Week ahead in committees

A couple of sparky sessions in prospect on the committee corridor, next week - but you can't really call in a vintage week.

The most politically salient hearing looks to be the Work and Pensions Committee's latest look at the progress of the ultra-ambitious Universal Credit programme, with Iain Duncan Smith, whose exchanges with the Committee have occasionally become a bit tetchy.

And I like the look of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee's hearing on primates as pets...

Here's my rundown of the week's most promising hearings.


Sparks may fly over at the Work and Pensions Committee (4.30pm) when Secretary of State Iain Duncan Smith appears for a general scrutiny session on his departmental annual report and accounts 2013-14, alongside his top civil servant Robert Devereux.

I'm expecting this to be mostly devoted to the slow-motion roll-out of Mr Duncan Smith's mega-reform, the Universal Credit.

Shortly after his last committee appearance, his department published its latest annual accounts, which amongst other things revealed an accelerated write-down in the value of the computer kit purchased for Universal Credit, implying, possibly more IT problems and sweeping rethink of the system.

Committee members are keen to probe further.

And watch out for the interplay between Cabinet Minister and Permanent Secretary - IDS was moved to deny that he was responsible for briefings blaming Mr Devereux for the problems with Universal Credit, a move which raises interesting questions about who was doing the briefing, as well as about the internal tensions at DWP.

The Lords EU Sub Committee on the Internal Market, Infrastructure and Employment, (4,15pm) will be following the recent fashion for taking to Twitter to ask for questions, as they quiz two ministers about youth unemployment.

Esther McVey MP, Minster for Employment at DWP, and Matthew Hancock, Skills and Enterprise Minister, who is shared between the business and education departments, will face questions about the effectiveness of the Youth Contract policy, which previous witnesses have criticised and about why UK youth unemployment is worse than in Germany and the Netherlands, as well as the OECD average.

Key issues will include whether there's a lack of demand from businesses, or whether the problem is centred on the skills and attitude amongst young people, the quality of careers advice and the usefulness of EU initiatives.

The Twitter hashtag for this session is #jobs4youth.

The debacle over the BBC's Digital Media Initiative is the subject at the Public Accounts Committee (3pm) based on this memorandum from the National Audit Office, which has investigated the saga.

The BBC cancelled the programme in May 2013, having decided that most of the £125.9 million spent on it had been wasted.

The NAO said BBC executives did not have a sufficient grip of the programme and did not appear to appreciate the extent of the problems until a late stage.

Senior BBC figures including former director general Mark Thompson, Caroline Thomson, the former chief operating officer, and Zarin Patel, former financial officer, are among the witnesses.


The Treasury Committee (10.00am) hears from the Financial Conduct Authority, with John Griffith-Jones, chairman and Martin Wheatley, chief executive.

Mr Griffith Jones had rather a rough ride from the committee in his pre-appointment hearing a year ago, largely over his links with KPMG.

But the murmur from Committee members now is that the FCA has proved to be a tough regulator (they judge this by the number of sotto voce moans they hear from City institutions) so he may not get quite the going over he might have expected from previous experience.

Will the chair of the Charity Commission, William Shawcross, get a monstering at the Public Administration Committee (9.30am)?

There are all kinds of issues where the Commission has come under fire; its U-turn on the charitable status of the Plymouth Brethren and its handling of the Cup Trust case - the Public Accounts Committee noted the Cup Trust never met the legal criteria to qualify as a registered charity, and its purpose was to avoid UK tax.

The PAC added that the Commission's approach to regulation and enforcement lacked rigour and evidence.

The committee will be following up on the PAC's verdict and it will be interesting to see how much blame they attach to Mr Shawcross and how much to the inherited problems of the Charity Commission - and to its recent 30 per cent downsizing.

The Home Affairs Committee (2.45pm) continues its look at the performance thus far of the new breed of Police and Crime Commissioners.

One of the themes is likely to be the ramifications of the impending demise of the Chief Constables' umbrella group, Acpo, which is losing much of its funding from Police Authorities in the coming year, with a Chief Constables' Council, which will also involve elected Police and Crime Commissioners, taking over some of its work.

Some committee members are keen that this should be a more modest body and not a "continuity Acpo."

The witnesses include the Local Government Association, and members of local police and crime panels from Surrey, West Yorkshire and Hertfordshire, plus the Police Federation.

There are also two meetings of the special joint committee (of MPs and peers) scrutinising the Draft Modern Slavery Bill (10.30am and then 2.30pm).

They're aiming to complete their consideration and report in time to allow a second reading for a polished-up version of the bill in the Commons in March, which means quite a yomp for the committee members, who're meeting around four times a week, under the chairmanship of Labour's Frank Field.

One of the issues they may wish to add to the bill is that of slavery being "offshored" - that is of companies knowingly or unknowingly using forced labour in their supply chains.

Witnesses today are drawn from the Forced Labour Monitoring Group, the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply, the Recruitment and Employment Confederation and the Association of Labour Providers.

The afternoon witnesses include the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, and Focus on Labour Exploitation.

The Chancellor, George Osborne, ventures to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee (3pm).

An impressive array of ex-ministers and economic savants will question him about whether the current upturn in the economy is sustainable, the drop in productivity in since 2008, house price inflation, the prospects for developing a shale gas and oil industry in the UK, and his views on Business Secretary Vince Cable's concern that London was a "giant suction machine draining life out of the rest of the country, plus, doubtless, many other issues.

The committee includes such luminaries as his predecessor Lord Lawson, the economic historian Lord Skidelsky and Labour titan of industry Lord Hollick - and the chair is the Conservative former Cabinet Minister Lord MacGregor.


Could diseases like CJD be spreading via contaminated blood?

The Science and Technology Committee (9.15am) has a session on blood, tissue and organ screening, with evidence from the pressure group TaintedBlood, the Haemophilia Society, the UK Primary Immunodeficiency Network, and a series of NHS advisory bodies.

Business Secretary Vince Cable and Universities Minister David Willetts give evidence on the implications of Scottish independence for business, higher education and postal services to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee (10.45am).

The Public Accounts Committee (2.15pm) turns its attention to the contracts to provide Asylum Accommodation based on this report from the National Audit Office.

It revealed that G4S and Serco, two of the new providers awarded Home Office contracts to provide accommodation for asylum seekers, struggled to get contracts up and running, resulting in poor performance, delays and additional costs and there were particular concerns about the standard of property and the time taken to acquire properties for asylum seekers.

Top managers from Serco and G4S Care and Justice Services , plus Home Office officials will be questioned.

Is it cruel to keep monkeys and other primates as pets?

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (3pm) holds a one-off evidence session focusing on the issue.

The RSPCA estimates that around 7,000 primates are kept privately in England, Wales and Scotland and the committee wants to look at the animal welfare implications and the codes of practice and legislation covering them.

On the witness list are: Wild Futures, the RSPCA, the City of London Corporation, Monkey World, the British Veterinary Zoological Society, and Dr Lisa Riley, primatologist and independent consultant in animal welfare, followed at 4pm by junior Defra minister, Lord De Mauley.


Fag end or climactic ending?

There are already complaints in Westminster that we're now in an 18 month election campaign, leading up to the May 2015 polling day set in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.

Now, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (10am) is looking at what will happen in the final year of a Parliament with the former cabinet secretary Lord O'Donnell 9.45 am

And that joint committee on the Draft Modern Slavery Bill (see above) is back for two more sittings (10am and 2.30pm).