Week ahead in Parliament

Mark D'Arcy
Parliamentary correspondent

Image source, © UK Parliament/ Mark Duffy

It looks like a quiet parliamentary week ahead - but as one wise head remarked to me, "interesting things happen in quiet weeks".

Despite all the talk of vast volumes of Brexit business to be done, and the postponement of the Commons half term, this is one of the least Brexity parliamentary weeks for ages, with MPs holding a general debate on sport on Monday (which looks a bit like a way of allowing the less-sporty to have a long weekend) then there's the routine-but-important vote on the funding settlements for police and councils in England.

On Wednesday, it's compensation for Mesothelioma and Pneumoconiosis, and on Thursday it's anti-social behaviour and the taxation of pubs.

Perhaps the government is waiting on its renegotiation with the EU before pushing on with its Brexit legislation, but combined with the postponement of half term, this phoney war interlude does seem rather odd.

One explanation offered for cancelling half term is that it helps meet the requirement for international treaties to "lie on the table" in Parliament for scrutiny, for 21 sitting days before ratification - having more sitting days helps with that, and there will be quite a number of Brexit-related treaties to be ratified before 21 March.

And of course, Brexit will never be far beneath the surface in Westminster, and a light-ish agenda leaves more time for plotting....

Here's my rundown of the week ahead:

Monday 4 February

The Commons week opens (2.30pm) with Education questions. After that, expect the usual crop of post-weekend ministerial statements and urgent questions.

MPs then debate motions to approve a couple of pensions-related statutory instruments - the Draft Guaranteed Minimum Pension Increase Order 2019 and the Automatic Enrolment (Earnings Trigger and Qualifying Earnings Band) Order 2019. The main debate is a general one on sport in the UK

My committee pick is the Housing, Communities and Local Government session on leasehold reform (4pm) with evidence from Heather Wheeler MP, minister for Housing and Homelessness. The session will probe the government's position on issues like onerous ground rents and service charges, as well as accusations of mis-selling.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
A Ro-Ro ferry in Dublin

In the Lords (2.30pm) the day begins with the introduction of a new peer, the Conservative former Health Minister, Nicola Blackwood, as Baroness Blackwood of North Oxford. A former chair of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, Nicola Blackwood lost her seat at the last election.

The half hour of questions to ministers ranges across the reduction of Public Health Grant to local authorities, to ensuring public sector broadcaster content is easily discoverable by viewers. And then peers return to detailed committee stage scrutiny of the Trade Bill.

The Commons kicks off (11.30am) with Justice questions, followed by a Ten Minute Rule Bill from Labour MP Melanie Onn to allow statements made by victims of a crime to be used in sentencing proceedings in court.

The main debates are on the annual reports setting out the government grants to police authorities and local councils in England - this may include special provision for extra council tax increases in areas with particular financial problems - perhaps Northamptonshire, where the financial collapse of the county council has led to its break-up and incorporation into a series of new councils. These occasions tend to see a lot of special pleading with MPs rehearsing the many reasons why their particular patch deserves more dosh.

In Westminster Hall debates include: Great Western Rail (GWR) delays and performance across the network. Labour MP Stephen Doughty says there have been substantial problems across the network over the last two years, while the franchise was extended by the Department for Transport without any full consultation (9.30 am); independent accountability of the BBC commissioning process from the DUP's Gregory Campbell (11am); economic growth in the South West from Sir Gary Streeter (2.30pm); closure of RAF Scampton and location of the Red Arrows led by Tory Sir Edward Leigh (4pm) and the use of unpaid work trials at the outset of employment - Stewart Malcolm McDonald (4.30pm).

My committee pick is the Health and Social Care evidence session on sexual health (2.30pm) where one of this issues under discussion is whether the transfer of responsibility for public health measures to local councils has reduced the coordination between sexual health clinics and the wider NHS. The committee will hear from the Local Government Association, the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV, the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Terrence Higgins Trust, Stonewall, and Brook.

In the Lords (2.30pm), questions to ministers range through security in the vicinity of the Palace of Westminster and pausing the Article 50 process; and the main debate is the second reading of the Healthcare (International Arrangements) Bill - which aims to allow the UK to maintain reciprocal healthcare arrangements with the EU and its member states post-Brexit.

There will also be a short debate on United Nations Human Rights Council Resolutions.

The Commons opens (11.30am) with half an hour of questions to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and minister for the Cabinet Office, David Lidington, followed by Prime Minister's Questions, at noon.

The day's Ten Minute Rule Bill, from the DUP's Gavin Robinson, is the Armed Forces Covenant (Duty of Public Authorities) Bill - this aims to ensure uniformity of approach from government departments in implementing the Armed Forces Covenant and ensuring it is delivered across the UK.

The subtext is that Mr Robinson believes the political ideology of some Northern Ireland ministers has led to a refusal to meet the commitments on public services for veterans.

Then there is a mini-debate on the appointment of the new Comptroller and Auditor-General to replace Sir Amyas Morse, whose 10 year term of office is coming to an end.

Image source, UK Parliament
Image caption,
The National Audit Office head, Sir Amyas Morse, will be stepping down

The importance of the appointment is reflected in the level of parliamentary ritual involved; the CAG is the Crown's wastefinder-general, running the financial watchdog, the National Audit Office, and advising the inquiries of the powerful Public Accounts Committee - the post is very senior.

The holder gets letters patent from the Queen - so the motion confirming the appointment is moved by the prime minister, and followed by speeches from the chair of the Pubic Accounts Committee, Labour ex-minister Meg Hillier, and a Treasury minister and shadow minister.

Then MPs debate orders to increase the compensation payments for people with Mesothelioma and Pneumoconiosis.

In Westminster Hall, subjects for debate include the UK as a financial services hub - Conservative MP and former HSBC executive Bim Afolami wants to highlight emerging challenges to the sector that have, he says, been obscured by Brexit (9.30am).

Next there's a debate on progress on the independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Telford (11am), following a series of trials in which seven men were convicted of sexual offences against girls aged 13 to 16 - local MP Lucy Allan will be making the point that an independent inquiry was promised and, a year on, no chair has been appointed to lead the inquiry. She wants to maintain pressure to make sure the inquiry happens.

Labour MP Alex Cunningham leads a debate on offshore helicopter safety (2.30pm), the issues following helicopter incidents and the subsequent suspending of some models of Superpuma helicopters. Workers still express real concern that the Superpumas could be brought back into use, but also have general issues around the effectiveness of the Offshore Helicopter Safety Action Group.

The Lords have the week's most intensive Brexit action (from 3pm) - after the usual half hour of questions to ministers. They include Lord West of Spithead asking about the total cost charged by the Ministry of Defence for the use of HMS Mersey and naval assets to deal with illegal immigration across the Channel, and Labour's Lord Kennedy of Southwark asking about online abuse by people using anonymous social media accounts.

After that peers polish off the third reading of the Financial Services (Implementation of Legislation) Bill - this is another Brexit measure, to provide the government with powers to implement and make changes to EU financial services legislation, including so-called 'in flight' files, EU legislation not yet in force. The volume of regulations involved here is truly vast, so this is highly significant for the financial services industry.

And the Brexit theme continues, with what will become a familiar pattern of work, as peers consider seven Brexit-related orders and regulations. This afternoon's helping covers the Patents (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2018, the Trade Marks (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2018, the Intellectual Property (Exhaustion of Rights) (EU Exit) Regulations 2018, the Broadcasting (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, the Employment Rights (Amendment) (EU Exit) (No. 2) Regulations 2018, plus the Employment Rights (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) (EU Exit) (No. 2) Regulations 2018; the Fisheries (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, and the Veterinary Surgeons and Animal Welfare (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, plus the Farriers and Animal Health (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019.

Peers and MPs are going spending a lot of time rattling through this kind of Brexit legislation, in the coming weeks.

The Commons kicks off (9.30am) with International Trade questions, followed by Women and Equalities questions, and then the weekly Business Statement from the Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom.

Image source, © UK Parliament/ Mark Duffy

Given that MPs have just had their half-term break cancelled to provide extra time for vital Brexit legislation - and there are at least six Brexit bills in play and several hundred statutory instruments to process - there may be some curiosity about when these will be debated. Watch this space.

The rest of the day is devoted to debates chosen by the Backbench Business Committee, starting with a statement from the chair of the Science and Technology Committee Norman Lamb on their report on the impact of social media and screen-use on young people's health,

That is followed by general debates on antisocial behaviour - MPs want to look at the effect of changes to legislation since 2010, and the impact of the drug Spice. Next, there will be a debate on beer taxation and pubs.

In Westminster Hall, there will be a general debate on rough sleeping led by Labour's Neil Coyle and the Conservative Will Quince, who co-chair the all-party parliamentary group on ending homelessness. They want to highlight the increase in rough sleeping and debate the impact of the Homelessness Reduction Act, the landmark private members bill passed last April.

In the Lords (11am) the main event is the Finance (No. 3) Bill which, as a money bill, peers are not allowed to interfere with, will go through all its stages in a single day. The bill covers such subjects as Income Tax Personal Allowance and basic rate limit from 2019 to 2020, and workplace charging for all-electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles.

The Commons sits at 9.30am to debate private members' bills - the first of the extra sitting days agreed this week.

First on the agenda is the report stage and third reading for Sir Oliver Heald's Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Bill, which makes it an offence to attack service animals, like police dogs and horses. This could be fairly brief, if no-one has any serious reservations about the bill.

So there could be quite some time left over, in which bills rather low down the private members' bill pecking order could get a, perhaps unexpected, outing. Sir Christopher Chope's Value Added Tax Bill is listed for a second reading, this aims to raise the turnover threshold after which traders must register for VAT and to exempt "certain goods and services" from VAT.

But the one to watch may be the next bill on the list, the Conservative former cabinet minister Theresa Villiers' Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) (Amendment) Bill, which started life as a Ten Minute Rule Bill last March. This would stop the 2009 legislation expiring.

It gave the trustees of museums the power set aside the normal restrictions on disposing of objects in their collections, so that these artefacts could be returned to the lawful owners or their heirs if they had been stolen by the Nazis.