Viewing guide: The week ahead

The last few parliamentary days of 2011 are nigh, and I find myself wondering how many MPs will bother turning up for a couple of days of vote-less debates. Over in the Lords it's another story, with peers beavering industriously away at two big bills - and finally reaching the finishing post on their Committee Stage scrutiny of the Government's NHS changes. They, at least, will have an action packed couple of days, possibly sitting so late that they miss a few Christmas parties. So here's the last viewing guide of the year.

Monday in the Commons begins (at 2.30pm) with Defence Questions and MPs then move on to a general debate on apprenticeships. The day in the chamber concludes with an adjournment debate led by the Conservative Andrew Griffiths on the proposed closure of an in-patient mental health unit in his Burton constituency.

While the business in the chamber is pretty humdrum there is plenty of action on the committee corridor - there's a triple-headed session of the Home Affairs Committee (11am) covering extradition - with members of the Extradition Review Panel, then (at 11.45) the work of the UK Border Agency (ie the recent controversy over the relaxation of some controls in August-November) with UKBA Chief Executive, Rob Whiteman, and then (at 12.30) policing, with Nick Herbert, Minister of State for Policing and Criminal Justice at the Home Office.

Watch out for an appearance by the high priests of Parliament before the special committee examining the law on Privacy and Injunctions. David Beamish, Clerk of the Parliaments, Robert Rogers, Clerk of the House of Commons, and Michael Carpenter, Speaker's Counsel. They will be talking about whether gagging injunctions issued by the courts should apply in Parliament - where there have been a couple of incidents of MPs and Peers deliberately breaking them. The fun starts at 2.45pm.

The Communities and Local Government Committee (4.15pm) will hear from a galaxy of local government and social housing stars about the financing of new housing supply. Home Office Minister James Brokenshire tops the bill at the Science and Technology Committee's hearing about the future of the Forensic Science Service - which faces closure. (Also at 4.15).

The Public Accounts Committee has a session on the 'Role of the Head of the Civil Service', with Sir Bob Kerslake, the present Permanent Secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government and "Head-Designate of the Civil Service" - the new guy. One for the most hard core Whitehall groupies.

Finally, the Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill (4.35) continues its yomp through the constitutional implications of an all-elected, or partially-elected Upper House. Today's expert witnesses: Dr Alan Renwick of the University of Reading, and Professor Iain McLean of the University of Oxford.

As so often, recently, the most important issue of the day will be debated in the Lords. (Note the early start time of 11am)It is the penultimate day of the marathon committee stage of the Health and Social Care Bill and peers will come armed with the report of their Constitution Committee on the implications of the Bill for the position of the Secretary of State. Whether the Health Secretary would be responsible to parliament and the taxpayer for the activities of the more decentralised NHS he is seeking to create was one of the big issues which worried peers at the start of their debates on this bill. The committee is expected to offer a wording intended to calm the fears of the critics. And the word is that ministers will grin and bear - and accept - the new wording. Ominously for peers who want to get home in time for their favourite soap operas, the plan is for the debate to continue until the House has given its verdict on Clause 246. So bring a toothbrush. There are two breaks in the day's legislating - for questions at 2.30pm and for a dinner break debate on an EU Committee report on money laundering (at around 7.30).

One other event to watch out for: The Joint Committee on the Draft Financial Services Bill will report on Monday. Since July it has been considering the Bill which is intended to reduce the risk of banking collapses and financial crises in the future. They have cross-examined current and former Chancellors, the Governor of the Bank of England and Chief Executives of large banks. And the result of their deliberations is expected to surface in the next Queen's Speech.

And so to Tuesday and the Commons' last sitting until 2012. (Starting at 11am) But I doubt the festive season will intrude too far into question time - where the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, is before the House. After his non-appearance at the Prime Minister's statement on the EU Summit, he can expect plenty of ironic welcomes back to the Front Bench - and much more besides. DPMQs has become a pretty ugly occasion, with Labour MPs gleefully putting the boot in. But now, Conservative backbenchers may escalate their approach from the normal, relatively gentle, baiting to something rather more raw.

Then the Labour MP Hugh Bayley has a Ten Minute Rule Bill intended to establish a patient's right to treatment by the NHS. And then MPs begin their normal pre-recess adjournment debate - which is a chance to raise any subject and get a reply from a minister. In the past these have been rather amorphous and rambling affairs, where an MP arguing against the closure of his local A&E has been followed by another raising some serious human righhts abuse, and another discussing some international crisis. In a useful innovation, the Backbanch Business Committee, which now has the task of ring-mastering these events, has grouped the speakers into subject areas, so an approariate minister gives a more detailed and helpful response. So, unusually for a Commons debate, we now have an odered list of speakers, starting with MPs talking about Business, Innovation and Skills issues and ending with Foreign Office and then general issues. One positive result is that the MPs who speak come away with some kind of an answer, rather than some weary junior minister promising to get a colleague to write to them.

Finally, after the adjournment debate, an, er, adjournment debate. Labour's Steven Timms leads a debate on the abduction of Lydia Hunt - the daughter of a constituent who is believed to have been taken to Mexico.

Predictably, Select Committee business is light -- The highlight is probably the Joint Committee on Human Rights hearing at 2.20, when the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke will be quizzed on Human Rights.

The Lords Communications Committee (2.45) continues its examination of the future of investigative journalism - today's witness is Simon Kelner of the Journalism Foundation. And the Lords Science and Technology Sub-Committee starts a new inquiry looking at how the UK could build the educational foundations it needs in the "STEM" - science, technology, engineering and maths.

In the Chamber of the Lords itself, business begins at 2.30pm with the usual half hour of questions. Then peers turn to reports by their Procedure House Committees.

The House Committee report is on the proposal that who are found to have wrongly claimed expenses should not be allowed to return from suspension until all outstanding amounts owed have been repaid. The Procedure Committee report is on the rule for Questions for Short Debate - the mini-debates which individual peers can trigger, usually held during the dinner break from the main business.

Then it's on to the first committee day for the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. The minister, Lord McNally, has sent a 15 page letter to all peers, rebutting some of the criticisms made at second reading. But it is pretty clear that proposals to exclude some social welfare law from legal aid will come in for serious criticism, including from the retired judges who throng the crossbenches. There'll even be a little bit of political theatre as a group of social welfare lawyers mark the occasion by delivering a coffin containing petitions and objections from the public to Old Palace Yard Just opposite the Palace of Westminster.

The Commons may have departed but Their Lordships linger for an extra day on Wednesday. They kick off with questions at 11am - and then they reach the finishing post of the Health and Social Care Bill Committee Stage after 15 long days. The Health Minister Earl Howe has won plaudits for his adroit diplomacy in dealing with the legions of critics surrounding the Bill, but when the next stage of consideration, Report, begins in late January, he'll have to do it all again, for seven or eight days. Lucky man.

And then the Palace of Westminster falls silent until Tuesday January 10 - when Hon Members and Noble Lords return, refreshed, to the fray.

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