Week ahead at Westminster

After last week's thrills and spills in the Lords and Commons, a calmer week looks in prospect at Westminster - my guess is that the main highlight will be Robert Halfon's backbench debate on Tuesday, where he has once again spotted an issue with real resonance outside Parliament.

Otherwise some of the most interesting action lurks in Tuesday's Westminster Hall debates… although the Thursday debate on Scotland and the Union could be pretty rumbustious.

Here's the rundown:


The Commons meets at 2.30pm for defence questions.

There may be ministerial statements or urgent questions - and then MPs move on to the Second Reading of the Deregulation Bill - this is a general tidy-up of red tape and regulation. Interesting (potentially!) later on.

In the Lords (2.30pm) ministers will field questions on recent developments in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, increasing the Pupil Premium for the most disadvantaged primary school children, whether secondary schools teach emergency life support skills and an intriguing looking question from Lib Dem veteran Lord Avebury on ministers making public statements on allegations about the behaviour of ethnic minorities.

The day's main legislating is the committee stage of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill - the key issues are: the transparency of political party funding, and the implications of identifying party donors in the way that already happens in England, Scotland and Wales - would it place them in danger; the NI Assembly (size and length of terms), devolution of some commission functions.

Meanwhile the Defence Reform Bill Committee Stage commences in the Moses Room - the key issue is part one on procurement.


The Commons day opens (11.30am) with justice questions, followed by a Ten Minute Rule Bill on Flooding Prevention for New Developments from Nottinghamshire Conservative Mark Spencer.

Then, MPs play a round of parliamentary ping-pong; deciding their response to Lords amendments to the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill.

The Lords made quite a few changes, notably the Crossbench super-lawyer Lord Pannick's amendment on miscarriage of justice rules, where the government was defeated with Labour and crossbench support.

The effect of that vote was that a person is considered to be a victim of a miscarriage of justice and entitled to compensation if a newly discovered fact showed conclusively that the evidence against the person was "so undermined that no conviction could possibly be based on it."

The government may well look to overturn this.

Peers also had a spat about the rather bizarre proposal to define anti-social behaviour as behaviour which, in short, is capable of causing offence to anyone.

This was struck down by the Lords and the definition now reads "conduct that has caused, or is likely to cause, harassment, alarm or distress to any person."

They also added a reference in the definition anti-social behaviour around housing.

It seems unlikely that the government would take issue with this amendment considering how much bad (and incredulous) press the initial definition received.

After that is disposed of, MPs turn to a debate on Energy company charges for payment other than by Direct Debit, a subject chosen by the Backbench Business Committee.

The Conservative MP Robert Halfon, best known for his campaign against increases in taxes on petrol has mustered more than 170 signatures from practically every party in the House (Respect's George Galloway has somehow eluded his grasp...) for a motion attacking the practice of charging extra for those who fail to set up a Direct Debit to pay their bills.

It opens up a new front in the rumbling debate about energy prices.

The Liam Byrne adjournment debate on legal aid to the families of those found dead in police custody also looks interesting.

He thinks it's unreasonable that families in these circumstances should have to pay their legal costs - which can be considerable - when police misconduct has been found.

Over in Westminster Hall there could be considerable interest in the Conservative Andrew Selous' debate on Gypsy and Traveller policy (9.30 - 11am) - this follows on from a little-noticed announcement by the Department for Communities and Local Government, on 17 January, of a consultation on the planning policy for traveller sites, including the issue of the legal definition of travellers.

Should this be narrowed to cover only people who lead a genuinely mobile lifestyle. Mr Selous believes that people who declare themselves to be travellers can gain access to a separate and lucrative parallel planning system which allows them to live on land which is zoned as agricultural - in homes that are only nominally mobile, in places where people with permanent homes would never be allowed to live.

CLG Minister Brandon Lewis is expected to reply to the debate, and this could be the first move in reshaping the system.

And, similarly, in the afternoon (2.30 - 4pm) Labour MP Paul Blomfield's debate on regional arts and culture funding should attract a fair amount of attention.

Last year, Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital, an independent report on the balance of arts funds between London and the rest of England, calculated that spending on arts in culture in London ran at £68.99 per head, compared to £4.58 per head in the rest of England.

Equalising those figures would push £600m into arts and culture in the regions, the report argued.

Mr Blomfield plans to explore the implications of those figures and extract a Government response.

Should be fun.

In the Lords (from 2.30pm) the subjects at question time include Islamophobia in Georgia, and the return of the West Lothian Question.

Then Peers move on to a committee stage debate on the detail of the Water Bill.

This "aims to deliver more resilient water supplies and lead to cheaper and more efficient management of water resources in the longer term."

Its provisions are generally accepted, but concerns have been raised that domestic customers may be disadvantaged, that water companies may discriminate against new market entrants, and that the bill may contribute to unsustainable abstraction.

There have also been calls for additional provisions that address water affordability problems in the short term and concerns about corporate practices in the sector.

As usual at committee stage there is an element of shadow boxing as peers probe the meaning of the bill, and the really big votes (if any) will follow at report stage.

There's also a short debate on the report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, 'Survey of public attitudes towards conduct in public life 2012' - led by the Committee's new Chair, Lord Bew.


The Commons convenes at 11.30am for the increasingly rumbustious Scottish question time followed, at noon by prime minister's question time.

The Labour MP Phil Wilson proposes a Ten Minute Rule Bill on Investment Management (Fiduciary Duties) - to bring in a duty on fund managers to act in the best interest of investors, including pension savers, in a transparent and accountable way.

After that, the day's main business will be two opposition day debates, first on the NHS and then on job insecurity and the cost of living.

In Westminster Hall there are the usual series of backbench debates, covering such subjects as housing in London (9.30 - 11am); single staffing in betting shops (11 - 11.30am); the humanitarian situation in Gaza (2.30 - 4pm); vommunity infrastructure levy and developers' contributions in West Berkshire (4 - 4.30pm) and gender-specific marketing of children's toys (4.30 - 5pm)

In the Lords (3pm) questions to ministers range across increasing the number of people registered to vote (a rare example of a question put by a party leader, Labour's Baroness Royall), the impact of the Youth Contract in helping young people into employment - a subject to be discussed by an EU sub-committee this week, and the success of steps to encourage banks to lend to small business.

Then it's on to the last rites, the third reading, for the Children and Families Bill - much depends on the amendments or assurances offered by the government to meet promises made in earlier stages of debate.

This will be one to watch, following this week's government defeat (smoking in cars with children present) and also the wide scope of the bill.

Following that, peers conclude the committee stage of the Northern Ireland Bill when electoral registration and admin issues will be considered.


In the Commons (starting at 9.30am) MPs rattle through transport questions and questions to Andrew Lansley, leader of the House and to John Thurso, the MP who speaks for the House of Commons Commission.

Then Mr Lansley is back at the despatch box for his weekly Business Statement.

The day's set-piece debate is on Scotland's place in the UK - the last backbench debate on this theme was back in November 2012 - and Labour's Willie Bain and other backers want to use this occasion to explore the implications of the recent speech by the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney on the question of whether Scotland can keep the pound and become part of a currency union with the remaining UK.

They also plan to set out a positive vision for the future of Scotland and argue that it is best achieved by remaining part of the UK.

Others want to make the point that Britain likes Scotland and wants it to stay.

Expect the Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael to take part - and plenty of other senior figures.

The SNP will doubtless turn up in full strength to offer their counter-arguments.

The second debate is on international wildlife crime.

In the Lords (11am) ministers will be quizzed about the final report of the Electoral Commission on electoral fraud, a review into deaths of young people in custody (that comes from the Crossbencher and former Chief inspector of Prison, Lord Ramsbotham) and on the views about interest rates expressed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Then peers move on to Day 2 of the Water Bill Committee Stage, where the key issues are the more politically salient ones of affordability of water bills and the environmental duties of Ofwat.

The dinner-break debate is on the implications of introducing seven-day working in the NHS.

And there are also three short debates over in the Moses Room: on progress on combating neglected tropical diseases and how this is to be dealt with in the health agenda of the 2015 Millennium Goals; on the Constitutional Committee's report on the pre-emption of Parliament; and on the impact of inequality on social mobility in the UK.


It looks as if their Lordships will be sitting (10am) - although quite what they will discuss is not clear.

Labour say it could be the EU Referendum Bill, if the government choose, but with no prospect of making further progress that looks improbable.

So expect other, less controversial private members bills from the Commons to be debated instead - including, perhaps Dan Byles' House of Lords Bill - which would give them a retirement mechanism and an expulsion mechanism to allow the House to remove peers convicted of serious criminal offences.