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Lord Butler of Brockwell: My Lords, in declaring an interest as head of an Oxford college, can I ask the Minister whether she is aware that it is a commonly held but false belief that it is more expensive for a student to attend Oxford--or, indeed, Cambridge--than other universities? Will the Government do their utmost to help both Oxford and Cambridge counter that belief, which may well discourage students from poorer backgrounds applying to those universities?
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, we should be very happy to counter that belief. However, there is an additional issue; namely, the concern that schools do not perhaps recommend to their students that they might apply to Oxford and Cambridge. We still have many barriers to break down in terms of the assumption that Cambridge and Oxford are only for pupils of certain schools and for certain kinds of students. To me, that seems to be a much more crucial barrier and one that we must consider. We know that some schools simply do not recommend that approach; that students do not aspire to it; and, indeed, that their backgrounds are not such as immediately to lead them to consider either Oxford or Cambridge. We need to do much more in this respect. That is why the outreach work from Oxford, Cambridge and other universities is of vital importance.
Baroness Lockwood: My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that many universities have been innovative in trying to recruit students from social groups which do not normally think in terms of university education? The University of Bradford, for instance--and I declare an interest as its Chancellor--pioneered summer and Saturday morning university places directed largely at ethnic groups within its local community. Does my noble friend also agree that such activities put an additional strain on universities, both financially and in terms of manpower? Will that factor be taken into consideration in the next financial round?
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I again pay tribute to Bradford, Nottingham, Warwick, Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, York and Sussex universities. As noble Lords and I have mentioned, some extremely innovative practices are taking place. I stress that they are not about lowering the requirements of students; they are about looking more broadly at applicants, their abilities and their achievement potential.
Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn: My Lords, with reference to the Minister's remarks about access to Oxford, would she not concede that her right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer did great disservice in that regard with his remarks about Laura Spence?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, for both environmental and commercial reasons, the Government support the utilisation of coal-mine methane for electricity generation and are currently examining a number of ways in which assistance can be given to the industry. We are at present discussing the treatment under the climate change levy of electricity generated from coal-mine methane with the Association of Coal Mine Methane Operators and we have asked that they provide further details of the case for an exemption.
Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, the Government have accepted the fact, and the Minister has repeated it, that coal-mine methane is a dangerous gas; that it is 20 times more damaging to the environment than CO2, with which the recent Kyoto conference dealt; and that if the industry is to exploit the gas, trap it and use it, it must be given practical encouragement. Why is it taking so long for the Government to make up their mind how to give that encouragement?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, it is not a question of the Government making up their mind how to give that encouragement. There are certain constraints. Strictly speaking, coal-mine methane is not renewable and therefore it does not benefit from inclusion under the renewables directive. There is always the danger that help for coal-mine methane being used for electricity generation will be categorised as state aid. Although we hope to overcome that danger, we cannot be sure of doing so.
Those are not simple problems. It is clear that coal-mine methane is a good product. It would be unfortunate, to say the least, if the non-renewable tag were to hold it back. However, we must operate within the law.
Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, my noble friend appears to be telling us that the Government are moving manfully towards consistency and doing so to the advantage of the environment and the economy. Is it not particularly important that the coal-field areas are allowed to enjoy the advantage which will follow a favourable decision and will that not greatly help to achieve the Kyoto targets, which need more serious consideration?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, as regards the coal-mining areas, coal-mine methane sold directly to end users as burner tip fuel is already exempt from the climate change levy. However, that does not mean that we need not seek wider exemption. We are looking, for example, at the Community guidelines on state aid for environmental protection to see whether it is a way around the problem that we face.
Lord Ezra: My Lords, following the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, in regard to coal-field areas, while the various issues to which the Minister has referred are being sorted out, could not additional financial assistance be put into the coal-field areas to resolve the problem relating to this issue? That would at one stroke provide additional employment for unemployed mineworkers and contribute to the environment.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, has rightly opened up the Question; from the difficulties relating to coal-mine methane to the wider issue of helping former coal-mining areas. I agree with everything he says and a wide range of programmes is directed towards that objective. A particular environmental problem is that if we do not tap the abandoned mines for coal-mine methane it will escape into the atmosphere. As the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, said, that is 21 times more dangerous than the release of CO2.
Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, does the Minister recall that when I drew attention to the German legislation which provided for the beneficial use of this potent gas in electricity production his noble friend Lord Sainsbury described what the Germans were doing as illogical and stupid?
Leaving aside the question of whether that gracious reply prompted the Foreign Office to invite his noble friend to join the Diplomatic Service, will the Minister say what response he had from his German counterpart and what efforts his department has made to monitor the economic and ecological benefits of what has taken place in Germany? The noble Lord shakes his head. I am very surprised because it is a very simple question.
The route which the German Government found to give exemption for coal-mine methane is not self-evidently a route which is open to us. However, we are looking for every option that can be made available to us.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the sad answer is that it is strictly renewable because landfill sites continue to be filled. As we produce more rubbish we continue to create landfill sites and the methane which escapes is renewable. It is a matter of definition and we cannot get around it. Coal-mine methane comes from fossil fuels accumulated over millions of years. There is a real difference between the two, but it should not be a difference that affects the tax treatment of coal-mine methane.
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