Week ahead at Westminster

A couple of minor parliamentary novelties in the Commons signal a bit of pre-electoral tension creeping in: the government's introducing a new criminal law bill a few weeks before the end of the parliamentary year, and Labour are using an opposition day to try and kill an order on "bedroom tax" regulations.

Both manoeuvres signal a keenness to bring what the parties see as vote winning issues into the Westminster limelight, as the European elections and an important round of local elections loom on the horizon.

Here's my detailed rundown of events next week:


The Commons meets at 2.30pm for work and pensions questions - and after that we can expect at least one ministerial statement or urgent question.

It would be surprising if ministers did not have something to say about flooding, or events in Ukraine.

MPs have been complaining about a lack of meaty legislation to get their teeth into, and an obliging government has now provided them with the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill.

Its second reading debate comes rather late in the parliamentary session, and MPs will be asked to approve a "carry-over" order, allowing consideration to be continued into the next parliamentary year.

They will have plenty to talk about; this is one of those multi-headed bills that include all kinds of eye-catching provisions:

  • Making criminals pay towards the cost of their cases - the Bill introduces a criminal courts charge which will also be apply for unsuccessful appeals and hearings for breaching court orders. Under 18s will be exempt.
  • Ending automatic release half way through their sentence for offences including rape of a child and certain terrorism offences.
  • Extending the definition of extreme pornography to cover the possession of extreme images that depict rape.
  • Creating a new breed of secure colleges for young offenders, intended to focus on high quality education in youth custody, with the aim of reducing reoffending. This proposal is already under fire from pressure groups like the Howard League for Penal Reform and Children's Rights Alliance for England.
  • Measures to ban jurors researching cases on the internet.
  • New restrictions on Judicial Review, allowing a court to refuse to give relief to a claimant if it is "highly likely that the outcome would not have been substantially different if the conduct complained of had not occurred." - Critics say this means a decision-maker could get the law completely wrong, or even act dishonestly, and the court would not grant a remedy. It is not hard to imagine this running into considerable trouble in the House of Lords, where a small army or high-powered lawyers and retired judges lie in wait.

In Westminster Hall (4.30 - 7.30pm) Lib Dem John Hemming leads a debate on an e-petition about holiday companies charging extra in school holidays.

In the Lords (from 2.30pm) The day's main legislating is on the Pensions Bill - where peers begin the report stage.

This bill brings in a new single tier pension to replace the basic state pension and SERPS, and one of the arguments will be over whether the new system takes enough account of people who on zero hours and part time contracts.

Labour peer and former social security minister, Lady Hollis will propose an enabling amendment to allow regulations to be brought forward to deal with the problem.


The Commons meets at 11.30am for health questions.

The day's Ten Minute Rule Bill is presented by the Conservative, Ben Gummer, who has quite a hit rate getting bright ideas into government policy.

Previous offerings on offshore betting and giving each taxpayer a statement of how their money is spent have been picked up by George Osborne.

Now, he proposes renaming National Insurance as the "Earnings Tax".

The argument is that NI is a tax, not an insurance payment.

All sorts of intriguing policy consequences hove into view if that is accepted, so watch this space.

The day's main business is a series of orders implementing the annual up-rating of social security benefits and pensions.

That's followed by a Backbench Business Committee debate on the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership - a potentially game-changing free-trade agreement between the EU and the United States.

In Westminster Hall, my eye was caught be the backbench debate on regional variation in educational attainment for disadvantaged pupils - led by the Conservative Damian Hinds (9.30- 11am).

There's a big gap between different regions, with all the best performing education authorities in London.

Mr Hinds, who chairs the all-party group on social mobility, wants to look at why.

In the Lords (from 2.30pm) business begins with the introduction of a new peer, General Sir David Richards, who was chief of the defence staff 2010-13.

Then peers rattle through a series of private members bills which command cross party support, and two government bills; the third reading of the relatively uncontroversial National Insurance Contributions Bill followed by the report stage of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill - which makes some adjustments to the devolved system in Northern Ireland on such issues as registering voters and declaring donations to political parties.


The Commons meets at 11.30am for Northern Ireland questions, followed, at noon, by prime minister's question time.

The day's ten minute rule bill is the Domestic Violence (Legal Framework) Bill, presented by Plaid Cymru's Westminster leader, Elfyn Llwyd, who led the successful campaign for an anti-stalking law.

It would write the government's definition of domestic violence into law, criminalising a range of conduct that's not illegal at present.

The main debate is rather a novel event.

It's on a Labour motion on new housing benefit regulations, which aim to close a loophole which left more than 13,000 people exempt from the benefit changes Labour have dubbed the "bedroom tax".

Normally, when the opposition don't like an order like this one, the result is a debate in a committee.

But on this occasion they're using an opposition day to force it onto the floor of the House.

Over in Westminster Hall the Labour former Cabinet Minister Ben Bradshaw leads a debate on the severe weather on the South West of England (9.30 - 11am) and my eye was also caught by the Labour MP Gregg McClymont's debate (4.30 - 5pm) on CE marking on structural steelwork - this is about an EU directive which comes into force in July, which will require all structural steel to meet a specified standard and carry the CE mark.

Mr McClymont is concerned about the lack of awareness across the industry, which could end up with consignments of steel being rejected because they don't carry the CE mark.

In the Lords (from 3pm) Peers continue with the report stage of the Pensions Bill - with the focus turning to fees and charges on pensions.

There's a lively argument at the moment about the level and transparency of fees charged by pension providers.

The government could come under serious pressure and may be forced into offering concessions to avert a defeat.


The Commons meets at 9.30am for energy and climate change questions (Secretary of State Ed Davey has been taking paternity leave, but will be there).

Watch the body language between him and his junior minister, the Conservative hard-man Michael Fallon after they traded blows over climate change policy.

The main business is two debates chosen by the Backbench Business Committee.

First, on the effects of welfare reform on sick and disabled people - Labour MPs John McDonnell and Grahame M. Morris lead a debate based on this e-petition calling for an impact assessment and a free vote on repeal of the Welfare Reform Act.

Then MPs turn to the lack of representation for women ethnic minorities and disabled people in the Commons.

Labour's Dame Anne Begg and Conservative Margot James take the lead.

In Westminster Hall (1.30 - 4.30pm) the Conservative George Freeman leads a debate on the hot topic of patient rights and access to NHS data.

In the Lords (from 11am) Peers debate Syria and the Middle East, and a series of orders relating to gay marriage.

Has the heat gone out of last year's big controversy?


The Commons meets at 9.30am for the final day allocated for private members' bills, and there are a vast number of bills listed on the order paper for consideration.

But most of them won't be debated and will be ritually poll-axed when time runs out at the end of the day.

The main interest is in the fate of the Conservative Dan Byles' House of Lords Reform Bill which is the latest incarnation of the measure which the former Liberal Leader, Lord Steel, has been pushing for some years.

It would allow peers to retire from the upper house, to be expelled for serious wrongdoing, and to be removed for non-attendance.