pot, and tailoring the way it is spent according to local needs and priorities. The witnesses include people involved in programmes to help troubled families, and they're followed (at 5pm) by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles. He's considered an enthusiast for the idea - but can he persuade colleagues in other departments to put some of their money into the Community Budget pot?

Then (at about 6pm) the committee turns to its look at the workings of the Greater London Authority in the wake of the new powers it received in 2007. Communities minister Brandon Lewis gives the government's views on the future of the London Assembly, in light of recent legislation and the report of the London Finance Commission, which recommended greater tax and spending powers for the Mayor of London.

The Scottish Affairs Committee (at 2.30pm) has another session on the power cuts in the West of Scotland, following on from their report last year. The heavy snowfall in March demonstrated that the problem has yet to be solved. Jane Fowler of Argyll and Bute Council is the main witness.

The most influential minister you've never heard of, Paymaster General Francis Maude is before the Public Administration Committee (at 4.45pm) to talk about the future of the civil service...the committee's keen to hear more about new reform proposals he announced in a speech to the think-tank, Policy Exchange.

And the special Lords Committee on Soft Power and the UK's Influence (4pm) wlll take evidence from a series of high powered experts from RUSI, the LSE and Chatham House.


With scandal engulfing the NHS watchdog, the CQC, the subject seems likely to come up at the Health Committee evidence session on emergency services with junior minister Lord Howe, whose brief includes "Quality" (at 9.30am). This hearing is part of an inquiry into how NHS emergency services are coping with rising demand rises and limited resources. Should the emergency services be reshaped around specialist trauma centres, and what might that mean for community and primary care services, ambulance services and existing A&E departments?

The Treasury Committee has been rather overshadowed in the last year by the (now wound-up) Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, with which it shared a chairman and several members - but the state visit (at 9.30am) of Sir Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, and his supporting cast, to talk about the May 2013 Inflation Report, may help it regain its mojo ... (see above).

International Development Minister Alan Duncan is the big-name witness as the International Development Committee (at 9.30am) continues its examination of DfID's Multilateral Aid Review.

They hear from two panels of witnesses on the implications of the review process for multilateral agencies with Mr Duncan giving his verdict as the final witness.

Elsewhere, the Public Administration Committee (9.30am) continues its look at the handling of complaints with evidence from the private sector, in the shape of First Direct Bank, Boots UK and John Lewis.

And the Committee on Standards, the MPs' disciplinary body, hears from Policy Connect; Macmillan Cancer Support; Breakthrough Breast Cancer and The Children's Society, plus senior MP Barry Sheerman as they pursue their inquiry into All Party Parliamentary Groups (9.45am).

I don't normally highlight the short meetings of the Backbench Business Committee, which typically holds a brisk half hour hearing to allow MPs to pitch for prime time debates in the Commons. But this week's meeting (3pm) may well see a concerted effort to secure a full dress Commons debate on Syria - probably on a motion requiring the government to consult, and if necessary recall, Parliament before any escalation of UK involvement in the civil war. It seems to me it would be hard for the committee to reject such a request, however unwelcome such a debate might be for the government...

Across the Palace of Westminster, the Lords Communications Committee (3.30pm) focuses on media plurality, with evidence from the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom and uber-pundit Will Hutton who has long argued for "much more hawkishness" in regulation of UK media ownership.

The committee's earlier report on the "ownership of the news" has been published.


The Science and Technology Committee (9.05am) continues to grapple with the issue of public understanding of climate change science and the policy implications that flow from it, with the aid of a host of scientists...the interesting twist, on this occasion, is that they're meeting at the Science Museum.

Back on the committee corridor, the Education Committee (at 9.30am) takes more evidence of the Foundation Years and Sure Start Children's Centres, with witnesses from Netmums, The Fatherhood Institute, the Family and Childcare Trust and PACEY (Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years); plus 4Children, the NSPCC, Barnardo's and Action for Children.

The first panel will explore how well children's centres are working with mothers and fathers, including how well they are reaching the most vulnerable families. With the second panel, the committee will question representatives from voluntary sector organisations involved in Sure Start children's centres.

The Work and Pensions Committee (at 9.45am) looks at the role of Jobcentre Plus in the reformed welfare system - one issue will be the sanctions against those who fail to turn up for job interviews. They'll quiz academic witnesses.

The special committee looking prisoner voting - via the Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill - hears evidence from the former Chief Inspector of Prisons Lord Ramsbotham, plus assorted human rights lawyers and Lord Faulks QC, of the Society of Conservative Lawyers at 9.45am.

Do forces personnel and veterans from Northern Ireland get a worse deal than those in the rest of the UK? The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee (1.30pm) hears from Northern Ireland minister and ex-soldier Mike Penning in its inquiry into the implementation of the Armed Forces Covenant in Northern Ireland. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (3pm) looks at Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity, and is taking evidence from Confor - a sustainable forestry and low-carbon business organisation - and from the Horticultural Trades Association.

And in the Lords the Constitution Committee (10.30am) ponders the very topical subject of constitutional arrangements for the use of armed force with Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt, Defence Minister Andrew Robathan, and Lib Dem Lord Wallace of Saltaire, who is the government whip for the Foreign Office.


The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (at 10am) ponders options for the future of the House of Lords with constitutional experts Dr Meg Russell, Dr Stephen Barber and Dr Chris Ballinger plus Lord Jay of Ewelme the former diplomat who chairs the Lords Appointment Commission.

With private members' bills based on Lord Steel's repeated attempts at "tidying-up" reform now before both Houses (from Conservative Dan Byles in the Commons and the former Lord Speaker, Lady Hayman in the Lords) this is a timely canter-through the issues.

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