Financial Support (Students)

– in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 15th December 2010.

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Photo of Teresa Pearce Teresa Pearce Labour, Erith and Thamesmead 2:30 pm, 15th December 2010

It is a privilege to have this debate under your chairmanship, Ms Clark. I am pleased to see so many hon. Members here to talk about an important issue. I will try to keep my speech brief, so that everybody can get in to make their points and, more importantly, to ask questions.

I asked for this debate for two reasons. First, we need to highlight the effect that the decision to scrap the education maintenance allowance will have on young people throughout the country. Secondly, we need answers about how the proposed financial support scheme, the enhanced discretionary learner support fund, will work.

Last week in the main Chamber, a vote was carried that will allow university tuition fees to rise up to £9,000 in a year to plug the gaping hole in the higher education budget left by the Government's 80% cut. I voted against that rise with other Opposition Members. The Government fail to grasp that, by cutting EMA, many young people from poorer backgrounds, particularly in constituencies such as mine, will never reach the level at which they will be able even to consider attending university. Taken together, the tuition fee increase and the scrapping of EMA are a heavy blow to young people in constituencies such as mine.

The EMA keeps many young people in Erith and Thamesmead in college or sixth form-and in some cases, it has to be said, on the straight and narrow. Their families rely on payments to cover the costs of attending college, including transport and books, and they often help top up the family budget. One of my constituents, Trudy Mackie, wrote to me recently, saying:

"I am a single parent", living in Thamesmead,

"and have worked full time since leaving school myself. I have managed to purchase my own home and save a little money while supporting my daughter throughout her school life...She was identified as gifted and talented, as a school student likely to do well with support, and we have hoped and aimed for her to go to university for a long time on that basis. We are very concerned about the scrapping of the EMA and how this will affect our budgets. This...really does help my daughter to do extracurricular activities" that enhance her education, such as

"theatre trips and additional lectures...Our household will struggle without this money."

Photo of Joan Ruddock Joan Ruddock Labour, Lewisham, Deptford

My constituent, Timar Misghina, a student, said precisely the sorts of things that my hon. Friend has just quoted. Tellingly, she said that EMA not only helps with books, transport and clothing, but helps to get her through her studies with fewer worries. It is important that, when people are trying to study, they and their families are not in a state of constant worry about money.

Photo of Teresa Pearce Teresa Pearce Labour, Erith and Thamesmead

I agree. It makes a difference if people know that they can concentrate on their education without worrying about the bus fare.

Some 43% of students at Bexley college and 38% of students at Greenwich college-the two largest colleges serving my constituency-receive EMA, the vast majority receiving the higher rate of £30 a week. Some argue that this money does not have an effect, but the principal of Bexley college, Danny Ridgeway, has confirmed that, in the past two academic years, students at his college in receipt of EMA have been more likely to pass their course than their colleagues who have not received EMA support. I believe that this positive outcome is linked to the attendance requirement attached to EMA payments.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

On that point, I received an e-mail from the principal of Hugh Baird college in Bootle, telling me that 84% of young people at the college currently receive EMA. She says that it is clear that the EMA has become a key part of family income and that its discontinuation is very likely to impact on the participation rate locally. In addition, a study in Merseyside colleges shows that the results of those on EMA are 7% higher than those of people who do not receive it.

Photo of Teresa Pearce Teresa Pearce Labour, Erith and Thamesmead

I agree. More importantly, Danny Ridgeway, the principal of Bexley college, agrees. He says:

"It is our view that the conditions that link payment to attendance and completion of work have been a motivator to help these students to success and progress".

At this stage, we do not know whether the Government's plans for enhanced discretionary learner support will have a similar attendance requirement. Will the Minister tell me whether it will?

The Government's current line is that many students would have stayed in education anyway and that EMA is therefore a dead-weight. When the Minister makes this point-I am sure that he will-I would be grateful if he commented on the following points. First, research underpinning the dead-weight assertion was flawed, because it was undertaken only among schools, when 69% of the recipients of EMA attend colleges not schools. Furthermore, a significant number of EMA recipients are black and ethnic minority, yet those surveyed were 91% white. If a survey is undertaken with an unrepresentative sample, I believe that the results are irrelevant to the debate.

Secondly, research from the Institute of Fiscal Studies showed that where EMA is available, participation in education and attainment levels increased. Does the Minister not think that those are worthwhile objectives?

Thirdly, many public policies involve a high amount of dead-weight-for example, the initiative announced in the June Budget about temporary relief from national insurance contributions for new businesses. The Treasury's costing shows that 96% of that tax cut will go to employers who would have set up anyway and that 4% will go to employers who have set up in response to the incentives. If the sole aim of this policy is to stimulate new business, it would be regarded as 96% dead-weight. Why are employers worthy of support, while young people, who are the future of this country, are not?

Before I turn to the details of the enhanced discretionary learner support fund, I wish to discuss what will happen to those students who currently receive EMA and are mid-way through their courses.

Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Labour, Wolverhampton South East

My hon. Friend is right to say that the Government have based their whole case for withdrawing EMA on the research that she mentioned. The Minister will base his case on that research, saying that only a minority of students say that they would not have pursued any course at all if they had not received EMA, but that is not the sole point, is it? Surely the point is the level of sacrifice that families will have to make so that their young people can pursue education.

Does the Minister accept that if he withdraws EMA, even from those students who say that they would proceed with a course, the sacrifice that families have to make will be increased, particularly among those who need the help most-students with learning disabilities, teen parents and those from the poorest families? Does he really want to pursue that policy?

Photo of Katy Clark Katy Clark Labour, North Ayrshire and Arran

Order. Can I remind hon. Members that interventions should be short?

Photo of Teresa Pearce Teresa Pearce Labour, Erith and Thamesmead

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point.

Students who receive EMA and are mid-way through their courses began those courses in good faith and could not have foreseen that the funding that they were promised would be withdrawn later. On 25 November, my hon. Friend Lisa Nandy and I wrote to the Secretary of State for Education, urging him to ensure that students would continue to receive EMA for the duration of their courses. We have not yet had a clear response from him, so I would be grateful if the Minister clarified what is to happen to those students, particularly given the recent confusion between written answers and information appearing on Government websites.

In answer to my hon. Friend Helen Jones on 15 November, the Minister said that £174 million would be set aside for EMA in 2011-12, the next school year. Yet the Directgov website states:

"If you currently get EMA you will continue to receive it for the rest of this academic year, but you will not receive it next academic year".

I would be grateful if the Minister clarified which is the correct answer.

EMA keeps young people focused on their studies, as other hon. Members have mentioned, meaning that they do not have to take on part-time jobs to see them through their education. Long gone are the days when students could get Saturday jobs to do that, because those jobs are often taken by middle-aged women. The jobs just are not there.

In a letter that I received yesterday, the Minister says that

"the expectation that young people will remain in education or training post-16 is much stronger...than...when EMA was introduced. Already, 96 per cent of 16 year olds and 94 per cent of 17 year olds participate in education, employment or training. Attitudes to staying on in education post-16 have changed."

I totally agree with the Minister, but that change is precisely because of EMA.

The Government have indicated that future decisions on who will receive payments will be made at individual institutions. The coalition Government say that that is because the school or college is closer to students and can make better judgments, but those very institutions are opposing the withdrawal of EMA. If the Minister trusts their judgment about the administration of the enhanced discretionary learners support fund, perhaps he will tell us why he does not trust their judgement on the value of EMA as a whole.

I would like answers to the following questions. Will the new scheme take account of travel costs? A written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan shows that the last time the Government assessed the average travel costs per student was in 2003. How will we know what the costs are now if the figures are eight years old?

Will the enhanced discretionary learners support fund even include travel costs? At the moment, it does not. What safety net will be in place if too many students need funding, but not enough money is available locally to fund them? Will that mean less funding per student, will allocation be on a first come, first served basis, will students have to parade their poverty to see who is at the front of the queue, or will more funding be made available? If a college does not use all its grant, what will happen to the surplus? My constituency could be considered to be an area with a high level of student need, and those questions are important to me and the people who sent me here.

Photo of Katy Clark Katy Clark Labour, North Ayrshire and Arran

Order. I have received written indications from 12 Back-Bench Members who wish to speak, and I ask hon. Members to bear that in mind when making their contributions.

Photo of Julian Sturdy Julian Sturdy Conservative, York Outer 2:41 pm, 15th December 2010

It is a pleasure, Ms Clark, to serve under your chairmanship, and I thank you for calling me. I know that many hon. Members want to speak, so I will try to keep my comments brief. I congratulate Teresa Pearce on securing this undoubtedly important debate today, and I note that members of the public are also present. The debate is especially important given last week's prominent and controversial debate on higher education, so it is extremely timely to discuss financial support for students over the age of 16.

I want to make my position clear. I strongly believe that it is right for some form of financial assistance to be targeted at those aged 16 to 18 from the poorest backgrounds. That is really important. The key components of any post-16 education debate should focus on the education maintenance allowance. That has always been the case, and I want to focus my comments on that.

I am sure that some hon. Members here will have received a lot of correspondence about the matter. I have certainly seen a lot, and the principals of Askham Bryan and York colleges in my constituency have raised the issue. Among all concerned groups, there is a real fear that the loss of the weekly allowance will lead to the poorest abandoning their courses, and perhaps not starting them in the first place. That is an entirely understandable concern. However, I stress that the issue is not simplistic or clear cut. The impression portrayed in some corners suggests that the choice is between EMA and the end of all financial assistance to 16 to 18-year- olds. That is quite wrong. I suggest that the majority-I include myself-stand in the middle on this sensitive issue.

Photo of Joan Ruddock Joan Ruddock Labour, Lewisham, Deptford

What does the hon. Gentleman think will be the consequence of students not knowing whether they are eligible for EMA? There might be a grant, but they would not know. When it comes to choosing a further education college, such as Lewisham college in my constituency, eligible students can get the money and have some certainty. They can make a real choice about where they take their education. What is the future?

Photo of Julian Sturdy Julian Sturdy Conservative, York Outer

I accept the right hon. Lady's point. There is no doubt that we must ensure that the policy is clear. That has not always been the case, which is why I want to speak up. However, I broadly support the policy, and I will go into the reasons later. We must make sure that information is clear because it is important for young people to have it at their fingertips so that they can make the critical decisions that will affect their future lives. The right hon. Lady makes a valid point.

A matter that has already been touched on is that Government research shows that 90% of EMA spending is dead-weight, going to students who would have stayed in education regardless of the scheme. The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead touched on that, and I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say. I share the Government's view that taxpayers' money deserves far greater respect. If EMA is truly only needed by just 12% of those who receive it-

Photo of Chuka Umunna Chuka Umunna Labour, Streatham

My constituency is in the 19th most deprived local authority area in England. On the dead-weight issue-I do not accept the survey's figures-does the hon. Gentleman share my frustration about the way the argument is made? If young people say that despite abolition of EMA they will remain in education, that is being used against them. I met a group of students this morning who said that they would do whatever it takes to stay in education because that is their future, even if abolition of EMA means that they cannot have lunch for a few days a week at least, or pay for transport and will have to walk to college instead. The issue is not just about people being put off and abolition of EMA deterring young people from going into further education. A member of Lambeth youth council, Stephen, is sitting behind me and can back me up on that. For those who choose to stay in education regardless, the abolition of EMA will subject them to extreme hardship.

Photo of Katy Clark Katy Clark Labour, North Ayrshire and Arran

Order. I remind hon. Members that interventions should be brief.

Photo of Julian Sturdy Julian Sturdy Conservative, York Outer

There is no doubt that there must be support for the poorest and most deprived areas to help young people into education, and I will come to that. Government policy allows for that, but the question is whether the money is best used and targeted at people who fall outside and are at the top end of the threshold. Perhaps it is not.

Photo of Simon Kirby Simon Kirby Conservative, Brighton, Kemptown

Is the issue not about fairness? In my constituency, many children live in deprived areas with no state sixth form provision. Support should be effectively targeted. Am I not right in thinking that that is what the Government intend to do?

Photo of Julian Sturdy Julian Sturdy Conservative, York Outer

Absolutely, and that is what I want to go on to. For me, the fundamental point is ensuring that the money gets through to the people who really need it, and ensuring that they can make the decisions that could change their lives.

Photo of Julian Sturdy Julian Sturdy Conservative, York Outer

I am not getting far, but I will give way.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

The issue of how to tell who really needs EMA to attend college has been raised with me by a number of college principals. Does the hon. Gentleman have any thoughts-I hope that the Minister will also address the point-on how college principals are supposed to identify who really needs support, and who to withdraw it from and who to leave it with under the new arrangements? What will be the basis for those decisions? There is an estimate that 10% of students will drop out. How will they be identified?

Photo of Julian Sturdy Julian Sturdy Conservative, York Outer

If I am correct-I hope the Minister will highlight this point-we are saying that we will give college principals the power to allocate funding. It is about devolving local decisions to local people and I will speak further about that later in my remarks. I am looking at this issue from the point of view of those in my constituency, including the two principals who have contacted me. I believe that such people are best placed to take such decisions because they have local knowledge, which is important. I am not present just to speak in support of the Government-I do broadly support them, but I have some concerns that I shall outline in more detail.

The flaws in the central administration of EMA are well known. Last year alone, the running costs of the scheme totalled a staggering £35.8 million. That is of concern and I welcome news of the increased discretionary learner support funds that will replace the EMA. That support will be targeted more directly towards those from the lowest income households to ensure that accessibility to post-16 study remains viable and attractive for all students. That is the crucial part of the policy.

I welcome the decision to localise the distribution of the learner support funds by empowering local colleges and educational providers to carry out that administrative role. That process will hopefully save money that should be going to students in the first place. Some will argue that such a transfer of responsibility will increase the workload for colleges, but in my view it is right for local education providers to use their local knowledge to tailor the support offered to young people in their specific areas. That is a local and flexible solution to the problems of poor and costly administration.

I am generally supportive of the measures outlined by the coalition but I hold two reservations about the new system. First, I am concerned about ending the scheme for those students who will be only half-way through their courses by next summer. I support the new system, but I believe that it would be better for those already receiving EMA payments to see the initial agreements honoured. My second concern, which has been raised already, relates to transport. Many students who attend colleges across York and North Yorkshire rely on EMA to help meet their travel costs. Many have £10 automatically withdrawn from their allowance in return for a free bus pass. Given the likelihood of cuts to local authority transport subsidies, I would be interested to know whether the Government are considering the introduction of any transport-related financial assistance for full-time 16 to18-year-old students. In essence, however, I hope that all of us in the Chamber today share the same goal to protect and enhance the accessibility to education that our 16 to 18-year-olds currently enjoy and deserve. That is a noble and worthwhile ambition, and countless colleagues across the coalition genuinely share that vision.

The choice is not merely between EMA on one hand and no financial support whatsoever for 16 to 18-year-olds on the other. If that were the case, it would be quite wrong. Instead, an unwavering commitment to those who face genuine financial barriers to participation can be delivered through a more localised and efficient scheme, and that is why I broadly support what the coalition Government are doing.

Photo of Katy Clark Katy Clark Labour, North Ayrshire and Arran

Order. I remind hon. Members that they must stand if they wish to speak.

Photo of Lisa Nandy Lisa Nandy Labour, Wigan 2:54 pm, 15th December 2010

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and welcome the fact that there is a show of strength here today. That will give some heart to those students sitting in the audience or watching the debate on the television who will have been horrified to hear themselves described as dead-weight by some hon. Members. Hon. Members from all parties should be careful in the way that they talk about this important issue. Those students and their financial support are not dead-weight in any sense. They not dead-weight in the offensive way in which such language is used, and neither are dead-weight based on the evidence. I echo the comments made by my hon. Friend Teresa Pearce when she pointed out that the study on which the Government have based most of their evidence is highly unrepresentative of her constituency and of mine, and of most of those students who rely on EMA to finish their courses and ensure that they do not suffer extreme hardship as a result.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Is my hon. Friend aware that before the EMA was introduced it was trialled in Hackney, which had an amazingly successful response and a much higher take-up of college places? That has now led to a much higher take-up of university places and the scheme has proved a success all along the way in what is Britain's poorest borough. Does she think that the Government study ought to look at places such as Hackney that have a much longer experience of such schemes, rather than looking at other places and coming up with those rather curious figures? EMA is the gateway to higher education, is it not?

Photo of Lisa Nandy Lisa Nandy Labour, Wigan

I thank my hon. Friend; I was not aware that the scheme had been piloted first in Hackney. I urge the Minister to take heed of those words and also look at places such as Wigan where the scheme has had considerable success. My hon. Friend touched on an incredibly important point. Last Friday I went to my local college, Winstanley college, and heard from students. They said that not only was EMA incredibly important for them to get through college, but that they were now facing the double whammy of thinking that even if they get through college and face considerable hardship in order to do that, they will then have to pay incredibly high tuition fees. Those students feel that barriers are being put in their way over and over again, and many of them are wondering whether it is worth enduring such a level of hardship because even if they get the opportunity of going to university, that will not be a realistic option. We must consider that point.

A vast range of research shows that EMA has actually been incredibly successful. I have examples from the Manchester college, CfBT education trust, the Learning and Skills Council and Wigan and Leigh college, which sent me an incredibly powerful set of evidence based on surveys and interviews with students. The point made powerfully by students and the principal of that college was that EMA is not only about alleviating hardship, but it is a bargain between the state and the students. That bargain says that if someone works hard and tries hard, it does not matter what sort of background they come from and they deserve to do well and be supported. It is outrageous that those students should now be asked to face financial hardship in order to achieve at the same level as their peers. It is also outrageous that 50% of students who receive EMA in my local college have a 99% retention rate, yet they are now being told by the Government that it does not matter that they have stayed on, worked hard and kept their side of the bargain. That is particularly urgent for those students who are in their first year of college. They have recently been told in responses to questions asked by myself and my hon. Friends, that they will now lose their EMA halfway through their course. Of the 1,000 students currently in the first year of study at Wigan and Leigh college, 75% say that they will drop out at the end of this year. That is horrifying, and I hope that the Minister will listen to that.

Photo of Tom Blenkinsop Tom Blenkinsop Labour, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland

Apart from Askham Bryan campus in Guisborough, and Prior Pursglove college and neighbouring FE colleges in Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland, a number of small and medium-sized enterprises are concerned about the withdrawal of EMA. EMA funds a number of apprenticeships in engineering and other skilled trades that have traditionally been sceptical and scared of investing in apprenticeships, unlike bigger former companies such as Imperial Chemistry Industries and British Steel in Teesside. The new SMEs have not been as proactive, and are only now beginning to increase the number of apprenticeships. By getting rid of the EMA, we may undermine those skill programmes.

Photo of Lisa Nandy Lisa Nandy Labour, Wigan

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I agree with him. One of the worst things that we saw under the previous Conservative Government was that a range of young people throughout the country were left with no sense of hope for the future. Seeing people without hope for the future is devastating, but seeing young people without hope for the future is even worse. We must not return to that situation.

I have three final points. First, colleges urgently need to know what will replace the EMA. The details of the discretionary learner support fund are sketchy. Colleges need to know whether, in reality, this will be a £500 million cut. Yesterday, the Secretary of State, appearing before the Select Committee on Education, could not confirm the position to hon. Members.

We need to know urgently whether travel costs will be taken into account and what else the discretionary hardship fund will be able to cover. In my constituency, like many other constituencies, travel is one of the prohibitive factors to attending college. Despite a number of people living in the town centre, Wigan is essentially a rural seat, and students would not be able to travel to college without the EMA.

Photo of Tessa Munt Tessa Munt Liberal Democrat, Wells

The travel situation in Somerset is exactly the same, but there are aspects to rural education that are even more critical. Towns such as Shepton Mallet and Glastonbury do not have sixth forms attached to their schools. Therefore there is no option for students but to travel. There are schools that do have sixth forms, but they do not cover the full range of subjects, so people such as my daughter, who wanted to study environmental science and politics, had to travel to Bridgwater college, which is some distance away. Cutting the EMA will place serious restrictions on the courses that young people can study.

Photo of Lisa Nandy Lisa Nandy Labour, Wigan

The hon. Lady is passionate about this issue and has raised it many times. I would like to echo her comments.

There is compelling evidence that the EMA pumps millions of pounds into local economies throughout the country. In my Wigan constituency, where people are losing jobs and homes, and particularly in former coalfield areas, where, despite significant investment, the legacy of those times remains, the EMA could not be more important. The policy is short-sighted from that perspective.

I draw hon. Members' attention to the IFS study published yesterday. It points out that savings in the short term simply do not make sense, because if we invested in our young people in the short term, we would more than recoup that in the long term.

Photo of Pat Glass Pat Glass Labour, North West Durham

I was very interested in what my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn had to say about the pilot in Hackney, because as a young education officer 25 years ago in Gateshead, I was managing a service that was delivering EMAs. It was paid for by the local authority. The young people who received EMAs then are now the parents of the schoolchildren in Gateshead, who, as the Secretary of State often points out, are outperforming similar children under similar authorities across the country. The EMA is not only about student support. It is a gateway to higher education. It is about investing in the local community. Indeed, it is a long-term investment in standards.

Photo of Lisa Nandy Lisa Nandy Labour, Wigan

I agree with my hon. Friend . Many hon. Members want to speak, so I shall end by saying that it is precisely in such difficult economic times that we should be investing in our young people and sending a very strong signal to them that they matter and their futures matter. I urge the Minister to think again.

Photo of Margot James Margot James Conservative, Stourbridge 3:03 pm, 15th December 2010

Thank you for allowing me to speak, Ms Clark. I congratulate Teresa Pearce on securing the debate just before the end of the year at such a timely point in the Government's decision-making cycle.

Before the comprehensive spending review, I wrote to my hon. Friend the Minister, urging him to retain the EMA. There are two excellent colleges in my constituency: a sixth-form college, King Edward's, where 35% of students receive the EMA, and a very good further education college, Stourbridge college, where 63% of students receive it. I wrote to the Minister to express my concern that the withdrawal of that benefit would deter students from poorer backgrounds from continuing their education, so I well understand the points that have been made in the debate.

I accept that we are in a very different situation, economically and in terms of raising the compulsory leaving age for those in full-time education to 18, from the position that applied when the EMA was introduced, almost a decade ago. My purpose in taking part in the debate is not to seek to change the decision to replace the EMA with a more targeted, enhanced discretionary fund, but to bring to this Chamber the views and concerns about the successor arrangements expressed to me by staff and students of both the colleges that I mentioned.

Last week, during the debate on tuition fees, I was lobbied by Kim Hughes, president of the student union at Dudley college. Dudley college is not in my constituency, but a lot of students studying there reside in my constituency, so it was a pleasure to meet Kim and her accompanying member of staff, Natasha Millward, who approached the mass lobby of Parliament in the true democratic spirit, seeking to inform me, as one of the Members whom they visited, in a proper manner. I was indeed informed about things that I had not previously realised concerning the enhanced discretionary fund proposals.

I shall explain the main concerns that Kim Hughes and Natasha Millward raised with me. First, the rules governing the existing learner support fund exclude the use of moneys from that fund to pay for travel, which is the point that almost every hon. Member in the debate so far has made. Secondly, they raised the issue of the increased burden on colleges in administering an enhanced form of the learner support fund at a time when colleges, like every other public sector organisation, are being expected to reduce their administrative costs.

I am particularly grateful to the principal of King Edward's college, Sharon Phillips, for questioning this week a random sample of students who attend the college. I appreciate the fact that the students took part and gave such honest feedback. Just 10% of those interviewed said that they thought that they would not have attended college if they had been unable to claim the EMA. I accept the point made by some hon. Members that that is not necessarily the only way in which we should judge whether the other 90% were suitable candidates for the EMA, but I do believe that it is a relevant point and it backs up the research already mentioned in the debate.

Some students who took part in the interviews suggested that the system has been open to abuse and that one way of dealing with that would be to substitute vouchers or free travel passes for the payment. Vouchers would add too much of an administrative burden, but we already administer a system of travel passes for older people, so surely it is not beyond our wit to administer them to young people from poorer backgrounds. That could be a way round the administrative burden falling exclusively on colleges.

The students made other points, and I want to bring to the Minister's attention the principal's comment on the findings from her research. Although only 10% of her students told her that they would have been unable to attend college without the EMA, she felt that recruitment by colleges in less affluent areas might be disproportionately hit by the withdrawal of the EMA.

Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater and West Somerset

My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. My point follows on from the one made by Tessa Munt about rurality, because that is where things get disproportionately out of sync. Even if there are vouchers or whatever, these children will not have a chance, and places such as Bridgwater college will lose a vast number of students, as will Strode college in the Wells constituency. Does my hon. Friend agree that the matter needs to be reconsidered completely where rurality is in play?

Photo of Margot James Margot James Conservative, Stourbridge

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I am not sure that we are in a position now to revisit the entire proposal to replace the EMA with the enhanced learner support fund. I very much appreciate his intention to do that, but the challenge for the Minister is to ensure that the replacement arrangements are adequate and err on the side of generosity to ensure that students from poorer backgrounds can continue to access further education.

Let me conclude by reinforcing the three messages that I want the Government to consider as they move forward. First, the enhanced discretionary fund should be revised to allow recipients to spend part of their remuneration on travel to and from college. That is particularly important, and I think that I am right in saying that every Member who has contributed so far has mentioned it.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

The hon. Lady must be aware that among Ken Livingstone's many achievements while Mayor of London was the provision of free bus travel for students. That has encouraged many students to stay on at college, and it has greatly assisted them. Might not other local authorities and transport areas think of following suit?

Photo of Margot James Margot James Conservative, Stourbridge

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I am well aware of the former Mayor's generous travel schemes. Consideration should be given to allowing students-young people from poorer backgrounds-to have similar free travel passes. I would certainly support that proposal.

Let me return to the other two points that I wanted to make to the Minister. Colleges are closer than central Government to their students, and they are therefore better placed to decide who is in real need of financial support, but the additional administrative burden that the change will place on them needs to be acknowledged, and there needs to be some practical support.

Finally, I mentioned that I would like the Government to err on the side of generosity in the replacement arrangements and to increase significantly the money that we invest in enhancing the learner support fund. A greater proportion of students from less affluent parts of our country and less affluent backgrounds who really are in need will then gain some benefit. I trust that the Minister will recommend those enhanced arrangements to Parliament as soon as possible in the new year.

Photo of Karl Turner Karl Turner Labour, Kingston upon Hull East 3:12 pm, 15th December 2010

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Clark. I congratulate my hon. Friend Teresa Pearce on securing the debate-its timing could not have been better.

I will focus my remarks on EMA and, more appropriately, on the Government's intention to scrap it. EMA is absolutely crucial for my constituents. Removing it will damage the hopes and aspirations of young people across the country, but the effect will be particularly bad in my constituency. The present policy represents yet another damaging U-turn by this Government; it is another Lib Dem let-down and a massive betrayal of the hopes and dreams of young people. It sends a resounding message to 16-year-olds who aspire to improve their lives. It leaves talent unfound and unnurtured, while reinforcing poverty traps and dividing further those who are fortunate from those who are not.

Before I develop those points further, it is important to highlight EMA's success. My hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn was right to say that it was piloted in Hackney. That was in 1999, and EMA was launched across England in 2004. Research by the Responsive College Unit found that it encouraged 18,500 young people to participate in further education in the first year it was rolled out nationally. Those young people would not have had that financial support or that incentive to enter further education were it not for EMA. Similar research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that young people who receive EMA go on to achieve the qualifications required to succeed in life. The percentage of learners receiving EMA who achieve level 2 qualifications has increased by approximately 6%, with specific improvements in ethnic and minority groups.

The facts are clear: this policy was an absolute success, and we should make no mistake about that. To suggest otherwise is completely misleading. EMA truly encouraged young people to go on to achieve what they deserved and desired. It boosted attainment among those facing the biggest challenges in life and enabled them to succeed.

Photo of Graham Jones Graham Jones Opposition Assistant Whip (Commons)

Will my hon. Friend add one important element to that-confidence? EMA gave young people confidence.

Photo of Karl Turner Karl Turner Labour, Kingston upon Hull East

I absolutely agree. I am sure that that point will be reiterated time and again throughout the debate.

The Minister is well aware of the facts and of EMA's successes. So, for that matter, are the Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Education. Before the election, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties were quick to deliver assurances that EMA would be protected. Referring to the then Secretary of State for Education, my right hon. Friend Ed Balls, the Secretary of State, in a Guardian question and answer session on 2 March, stated:

"Ed Balls keeps saying that we are committed to scrapping the EMA. I have never said this. We won't."

That was not true.

Speaking of education maintenance allowances, the then Leader of the Opposition, who is now the Prime Minister-he is never one to miss an opportunity-said,

"no we don't have any plans to get rid of them."

Seven months is a long time in politics. What message is the coalition sending to young people about politics and our society? Sixteen to 18-year-olds across the country are being told that education is for those who can afford it, while those who cannot, need not apply.

Given EMA's successes and the help that it has offered thousands of young people, the current proposal raises the question of whether the Government are comfortable punishing the disadvantaged.

Photo of Karl Turner Karl Turner Labour, Kingston upon Hull East

Not at the moment.

The message is clear. Young people have felt the brute force of this economic vandalism. This generation of young people have had the cruellest introduction to the world of politics. They have barely dipped their toe in the water, but they have been hit by wave after wave of ignored pledges, broken promises and closed ears. The coalition has defined politics for an entire generation in terms of distrust, and the coalition parties will not easily be forgiven. The scrapping of EMA leaves us in a situation where talent will be stunted due to inadequate means. Just under 5,000 young people in Hull will be locked out of further education and, therefore, higher education, and they will have any aspiration quashed.

As I said at the outset, my constituents are particularly affected. Gary, who lives on the Longhill estate in east Hull, cannot afford to pay for his textbooks, stationery or travel, but his EMA allows him to.

Photo of Karl Turner Karl Turner Labour, Kingston upon Hull East

Not at the moment. Many hon. Members are eager to speak, so you will forgive me, Ms Clark, if I do not give way.

Debbie, who lives on Bransholme, does not have the luxury of ambitious parents. She says her parents do not understand the value of further education. She says that they cannot afford to, and will not, pay for her to study, but that EMA does just that. Darren lives on Greatfield estate. His parents are among the lowest 10% of earners in the country, earning just less than £16,000 a year. He needs to pay board, but he cannot afford to. However, his EMA allows him to contribute to the family pot. EMA allows individuals to break through the boundaries and access further education. It puts an end to generation after generation of young people being locked out of further education. It truly enables social mobility.

It is illogical that, on the one hand, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is emphasising the importance of breaking the cycle of welfare dependency, while, on the other, the Education Secretary is removing the support that would enable young people to do better for themselves. If we want families to break free from welfare traps, surely it is important that we instil in our young people a thirst for education, and underline the importance of that. Offering students EMA provides them with an incentive and support to help them along the way. If Gary is without his EMA he will be without his A-levels, and therefore without his physics degree. The domino effect continues. Science and the state will be without that young talent. Can the Government honestly say that they will withdraw their support for Debbie to complete her course, denying her the chance of achieving her true potential? What about Darren, who will no longer be able to complete his NVQ in fashion design? Should he be locked out because he simply cannot afford to do the course without financial support?

I have not even mentioned the unprecedented hike in tuition fees. Even those who are lucky enough to make it through further education will have a mountain to climb on the other side as they face the prospect of £9,000-a-year fees. Let us imagine the situation, in which any of the 16-year-olds whom I have mentioned managed to complete access-to-university courses without support, but then are faced with the prospect of convincing their parents, who are of modest backgrounds, that they are about to embark on a three-year degree course that will cost them £27,00-and no doubt an awful lot more, when accommodation and living are taken into account. I know what my parents would have said to me. I left school at 16 with few qualifications. I ran a business for a while and eventually, when I was financially stable, I went off to do A-levels before completing a law degree. I eventually qualified as a barrister in 2005 at the age of 34. When I was nearing the end of pupillage, I was possibly the most elderly pupil at the Bar; so I know what a struggle it is to get educated.

I have no doubt that without the Labour Government's lifelong learning agenda I would never have had the academic success and confidence to reach the dizzy heights of membership of the Bar, and of being elected to this place. We should make no mistake. The Government's policy on further and higher education is not progressive. It is shamefully regressive. It effectively does away with further and higher education for those who cannot afford to pay for it. The Government are more than happy for further and higher education to become the privilege of the few. Those who can afford an education will pay for it and those who cannot simply will not have one. That is the reality of the Government agenda. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I appear angry, but the subject makes me extremely annoyed. The Government will not easily be forgiven by those young people, who are locked out of further and higher education.

EMA is important not only to the family and the student; it has a wider social benefit. Why do the Government insist on washing their hands of post-16 education, leaving the next generation unable to get access to the qualifications that they require to improve their lives? We hear a lot of talk from the Government about fairness. Is this fair? Is it productive, or is not it narrow-minded, ideological, regressive and wholly flawed? I know where I stand. I ask the Minister to look again and to think very carefully about the choices that are being made, and about the aspirations of our constituents. I ask him to put the brakes on and allow Gary, Debbie and Darren, my constituents who have bothered and troubled themselves to e-mail me about their stories, the chance to improve their situations for the benefit of us all. I cannot support the Government's attempts to create a divide in the education system between those well off enough to pay and those less fortunate, who cannot. For those reasons I will actively oppose the Government every step of the way.

Photo of Katy Clark Katy Clark Labour, North Ayrshire and Arran

Order. I remind hon. Members that a considerable number still want to speak; the shorter the contributions, the more I can call.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall 3:25 pm, 15th December 2010

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Clark. I congratulate Teresa Pearce on securing the debate and introducing it in measured terms that addressed the issues-unlike, perhaps, Karl Turner, who would not take an intervention from the Government side but was happy to repeat the same two points endlessly. I do not think he really took the debate any further forward.

I have concerns about a change from EMA to a college-based system, as, of course, do many students. My constituency has five secondary schools, four of which have sixth forms. That is the model on which much education has been delivered in such market towns. Of course, we also have an excellent and large dispersed Cornwall college group, including Duchy college in my constituency, which I visited on Friday, and several other campuses throughout the peninsula, which deliver a huge range of vocational and academic courses that are vital to the future of the young people concerned.

We must consider the situation we are in. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East was very clear about where he stood and about wanting to condemn and attack the Government, but I did not hear a lot about options for doing anything different. That is what we have to consider about the present situation. I should be quite happy to enter into a debate if we heard exactly what his Government would have done. In the run-up to the election, they talked about the cuts they would have to make if they were re-elected, but of course there is no detail about where those cuts or changes would have come from.

Photo of Karl Turner Karl Turner Labour, Kingston upon Hull East

We know where you were on tuition fees.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

The hon. Gentleman can look at Hansard and see how everyone in the Chamber voted. I think we should stick to the debate that we are having today.

The key question for me is how we are using money that should be targeted at the people who need it most. I have had e-mails from constituents who are very concerned, and I accept that there will be some people whose plans for the future will be affected and who will need to think very carefully about what they can do. I shall return to the issue of transport, which is crucial, particularly in an area such as mine.

I have had e-mails from a constituent in Camelford, whose daughter and son get EMA for their education and feel that it is not enough. There is a transport element to getting to the college, and other costs. They believe that they need greater support to secure that. However, they are also aware of other people in the town-and I accept that this is anecdotal-who they feel do very nicely, go on all sorts of holidays and have a wonderful time, and are still in receipt of EMA. That suggests to me that there are, as happens in all areas, some people who are getting support that would perhaps be better targeted at those who need it most.

The Government's response to the issue is, understandably, to consider the overall budget; but it is also to think about targeting. There are concerns, in a college group such as Cornwall college group, that some people have come into education in the past few years because support is available. I do not accept the argument of dead-weight, but we must also accept that there are people who get EMA who would have gone into further education at 16.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

I shall give way in a moment, but I want to finish the point. The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead was keen to point out that there are perhaps other benefits to the support, rather than just whether someone would attend. That is an important consideration, but the primary one, and what most of the debate has focused on-particularly the remarks of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East-is people not being in education at all and getting out entirely.

Whether people in receipt of EMA may attend a bit more because it has the attendance component is a separate issue. The hon. Gentleman levelled the charge at the Government that people will just not receive education; they will just not go. I do not accept that, because the Government system will have to, and will, address-or if it does not, a lot of Members on this side will want to know why-those people on the margin, where there is an effect on the decision whether to attend.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Joan Ruddock Joan Ruddock Labour, Lewisham, Deptford

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. EMA was also piloted in my constituency, so would he accept from me that there is a dimension with which he will be less familiar than I am-ethnic minorities? At Lewisham college, half the students pursuing FE courses are from ethnic minorities and 45% of students are on EMA. He may like to acknowledge that there is a special reason why it has created new advantages and encouragement to people who might have been less inclined to stay on at school.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

I welcome the right hon. Lady's intervention. There will be significant other factors in areas different from our own, despite proximity and good public transport. They will be issues such as the ability of families to offer support. In my area, there are issues such as whether young people can physically get to education, which is why transport is crucial for me.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

I shall give way to my hon. Friend, and then bring my remarks to a close so that others can speak.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Deputy Leader, Liberal Democrats

Following the point made by Joan Ruddock, I have real concerns about where the Government are going on this-let me put my hands up and say that clearly. The Government have to get this right, otherwise lots of people, in all our communities, will not choose to go to FE college at 16 or 17. The viability of some FE colleges will be threatened if we do not get this right.

Does my hon. Friend Dan Rogerson agree that, before making any decisions, the Government need not only a national profile, but to know the impact of the policy by local authority area? We need to look at the ethnic mix and at the socio-economic background of the families involved, to see where the youngsters come from. Are they single-parent families, families with no parent earning or families with parents and more than one child or young person in education? They are all factors, and we need the information before any sensible, methodological decision is made.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. He is right: we need to be confident that the system the Government are moving to and adopting is fit for purpose and provides a framework in which colleges can operate. That point was made in an earlier intervention as well. How will colleges take the decisions? In what framework will they operate? That is important.

I would like to question the Minister on transport and on ensuring that, in an area such as rural north Cornwall, choice will not be restricted simply by the inability of young people to access the courses they can access at the moment, as my hon. Friend Tessa Munt said. I hope the Minister and his colleagues will take into account all local factors when they look at the system, which will have different impacts in different areas. If the total budget is reduced, as, unfortunately, it has to be, we should have a system that is targeted effectively and ensures that people are not deprived of the educational opportunities that will mean so much to them in future.

Photo of Graham Jones Graham Jones Opposition Assistant Whip (Commons) 3:33 pm, 15th December 2010

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Clark, and I congratulate Teresa Pearce on securing the debate. I shall try to keep my comments brief, because I know that others wish to speak.

The discretionary learners support fund is a mere 13% of the money provided under the educational maintenance allowance. Do the Government estimate that the number of people in need of financial support through further education is only 13% of what it once was or are Members arguing, as has been suggested, that youngsters will still go to college, but they will go impoverished?

Nearly 19,000 students in Lancashire rely on the EMA to give families the financial flexibility that allows them to continue to study. My hon. Friend Bill Esterson, who is no longer in his place, and my hon. Friend Karl Turner, noted that students in receipt of EMA outperformed other students-by 7% in Sefton and 6% in Hull East, I think. In areas such as my constituency, the EMA often means the difference between going on to further study and not doing so.

Stephen Carlisle, the principal of Accrington and Rossendale college, which is our local college, told me that he is expecting a big drop in numbers. He believes the withdrawal of the EMA

"will impact on the ability of poorer students to go to college".

The college will have to use its already stretched budget to help those disadvantaged students because, as Mr Carlisle said:

"We can't cast them aside and just educate those who can afford to go".

Photo of Graham Jones Graham Jones Opposition Assistant Whip (Commons)

I will not give way. I want to make some progress, because there are other Members who wish to speak. I do not have a lot of comments to make.

The experience in the college reflects the comments of a lot of other principals; it is not only Mr Carlisle who is expressing that opinion, and when it comes from the educational establishment, I think we should listen.

I could suggest that, in reality, the figure set aside for the new fund was plucked out of thin air and does not reflect any proven need. One might go as far as to say that it is nothing more than a token attempt to ease the pain of taking money from those who need it. However, this is just one part of a wider attack on education. If the Government are so keen to show adherence to the Browne report, why are they ignoring one of its main recommendations-the increase in university participation by 10%-by scrapping a policy that has been shown to increase attendance?

Even by the estimate, which the Government accepted, of the National Foundation for Educational Research, the EMA accounted for 12% of those who attended university. They are people who otherwise may not have gone. The trebling of tuition fees has already made meeting Lord Browne's 10% increase in participation unlikely, and scrapping the EMA will make it extremely difficult.

Government Members ask what the alternative is; I think the alternative is simple. The cuts are too fast, too deep and they go too far, as we, on this side of the House, have stated. That is a basis for rejecting the proposal. To sum up, the discretionary learners support fund is a token attempt to give a facelift to a counter-intuitive policy.

Photo of Sarah Wollaston Sarah Wollaston Conservative, Totnes 3:36 pm, 15th December 2010

During the conference recess, I took the opportunity to visit the sixth forms in my constituency. Many of the students I met were underwhelmed by EMA. Many felt that it was unfair because it was poorly targeted, and many told me stories of friends who spent the money inappropriately. Overwhelmingly, the students felt that the priority, particularly in my very rural constituency, was getting to college in the first place. Jeremy Corbyn made the point that in London students already benefit from free travel passes. In a rural constituency somewhere such as Devon, that would be extremely difficult for the council to implement.

I would like the students in my constituency, who attend excellent colleges such as KEVICC-King Edward VI community college-South Devon college and Paignton community college, to be able physically to get to them in the first place. The students were asking for free or greatly subsidised travel. I call on the Minister to respond to the point that many hon. Members have made today and make transport part of a much enhanced programme of support arrangements-particularly for disadvantaged students, such as those from low-income families, for whom that really makes a difference in helping them to get to college. They do use the allowance for that.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Labour, Wythenshawe and Sale East 3:38 pm, 15th December 2010

I congratulate my hon. Friend Teresa Pearce on securing the debate. I shall take a couple of minutes to give voice to some of the students I met on Monday at the Manchester college Benchill campus in my constituency. Manchester college has 6,000 students aged 16 to 19, 60% of whom claim EMA. They told me about the practical benefits that EMA brings them. It means that they can pay for their bus fares, food at college, books and equipment.

Some of the young men, who were explaining the training that they were doing for trades, told me that they need to build up a kit while they are studying, which can cost as much as £600. Those are real, substantial costs, which the EMA is helping to offset. They all feared for the burden that they may become to their parents, particularly bearing in mind that many of them have brothers and sisters who, when the EMA is gone, will face the same dilemmas. I agree with my hon. Friend Lisa Nandy: we should stop using the dead-weight cost expression-it is not any way to describe hard-working students.

With regard to staying on, the majority of students told me that without EMA they would still have gone to college. Some of them would not. All, without exception, said that without EMA they would not have studied as successfully, because they would have been under more pressure to take on part-time work, and would have had the wrong balance between studying and the rest of their lives.

EMA makes an incredible difference to how students are able to focus and concentrate on their studies, settle into work on their courses and achieve a great deal. I urge the Minister to think again about this policy; it is even more destructive to the hopes and ambitions of my young constituents than the decision that the Government put through last week.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Shadow Minister (Education) 3:40 pm, 15th December 2010

I congratulate my hon. Friend Teresa Pearce on securing this important and timely debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friend Lisa Nandy, who has had to leave. I know she has been trying for some time to secure the debate, together with our hon. Friend.

Both hon. Friends are proven great champions of young people from low-income backgrounds. I look forward to the Minister's response to the strong arguments that we have heard today. My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan is also a prolific tabler of parliamentary questions, and I commend her on her persistence on this issue; I only wish that Ministers would get into the spirit of open democracy and answer some of the questions more promptly.

This has been a good-natured and high-quality debate, considering the passion that the subject evokes, especially in our party. The debate is not yet over, so perhaps I should not speak too soon. However, I will try to stay within that spirit. We have had some strong speeches, although probably not as many as we would have liked, as a number of hon. Members have not been able to speak. I hope the Minister will take that on board and perhaps ask whether this matter should be debated on the Floor of the House in Government time.

Those who have spoken include: the hon. Members for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), for Stourbridge (Margot James) and for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson); my hon. Friends the Members for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) and for Hyndburn (Graham Jones); and Dr Wollaston, who was very brief, as was my right hon. Friend Paul Goggins. There were some excellent contributions and I am sorry that I do not have time to go through them all in detail.

We have had a lot of debate on EMA this week, including the "Save EMA" national campaign day in Westminster and around the country, when 60,000 young people sent a clear message to the Government that this policy is unfair. Yesterday, we had an extremely embarrassing report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies-referred to by some hon. Friends-which laid bare the ridiculously weak evidence base the Government use to support their position.

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Labour, Scunthorpe

In mentioning the IFS, my hon. Friend draws attention to the fact that the Government spent a lot of time insisting on the NFER study, which focuses only on participation. EMA, does she not agree, has four main purposes-participation, attendance, attainment and supporting the well-being of people from disadvantaged backgrounds in education? Those things have not been evaluated properly, though the IFS study reported yesterday started to do so.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Shadow Minister (Education)

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point, one which I hope the Minister and Government will consider before coming forward with an announcement in this regard.

This morning we had a very good seminar in the Boothroyd room, at which young people, teachers and administrators from across the country-including Becky, Codie, John and Jordan from Hylton skills campus in my constituency-talked to politicians about what scrapping EMA will mean to them. It was a shame that the Minister could not be there. With respect to all hon. Members who have contributed to this debate, it would have been much more valuable for the Minister to have heard first-hand what young people and those who work with them say, to those of us willing to listen, about how much impact this choice will have on the lives of people from the poorest backgrounds.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Solicitor General

I wanted to put that question to the Minister, had I had the opportunity to speak. How many colleges have the Government spoken to about this policy? I spoke recently to staff from Newcastle college, which carried out a survey of all its EMA recipients, 85% of whom use it for transport costs. I was alarmed to hear it stated in this debate that EMA is regularly and widely abused. That is not the experience of colleges that I have spoken to.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Shadow Minister (Education)

That was definitely not the experience that Members heard from students this morning. We heard some powerful and at times very moving contributions. Many students told us how EMA is barely enough at the moment to cover their travel costs and their lunch. A young man called Luke told us of his peers who could not eat before or at college because their money did not go far enough. How many more will be in that position when EMA is removed? We know that eating well leads to better attainment. Even though the Minister and his colleagues scrapped the extension to free school meals, he must acknowledge the scientific evidence.

We heard from the principal of Lambeth College that EMA had led to a rise in participation and achievement and a fall in drop-outs. We heard from Cath and Alex, who had brought the young people all the way down from my constituency in Sunderland, that EMA helps young people with financial planning, which reduces the likelihood of their getting into debt in later life. We heard from a student who had dropped out of school in year 8, but was now studying towards GCSE-level qualifications because of EMA. We heard from a young single mother, who could only attend college and take her child to the crèche because of EMA. We also heard from all the staff that EMA was helping young people.

The most poignant moment was a comment from John, who with his peers had got up at 4 am to come down from Sunderland for the meeting. He sat there until the end, then said:

"Sharon said on Friday that I should follow my dreams. EMA gives me the chance to follow my dreams, and if you take it away, I don't know what I'll do."

Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Opposition Assistant Whip (Commons)

I will be brief. I wanted to share an example from my constituency. Kyle Simpson is a young Olympic hopeful training alongside Rebecca Adlington. He says EMA makes such a difference. His mum contributes to his training fees, and EMA enables him to go to college and have a little bit of money for transport, food and something of a social life, when he is not training and competing in swimming competitions.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Shadow Minister (Education)

That is another very good example. Many of the young people I met today were in their first year of study, and had undertaken to stay on in the sixth form or college on the understanding that that support would remain for the full two years. Why would they think otherwise?

After all, the man who painted himself as a modern, trustworthy leader of the Conservative party went around telling people that EMA was safe. In March, the current Education Secretary told the Guardian-in the nicest possible terms, as is his way-that his predecessor was a liar for suggesting that a Conservative Government would scrap EMA. In June, the very Minister sent here today to defend this policy put his commitment to the future of EMA on the parliamentary record.

Imagine the surprise of these young people at finding out that a promise from any of these men is not worth the paper it is written on. If the Minister and his colleagues in the Conservative party were as committed as they say they are to the principle of helping working-class kids access further education, why have they now turned their backs on them?

In the last debate on this subject, I heard the Government and the Minister, as well as some Government Back Benchers here, repeatedly trot out the line that 90% of EMA recipients are what they call "dead-weight". We might hear it again in the Minister's response-I hope not-despite the fact that we have heard plenty of contradictory evidence over the last hour. They should not be referred to in that manner.

I have a lot of respect for the Minister but, frankly, I find it disgusting to hear him and his colleagues talk about ambitious but poor young people as dead-weight. Never mind the fact that without EMA they might have to work every evening and weekend just to afford bus fares, food and books, because they want to better themselves. Because they want to better themselves, he believes that they are undeserving of support.

I do not know about the Minister, but I have actually bothered to go to my local colleges, as have hon. Friends to theirs, and speak to young people who receive EMA. The Minister says that nine out 10 of them would fall into the category of dead-weight, but I can inform him that the young people whom I visited are very much alive and working hard to better themselves, and they are angry with him. Some of them are around today, and they might try to catch his ear as he leaves. Perhaps he should prepare a response.

The Minister will undoubtedly be aware that the Hylton skills campus is part of the City of Sunderland college. Its excellent principal, Angela O'Donoghue, e-mailed me yesterday to tell me that the cuts would have a massive impact on her college. Some 70% of her students receive EMA, and 90% of those receive the full £30. How many of those young people would the Minister say are undeserving of help?

I shall bring my remarks to a close because we want to hear what the Minister has to say. I have done loads of sums-I know that people like to hear about my calculations-but I may have to save them for another day. However, I might write to the Minister and pass the benefit of those sums to him.

Richard Thorold, the principal of Gateshead college, which my son attends, wrote to me. He said:

"Whilst I accept that these are difficult times financially, I believe that financial support for young people continuing their education and training is a valuable investment towards creating a sustainable future for us all."

The key question for the Minister is why do the Government not think so?

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education) 3:51 pm, 15th December 2010

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Clark. I congratulate Teresa Pearce on securing today's debate. I know that she cares passionately about supporting young people in their continuing education, a passion that I share.

One of the Government's objectives is full participation in education, training, or employment with training, for all young people up to the age of 18. I listened to the hon. Lady carefully, and I understand the concerns of students at Bexley further education college, where 43% of students qualify for education maintenance allowance, and those at Greenwich community college, where 38% of students qualify. Nationally, 45% of students qualify for EMA, so I am aware that the decisions that we have taken affect a large number of 16 to 18-year-olds.

We need to set the debate in the context of the Budget deficit. It is £156 billion this year, the highest among G20 countries.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

I shall give way once I have finished this point.

The interest on accumulated Government debt to date is £42.7 billion per year, which represents 70% of the entire Department for Education budget. Unless we take serious measures to tackle the deficit, we will face a higher cost of borrowing as capital markets demand greater compensation for the heightened risk. Without the action that the Government are taking, we would ultimately face the economic crises that now confront Ireland, Greece, Spain and Portugal. This country was on the brink of financial crisis.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

I will give way once I have finished the point.

This country took action in the emergency Budget and the spending review. As a result, that crisis has been averted. I listened to the 14 or 15 Opposition Members who spoke during the debate, and I did not hear one alternative suggestion of how to find a saving of £500 million elsewhere in the Budget. They had no answer on how to avoid financial meltdown, or how to tackle the record Budget deficit that the Labour Government left for this Government to clear up. They had no answer on how to bring our economy back from the brink.

Labour's stewardship of the economy has left young people struggling to find jobs, as employers freeze recruitment. Unless we get the economy moving again, that tragedy will persist. Not tackling the deficit will put that recovery in jeopardy. I give way to Graham Jones, to see whether he can tell us how to find £500 million of savings elsewhere in the Budget.

Photo of Graham Jones Graham Jones Opposition Assistant Whip (Commons)

Is it not the case that it was the Government's choice to cut so deep? Is it not the case that, before the election and afterwards, the Government accused Labour Members of not cutting deep enough? Is it not the case, therefore, that the Government chose to remove the EMA for the economic decisions that the Minister has outlined? The Opposition would not have needed to do that, nor go as far, because, as the Minister says, we would not have cut the deficit so fast.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

The economy would have suffered as a result.

EMA costs £560 million a year. As we heard, it has been in existence for about six years; it was rolled out nationally in 2004, following a pilot. It was successful in raising participation rates among 16-year-olds from 87% in 2004 to 96% this year. As a consequence, attitudes among 16-year-olds to staying on in education have changed. When the National Foundation for Educational Research questioned recipients of EMA, it found that 90% would have stayed on in education regardless of whether they received EMA.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Conservative, New Forest East

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Does he accept that the two strands of the allowance are becoming intermixed? There is the role of the allowance in persuading people to stay on, and there is the role of the allowance in enabling people to stay on who might otherwise not be able to afford to do so.

A briefing from the Conservative Councillors' Association points out that the staying-on age will be raised, but that will not happen until 2015. What worries people such as the principal of Brockenhurst college in my constituency is that the EMA will stop in September 2011. In the limited time that remains, I hope that my hon. Friend will focus on the transition arrangements, which are of great concern to us all.

Photo of Katy Clark Katy Clark Labour, North Ayrshire and Arran

I remind Members that interventions should be short.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

I shall come to that point in a moment.

The fact is that 90% of recipients of EMA would have stayed on in education regardless. Given that evidence, the fact that we have a major Budget deficit crisis and the fact that the programme costs so much each year, it was clearly going to be a candidate for major reform.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

I am sorry, but I cannot give way as I have only four minutes left.

In reaching the decision to end EMA, we were of course concerned that the 10% of recipients whom the evidence said would have been put off from staying in education but for the money might then drop out of education. We believe that a payment designed as an incentive to participate-a point hinted at by my hon. Friend-is no longer the way to ensure that those facing real financial barriers to participation get the support that they need. That point was made well by my hon. Friends the Members for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby) and for York Outer (Julian Sturdy).

We therefore decided to use a proportion of that £560 million to increase the value of the discretionary learner support fund. Final decisions about the quantum of that extra funding still have to be taken, but we have already spoken of increasing the value of that fund by up to three times its current value, which stands at £25.4 million. A fund of that size would enable 100,000 young people to receive £760 each year. Those 100,000 students represent about 15% of the those young people who receive EMA, which is more than the 10% about whom we are particularly concerned who might not stay on in education. The figure of £760 is more than the average annual EMA paid in 2009-10 of £730, and only slightly less than the £813 paid to 16-year-olds who received the full £30 a week, or the £796 paid to 17-year-olds receiving the full £30 per week.

We are erring on the side of doing all that we can to assist the poorest, as sought by my hon. Friend Margot James. However, the Government will not set expectations on how much young people should receive from the enhanced discretionary fund. It will be up to schools and colleges to determine which young people should receive support under the new arrangements, and what form that support should take. In answer to a question, I can tell the House that colleges can use 5% of the fund for administration.

To help schools and colleges administer the fund, and to ensure that those young people who really need support to enable them to continue their education or training have access to the new fund, we are working with schools and colleges, and other key organisations such as the Association of Colleges, Centrepoint and the Sutton Trust, to develop a model approach that schools and colleges can choose to adopt or adapt.

In the remaining minute, I shall try to answer some of the questions raised during the debate. Many hon. Members asked about transport. Under current arrangements, discretionary support funding cannot be routinely used for transport to and from college. It is local authorities that have the statutory responsibility for making the necessary transport arrangements. However, we will consider that restriction as we develop the arrangements for enhanced discretionary learner support funding. The House can be assured that on that point.

I have dealt with the question about administration. The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead asked about the sum of £174 million. That is the estimate of what will be spent on EMA in the 2011-12 financial year, the payments being made during the 2010-11 academic year. However, it will not be available in the next academic year.