MPs to maintain ban on begging in Palace

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Times must be hard at the Palace of Westminster. Yesterday brought a suggestion from a senior Tory that collection boxes should be placed at the exits so that grateful visitors could make a contribution to the upkeep of the Mother of Parliaments. Even a Commons inured to crackpot ideas thought Sir Anthony Grant's poor box a bit much and both sides of the House dissolved in derisive laughter.

Sir Anthony, MP for Cambridgeshire SW, said at Question Time that the increasing number of visitors to the palace would be willing to make a voluntary contribution to its upkeep and future improvements.

"I am sure that the hordes of foreign visitors who increasingly come here would be only too delighted to help in this voluntary measure."

But Liberal Democrat Alan Beith, answering for the Commons Commission that is responsible for services around the House, was politely dismissive. "People who come here feel they are paying for this place out of their taxes and they are entitled to have a look round."

Any visitors yesterday who expected to see party political fireworks would certainly not have felt moved to make a generous contribution. Sir George Young, the Secretary of State for Transport, dealt easily with the latest question mark over rail privatisation, insisting that it was still on course in spite of last week's unhelpful court ruling.

A victory by the all-party Save Our Railways campaign means Roger Salmon, the franchise director, must justify cuts in the service requirement in the High Court. Sir George thinks Mr Salmon and the Office of Passenger Rail Franchises have a "strong case". But if they lose the whole process of finding private train operators will have to start again.

Greville Janner, Labour MP for Leicester West, asked if Sir George proposed to respect the decision of the court and postpone franchising while the judicial review took place. "Or will he do what the Government does so often, which is simply to attack the judges when it doesn't like their decisions?"

Sir George said the ruling did not go against the Government but against Opraf. "The first franchises are due to be awarded by the end of the year. It is business as usual."

Harrowing tales of student poverty appear to have made less impression on right-wing education minister Eric Forth than the crowds in student union bars. As MPs gave a Second Reading to a Bill to allow banks to compete with the Student Loans Company, Labour's Maria Fyfe said a study published in August by the Scottish Citizens Advice Bureau called Poverty by Degrees said students had had to be referred to charities providing free food.

"Does the minister think the taxpayer is so anxious to have their tax reduced by every possible penny that they want to see students in that condition?" she asked.

But Mr Forth said the taxpayer might want to know more about each student's circumstances. The vast majority managed their money responsibly and got by very well indeed. "I always find that when I visit campuses, I am impressed by the sheer numbers of students occupying the beer bars."

Later, the Liberal Democrats' Don Foster led a debate highlighting what he saw as soaring rates of student suicides. A survey carried out by his party this year showed that the level had risen by almost 400 per cent in 10 years, from 2.4 per 100,000 students to 9.7.

Mr Foster said that with university doctors reporting a rise in stress- related illness among students, there was an ever-increasing need for improved counselling services on campuses.

However in two universities these services had been cut, he said, and their role reassigned to a welfare officer. While one university had a counsellor for each 36 students, another had just one for every 8,000.

t Today's business - Commons: Defence questions; Prime Minister's Questions; Budget; Budget debate, first day. Lords: Reserve Forces Bill, Second Reading; Deregulation (Greyhound Racing) Order.