Week ahead at Westminster

We're only three quarters of the way through the current parliamentary year but there's already a distinct fag-end feel to proceedings in the Commons and Lords - and it might drag on rather longer than usual.

With combined local and Euro-elections due on 23 May, the normal rules forbidding big government announcements to be made in the run-up to elections makes it difficult to hold the normal announcement of a new legislative programme at the State Opening rather problematic.

There's now increasing talk that the current session will run on until mid-May, and that the next Queen's Speech will be on 4 June or possibly 11th.

Most of the current crop of bills have either been completed or are in their final stages of consideration - and before long the only major measure on the table could be the Modern Slavery Bill (now being scrutinised in draft, but pencilled in for second Reading in March). So expect lots of backbench debates, opposition days and general debates.

This week's most interesting action will probably be around question time (there may be at least two question time bouts of coalition feuding to savour) and any ministerial statements and urgent questions... or on the committee corridor, which I will deal with in a separate post.

Here's my rundown of the week's action:


Fresh from having been set a thousand lines by the Speaker, Education Secretary Michael Gove takes questions in the Commons (2.30pm) alongside his ministerial team - which could see a reprise of his public spat with his Lib Dem deputy, David Laws, over the removal of Labour's Lady Morgan as head of the schools inspectorate, Ofsted.

After that - assuming no ministerial statements or urgent questions (and there frequently are some on a Monday) MPs move on to consider Lords amendments to the Children and Families Bill, including, most particularly the proposal to ban smoking in cars carrying children.

MPs will also debate the amendment to ban e-cigarettes for under-18s.

The Lords also passed a range of measures on education, special educational needs, mediation, court processes, youth offending and detained persons.

I suspect some MPs will take issue with a few of these.

It also remains to be seen if any opposition MPs will take up Baroness Jones's (Labour) failed amendment to make sex and relationship education compulsory in schools, or Baroness Howe's (crossbench) amendment requiring internet service providers to have an opt in system for accessing adult content.

Then there's a 90-minute debate on a European Document on the Presumption of Innocence in EU Law.

Finally, she may have been deselected but she's still - rather pointedly - performing her constituency duties; Anne McIntosh leads an adjournment debate on rural bus services in North Yorkshire.

In the Lords (from 2.30pm) questions to ministers range across manufacturing activity in the UK, the number of executive directors of nursing in the NHS from black or minority ethnic backgrounds,

inequalities in British society and the requirement for agreement of leasehold blocks of flats to be commonhold.

The main legislative event is the second reading of the Immigration Bill - fresh from its stormy passage through the Commons.

Any excitement in the Lords will come at report stage, but the debate will nonetheless be interesting - and watch out for peers putting markers down on some of the issues MPs fought over.

Will someone pick up the undebated amendment from the Conservative Nigel Mills on re-imposing limits on immigration from Bulgaria and Romania, or Dr Phillip Lee's amendment on testing for blood-born viruses?

Note that the two days of committee stage aren't scheduled until the beginning of March.


Look out for more coalition crossfire in the Commons (11.30am) where the first event is questions to the deputy prime minister.

After some high profile efforts to put clear yellow water between his party and his coalition partners, Nick Clegg might expect a rougher ride from the coalition benches.

He may also face calls to allow a revamped version of the EU Referendum Bill to be debated as a government bill in the final session of this parliament.

The Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, also has his mini question time.

Then, in the absence of any statements or urgent questions, MPs debate a ten minute rule bill on additional charges for utility bills not paid by direct debit from the Conservative Robert Halfon - this was the subject of his highly successful backbench on 4 February, and Mr Halfon who has emerged as a wily Commons tactician is clearly working hard to keep the pressure up...

The main debate is an opposition motion on fairness and inequality from the SNP.

Meanwhile, in Westminster Hall a couple of the issues raised by backbenchers caught my eye: the SDLP's Margaret Ritchie leads a debate on VAT and the tourism sector, an issue which has bubbled to the surface in several debates, recently. (9.30 - 11am)

I'm intrigued by the Conservative Charlie Elphicke's debate (4 - 4.30pm) on future plans for welfare reform - and Labour's Diane Abbott raises the issue of Home Office powers to remove UK citizenship, newly extended in the Immigration Bill (4.30 - 5pm).

In the Lords (2.30pm) the subjects at question time include the extent to which section 10 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 is dealing with "exceptional cases".

This was introduced during the Bill's stormy passage, to defuse criticism that people who wanted to challenge benefits rulings would be left powerless - but Labour sources claim that it has hardly ever been used - so expect a reprise of the bitter debates over LASPO from a couple of years ago...

Other issues raised include projections for the economic growth of the British and Scottish economy in 2014, and on reducing the levels of sugar in processed products in the UK - this one, from Labour's Baroness Morgan of Ely rather caught my attention.

Having, rather surprisingly, pushed forward the argument over smoking in cars, with children in them, could cutting sugar levels be the next cause taken up by health campaigners?

The Lords is a good place to set the ball rolling on this kind of issue, because unelected peers are less nervous about accusations of nanny-statism than elected MPs.

Expect considerable scrutiny of the government's answer....

After that peers continue with the committee stage of the Water Bill - no votes are expected at this stage.

But watch out for probing amendments from the crossbench peer Lord Lytton on issues around flood insurance - including the problems people who live in leasehold properties have in getting proper cover.

Also worth watching will be a debate inquiring into the reasons for the delay in the completion of the Chilcot Inquiry into Britain's involvement in the Iraq war, which began hearings in 2009.

The debate is led by the former attorney general Lord Morris of Aberavon, who, as attorney in Tony Blair's first term as prime minister, was called on to give legal approval for bombing missions during the intervention in Kosovo.

He's always resisted commenting on Iraq - although in his memoirs he does suggest that he would have gone back to the UN for further authorisation, before using military force.

But in this debate he plans to concentrate on why the inquiry report has yet to emerge.

Expect some heavyweight ex-civil servants and diplomats to weigh in.


The Commons meets at 11.30am for Welsh questions and, for a change we may have a bit of Welsh conservative crossfire, after open disagreement between Secretary of State David Jones and the Conservative leader on the Welsh National Assembly about proposals to devolve some power over income tax to Cardiff.

Labour's line on that issue will probably come under bombardment as well.

That is followed at noon by prime minister's question time.

The main business of the day is a motion to approve the Police Grant and Local Government Finance Reports - this is MPs' chance to debate the annual share-out of central government grants to local councils and police authorities (which get far more money from Whitehall than they raise in local taxation).

This is normally an extended whinge-athon, in which MP after MP rises to complain that the special needs of their constituency have not been met.

But the government has been shaking up the local finance system, and so there will be a couple of new elements to watch for.

Labour have been arguing that changes like the New Homes Bonus (which is designed to encourage councils to give planning permission to new housing developments, by allowing them to keep all the extra council tax revenue which results) and the new localised Business Rates system represent a redistribution of money from northern authorities to southern ones.

And to spice things up still further, the intra-coalition row over the level of council tax increase needed to trigger a local referendum will doubtless be fought out as well.

The adjournment debate is on Ugandan anti-homosexuality laws and human rights, led by the Conservative former Justice Minister, Crispin Blunt.

In Westminster Hall expect some commuter angst to surface as the Dartford Conservative Gareth Johnson leads a debate on rail services in south-east England (9.30am - 11am).

And with pre-referendum tension rising, the Labour MP Ian Murray's debate on currency in Scotland after 2014 (2.30 - 4pm) will pick up on the recent comments of the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, suggesting that if an independent Scotland keeps the Pound that will require giving up some of its currency sovereignty to the Bank of England.

In the Lords (from 11am) questions to ministers will cover the take-up of arts subjects in secondary schools and whether recent figures suggest sex-selective abortion is taking place in Britain.

That's followed by a series of short debates on subjects chosen by backbench peers - Green peer Baroness Jones raises the licensing of water cannons for use on the UK mainland.

Labour's Baroness Wheeler discusses support for children and young people who have had a stroke and the Labour leader in the Lords, Baroness Royall discusses the planned expansion and management of the public forest estate following the report of the Independent Panel on Forestry.

And the Crossbencher, Lord Mawson, looks at plans to help arts and cultural organisations thrive in the current financial landscape.

And after that, peers are in recess until February 24th.


The Commons meets at 9.30am for environment, food and rural affairs questions - currently ultra-topical.

There are also the mini-question times for the Church Commissioners, the Public Accounts Commission and the Speakers' Committee on the Electoral Commission.

Then the Leader of the House, Andrew Lansley will announce what MPs will be debating when they return from their half term break, in his weekly Business Statement.

The day's main debates are on subjects chosen by the Backbench Business Committee - and the first will doubtless attract considerable attention: Conservative backbencher and former shadow home secretary David Davis, who led the campaign to disprove the "plebgate" allegations against his close ally Andrew Mitchell (who resigned as Chief Whip over them) has secured a debate on the Normington Report on reform of the Police Federation.

This recommends abolishing the revising the federation's core mission in order to move forward with the public interest in mind.

The report also recommends the federation gives a greater voice to minorities, establishes a new director of equality, and create a new "performance and standards" agreement that will set ethical standards for each federation representative.

Then, MPs debate the report of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Cancer, on Cancer priorities in the NHS.

Their recommendations cover preventing premature death for cancer patients, the quality of life for long-term and terminal patients, and helping patients recover from ill health or injury.

The week ends with an adjournment debate led by the former prime minister, Gordon Brown, on support for schooling Syrian refugees.

Meanwhile, in Westminster Hall (1.30pm - 4.30pm) MPs have a chance to debate the Culture, Media and Sport Committee's report on supporting the creative economy, which has emerged as a major sector of the UK economy with 1.5m employees, 10.6% of exports and 106,700 business come from the creative industry.

The report made a number of suggestions for changes to the law and to government policy.

It highlighted the need for better protection of intellectual property through the criminal law, and called for the creation of a "creative hub," where creative individuals to go for advice in setting-up and running new businesses and suggested tax relief should be considered for such businesses.

At the end of business the Commons departs for its half term break, returning on Monday 24 February.