Week ahead

This could be the final week of the parliamentary year - if the Lords and Commons can agree on the final form of several bills, in the usual year-end frenzy of parliamentary ping-pong.

Several key issues still have to be sorted out, with the added spice that if agreement is not reached by the time the music stops, whole bills could be lost.

Dotted through this week's Lords and Commons agendas are debates devoted to amendments made by the other house.... each side will have to vote on whether to accept or reject the changes made by the other. And as the deadline for the end of the session looms, the brinkmanship could mean a messy pattern of late night sittings and temporary adjournments, followed by more sittings and more votes....the wise parliamentarian will pack a toothbrush.

Other than that, the agenda for next week is, frankly, paper thin. Most MPs are assuming that Parliament will be prorogued (the 2012-13 session will be ended) on Thursday, and they won't be back until the state opening in May .

Here's the rundown of next week's events:


The Commons sits at 2.30pm for Education questions and then MPs move on to consideration of Lords amendments to the Public Service Pensions Bill - the government was defeated in February on an amendment to include the Defence Fire and Rescue Service under the category of fire and rescue services generally, so that they are no longer subject to the separate Ministry of Defence retirement age and pension scheme - in effect, protecting the pension rights of MoD firefighters.

The government lost by 27 votes, because of a strong turnout by crossbench peers, and ministers may feel they can test opinion in the Lords again on this one.

It's same process/different bill as MPs move on to Lords amendments to the Crime and Courts Bill. Here, the government lost on three issues in the Lords. The biggest defeat - by 96 votes - was on a vote to insert a clause repealing the offence of use of insulting words that are likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress. Ministers lost by a big majority, in a thinly attended House, with lots of rebels from both coalition parties.

The other issues where the government may seek to overturn their lordships are on the clause they inserted making bailiffs and enforcement agents subject to the same regulation and legal status as other authorised bodies under the Legal Services Act 2007 - the majority against the government was 42. And the third issue was to require that probation trusts make appropriate provisions for female offenders, including unpaid work and behavioural change programmes, which was passed by a 28-vote majority.

MPs will also finish off the Partnerships (Prosecution) (Scotland) Bill which makes changes to the rules for prosecution in Scotland of partnerships, partners and others following dissolution or changes in membership. They will complete the report stage and third reading.

The day ends with quite an interesting looking adjournment debate on fixed odds betting terminals - the Labour MP Tom Greatrex is worried about high stake roulette machines flooding high streets, after a report highlighted their negative economic impact on local areas. He says these machines are, too often, targeted at people in deprived areas with high levels of unemployment. And he's supporting calls for better regulation of the machines.

The day's backbench debate in Westminster Hall (4.30pm - 7.30pm) looks well worth watching. It's on an e-petition calling for the government to stop mass immigration from Bulgaria and Romania in 2014. By the end of this year all EU member states have to lift restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian workers -- when those two states joined, there were transitional controls to prevent a sudden flood of their nationals migrating to other countries.

But next year the schemes limiting immigration to skilled workers and a quota of low skilled workers will be swept away and Bulgarians and Romanians will be able to come to Britain to work on exactly the same basis as other EU citizens. Because this is a Westminster Hall debate, there won't be a vote, but the MP who secured it, Mark Pritchard, hopes ministers will reveal how they're planning to limit the UK's "pull factor" - which may include limiting entitlement to benefits, housing and NHS treatment.

In the Lords (from 2.30pm) the first event is the introduction of the Bishop of Truro, Rt Revd Tim Thornton, who'll take his place on the Bishops' Bench for the first time.

Questions range across the publication date for of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war, Female Genital Mutilation in the UK and oxygenation machines in NHS hospitals.

Peers then move on to the third reading of the Succession to the Crown Bill - which ends the priority given to princes over princesses in the line of succession to the throne. Then it's their lordships' turn for a bit of parliamentary ping-pong - Consideration of Commons amendments to the Growth and Infrastructure Bill.

Here there are two key issues: the first is on the "shares for rights" clause which peers rejected and the Commons has reinstated.

The crossbench peer Lord Pannick has put down a motion flatly disagreeing with the Commons vote - sometimes peers offer a compromise (an "amendment in lieu") but this is flat rejection.

The government lost on this by 54 votes in the Lords in March - there were a smattering of Conservative and Lib Dem rebels, but the balance was tipped by strong opposition on the crossbenches, where Lord Pannick is a highly influential figure. I'd guess that peers are in no mode to retreat on this one.

The second issue is the proposal to increase "permitted rights" to development - allowing householders to build bigger extensions before they need planning permission. This issue is extremely toxic and a number of Conservative MPs rebelled in the Commons this week. A compromise proposal was promised - and duly delivered by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles. It's still not clear, though, if this will defuse Lords' opposition.

Barely pausing for breath, peers then move on to Commons amendments to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, where the outstanding disagreements relate to the outlawing of caste discrimination, liability in the civil courts for breaches of health and safety regulations, and maintaining the Equality and Human Rights Commission's duty to support the development of a society which respects human rights and equal opportunities. On all three of these issues, Labour has put down amendments flatly rejecting the decisions of the Commons.

So I suspect a lot of peers will have packed a toothbrush -- they could have a few long nights of ping-pong ahead.


MPs will gather at 11.30am for Foreign Office questions . There's a ten minute rule bill from Lib Dem ex-minister Sarah Teather, to amend the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, to require the government to conduct an annual review on support for asylum-seekers, and to increase their benefits in line with the general benefit increase in any given year.

Then there's an Opposition Day debate on Northern Ireland. And all this leaves plenty of space for further consideration of Lords amendments to assorted bills, as necessary. The day ends with an adjournment debate on the effect of weather conditions on upland sheep farmers led by the Montgomeryshire Conservative and family farmer Glyn Davies, who blogs about the issue.

Over in Westminster Hall, from 9.30am, there are a series of debates led by backbenchers, starting with Ann Clwyd on Accident and Emergency waiting times.

My eye was also caught by the Conservative Kris Hopkins' debate (4pm) on Sharia law in the UK.

Over in the Lords (from 2.30pm) there could be a bit of blue-on-blue friendly fire at question time - the winner of the ballot for a topical question is Baroness Eaton who will ask the government about their involvement in the controversial decision to suspend surgery at the Leeds General Infirmary Children's Heart Unit. Health Minister Earl Howe will answer.

Then it's back to ping-pong and consideration of Commons amendments. First up is the Public Service Pensions Bill and that issue about MoD firefighters (see above).

But I expect bigger ructions over the Defamation Bill, where Labour have already responded to this week's votes in the Commons which struck down restrictions on the right of companies to sue.

The government has promised a compromise on the "serious harm test" under which companies and other bodies (so-called "non-natural persons") would have to show that they had suffered or might suffer serious financial loss, in order to win permission to sue. The Lords put this test in; MPs have just removed it, and the Lords may well put it back. Expect strong Labour pressure on the Lib Dems, if they think government compromise doesn't measure up. Another issue revolves around whether private companies performing a public service (perhaps local government contractors running care services, or something similar) should be allowed to sue.

And the yomp continues with yet more ping-pong, this time on the Crime and Courts Bill (see above).


The Commons meets at 11.30am for Scottish questions, followed by PMQs. This will be David Cameron's first direct clash with Ed Miliband since mid-March, and, because of the break for prorogation and then the state opening of Parliament, the two will not face each other across the dispatch box until mid-May.

After PMQs MPs debate a ten minute rule bill to allow local councils to impose fines for breaches of planning permission - proposed by the Conservative Jeremy Lefroy. And then there's an Opposition Day debate on the future of the Agricultural Wages Board - all of which leaves plenty of time for more debate on Lords amendments to all those bills.....

Meanwhile in Westminster Hall (from 9.30am) there are more backbench debates - the Conservative Jane Ellison raises the case of Shaker Aamer - the last British resident still held in Guantanamo Bay, and Labour's Keith Vaz (2.30pm - 4pm) has a debate on childhood obesity and diabetes. The SDLP's Mark Durkan (4pm - 4.30pm) raises the Ministry of Defence response to the Historical Enquiries Team Report on the death of William McGreanery - and Conservative Rob Wilson (4.30pm - 5pm) talks about the role of the BBC Trust in oversight of the BBC.

In the Lords (from 3pm) ministers will field questions on the UK Statistics Authority overruling Office for National Statistics' decision to keep the Retail Prices Index and the UK incidence of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis.

Peers then debate some changes to their procedures - on the rules around repeating ministerial replies to urgent Commons questions, and on a proposal to establish a Commons-style (shudder) Backbench Debates Committee. They should canter pretty quickly through the third reading of the Marine Navigation (No. 2) Bill and then Labour peer Lord Hunt of Kings Heath proposes a motion to annul the National Health Service (Procurement, Patient Choice and Competition) (No. 2) Regulations 2013.


The Commons meets at 9.30am for what could well be the final day of this parliamentary year. There will be questions to the Transport Secretary, to the Leader of the House and House of Commons Commission and the weekly Business Statement will follow...if the House has to keep sitting the following week, for even more ping-pong.

After that MPs debate a statutory instrument on banks and a motion to approve a European Document on completing the Single European Railways Area. The government motion calls for any EU policy to be evidence based and proportionate and to minimise any burden on industry.

In Westminster Hall (1.30pm - 4.30pm) there will be a debate on two Transport Committee reports - first on Plug-in Vehicles, Plugged in Policy?, which deals with incentives for low carbon vehicles like electric cars, and second road safety, which suggests extra restrictions on newly-qualified teenage drivers. This is another sign of some select committees becoming more assertive about their policy suggestions.

In the Lords (from 11am) peers pose questions to ministers on the impact on UK tourism of new visa restrictions for visitors from Brazil and government action to comply with the EU directive on people trafficking. Then there's a debate on the Maastricht economic convergence criteria with a motion suggesting sanctions for euro-zone countries which fail to keep their economies in line.

And, unless there's more pinging and ponging to go through, the leading figures in the Lords will, at some point, don their ceremonial gear and go through the pythonesque ritual of proroguing Parliament, with much doffing of cocked hats and flowery 17th Century language.

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