Howard and Straw do deal on Crime Bill

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Indy Politics
A wide range of crime Bills, including measures for tougher sentencing, and action against stalkers and sex offenders, are expected to become law before the election after a deal was agreed between Labour and the Home Office yesterday.

The Home Secretary's flagship Crime (Sentences) Bill, which appeared to be doomed after a House of Lords amendment blocked it, now looks likely to be passed.

Labour has agreed to "fast- track" 17 law-and-order Bills, providing they are allowed a Commons vote on the Crime Bill amendment before the House finally rises on Friday. The amendment will give judges greater discretion in sentencing burglars and drug dealers. Under the Bill, courts will give automatic life sentences for repeat serious sex and violent offenders and stiff minimum penalties for persistent burglars and drug dealers.

The compromise was agreed after a meeting between Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, and Jack Straw, the shadow home secretary.

But last night Labour sources said government proposals for an extension of grant-maintained schools and an increase of school selection of pupils, both included in the Education Bill, would have to be jettisoned if the remainder of the legislation was given high-speed approval, and agreed enactment, by the time the Commons was prorogued at the end of this week.

Following the Prime Minister's Downing Street announcement that the Commons would meet for the last time on Friday, the parliamentary "usual channels" - the business managers who include the Commons Leader, Tony Newton, and the Labour shadow, Ann Taylor, and representatives of the whips' offices - went into negotiations over salvaging part of the legislative programme.

But Mr Newton last night told MPs he was unable to deliver a full package of business for the rest of the week, indicating that full agreement had not been reached. "Discussions ... are continuing and I shall make a further business statement tomorrow," he said.

Fourteen government Bills, among them two on Mr Howard's plans to introduce mandatory minimum sentences, are before the Lords. There are also a number of backbench Private Members' Bills, covering the sale of drugs in clubs, and alcohol and young people, but the Knives Bill, introducing curbs on the sale and advertising of combat knives, cleared Parliament under its own steam last night.

Following Mr Newton's statement to the House last night, Mrs Taylor demanded an assurance that "ministers will not, in the next few days, abuse their position to make statements to this House, except on matters of real significance or to provide genuine accountability".

Countdown to a new Parliament

19 March: February unemployment figures.

20 March: February inflation figures.

Prime Minister's last question time of this Parliament.

21 March: Parliament prorogues, effectively rising for Easter. MPs will be paid through to formal dissolution weeks later.

31 March: Easter Monday. Manifestos expected to be published this week.

6 April: pay rises from Budget changes start to come into effect.

8 April: Parliament dissolved: proclamation and issue of writs - starting election clock.

14 April: Deadline for absent-voting applications. Candidate nominations open.

16 April: March unemployment figures and government borrowing figures. Last day for candidate nominations.

17 April: March inflation figures released.

23 April: Deadline for late absent-voting applications, on health grounds.

1 May: General election.

7 May: New Parliament meets to swear in MPs and elect Speaker.

14 May: State opening of Parliament, with Queen's Speech of new government.