Week ahead in committees

The week's committee corridor high noon will be the Home Affairs Committee's session with three Chief Constables - which will follow up the latest "plebgate" developments, but there's something for everyone in this week's packed programme.

There's tecchie machinery of Government arcana at the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the Public Administration Committee, major environmental issues at the Welsh Affairs Environmental Audit and Energy committees and some mega-policy issues, too.

Here's my rundown of the main highlights:


The rather daunting-looking subject of the Public Accounts Committee (3.15pm) is the "Whole of Government Accounts 2012-13".

This is a valiant attempt to take an overall look at the finances of government - where the money goes and what liabilities may lurk in wait for the taxpayer.

One interesting aspect is the figures for possible health liabilities as the population ages - one of several huge "known unknowns" hanging over the public purse.

The committee will quiz the top officials at the Treasury, including the Permanent Secretary, Sir Nicholas Macpherson.

The Transport Committee (4.05pm) launches a short inquiry into safety at level crossings - Network Rail has committed to cutting risk at level crossings by 25% by March 2014, and the committee is keen to look at what should be done.

Key questions include: Is government policy and regulatory action by the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) in relation to safety at level crossings adequate?

How should the legislation governing level crossings be updated?

How should public awareness of safety at level crossings be improved?

Today's witness list includes families of victims of accidents at level crossings followed, later, by Paul Crowther, the Deputy Chief Constable of the British Transport Police.

Their evidence will tee up an appearance by Network Rail officials


Is Wales about to see a shale gas boom?

The Welsh Affairs Committee (10am) hears from academic experts.

And the Energy and Climate Change 9.30am looks at the work of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority - following up this National Audit Office report with the Chief Executive Officer and other top officials.

The Public Administration Committee (9.30am) looks at statistics and open data, with Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt, chair of the Open Data Institute and Stephan Shakespeare, the chief executive, of the pollsters, YouGov.

Business Minister Jo Swinson is before the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee (9.30am) to talk about the government's draft Consumer Rights Bill - which attempts to codify and simplify the law in this area and provide better protection for online shoppers.

The Treasury Committee (10.00am) probes Project Verde - Lloyds Banking Group's abortive attempt to sell hundreds of TSB branches to the Co-operative Bank, with Peter Marks, the former chief executive of The Co-operative Group.

And the International Development Secretary, Justine Greening, updates the International Development Committee about the crisis in Syria (11.15am).


Today's, if not the week's highlight is (2.45pm) is the Home Affairs Committee's "plebgate" inquest with no less than three chief constables and a galaxy of other senior figures.

The committee extracted some cross comment from the Home Secretary about the unfolding revelations this week, and it will now quiz Dame Anne Owers, the chair of the Independent Police Complaints Commission, and her deputy, Deborah Glass.

This is followed at 3.30pm by the chair of the Police Federation Steve Williams.

Then at 4.15pm Chief Constable Andy Parker of Warwickshire, Chief Constable David Shaw of West Mercia and Chief Constable Chris Sims of the West Midlands Police take centre stage.

Given the robust police response to criticism over "plebgate", and the anger in Westminster over it, expect sparks to fly.

Is the government spotting emerging scientific issues which could impact public policy in good time?

The Science and Technology Committee (9.15am) has an intriguing-looking session on "Horizon scanning in Government departments," with an assortment of boffins from various fields.

And the Environmental Audit Committee (9.20am) has a session on the pros and cons of biodiversity offsetting.

The idea is that, for example, if a developer is going to build something that will damage or destroy a habitat, they must buy a 'bio-credit' to compensate for that loss elsewhere - but does that amount to a licence to cause ecological damage?

Friends of the Earth, the RSPB, the Woodland Trust, the National Farmers Union, the House Builders Federation, and, finally Owen Paterson, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary, give their thoughts.

One of the hotter policy problems confronting government surfaces at the Education Committee (9.30am) when the Schools Minister, David Laws, gives evidence on the current and future availability of school places in England.

The committee will probe the regional differences, the factors influencing the number of places available and the ability of the government, local councils and others to respond to the increased demand for places.

And the Work and Pensions Committee (2.30pm) checks on the progress of "auto-enrolment" in workplace pension schemes with Pensions Minister Steve Webb.

The Joint Human Rights Committee (9.45am) looks at the implications for access to justice of the government's legal aid reforms.

The witnesses include: Neil Armstrong QC and The Public Law Project; HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, the Prisoners' Advice Service, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and The Howard League for Penal Reform.

Are energy subsidies in the UK going to the right places?

The Environmental Audit Committee (2.15pm) asks assorted industry experts and former MP turned green campaigner, Alan Simpson.

And at 3pm, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee looks at how the next phase of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy will operate, from 2014-2020, with the National Farmers' Union the Rural Payments Agency, Natural England and Jo Broomfield, the CAP delivery programme director at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.


The day's only scheduled meeting (10am) is the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, who are looking at parliament's role in conflict decisions, in the wake of the Syria vote.

Or not.

Three committee stalwarts have left for higher things - Eleanor Laing (deputy Speaker) Tristram Hunt (shadow education secretary) and Stephen Williams (Communities Minister) and it is whispered that PCRC is not quite the happening committee it was before the defeat of AV and Lords reform - so the powers that be are struggling to find new members, and the committee may struggle to scrape a quorum.