The week ahead in Parliament

Mark D'Arcy
Parliamentary correspondent

  • Published
WestminsterImage source, Reuters

With MPs now able to vote remotely, there's a bit more edge to the House of Commons as it returns from the bank holiday break - and this week's agenda could provide a number of opportunities for Honourable Members to try out their new system, most probably on the order on abortion in Northern Ireland (see Tuesday).

Meanwhile, Noble Lords look enviously at the virtual chamber of the Commons. Their own efforts at remote proceedings have been less sure-footed, and, lacking a remote voting system, and targeted by briefings, now officially denied, that the government intends to clip their wings, and force their over-65 members to retire, there's a sense of trouble brewing on the red benches.

There is a widespread sense that without the ability to vote, peers' detailed scrutiny of legislation is de-fanged, and they are also chaffing at the restrictions on the number of speakers in debates in their virtual House.

Noble angst

A particular complaint is around the debate on Covid-19 on 30 April, when 65 peers wanted to speak, but the speaking slots were rationed and peers time-limited to two minutes. Another is around the limited time allocated to a private notice question (equivalent to a Commons urgent question) on reports about that 65-year age cap for peers, which left several senior figures unable to contribute.

I expect a fairly continuous rumble of Noble angst to continue, until some assurances emerge that the problems can be resolved, and the call made this week for the Leader of the Lords, Lady Evans, to take a pay cut is, I'm told, set to be repeated daily.

Here's my rundown of the week ahead - with the usual caveat that the biggest events will probably be ministerial statements, which are frequently made with little notice.

Monday 11 May

The Commons meets (14:30) for half an hour of Work and Pensions Questions, to be followed by half an hour of Foreign and Commonwealth Questions.

Next will come the promised statement by the prime minister on adjustments to the lockdown. Since these will have been unveiled at a press conference on Sunday, it's possible that Mr Speaker Hoyle might signal his displeasure at major policy changes being announced to the press and public rather than to Parliament.

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MPs will be expecting contrition from Conor Burns

Then MPs debate the Standards Committee report on Connor Burns, who resigned as a minister last week. These debates are normally fairly brief, with a couple of senior committee members laying out their findings, and the subject of their wrath allocated 10 minutes for a personal statement in which to accept his punishment (in this case a one-week suspension from the House, which means the loss of that week's pay).

The normal form is for the MP in question to do this with as much grace and contrition as they can muster. Excuses are frowned on and anything that smacks of actual defiance could put paid to any hope of a return to office.

Then it's back to Covid-19, and a general debate which will give MPs an opportunity to raise all kinds of concerns. It will last three-and-a-half hours with a 30-minute interval for technical reasons after 90 minutes, and a further two hours when MPs return. The debate is on an innocuous motion "that this House has considered..." but it is worth pointing out that it could be pushed to a vote if enough MPs wanted to make a point.

On the virtual Committee Corridor, Housing, Communities and Local Government has a three hour hearing (09:00) on the impact of the pandemic on homelessness and the private rented sector, while Transport takes evidence from the airlines on the implications for them.

Public Accounts (13:45) looks at the growing trend for local authorities to seek to protect their income by making commercial investments

The Lords are not sitting.

Tuesday 12 May

The Commons opens (11:30) with half an hour of International Trade Questions, followed by another half hour on defence.

Then MPs debate a statutory instrument to extend the time prisoners may be released under Home Detention Curfew (HDC) from the current 135 days to 180 days. This would allow the prison population to be reduced by more early release, while the prisoners' movements would be restricted by electronic tagging and satellite tracking. HDC is not used for sex offenders, terrorist offenders and those who have previously broken early release conditions.

Next comes the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020 - which will bring in a framework to regulate abortions there. It follows the amendment pushed through by Labour's Stella Creasy to the Northern Ireland Executive Formation Act last year, allowing Westminster to act while the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly remained suspended. Before that abortion was banned except in a tiny number of cases, because the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act continued to apply there.

The move will probably be opposed by the Democratic Unionist Party, which argues that any decision is for the devolved institutions to take. This could well provide the first test of MPs' new online voting system, because it seems sure to be pushed to a vote.

Finally there is a motion to renew the temporary changes to Commons Standing Orders that have allowed virtual participation in Commons proceedings. It's unlikely much will be changed (bar some minor tweaks, but look out for some markers going down about returning to normal methods as soon as possible).

A lot of MPs on all sides believe that the virtual House is much easier on ministers, and while it is better than nothing, they want to bring the full force of parliamentary scrutiny to bear on the extraordinary decisions the government is having to take.

The day's select committee action includes Defence (14:00) looking at defence industrial strategy, and Justice (14:00) looking at the ageing prison population.

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Brexit is still on the agenda

In the Lords (13:00) questions to ministers range across what is being done to protect vulnerable populations during the pandemic, how the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme for small and medium-sized businesses is operating, and the ability of schools to deliver the new compulsory elements of the personal, social, health and economic education curriculum, from September.

Then peers debate the regulations for the next census considered by MPs the previous week, and then the coronavirus regulations, which were debated in the Commons on Monday 4 May.

With a judicial review challenge to the regulations looming, keep an eye on any contributions from the Lords tribe of superlawyers on the issue of whether the public health legislation under which the regulations were made really give ministers the power to do what they've done.

Finally, peers debate a report from their EU Committee - Beyond Brexit: How to Win Friends and Influence People - which explores how the UK's post-Brexit relationship with the EU might work and how Parliament should participate.

Wednesday 13 May

The Commons meets (11:30) for half an hour of Northern Ireland Questions, followed by Prime Minister's Question Time.

Then MPs are due to polish off the remaining Commons stages of consideration of the Agriculture Bill, which creates a post-Brexit framework for agricultural support schemes, to replace the EU system. It applies mainly to England, and provides a range of powers to implement new approaches to farm payments and land management.

There are cross-party amendments down to protect food hygiene, animal welfare and environmental standards, in imports and in international trade deals, and the Green Party's Caroline Lucas has an amendment to ban the use of hazardous pesticides. Former minister Sir Edward Leigh has a series off amendments on the relationship between tenant farmers and their landlords.

All this could present quite a challenge to the remote voting system - with, potentially, quite a number of amendments being pushed to a vote. One interesting nerd point is whether the chair might select fewer amendments that they would have in normal times, so as not to put too much stress on a new procedure.

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (08:45) has a session with the National Statistician Prof Ian Diamond, on the world of the Office for National Statistics - which in other times midget look rather dry fare, but which is right at the heart of the current crisis.

In the Lords (13:00) ministers face questions on the impact of the benefit cap, lifting sanctions on Syria and support for sports affected by the pandemic.

Then peers will be asked to approve the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations (see above). There could be problems if there is an attempt to force them to a vote, because the Lords does not yet have a system to allow remote voting.

The day's legislative business is Committee consideration of the Private International Law (Implementation of Agreements) Bill. This deals with international agreements covering issues like child custody - for example, between parents of different nationalities - and the choice of which country's courts resolve disputes.

It all sounds technical and innocuous, but has stirred up considerable opposition among the superlawyers, and I hear rumours of an attempt to gut the bill when it reaches Report Stage, the following week.

Thursday 14 May

The Commons will not be sitting, but there will be a Treasury Committee hearing on the economic impact of coronavirus (14:00)

In the Lords (11:00) questions cover UK citizens who are stranded overseas, the restart of housing and construction and overcrowding in prisons in England and Wales, particularly in HMP Swansea.

That is followed by two backbench debates - first, on food supply in the light of the pandemic, led by Lady Boycott, and then on supporting previously homeless people into permanent housing after the pandemic - led by the Big Issue founder Lord Bird.

Friday 15 May

Neither House is sitting, but there is a fair helping of committee action, with Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (09:00) looking at the impact of Covid-19 on DCMS sectors, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs looking at Covid-19 and food supply (09:30), Treasury looking at the economic impact of the pandemic (14:00) and the Lords International Relations and Defence Committee looking at the UK and sub-Saharan Africa (15:00).