Week ahead in committees
- 18 January 2013
- From the section UK Politics
It's a pretty intense week in committee-land, with visitations from a fair chunk of the Cabinet, some very big and serious issues in play, and a couple of evidence sessions where sparks look likely to fly.
My pick of the week is the Scottish Affairs Committee's session on Tuesday, with Callum McAlpine, director of the construction giant, Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd. The hearing is intended as the climax of the committee's inquiry into blacklisting in the industry. There's been extensive evidence from trade unions and others about the blacklisting of union activists - and some suggestion that this practice has extended across the UK. The committee will probe McAlpine's role in all this - and the result may be a pretty prosecutorial session.
The week also sees a rare meeting of the Welsh Grand Committee, on Wednesday, chaired by MPs Dai Havard and Albert Owen with all 40 Welsh MPs eligible to attend.
The purpose is to consider the Silk report, which recommends giving taxation powers to the Welsh Assembly - on the argument that it should have responsibility for raising money as well as spending it. Control of Stamp Duty and Air Passenger Duty may be one thing, but control of a slice of income tax is quite another, and although the idea has wide support in Wales, the UK Treasury has yet to give its verdict. So it is doubtful the Welsh Secretary, David Jones, will be able to do much more than say the government is thinking about the idea.
Here's the day-by-day list:
On Monday, the Public Accounts Committee (at 3pm) has a session on the whole of government accounts 2011-12. The subject sounds bone-dry, but it represents an attempt to take an across the board look at how the government spends taxpayers' money. The National Audit Office has its criticisms of the way they are compiled. The Communities and Local Government Committee (at 4.10pm) looks at the transfer of responsibility for public health to local councils - with minister Anna Soubry. Has enough money been transferred to underpin their responsibilities?
And the Work and Pensions Committee (at 4.30pm) has a session with Minister for Disabled People Ether McVey and DWP officials on the new Personal Independence Payment (PIP) benefit. The committee is following up on its report from last February and the government's response to the issues they raised.
On Tuesday, as well as the Scottish Affairs hearing (at 2.30pm, see above), Business Secretary Vince Cable is before the Business Innovation and Skills Committee (at 11am), for a general session.
Having weighed in against an EU referendum, he may well take the opportunity to warn against the consequences for industry of calling British EU membership into question. Elsewhere, the Education Committee (at 9.30am) has a session on the efficacy of the Sure Start Programme; and the Public Administration Committee, fresh for a withering attack on the way the government procures IT systems, is widening its attentions to look at all of government procurement. Could ministers leverage big savings from the state's massive purchasing power?
Finally, the Home Affairs Committee is examining the draft Anti-Social Behaviour Bill, with witnesses from, among others, Bernardo's the Children's Society and the Standing Committee on Youth Justice. That's at 3.45pm.
Wednesday sees several big names appearing on the committee corridor. The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, makes the first of two appearances, when he goes before the Education Committee (at 9.30am) with his permanent secretary, his department's top civil servant, to talk about reforming the DfE…the GCSE re-grading saga is bound to come up. The Science and Technology Committee has an interesting-looking session scheduled (at 10.15am) with Prof Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer at the Department of Health - there's plenty to ask her about: clinical trials, flu vaccinations, salt and sugar in foods, anti-smoking ads, you name it.
Over at the Work and Pensions Committee, Pensions Minister Steve Webb will be quizzed about workplace pension best practice - a key issue now the government has introduced auto-enrolment into workplace schemes….and the Scottish Affairs Committee (at 2.30pm) returns to its look at the implications of Scottish independence, which they make a point of referring to as "separation." This session is devoted to the defence implications, with defence policy guru Prof Malcolm Chalmers the star witness.
The Defence Committee (at 2.30pm) has Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond before it, to discuss "securing the future of Afghanistan" - ie what happens after western forces pull out. And the Public Accounts Committee (at 3.15pm) returns to its hearing on the effectiveness of consumer credit regulation - having berated Wonga and other lenders last week, the regulators, the Office of Fair Trading, and the Financial Services Authority will be in the committee's sights this time.
And the Environmental Audit Committee is looking at "protecting the Arctic" (at 2.15pm) after the government rejected calls for stricter controls on oil drilling and mineral extraction.
But my highlight of the day is Michael Gove's second committee appearance of the day. He has been summoned before the Procedure Committee for a dressing-down over his department's performance in answering parliamentary questions - where figures show it has the worst record in Whitehall, with MPs waiting too long for often unacceptable answers.
Late last year, a hearing with junior minister Elizabeth Truss and officials left the committee alternately infuriated and guffawing, as they were told the delays were caused by officials' concern to get the answers right….a consideration, one member retorted, that didn't stop all the other departments providing timely answers.
An interesting sideshow is the behind-the-scenes row over whether ministers' political assistants, the special advisors in the department, could be summoned along with their master. One explanation for the delay is that they are vetting all the replies to be given to MPs' questions. The department doesn't want them to appear, but there is a precedent - several appearances under the last government by Tony Blair's sultan of spin, Alastair Campbell. So Mr Gove could face rebukes both over his department's record and over his reluctance to allow his Spads before the committee. He's facing a caning, so perhaps he should slip a suitable textbook down his trousers…
And so to Thursday, where the Northern Ireland Committee (at 10am) has session with the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Matt Baggott, about "current issues" facing his force… with the current disturbances and attacks on his officers, this will be an important hearing.
And the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (at 10am) has the Cabinet Secretary, Jeremy Heyward, in front of it, for a discussion of ministerial reshuffles.
The day's other select committee business is a debate in Westminster Hall following the Justice Committee's post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act - Parliament arguably doesn't spend enough time looking at how the laws it passes are working, and in this case the select committee has taken a thoughtful look at the ways the system is working and the way it is affecting the process of government.
The former Cabinet Secretary, Gus O'Donnell, has argued that there should be a "safe space" in which ministers and civil servants can discuss issues, without them being brought into the light under FoI - and the advisability of doing that will doubtless feature in this debate…..