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Aviation gets the panning, but what about emissions from the maritime sector? I wish people would spend as much time focusing on what comes out of the funnels of all the dirty ships in the world as they spend examining what comes out of the tailpipes of aircraft.
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Ships are, if anything, greater emitters, yet they sneak around and do not get the whip from those who wish to see transport play a greater part in reducing our emissions.

Having advocated the appointment of a single Cabinet Minister to be in charge of climate change, I wish that DEFRA would be more candid about the multiplicity of targets that we have to hit in the United Kingdom. The Select Committee strongly supported the Climate Change Bill, but we must recognise that we are already running behind time in regard to meeting the target of a 60 per cent. reduction in emissions, never mind the stronger 80 per cent. target that the Committee has advocated. The Minister should think about communicating to the country the reason why we are behind time in that way, and what our citizens, our companies and our Government need to do to play catch-up and get us back on track.

I was disappointed by the Government’s reply to our report. They would not agree to provide some form of trajectory to enable people to measure progress towards the intermediate and final targets. That might involve a move away from absolute targeting on an annual basis, but we need to be able to track progress. The arguments put forward in the Government’s reply were, to say the least, very thin indeed.

Today’s debate has been occasioned by the Bali conference and the latest findings of the United Nations, but the one thing that the Minister did not tell us was what is being done internationally to try to ensure that the United States comes on board once and for all and publicly. It is all very well for us in the House of Commons to come up with comforting ideas on what we can do domestically and in Europe, where there is commitment to dealing with climate change, but there is no point in our doing so if the world’s biggest polluter is not publicly on board. I applaud the efforts of various Senators and the state of California, and the market for emissions in the north-east of the United States, but unless the United States Government are convinced and committed, now and in the future, no amount of good international discussion will move the world forward and enable it to deal with this global phenomenon.

The United Nations and Stern have spelled out the international consequences of inactivity, and against such a powerful scientific background I find it profoundly worrying that we have no consensus. I cannot believe that there are not individuals in China, India and the other countries that have not signed up to Kyoto who are worried, as we are, about the international consequences of inactivity. That is why having a single powerful individual in our Government to deal with the matter might increase our ability to influence the international stage if Bali is to be a success.

In our report “Climate change: ‘the citizen’s agenda’”, the Select Committee set considerable store by local action. One of the things that worries me even about the Prime Minister’s latest initiative on access to information, which I welcome, is the fact that we are still in top-down mode. We put information up and hope that it will flutter down and that the citizen will pick it up and do something. In my constituency, I am working hard with many partners—the regional development agency, the Environment Agency, local authorities, local businesses
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and schools—to make ours the most energy-efficient borough in the country. However our initiative, known as FLoWE—Fylde Low Waste and Energy—is finding it hard work. The local authority does not have the budget or the resources to implement homespun but none the less committed action on climate change.

Our Committee went down to Woking to see the market leader in locally based activity. Its combined heat and power scheme makes one wonder why it is so difficult for the Wokings of the world to have their way. I ask the Minister please to consider carefully what could be done to stimulate more bottom-up activity in this country—to make it more possible for local authorities to become involved in the commerce of climate change, and to let the citizen play an informed part in meeting the challenge of putting the country back on track in terms of its targets.

2.32 pm

Mr. Woolas: I thank Members for their contributions, which demonstrated that we made the right decision in providing opportunities for topical debates. Let me begin with the last of those contributions. I think it important that the Chairman of our Select Committee—especially as he is a Conservative—said what he did about the policy of the United States of America. I thank him for and congratulate him on those remarks.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Ms Barlow) made an important speech about smart metering, which was mentioned by others as well. It is important for us to roll out smart metering. The Government are currently analysing responses to consultation, and we will make announcements soon; but clearly, as has been pointed out, the ability to measure in itself affects behaviour, and may be relevant to some of the other steps that we have discussed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Rothwell (Colin Challen) welcomed the principles espoused by the United Kingdom as we move towards the Bali process. He commented on the importance of the World Bank mechanism, correctly identifying that as our policy, and warned us not to rely exclusively on the role of markets. He is right to acknowledge the importance of other mechanisms.

I remind the House that our international action is not just the “rhetoric” of which the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) accused us. I do not think that $1.5 billion is rhetoric. We have established our international environment transformation fund, and in many countries around the world we are already engaged in real on-the-ground projects.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) made a powerful call in respect of skills needs. I believe we should replicate across the country the example that he is setting in his constituency, including the mechanisms that operate in various colleges and institutions. We need to talk to colleagues in Whitehall about this, but my hon. Friend is right to say that the policy must become real in terms of increased jobs and opportunities.

The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) welcomed some of our policies, but said that we had “faffed around”. I do not think the Committee chaired by the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) has been faffing around; I think it has engaged in good consultation, and we have listened to some of it. The hon. Gentleman
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praised St. Pancras. The reason why there are fewer flights from Manchester is that there are faster trains to Euston, and I think that the same is true of flights from Paris to London. I do not accept the point about my constituents not being able to fly; they have as much right to fly as everyone else.

The right hon. Member for Fylde knows that I acknowledge his expertise and commitment. The central point is that we must change the way in which we do things. Our message to our people is not that they must stop doing things; it is a question of the type of fuel that we use, the type of vehicle that we use and the mix of transport that we use. We believe that action works only in the context of two things: a carbon market so that emissions can be traded—

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings, the motion lapsed, without Question put, pursuant to Temporary Standing Order (Topical debates).

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Orders of the Day

Sale of Student Loans Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

2.37 pm

The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Bill Rammell): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill concerns the prudent management of one of the Government’s public assets, the student loan book. Before I deal with its provisions, I will briefly explain the context and why the Bill is being introduced now.

The Government strongly believe that talent and hard work, not social background or where a person went to school, should determine success in life. We believe that no one should be held back from realising his or her potential at university because of fears of financial hardship. That is why we have been systematically breaking down the financial barriers to higher education.

First, we changed the nature of student loans, linking repayments directly to graduate earnings, and started collection through straightforward payroll deduction alongside income tax and national insurance once the graduate is in work and earning. Secondly, no home full-time undergraduate studying for their first degree has to pay tuition fees before they study, because there are now loans for fees. Thirdly, we have reintroduced non-repayable maintenance grants for students from low-income backgrounds, and last July my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced a significantly enhanced new financial support package for students, under which from next year two thirds of students will be eligible for non-repayable grants. In addition, we have ensured that universities are paying out non-repayable bursaries.

Fourthly, the package that we announced for next year offers a guarantee to those in receipt of the educational maintenance allowance that if they are receiving it at the age of 16, they will be guaranteed the amount of money they will get in student financial support when they go to university. We are also introducing for the first time the option of a loan repayment holiday of up to five years to allow flexibility and choice in repayment.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way so soon. I did not realise that he was going to introduce the debate by outlining some of the measures to be taken. What arrangements will the Government make to give part-time students the same access to loans as full-time students, and also to extend that to both further education and adult students?

Bill Rammell: We are introducing the adult learning grants, which give for the first time an equivalent commitment to the education maintenance allowance. I am not in the business today of making future announcements, but I will say for the record that before this Government came to power there was no financial support whatever for part-time students. We were the first Government to institute a part-time student grant, and 18 months ago we increased that by 27 per cent. We also substantially increased the access to learning fund,
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initially from £3 million to £12 million. There are further challenges for us to face up to, but we have a good track record on this issue.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on the package of measures introduced this summer, which have made a fundamental difference in the level of student support. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State deserves great credit for taking this issue up so swiftly. Does my hon. Friend agree that although this will be of huge benefit to all Members’ constituents, it is important to communicate the changes? What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that students learn directly of the new package of measures, and also that tutors in schools and colleges are as well briefed as possible this autumn when students make their choices for next year’s university entrance?

Bill Rammell: I can certainly give assurances on that. We have launched a major communication campaign to get across the facts about the new system, including through TV, radio and online advertising. We have also made available a DVD setting out the facts for advisers and students. It is available to Members of Parliament as well, if they wish to engage actively in this process and inform their constituents.

In terms of this substantially enhanced package, it is worth saying for the record that those who predicted that the introduction of variable fees would lead to a reduction in the number of people applying to university—and particularly in the number of those from poorer backgrounds—are being proved emphatically wrong. Entry to university this autumn by English students is 6 per cent. higher than last year, and a higher proportion are from poorer backgrounds.

There is now a developing consensus in the House. The Conservative party has shifted its position from opportunistic opposition to the Government stance, which we welcome; they now support our position. Even the Liberal Democrats appear to be moving. I have always said that people should judge politicians not by what they say, but by what they do, and in government in Scotland the Liberal Democrats supported a system of postgraduate repayment that is absolutely no different in principle from the system that we have in England. I understand that they are now reviewing their position for England, and one of their think-tanks has even advocated outright support for the Government’s position. Therefore, I think we are creating a settled consensus.

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): The Minister has eventually goaded me to my feet. He knows full well that the changes in Scotland are not the same as those in England. The loan system there is not to pay for fees, so I think he should be careful in what he says.

Bill Rammell: All I will say to the hon. Lady is that exactly the same principle of postgraduate repayment applies in England and Scotland: the former student has to pay something back once they are in work and earning. That needs to be said for the record, because in the past we have often heard from the Liberal Democrats of their opposition to fees, whereas in reality they support that principle of postgraduate repayment.

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The Government believe these reforms, alongside increased investment in higher education and the hard work of students and educators around the country, have helped increase participation in higher education to the highest ever level in this country. I am confident that it will rise further, and that is both socially and economically imperative.

We should be proud of our record of breaking down the financial barriers to education and widening participation, but that also brings an interesting challenge. As participation has grown, so too has the size of the Government-owned student loan book. According to the latest figures—those for the year 2006-07—the English loan book was valued at £18.1 billion. Of that, about £17 billion was accounted for by the new income-contingent loans repaid through Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. We firmly expect that the loan book will increase appreciably in the coming years. That projected growth makes it all the more important to give careful consideration to how best we can handle this large and growing public asset. The Bill concerns how the student loan book can best be managed.

Mr. Willis: This is a rerun of the debate that took place in 1997. I am sure that the Minister will recall the first student loans portfolio Bill, and I shall ask him something that I asked then. Will he put on record, at the start of this debate, the discounted rate at which the loan will be able to be sold off? Will it be 10, 15, 20 or 25 per cent.? In other words, how much is the Treasury prepared to give away in order to get this loan portfolio off its balance sheet and on to somebody else’s?

Bill Rammell: The previous sales demonstrated value for money. I shall not reveal a discount rate today, but I shall set out the value-for-money framework within which we will make those judgments. Were we to reveal the discount rate today, in what will be a competitive bidding process for people to purchase the debt, we would reveal our hand at the start of the process and fail to maximise the revenue to the public sector.

Mr. Willis rose—

Bill Rammell: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman one last time, and then I must make some progress.

Mr. Willis: As always, the Minister is engaging with the debate, and I compliment him on that. Will he therefore give us the discount rate for the 1997 sale? That is a retrospective matter rather than one that deals with what is being planned for this sale.

Bill Rammell: I do not have that figure at my fingertips, but following this debate I shall happily write to the hon. Gentleman and set it out for the record.

Transferring ownership of large parts of the English loan book will allow us to reduce the risk of continuing to hold the loans on the Government’s balance sheet, and is expected to realise an initial £6 billion in receipts over the next three years. Having commissioned expert external advice from the financial sector, we believe that we will be able to conduct sales at a price that represents good value for money for the taxpayer. I think that we can achieve that.

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Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): The Minister related the sale to the Government’s balance sheet. I am no technician in this matter, but am I right in saying that the extent of the student loan book is not netted against the public sector borrowing requirement, which is the conventional measure of changes in the public sector’s balance sheet? Therefore, when account is taken of commitments such as the golden rule on economic management, what is being done today is not strictly relevant at all.

Bill Rammell: It is relevant. This mechanism has been supported by the Conservatives—indeed, the Leader of the Opposition supported it when we announced it in the previous Budget. Through this mechanism we are transferring risk from the public sector to the private sector, and in doing so, we are realising a capital receipt that can go back into the Consolidated Fund and used for other Government spending purposes. That is an important achievement.

I need to make one precise point clear at this stage. The Government will retain control of regulations, terms and conditions for all loans, and there will be no adverse change for borrowers, whether their loan is sold or retained.

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) (Lab): I welcome the Minister’s commitment on that point. He is right that we should be clear on this matter. Will he assure present and future students that nothing in the Bill or in this transfer could result in information being passed to financial or marketing companies, and that the private sector can count on no such gain in its estimate of what it is prepared to pay?

Bill Rammell: I am happy to confirm that to my right hon. Friend, who I know has a long-standing interest in student affairs and in advocating the students’ case. For the record, purchasers will not be able to access any wider range of personal data or use personal data for any purpose other than administering student loans.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): On the last point, before the Minister moves on to another exciting aspect of the Bill, can he clarify whether the safeguards sought by the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) are in the Bill and will be part of the terms of sale—the contract—or whether they will be covered by some other parliamentary mechanism, such as guidance or a statutory instrument?

Bill Rammell: I refer the hon. Gentleman to clause 6(4), which clearly states that personal information can be disclosed and used only

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