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Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): I do not agree with everything that the hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) said, but her contribution demonstrates the value of these Adjournment debates and the way in which we can raise many different things at the end of term. I was disappointed, however, that she had to end on a rather unpleasant note. Many of us worked with her predecessor and thought well of him, and a generous comment at the end of her speech might have served her rather better in the House.

My constituents would like four issues to be aired before this Session is completed. I shall explain the first briefly, then try to lump the remaining three together. May I make a plea to Ministers on behalf of my constituents to tackle the refitting of the St. Pancras Thameslink rail terminal? For 35 weeks, commuters from Bedford travelling on the Thameslink midlands main line into St. Pancras have endured without complaint what they call "the blockade". Thameslink used to run right through the centre of town, and people could travel from Bedford to Brighton, but they have been prevented from doing so by the works at the new Eurostar terminal at St. Pancras. By and large, the works seem to have gone well, but commuters have been told that the Thameslink station, which should have been completed with the rest of the terminal by June 2007, will not be ready then.

That is a tragedy, as it would prevent interchanges between the Thameslink line and European services, between the proposed Olympic service to east London and the Midland Main line, and with the Great Northern suburban services. It is like building a motorway without junctions. Would the Deputy Leader of the House kindly talk to the Minister of State, Department for Transport, who is responsible for rail transport, to see whether we can secure a commitment to complete that work? In commuters' minds, the issue is coloured by their concerns about Thameslink 2000, which is now known as Thameslink 3000, because it has simply not happened. Completion would be a gesture of good will towards commuters, who pay over the odds for fares with rises that exceed inflation. Thameslink makes a contribution with a premium payment to the Strategic Rail Authority, so there is no shortage of cash and completion would be a great help. I am grateful to Andrew Long of the Bedford Commuters Association for the support and information that he has provided.

I shall group the next three items together, and would be grateful for the assistance of the House in helping me to create an interactive event. Imagine that we are presented with a form from Her Majesty's Government for the new citizenship test, albeit one at an advanced level. We are asked what we would do in three situations and in which one we would expect the Government to intervene. The three situations arise in my constituency, but they could occur elsewhere. First, situation A: Swineshead is a village in the north of my constituency. It does not have any shops, and it no longer has a village pub, but it does have a village hall which, along with the church, is the only place where people can gather in large
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numbers. Twice a month, the village hall provides an opportunity for people to get together and use its bar, which makes modest profits of £300 to £400 a year. Those profits are used for the benefit of the village to assist with small repairs and so on. The village hall and the village pay £30 every three years for the licence or £10 a year. Under the Licensing Act 2003, there will be a charge of £190 for the transfer to the new system, followed by a regular charge of £150 a year. That is 15 times the current charge—money that will be taken out of the modest profits and cannot be used for village purposes. It is a payment to bureaucracy resulting from the new Licensing Act. Would the Government intervene to assist that village in retaining its funds for village purposes?

The second situation concerns the multiple sclerosis therapy centre in Bedford, which serves Bedfordshire. It is one of 36 centres in England and Wales. They are all voluntary, run for charitable purposes and staffed by volunteers. A couple of years ago the centres came under the Healthcare Commission for inspection. They did not mind. They had previously been self-regulated, but they accepted the need for regulation and inspection. Even so, some odd requirements were added—for instance, the centre in Bedford is required to have a protocol for what happens when the toilet rolls run out. For 20 years the centre was run without that, but we will let it pass because the centre is letting it pass.

The inspection charge at first and for this year is £1,080. This year it is proposed to increase it by 45 per cent., and by 2008 the charge will be £4,000 a year. That is what the Healthcare Commission has been told to charge, because it must make ends meet and be self-financing, by order of the Government. The voluntary centre says that the money is being taken out of the funds used to provide for patients and their friends, and it is money that can be raised only by volunteers standing on a street corner and shaking a tin. Would the Government intervene to prevent that 300 per cent. increase in charges, to help multiple sclerosis sufferers and their families?

Or take situation C—Mid Bedfordshire district council, a low-charging district council. It charges the 10th lowest rates out of the 238 district councils in England and Wales—£90.18 per year is a typical charge. The council is under pressure to provide more services and works closely with the Government. It identified £2.4 million worth of savings over the past three years, but this year it must increase its charges by 13.3 per cent., which equates to £1 per month.

I have put to the House three situations, A, B and C. Will the Government intervene in situation A, where villages are asked to pay more money for licensing bureaucracy? Will the Government intervene in situation B, where multiple sclerosis centres face an increase of 300 per cent. in their inspection charges for the Government inspector? Or will the Government intervene in situation C, in order to safeguard the ratepayer from a rise of £1 per month from a district council?

I know the answer: it is situation C, where the Government have already decided to intervene and are rate-capping Mid Bedfordshire district council for the appalling crime of charging an extra £1 per month on its council tax in the coming year. They leave aside the
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several hundred per cent. increase in licensing charges for Swineshead village hall. They are not interested in the 300 per cent. increase in inspection costs for the multiple sclerosis centre. No, they have decided to bring the might of Whitehall to bear, and have capped Mid Bedfordshire district council for charging an extra £1 a month.

Yesterday in the Chamber I was very cross with the Minister for Local and Regional Government. I spoke and behaved in a way that I do not normally do, because I am a moderate sort of chap, as the Whip, the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy), knows full well from our frequent games of football together. Today I am not cross. I just find it ridiculous. That is why I present the three situations to the House and ask what we would do, were we the Government. Which one would we choose to intervene in?

What does the choice tell us? It tells us that the Government have lost their compass—their sense of proportion. Village halls across Britain face increases of the sort that I described. It seems to them nonsense that they should needlessly have to pay more to a licensing authority—money that would otherwise be used in the village for communal purposes. Why can they not be relieved of the burden?

Multiple sclerosis therapy centres are providing a free service to the national health service, doing work and raising their own money, with volunteers standing on street corners, going to shopping centres and running bring and buy events. If they downed tools and did not do that, who would pick up the responsibility? To be facing the same inspection charges as a BUPA therapy centre may face is nonsense, but the Government have not listened.

Two months ago, I and my constituents in Swineshead wrote to the Government to get an answer on the licensing. We have not heard anything. The multiple sclerosis centres have written to the Minister. They have had an answer but no assistance. Mid Bedfordshire district council has certainly heard from the Minister for Local and Regional Government, who has decided to cap it for £1 a month.

I was a member of a London local authority in 1982. I know what rate capping was designed to do. Businesses were driven out of London boroughs because of the high rate increases that were introduced by a few very high-spending councils. We all know that the world is different now. Labour is in government because the loony left was dealt with. That was what the power of rate capping—the power of this place to intervene in local democracy—was about. It was not about dealing with the Mid Bedfordshires of this country or about dealing with low-charging authorities spending an extra £1 a month but finding that converted into a percentage that makes the Government step in and use their power. It shows that the Government have lost their sense of proportion, lost their moral competence and lost the plot.

I leave those questions hanging. What would hon. Members do if they were facing the citizenship test? Most of us in the Chamber would find a better answer than situation C. I appeal to the Minister—I know that he will have only a short time to wind up the debate—to answer the question: why, of the three situations, is only one attracting direct Government intervention? Will he
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please go to his colleagues and ask them to deal with the other two on behalf of the therapy centres and village halls around the country, not least because of the district councils that are doing their best and facing that ridiculous power of capping for a very small degree of hurt?

4.21 pm

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