The week ahead in Parliament

Mark D'Arcy
Parliamentary correspondent

  • Published
Palace of WestminsterImage source, PA Media

It's a pared-down Covid-crisis Parliamentary week, dominated by the emergency legislation due to be rushed through both Houses.

The Coronavirus Bill has 329 pages and 27 schedules.

It contains powers unimaginable a few weeks ago - allowing the police to detain suspected carriers for screening and quarantine, and to restrict travel, plus all all kinds of emergency measures to streamline the operation of the NHS during the crisis, including the certification of death.

A key issue will be the duration of the powers, and the ability of Parliament to monitor their use - but the fast track timetable for the Bill will mean there is very little time for detailed scrutiny.

In truth, scrutiny in the Commons chamber has tended to be a rather tepid process in the last couple of years, with inexperienced ministers quizzed by even more inexperienced shadow ministers, while the most effective probing comes from heavy metal backbenchers and select committee stalwarts, who inevitably get less time to press their issues.

And to prove the point, the big amendment down in the Commons on Tuesday is from Human Rights Committee chair, Harriet Harman, proposing that the Coronavirus Act should expire in six months.

The most effective checks on this, and future, emergency legislation come in the behind-the-scenes negotiations between government and opposition, in which the terms of the bills are settled in advance, to ensure a swift passage.

Sunsetting - building in an end-date at which the powers expire - and financial support will be Labour's key priorities in the talks and the ensuing debates.

Barring some improbable uprising, the bill will clear the Commons on Monday night, and peers will then speed it through second reading on Tuesday and the remaining stages on Wednesday.

Elsewhere, Westminster Hall debates, where MPs can raise issues and get a response from ministers have been cancelled - and there is an increasing trend for select committee hearings to be cancelled or re-purposed at short notice.

And, of course, the Palace of Westminster, the home of Parliament, is now closed to visitors, except those on Parliamentary business.

It's a different and more sombre place without the parties of schoolchildren in hi-vis vests and the gaggles of giggly euro-teens who normally throng the corridors.

Here's my rundown of the week ahead:

Monday, 23 March

Commons business opens (14:30) with Home Affairs Questions - with a high probability of some statements or urgent questions at 15:30.

Then MPs will be asked to approve a Business of the House motion, to allow them to pass the Coronavirus Bill in a single day. It will set the cut-off times by which the votes on each stage must be taken, leaving minimal time for debate between them.

Image source, Getty Images

As MPs zip through all stages of consideration of the bill in a single sitting, the key thing to watch will be the rather choreographed exchange of opposition questions and ministerial answers, designed to get key points onto the record - assurances about how particular powers will be used etc.

Because this is emergency legislation, MPs are being allowed to put down amendments before second reading - hence the Harman amendment mentioned above, which is signed by quite an impressive cast list - including former Brexit Secretary David Davis and former Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell on the Conservative side and SNP legal eagle Joanna Cherry. There is a similar proposal from the Labour front bench, (and another on maintaining basic incomes), but a cross-party production may well attract wider support.

There's also an amendment from Labour's Chris Bryant, which calls for "status reports" on the exercise of the powers in the bill, every two months, which have to be approved by a vote of the Commons.

Mr Bryant and the Conservative André Selous are proposing a further amendment to postpone elections to the General Synod. And look out for more amendments to appear through the weekend - they won't get on the Commons order paper, but may be flagged up in the media.

The Adjournment Debate is on the work of the Child Migrants Trust, which works with people who were transported from Britain to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Zimbabwe as children, aged between three and 14.

The practice was supported by the UK government until the late 1960s, in the hope they would build a better life, but the schemes often resulted in vulnerable children suffering hardship and even abuse.

The Trust works to help families re-unite, and the debate is led by the Conservative Sir Robert Syms, who has been campaigning on the issue for decades.

In the Lords (14:30), questions to ministers include Labour's Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon asking about BAME students referred to Pupil Referral Units and ensuring they are able to re-enter mainstream education

The main legislative action is the report stage consideration of the Extradition (Provisional Arrest) Bill, which seeks to replace some of the extradition powers available under the pre-Brexit European Arrest Warrant.

Watch out for a cross-party amendment designed to ensure that Parliament can reject agreements with individual countries with bad human rights records.

Tuesday, 24 March

MPs open, (11.30) with Treasury questions - and after Treasury Minister John Glen was given a very rough ride by MPs over concerns about protecting workers from losing their jobs during the pandemic, this could be a difficult session for Chancellor Rishi Sunak and his team.

The day's Ten Minute Rule Bill, from Green MP Caroline Lucas, is the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill - the same measure promoted in the House of Lords by Big Issue founder Lord Bird; it aims to promote policy-making for the long term.

Next, MPs turn to the detail of the Windrush Compensation Scheme (Expenditure) Bill - a short, two clause bill that gives the Home Office financial authority to make payments under the compensation scheme for people who did not have the right documentation to prove their right to live in the UK and suffered adverse effects as a result.

The estimated compensation cost, based on 15,000 claimants would range from £120m to £310m.

There's a motion appointing members to the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body, the organisation overseeing the multi-billion pound "Restoration and Renewal" project to revamp Parliament's Victorian home.

This could see some skirmishing between the forces for and against continuing with the R&R project. There's been a lot of chatter about overturning the agreed plans to move MPs and peers to temporary premises while the work is done.

After all that, there will be a backbench debate on the situation in Yemen.

On the committee corridor, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (09:45-12:00) is due to hold a "getting to know you" session with the Waste-Finder General, Gareth Davies, the Comptroller and Auditor General, and head of the public spending watchdog, the National Audit Office.

In the Lords, there's an early start (12:00) for the Second Reading of the Coronavirus Bill, with a break at the normal start time (14:30) for questions to ministers. The questions include the very topical subject of the contribution of pharmacists to the NHS from Conservative Baroness Redfern and crossbencher Viscount Waverley, asking about the government's ability to operate in the event of a pandemic or national emergency.

Peers then administer their final rubber-stamping to the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill with what is expected to be a very brief third reading debate. The bill aims to reduce the conflict that can arise from the current requirements for obtaining a divorce.

Finally, there will be a short debate on encouraging volunteers to help reduce loneliness in care homes, led by Lord Hunt of Kings Heath.

Wednesday, 25 March

The Commons day opens (11:30) with half an hour of Scotland questions, followed around noon by Prime Minister's Question Time.

The main debate will be on a Labour Opposition Day motion.

The Transport Committee (14:30) will question the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, about the impact of Coronavirus on UK transport and how his department is responding to the impact of COVID-19 on aviation, rail, freight and supply chains and local transport priorities.

Meanwhile, the Science and Technology Committee, now headed by former Business Secretary Greg Clark, is planning to hold the first evidence session of its new inquiry into the UK's ability to deal with global disease outbreaks - although the timing and witnesses are not yet confirmed.

In the Lords, peers start three hours earlier than is normal for a Wednesday (12:00) to debate the detail of the Coronavirus Bill.

This is the only moment in the bill's passage when there is a realistic possibility that an amendment might be passed; the government does not have an overall majority, but for it to lose a vote, the combined forces of Labour, the Lib Dems and the Crossbenchers have to come out against it.

At their normal start time (15:00), peers will break for half an hour of questions to ministers, which include social policy professor and Labour peer Baroness Lister, on the implications of widening health inequalities.

Then it's back to the bill.

Thursday, 26 March

The Commons opens (09.30) with 40 minutes of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport questions - I'm not sure Secretary of State, Oliver Dowden, will be there, because he has been self-isolating.

That is followed by questions to the Attorney General, and the weekly Commons business statement from the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg. Watch out for any indications of the government's thinking on when Parliament will return after Easter - will the break be prolonged?

The main debates are on two subjects selected by the backbench business committee, on errors in payments made to victims of the Equitable Life scandal, and on human rights in Kashmir.

There's also provision for "ping-pong" on any House of Lords amendments to the Coronavirus Bill - and the prospect that Royal Assent to the Bill May be announced later in the day.

In the Lords (11:00), questions to ministers include a call for a formal inquiry into reducing the growth of dependency of the UK economy. Again, there's provision for "ping-pong" with the Commons over the Coronavirus Bill.

The main business is the second reading of the Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill, postponed from Tuesday, and replacing the normal Thursday debates chosen by backbench peers.

This will require the Parole Board to take into account whether prisoners have disclosed the whereabouts of their victims remains, when considering early release.

The legislation is named after Helen McCourt, whose murderer Ian Simms was released from prison last month despite never revealing where her remains are.

The Bill will also apply to offenders who do not reveal the identity of child victims in indecent images.

Friday, 27 March

The Commons is due to sit (09:30) to consider private members' bills, all at second reading, starting with Anna McMorrin's Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies (Environmentally Sustainable Investment) Bill.

Next comes Alex Cunningham's Unpaid Work Experience (Prohibition) (No. 2) Bill, followed by Peter Bone's Hospitals (Parking Charges and Business Rates) Bill. There are plenty more bills listed on the order paper, but it is rare for more than three to be debated - it's just possible the fourth bill, also from Peter Bone, the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill, might get a few minutes at the end, or he might even drop his previous bill to get to it; its a measure aimed at scrapping the plan to cut the Commons from 650 MPs, to 600.

In the current climate, it is entirely possible this Friday sitting may be cancelled, and the provisional business for the following week, which includes such delights as the second reading of the Non-domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill also looks pretty dispensable. Once the Coronavirus Bill is an Act, Parliament may well be out till late April, or even May.