Phone hacking debate adds to parliamentary backlog

Wham! Speaker Bercow has just granted an emergency debate on the News of the World Hacking allegations - which will now take place on Wednesday, when MPs will consider a call for a public inquiry led by a judge.

The 3-hour debate will displace an estimates day debate on the Prevent Strategy, the Government's policy to forestall terrorism, and then one on Afghanistan and Pakistan - another blow to the legislative programme.

Almost all Labour MPs and a smattering of Tories stood to indicate their support for the emergency debate, after Labour's Chris Bryant made a highly effective speech explaining why he wanted it - it was no surprise that he was critical of the News of the World and its owners, News International, but he also laid into the phone hacking investigation by the Metropolitan Police - which, he said, should have revealed the hacking of murder victim Milly Dowler's phone as long ago as 2006.

So the Speaker now adds to his willingness to grant urgent questions a willingness to grant emergency debates. These debates are pretty unusual beasts. The last Standing Order No.24 debate was on the Pre-Budget Report in November 2008. Before that Clegg got one on the UK-US Extradition Treaty in 2006. Both these were under Michael Martin.

Speaker Bercow (or his deputies) have rejected requests on the deportation of Tamils, Auto Windscreens, RAF bases and various factory closures.

And the knock on effect of this latest rejigging of the Commons timetable will make life even more difficult for the Government's business managers, the Leader of the House Sir George Young and his Lib Dem sidekick David Heath.

The Government's programme is becoming increasingly bogged down in Parliament - it's not just the loss of tomorrow's estimates day; having granted an extra day for report stage consideration of the Finance Bill, (for which it deserves some credit - the scant time allowed for Report Stage debates in the last parliament made a mockery of the idea of "detailed scrutiny" of a bill) and having had to clear the programme on Thursday for the emergency Police (Detention and Bail) Bill, a bit of a backlog is now accumulating.

In the pile, consideration of Lords amendments to the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill, a debate on the Procedure Committee's recommendation to allow the use of "hand held devices" in the Chamber of the Commons and in committees. There will doubtless be calls for extra time for the Report Stage of the much amended Health and Social Care Bill when it returns to the Commons in September. And MPs can expect to devote increasing chunks of their time to dealing with the extensive amendments to Government bills being made in the Lords.

One consequence is that at the moment the Backbench Business Committee is not bothering to meet, because it has no debating time to allocate, and doesn't know when it will have. On Today's Order Paper that debate on hand held electronic devices now carries the rather plaintive note: "Next available backbench time in the Chamber."

All of which makes it a little odd that the Commons will shut up shop for the summer in a fortnight's time - even if it will reconvene in September. A lot of the Government's scheduling problems would disappear were the Commons to sit for an extra week - but those problems would be replaced by the imminent prospect of a lynch mob of MPs descending on the Leader's Office, just behind the Speaker's Chair.

And Wednesday's festivities will not be the last that is heard of this issue: the former Labour minister Tom Watson has raised a point of order about the latest allegations, arguing that the new information "strongly suggests" that Parliament was misled in evidence given to the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee's inquiry into press standards. He didn't accuse anyone directly, but asked for guidance from the Speaker on how MPs could "address that matter."

The Speaker suggested he took it up with the Committee - but I suspect they will be reluctant to intervene while there's a live police investigation under way. The hacking scandal could manifest itself in other ways as well. Firstly the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has still not taken his final decision on whether or not to allow News Corp, the parent company of the NoW to take full control of BSkyB - he had to endure a lot of flak from MPs when he answered an urgent question on the matter from (who else?) Mr Watson last Thursday.

It's also likely that the issue will surface when the new joint parliamentary committee which has been set up to examine the issue of privacy and injunctions starts work - it will probably meet before the summer break to elect its chair, who will almost certainly be the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee Chair, John Whittingdale. A strict reading of the joint committee's terms of reference might allow it to bypass the question of hacking - but ignoring that very large elephant in the room would look pretty bizarre to the public at large.