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Northern Ireland

That the draft Fire and Rescue Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, which was laid before this House on 13th March, be approved.—[Mr. Coaker.]

Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(9)(European Standing Committees),

Promotion of Clean Road Vehicles

That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 5130/06 and Addendum 1, Draft Directive on the promotion of clean road vehicles; and endorses the Government's approach in investigating what the costs and impacts of the proposal on the UK would be and in seeking to so amend the proposal that, if implemented, it would result in the best possible balance between environmental and other benefits, and financial and other burdens on both the public and private sectors.—[Mr. Coaker.]

Question agreed to.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Are you aware that today we have received information that there have been arrests in Birmingham in relation to allegations of serious misconduct in relation to postal votes? Given that one of the people arrested is said to be a close relative of a leading Lib Dem candidate in the city of Birmingham, will you use your good offices to ensure that everything is done to ensure that the local election result in Birmingham is a fair and proper one?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I understand the concern expressed by the hon. Lady, but it is not a point of order for the Chair.


Asbestos Storage

7.1 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I rise to present a petition compiled by Linda and Lenny Green and others to raise awareness of an asbestos plant on the Manor trading estate in Benfleet. I entirely agree with the terms of the petition. The asbestos plant is completely inappropriate and there are far better sites for it.
26 Apr 2006 : Column 678

The Petition of the residents of Thundersley and Benfleet,

To lie upon the Table.

Traffic Calming

7.2 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I have now in my hands a major petition organised by Councillor Gail Boland of Boyce ward, signed by almost 2,000 people. Councillor Boland has worked tirelessly for her residents on this and many other issues. She has made it clear that she does not want speed bumps, and that she just wants vehicle-activated LED speed signs.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

Milton Keynes

7.3 pm

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): It is my privilege to present the petition of my constituent Mr. Andrew Geary of Hanslope and many others, who are understandably incensed by the Government's attempts to impose expansion plans on Milton Keynes via unelected and unaccountable quangos.

The Petition of the citizens of Milton Keynes

To lie upon the Table.
26 Apr 2006 : Column 679

Miners' Welfare Institutes

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Roy.]

7.4 pm

Mr. Denis Murphy (Wansbeck) (Lab): I am grateful to the House for allowing me this debate. With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall explain the history and background of miners' welfare institutes and the important role that they continue to play in the life of the communities that they now serve.

Many miners' welfare institutes were established at the turn of the last century. They were funded from a weekly contribution paid by every working miner. They provided excellent support and recreational facilities that were used not just by miners but the whole community. The specific case that I raise tonight is that of Hirst welfare in Ashington, but VAT affects scores of similar organisations throughout the country.

The original Hirst welfare was established through the Ashington coal company and a variety of facilities were provided for the local community, including both buildings and recreation grounds. Hirst welfare was where Jackie Milburn honed his remarkable skills and Bobby and Jackie Charlton first played football. More recently, it was where the world's finest fast bowler, Steve Harmison, developed his love for cricket. It was where generations of young men played sports, particularly football, in a spirit sadly long gone, that gave the welfare leagues a reputation for skill and toughness that was certainly not for the faint-hearted.

In 1966, through the creation of the Miners' Welfare Commission, and its successor the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation, CISWO, the Ashington Joint Welfare Group of Schemes was formed. It was registered with the Charity Commission, and was established to manage six community facilities across south-east Northumberland. Those facilities were Hirst welfare, Ashington recreation ground and the welfares at Linton, Newbiggin, Lynemouth and Pegswood. The charity continued to manage those facilities through a group of    trustees and individual management committees consisting of local residents and representatives from the then local collieries.

It is important to point out that while CISWO was funded by a levy on each tonne of coal mined nationally, the organisation and all the activities at each welfare site were still funded by levies agreed and deducted from individual miners' wages. It was therefore inevitable that, when the collieries started to close and the funding began to dry up, the organisation began to struggle to maintain its operations. As a result, four of the sites were transferred to local authorities in the 1980s. Linton, Lynemouth and Pegswood welfares were transferred to Castle Morpeth borough council and Newbiggin welfare was transferred to Wansbeck district council. That was also a difficult time for the local authorities, as the then Conservative Government forced year-on-year severe cuts in local government funding. It is to the credit of the local authorities that I mentioned that they managed to hold on to those community assets for so long.

The charity continued to manage Hirst welfare and Ashington recreation ground. In 1995, however, its financial difficulties could not be overcome, with the
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closure under British Coal of Ellington colliery being the final nail in the coffin resulting in the loss of all its income. The centre was closed in 1996 and demolished in 1997 on safety grounds. It was a sad sight. Rose bay willow herb and broken glass, synonymous in many ways with the dereliction of abandoned coal mine sites, was now invading the heart of the community and covered the turf that was once graced by Ashington's and Britain's greatest world-class athletes.

The situation was made much more difficult by the site then being in the middle of four wards suffering the highest deprivation levels in Northumberland. The Hirst is situated in the south-east of Ashington with a population of about 8,000 people living in 3,500 densely built houses and flats. On the index of multiple deprivation, all those wards featured in the bottom 10 per cent. nationally. In response to both deprivation and the lack of services, Wansbeck district council commissioned a number of reports. The first, produced in 1997, dealt with the Hirst regeneration. The second, produced in 2000, was the Ashington investment study. The final one, which I understand was completed in 2001, was the Wansbeck community appraisal. Although the reports dealt with different issues, they all recommended the creation of a community facility that could provide a range of services and give the community an identity.

At about the same time, in 1997, the newly elected Labour Government recognised the unique problems faced by coalfield communities as a result of the decline of the mining industry. In October that year, the Government established the coalfield taskforce to provide initiatives to help former mining communities. The taskforce's report "Making the Difference" was published in June 1998, and set out a programme of action to combat the deprivation faced by those communities. Here at last, many of us thought, was a real opportunity to provide much-needed facilities. The Government should be congratulated on an initiative that has made a significant contribution to the improvement of former coalfield areas.

One of the most important and relevant recommendations from the taskforce concerned one-stop shops. The report stated

As a result of that recommendation, CISWO secured funding from the National Lottery Charities Board for its one-stop shop project, enabling seven full-time staff to be employed across the English, Scottish and Welsh coalfields to help 25 miners' welfare schemes redevelop and become one-stop shops. In 2000, Wansbeck district council approached CISWO and requested that a new Hirst welfare centre be included in the one-stop shop programme. It was approved, and a new partnership was formed to implement the project. Funding was
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secured for a joint feasibility study to run alongside the upgrading of Hirst park, which is close to the welfare centre. There were substantial consultations with the community, and a number of options were prepared.

In 2002, work began to secure the necessary funding, which was in place by November 2003 when the contracts were let. The new Hirst welfare centre was completed and opened to the public in December 2004. It is a tremendous achievement and, genuinely, a huge success.

The euphoria was short-lived. A demand for £85,000 in VAT on the project arrived recently from Her Majesty's Customs and Excise. That came as a complete surprise to the trustees. When the feasibility study was carried out, the design team contacted Customs and Excise, which said that the project would be zero-rated because it was new build. As a result of the VAT reclaimed on the project, it has gone into the capital goods scheme, which means that the project will be assessed by Customs and Excise every year for the next 10 years.

I spoke to the trustees today. They informed me that they had borrowed the money to pay the VAT from the miners' trust fund, and would pay it back over 10 years. That cannot be right. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to review the VAT position at the Hirst welfare centre, to ensure that the money remains in the community where those who provided it intended all of it to be used.

The trustees argued that the project should be treated as a village hall or something similar, in order to obtain zero rating. It is important for the next few minutes to examine the reasons why Customs and Excise would not accept that description. Its interpretation of a village hall or similar was based on location—it had to be easily accessible by most members of the local community—and on the building: village halls vary according to needs and resources, but they tend to be small. Management and administration should be vested in local village hall trustees. Income should come mainly from charges and there should be limited kitchen, sports and play equipment. A crèche could be provided, and the staff would usually consist of volunteers. A wide range of activities should take place in such places, including private parties, committee meetings, jumble sales, wedding receptions, parish council meetings, women's institute meetings, polling stations, dances, discos, senior citizens' clubs, playgroups and blood transfusions—in other words, anything that is relevant to a particular community.

Customs and Excise did not agree that the Hirst welfare centre fitted the village hall description for the following four reasons. First, its size exceeded the typical village hall definition; secondly, turnover exceeded that typically expected in a village hall; thirdly, staff are employed to work in the centre; fourthly, the gym equipment is assembled on a permanent basis.

The size of the centre was determined in many ways by Government policy and the requirements of the funding partners—it is indeed a one-stop shop. The organisations based in the centre are: Wansbeck district council information point, a healthy living centre, a toy library, East Ashington fun club, a power-lifting club, "action team for jobs", a citizens advice bureau, the National Union of Mineworkers' and the Regeneration Trust's skills building project, and Hirst high school.
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The organisations delivering services from that site are the primary care trust, Barnado's, Sure Start, the youth   offending service, the probation service, the Football Association, several community partnerships, Jobcentre Plus, Connexions, the teenage pregnancy unit, the education action zone and out-of-school clubs.

The uses to which the centre is put are many and varied. They include, among many others, salsa dancing, aerobics, boxing training, tea dances, karate, wrestling, FA coaching, football training for boys and girls of all ages and information technology courses. The size of the centre and its staffing and income therefore fit the needs of the community perfectly. All the outreach facilities and courses are tailored to serve the needs of the individuals who live in that community.

The role of miners' welfare schemes and community buildings such as village halls has changed dramatically since the VAT rules were last reviewed some 10 years ago. No longer are such facilities used on an ad hoc basis; they are now vital community resources that are used to deliver front-line services to help local communities regenerate. Through charging VAT on the capital costs of multi-use community facilities, Customs and Excise is diverting much needed finance from such front-line services. It is forcing local community organisations to raise substantial funding from one Government source to give to another. Often, it is the VAT element of a capital project that determines whether a programme succeeds.

The case that I have raised concerns new build, but I should like the Minister to note that the same arguments apply to the refurbishment of miners' welfare institutes, for which VAT should also be zero-rated. I hope that he can examine in some detail the case that I have raised tonight and review the rules on VAT, so that all the funds raised for this project are used to benefit the community served by Hirst welfare centre.

7.18 pm

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