Week ahead in Parliament

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Media captionThe Speaker told the government, following the latest Opposition Day vote: Don't pretend you didn't lose

Still no sign of the eagerly-anticipated Commons committee of the whole House debates on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill - the mission-critical Brexit measure previously known as the Great Repeal Bill.

Westminster rumour suggests the planned eight committee-stage days will not begin until after the November half-term (although an alternative rumour suggests maybe one committee day will be scheduled to allow the government whips to test the waters) and that MPs will then have to yomp through two or three days a week of detailed debate, until the bill is done.

There's plenty to chew on, with the latest amendment paper running to 146 pages, covering more than 300 amendments and 50 new clauses - and the longer the delay, the more new proposals to rewrite this crucial bill arrive.

And the delay also allows MPs, particularly "soft Brexit" supporters to examine rival amendments and condense around the ones which command the widest support.

While all that goes on, offstage, the timetable for Commons Chamber is devoted to a mix of uncontroversial technical legislation (Smart Meters and Self-Drive Cars this week), backbench debates and Opposition debates.

Opposition debates highlighted

And the government's controversial tactic of declining to vote in the latter continues to make waves.

Twice - first on student loans and now on Universal Credit - the Opposition have "won" votes and twice ministers have brushed their victories aside as ineffectual, or "non-binding"; so now the Opposition parties have set out on a quest to find the holy grail of Commons procedure - a way to make Opposition Day motions bite on the government.

This timeless quest takes them deep into the wilds of parliamentary procedure - territory normally only navigated by the most experienced clerks. Once upon a time the Opposition parties claimed a share of "supply days", but in the early 1980s this was changed to "Opposition Days".

This was more than a cosmetic change. The clue is the word "supply", which is the Commons jargon term for issues dealing with the allocation of public money. On Supply Days motions to move money around had actual effect; mere Opposition Days do not provide the same procedural cover.

This is why motions passed on Opposition Days can now be dismissed as purely symbolic. And still smarting from their double rebuff, the Labour, SNP and Lib Dems' procedural wonks are poring through dusty tomes of Commons rules to find a way to give an Opposition Day motion actual effect.

One time-honoured manoeuvre, last attempted in the 1970s, is a motion to dock a minister's pay, as punishment for some offence. But that would have been debated on a Supply Day and no-one really knows if it would have effect if pressed to a vote and then won, on a mere Opposition Day.

But there are mutterings about attempting this move against the Commons Leader, Andrea Leadsom, in punishment for her failing to treat those Opposition Day motions as binding.

The nearest modern analogue to Supply Days are the Estimates Days, when the Commons is asked to approve government spending plans, having debated the contents of assorted select committee reports (I know this sounds a bit bizarre - it is...) rather than the actual Estimates themselves.

The subjects for debate on these days are chosen by the Commons Liaison Committee, the super-committee of all the main select committee chairs. It is quite difficult to imagine this body allowing such a motion to go forward, not least because it will have a Conservative Chair and a Conservative majority when it is finally set up.

Meanwhile, the Work and Pensions Committee, and more particularly its formidable Chair, Frank Field, have their jaws firmly locked around the ankle of Secretary of State David Gauke - and given Mr Speaker's expressed discontent with the government's response to this week's Universal Credit vote, I suspect he has an excellent chance of triggering another full Commons debate on the issue, sooner rather than later.

Anyway here's my rundown of the week ahead:

Monday

The Commons opens (2.30 pm) with Defence questions - and, as ever, any post-weekend urgent questions or ministerial statements will follow at 3.30pm. This includes a report back by the prime minister on the latest EU summit.

The day's main legislating is on the second reading of the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill, which would require motorway services and petrol stations to install chargers for electric cars and sets out how driverless cars will be registered and how liability for accidents will be decided.

The bill reprises the proposals in the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill, which was abandoned earlier this year, because of the general election.

There's a Westminster Hall debate at 4.30 pm on e-petition 186565 relating to eligibility for mortgages - which calls for a record of paying rent on time to be recognized as evidence that mortgage re-payments can be met. It has attracted 147,307 signatures.

My select committee pick is the Public Accounts hearing on mental health in prisons (4pm) with officials from the NHS and the Prison Service.

In the Lords (2.30 pm) question time covers consumer and personal debt in the UK, the life science industrial strategy, serious offences committed by members of the armed forces; and banks and building societies undertaking comprehensive immigration checks.

Then, peers turn to their third day of detailed debate on the Space Industry Bill - which creates a new regulatory framework for UK based spaceflight activities, including the operation of UK-based spaceports.

Today's debate will focus on the sections dealing with offences, civil sanctions and appeals. The dinner break business is a short debate on Science, Innovation and the government's industrial strategy.

Tuesday

The Commons kicks off (11.30 am) with Treasury questions. More Urgent Questions or ministerial statements may follow.

The main debate is on the second reading of the Smart Meters Bill, which will regulate the rollout of smart meters and ensure consumers are protected in the unlikely event that the company running the national smart meters communications infrastructure - the Smart Data and Communications Company - were to become insolvent. There are almost 7.7 million smart meters operating in the UK, with nearly 350,000 being installed every month.

The adjournment debate on preparedness to leave the EU with no agreement, is led by Dover MP Charlie Elphicke - expect the issue of border controls and managing lorries heading for Channel crossings to feature.

The opening Westminster Hall debate - chosen by the Backbench Business Committee - is on UK relations with Taiwan (9.30am). The debate will be led by the Conservative, Bob Blackman. This follows a visit to Taiwan by the All Party Parliamentary Group, where the subject of a possible post-Brexit free trade deal was raised "by their ministers as well as by us", Mr Blackman told me. The snag is Taiwan's ambiguous status, with the People's Republic of China regarding it as a rebel province - and that would certainly complicate any potential deal. Watch for some carefully-phrased responses from the government.

In Westminster Hall, debates include: improving rail links in South West England (2.30pm); local authority funerals (4pm) and English language teaching for refugees (4.30pm).

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Media captionBaroness Trumpington startles Lord King in debate

On the committee corridor, the Digital, Cultural Media and Sport Committee has a hearing (10.30am) with the Chief Executive of Channel 4, David Abraham - covering the channel's possible relocation away from London and, possibly, their swoop to take the Great British Bake-Off.

In the Lords (from 2.30 pm) it's the last day for one of the real characters of the Upper House, the Conservative peer Baroness Trumpington, who retires at the age of 94. The oldest female peer, Baroness Trumpington was ennobled in 1980 and served in the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, having also worked as a code breaker at Bletchley Park during World War II and served as mayor of Cambridge.

Questions to ministers cover the penalties and custodial sentences for animal welfare offences in England, and discussions with the devolved administrations on Brexit.

But perhaps the most politically sensitive is the one from Lib Dem election guru Lord Rennard on the proposal to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600, and the associated review of Commons constituency boundaries.

This reprises an ongoing argument from the Coalition years, when the Lib Dems blocked the 2013 Boundary Review process. This proved to be a good move in party terms at least, because on the proposed new boundaries they would have won perhaps three or four seats, rather than eight in 2015….. Lord Rennard will be following up reports in the Times that due to backbench Conservative pressure, the process would be dropped.

Then, there's some quite interesting action behind the scenes as peers move into the first day of detailed report stage scrutiny of the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill. The Lib Dem peer Lord Sharkey, and others, are trying to get a "breathing space" amendment giving people in deep financial trouble a moratorium on debt collection to allow them a chance to recover.

The snag is that it's out of the scope of the bill, so it would not normally be in order. For that reason there is an attempt to persuade the government to put down its own out of scope amendment, something for which there is precedent.

Other amendments attempt to ban cold calling by debt management companies and to require compulsory advice, before people can draw money down their pension pots.

Peers will also debate an order under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 to make Methiopropamine ('MPA'), a synthetic drug similar to Amphetamine, a Class B drug.

Wednesday

MPs' day begins (11.30 am) with half an hour of Scottish questions, with Prime Minister's Questions following, at noon. That is followed by two Labour Opposition Day motions - on Social Care, and then on Supported Housing.

The latter is housing for groups like elderly or disabled people, and also includes women's refuges. Labour's shadow housing minister, John Healey, was unconvinced by the government response to concerns about changes to the way it is funded, when the issue was debated in Westminster Hall recently.

In Westminster Hall, debates cover police funding in London (9.30am); economic and environmental impacts of airport expansion (11am); the centenary of the Balfour declaration (2.30pm); and Operation Stack and lorry parking in Kent (4pm).

Image copyright PA
Image caption Lorries queued as part of Operation Stack along the north and southbound carriageways of the M20 in Ashford, Kent in 2015

Folkestone MP Damian Collins told me the lorry park for Channel traffic is a big Kent issue, and a big Brexit issue, and that he wants assurances on resilience, if there are delays at Channel crossings, so he will be looking for a progress report from the minister.

Finally, there's a debate on the National Railway Museum and ownership of national assets (4.30pm).

On the committee corridor, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has two evidence sessions on allegations of regulatory breaches at the chicken processor, 2 Sisters Food Group, the UK's largest supplier of supermarket chicken. This follows undercover filming which led to claims of poor hygiene standards and altered food safety records. The chief executive Ranjit Singh; the Food Standards Agency; Assured Food Standards and The British Poultry Council give evidence.

Elsewhere, Brexit Secretary David Davis (9.15am), Education Secretary Justine Greening (10.15am), Justice Secretary David Lidington (10am) and Defence Secretary Michael Fallon (2.30pm) are all before their respective select committees.

In the Lords (3pm) questions cover: official announcements relating to terrorism focussing on perpetrator's creed rather than their crime; protecting members of the armed forces from repeated inquiries into the same incident, and the register of hereditary peers who wish to stand for election to the House of Lords

The peers move onto the third reading of the Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Bill - which will probably be no more than a brief rubber stamping

Next up is report stage consideration of the Air Travel Organisers' Licensing Bill - the key issue is consumer protection. This is followed by the second reading of the EU (Approvals) Bill - where the points for discussion include the EU-Canada trade agreement and observer status for Albania and Serbia in the work of the European Agency for Fundamental Rights.

Thursday

The Commons opens (9.30am) with 40 minutes of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions, followed by mini-question times for the MPs who speak for the Church Commissioners, the House of Commons Commission (the administrative body of the Commons), the Public Accounts Commission and the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission.

Then comes Commons Business Questions with the Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom.

The main debates are on two subjects chosen by the Backbench Business Committee; on the implementation of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and on Global LGBT rights.

In Westminster Hall, there's a debate on International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day.

Image copyright UK Parliament
Image caption Steve Baker is one of the Brexit ministers giving evidence to the select committee this week

On the committee corridor, Brexit Ministers Steve Baker and Robin Walker give evidence to the Brexit Select Committee (1pm) on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill.

In the Lords (11am) ministers take questions on winter staffing levels in the NHS, security co-ordination between the UK and its allies, and the sustainability of funding for police forces in England and Wales.

The main debates are on subjects nominated by Lib Dem peers, on intergenerational fairness and government policy; and on the impact of air and water pollution on the environment and public health.

There's also a short debate on supporting the Rohingya refugees currently displaced in Bangladesh.

Friday

The Commons isn't sitting, but the Lords are in town (from 10am) to consider private members' bills.

First comes the Asset Freezing (Compensation) Bill - this is a second attempt to get this through from the UUP's Lord Empey, after his first try was scuppered by the general election.

The issue is the support, between the early 1970s and the 1990s, provided by Colonel Gaddafi's regime in Libya to the Provisional IRA. This included arms, ammunition, financing, military training and explosives, such as semtex, to conduct terrorist attacks in Britain.

For a number of years, the victims of those attacks have been seeking compensation from the Libyan authorities. And they have sought to extract compensation using the almost £9.5bn of Gaddafi regime assets frozen in the UK following the 2011 uprising.

Lord Empey's bill seeks to use these frozen assets to compensate the victims. One of the key issues here is that US citizens, including people injured in attacks in the UK, like the IRA's 1983 Harrods bombing, have been compensated by Libya, after action in the US courts.

The government has raised a number of international law objections based on UN Security Council resolutions and EU regulations, but since the previous incarnation of this bill was passed by the Lords, the same outcome seems likely this time - and ministers will then come under pressure to find time to get it through the Commons as well.

Next the Conservative peer Lord Holmes of Richmond has the second reading debate for his Unpaid Work Experience (Prohibition) Bill which seeks to ban unpaid work experience exceeding four weeks.

Finally, there's the Democratic Political Activity (Funding and Expenditure) Bill proposed by the Lib Dem, Lord Tyler. He says this will provide an opportunity to seek urgent agreement on control of election campaign funding and expenditure, before another general election....or indeed another referendum.

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