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Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab):
I shall endeavour to take less than six minutes, and I shall not take any interventions. I urge colleagues who do want to make a point, however, to raise it during the winding-up
speeches. I very much agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) about how-by ten-minute rule Bills and other things of that nature, too-these debates are curtailed.
I have just turned to page 30 of my list of broken Tory promises to look at where we are up to so far, and sadly the book still has many pages to go. The footnotes refer to, "We're all in this together", yet the burden continues to fall on children, young people and those on the lowest incomes. The burden that falls on the bankers is a bonus of £2 million-plus. That's justice, that's fair-I don't think. I am very interested to hear what Government Front Benchers have to say about where the burden falls. I am sure that they will duck that question, given that they have become so good at ducking.
What example are our young people being set by the Education Secretary and the Prime Minister? What fine role models they are. The sixth-form student's claim that the dog ate his homework seems positively saintly in comparison with what we keep hearing, so let us look at why the Tory-led Government are scrapping EMA.
The decision is based on dodgy guesswork. There is an assumption of 90% dead-weight, but let me just pause on "dead-weight". Are we seriously describing 90% of our young people as dead-weight? That is atrocious and absolutely abhorrent. Using that phrase, as we seemingly must, I suggest that the figure might have some credibility if the report were based on more than a handful of respondents to a survey that excluded college students and heard from predominantly white respondents. The figures also vary according to how much EMA the respondents receive, so it is hardly surprising to find that those who receive the lowest amount, those who do not receive it at all and those who are not sixth-form students might have gone to college anyway. It is not surprising that we have such a speculation.
I shall look at Stoke-on-Trent specifically. Our city, which has been referred to already, was one of the first pilot areas, and the results have been dramatic, with an impressive increase in the staying-on rate from 56% to 85%. Students have a choice of various excellent options, including the sixth-form college, many high school sixth forms and the excellent further education college, but that choice will be taken away with the removal of EMA, because students will have to attend whichever college or school is closest to their home, assuming that they can afford to go to one at all. That is because Stoke-on-Trent, unlike other cities in this country, is in the unique position of being not concentric but longitudinal, which means that getting from north to south or east to west is not simply a case of jumping on a single bus. Despite the improved bus service in Stoke-in-Trent that has developed over the past decade, more than one bus journey is still required. At the moment, students can use their EMA to travel around the city to go to the sixth form or college that provides the courses that best suit their requirements, but that choice will be taken away from them.
EMA is very important to students in Stoke-on-Trent, with 55% of students at the sixth-form college alone receiving it at the higher level. In the light of all the challenges that our city has faced, education is rightly held up as being the best way for it to grow and to move forward.
Some of the students to whom I have spoken will be looking for part-time jobs to enable them to study, but where are these mythical jobs? The December 2010 employment figures for Stoke-on-Trent, released today, show rising unemployment in the city, and the job cuts flowing from this Government's reckless handling of the economy spell even tougher times ahead. Even if students manage to get part-time jobs, that can have an adverse effect on their studies, with homework and assignments not done because of work commitments. What of the student who says, "You know what, I can't afford the student fees under this Tory Government, and there'll be no jobs, so I'll just sign on instead." We are seeing yet another wasted generation under a Tory Government, as in the 1980s. They just cannot help themselves, can they? In fact, never mind the 1980s-I sometimes think they are trying to take us back to the 1880s. What of the students who are part way through their courses? How cruel to pull the rug from under the feet of such vulnerable young people.
Let us look at the economic case. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that the costs of EMA are completely offset by rising participation and other benefits. One of the costs of scrapping EMA is that jobseeker's allowance suddenly looks a lot more attractive. This cruel and unfair decision to steal away EMA is based on dodgy data and a flawed economic case.
Sadly, I am having to skip to the end of my speech. [Hon. Members: "Oh!"] I apologise-I can hear the groans of disappointment. The catalogue of broken promises goes on and on. The weight of the burden of debt repayment continues to fall on the shoulders of the youngest and poorest members of our society, and Government Members should be ashamed of themselves.
Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I, too, will attempt to keep my remarks brief to allow as many hon. Members to speak as possible.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), the former Chair of the Select Committee, talked about the tough choices that face the Government. I welcome that, because although he has come to a different conclusion-he suggested bigger class sizes-at least it shows that he is thinking about these ideas and putting forward alternatives. Perhaps he has a firmer grasp on reality than his Front Benchers, who seem to be ignoring the pressures and pretending that we are living in an ideal world.
I certainly do not want to see changes that would lead to what Labour Members are intimating, which is that all the young people who could receive EMA will suddenly find themselves unable to go into post-16 education, but I do not believe that that will happen. Many young people are fighting hard to stay in education and to take the opportunities that are available to them, and there needs to be support for them in the form of the advanced fund that the Government propose. Support also needs to be given by working with local authorities to get them to face up to their statutory responsibilities to provide access.
Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab):
I thank the hon. Gentleman for mentioning the advanced fund. A constituent of mine who has two disabled children at
City college Plymouth is unsure whether she will fall within the remit of that fund. Does he share her concern, and does he agree that it would have been helpful to see exactly what its criteria are before having this debate?
Dan Rogerson: The debate was called by Opposition Front Benchers. Perhaps if they had waited until we had that information, we could have had a more informed debate, but that was their decision.
EMA has undoubtedly made a difference to some people. The important thing is that whatever replaces it reaches those young people and keeps them in education, and empowers people who are in a similar situation in future. It is also clear that there are issues with EMA and examples of it not working, some of which were referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke). It is right for the Government to consider doing something slightly different, and I hope that that is better at reaching people and makes a difference to those who have not received the support that they need.
We are in an incredibly tough financial situation. It would be far easier for the Government, in terms of popularity, to ignore that, as the Opposition seek to do, and to carry on borrowing to fund spending that there is no money to meet, but we have chosen not to do that and to face up to some of these things. It is right for the Government to open up this issue and explore it, and for my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) to work on it and discuss ways forward.
Stephen Williams: One issue that needs to be looked at, which we pressed the Labour Government to address on many occasions, is the anomaly that those who are eligible for free school meals receive them if they are in school, but those who go to sixth-form or FE college at 16 do not. I was potentially in that situation when I was at school. The Labour party refused repeatedly to address that anomaly in the previous Parliament, so we should take some of its anxiety with a pinch of salt.
Dan Rogerson: I welcome my hon. Friend's contribution. Some crucial issues have been raised, including those on food and the cost of living as people continue their studies. I will come back to those in the questions that I ask the Minister.
Transport is a big issue in rural constituencies such as mine. Many students stay on in the excellent school sixth forms and others explore different opportunities, such as travelling to the fantastic Cornwall college, which is dispersed across the peninsula of Cornwall. Its excellent chief executive officer is concerned about what may happen because of the proposed changes to EMA. I welcome his contribution in talking to the Education Committee about those concerns. The fact is that changes and cuts in spending are needed, and the Government have decided to focus the money on the kind of early intervention that the Secretary of State spoke about.
I want to put some questions to the Minister on his deliberations about what will replace EMA. First, will he assure that House that he will work with other Departments, as well as considering the resources at his disposal, on issues such as transport; access to higher education, which is the responsibility of the Department
for Business, Innovation and Skills; and how local authorities can do more to help young people, which should be discussed with the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Local Government Association? The issue of free school meals is also important, and has been raised by several hon. Members. I would welcome his comments on that.
Will the Minister ensure that in the discussions that he and colleagues have with local authorities, the availability of transport is considered? We are not talking about a token provision of resources that will allow some people to access transport. In some rural areas, the existing network of buses will just not get people there in time. That needs to be addressed.
The hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole raised the issue of young carers and young people in care who need extra support. It would help if strong guidelines were set up for these funds to ensure that such groups are protected and given every support that they need to access education. Those people need it the most. Action for Children raised that problem and suggested those guidelines in its briefing.
If there is to be a discretionary element, with college and school principals being able to consider how resources should be used locally to achieve access, we should ensure that there are clear guidelines about equality of access. For example, if two students apply to a college, one of whom looks likely on the basis of past performance to achieve grades that mean it will be good for the college to have them on board, and one of whom will need extra support to achieve such grades, the college should consider their home situation, where they live and so on rather than just their academic attainment. We need such safeguards in place.
Mr David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab): Your constituency, Madam Deputy Speaker, mine and Nottingham North were identified 10 years ago as having the lowest staying-on rates and the lowest levels of access to higher education in the country. The evidence of the Higher Education Funding Council for England demonstrated that the barriers to staying on, including income disadvantage and cultural barriers, needed to be addressed, and that we needed a transformation of aspiration in schools. That transformation has taken place in my constituency, as it has across the country. There has been a 15 percentage point increase there, and a 20 percentage point rise overall, in young people staying on at 16, and there has been a transformation in the most deprived parts of the constituency.
When Sir Robert Ogden, a business man and philanthropist, first introduced bursaries in the mid-1990s in the south Yorkshire coalfield areas, he was, as my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) described, addressing the cultural barriers to young people staying on in education. He was addressing the culture in the community and the family as well as the attitudes of schools and young people. On that basis I was proud to introduce the education maintenance allowance pilots and subsequently the whole scheme, with the support of the then Chancellor. Of course improvements could be made to it, but it has literally transformed the life chances of children.
Children at the moment are currently the disadvantaged and unlucky generation. Child trust funds have been abolished; Sure Start ring-fencing has been lifted and cuts made to the scheme; Aimhigher has gone; youth and career services have been decimated; entitlement funds, which very few people have heard of, are being done away with; the future jobs fund has been abolished at a time of 20% youth unemployment, which is a catastrophe for young people and their families across the country; university fees are being trebled; and now the EMA is going too, including for young people who are already receiving it. That is a terrible blow for them and their families.
Yes, we do have a structural deficit, but by the time of the June emergency Budget it happened to be £10 billion less than had been projected in the Budget the previous March. There has been an increase in Government income above and beyond the result of the measures that the Government have taken, not least from north sea oil and the fuel escalator. We have substantially more money than expected coming in, but there are major cuts, each of them being justified by the same deficit reduction strategy. That means that any cut to any budget at any time can be justified simply by referring to the deficit.
Let us consider what we might have done instead. We could have included post-16 child benefit in assessable, taxable income. That would have been much fairer than cutting the EMA, but would still have been universal. We certainly cannot rely on the expansion of the discretionary learner scheme, because one sixth form in an affluent area receives as much for eight pupils as Longley Park college in my constituency does for 937. In other words, it is completely skewed.
For Gemma Darlow-she has given permission for me to use her name-whose parents were faced with eviction because her mum lost her job, for Yasin Yusuf, who is now at Sheffield Hallam university having come from Somalia, for Jade Fletcher and for Bianca-Jade Titchmarsh, the transformation in their lives, which they have told me about, is testament enough to why it is necessary to maintain the EMA in some form, with a massive expansion in the £75 million currently planned. Some £4.2 million is needed for Sheffield college and Longley Park sixth-form college students alone, never mind the sixth forms in the most affluent areas. That is why the National Foundation for Educational Research material should not be misused; it took more account of those going through to school sixth forms than of those going to sixth-form college and FE college-a sector which, as was rightly said earlier, is the Cinderella of the education system.
We desperately need to get the message across that there can be a solution, because the abolition of EMA is bad for young people and families, bad for social mobility, and bad for the local and national economy. It is unfair and unfocused, and it will lead to the exact reverse of what everybody in this House preaches, which is improvement in staying on, attainment and the future of our country.
Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con):
I begin by paying tribute to Mr Callum Morton, the president of the students union at Amersham and Wycombe college,
where about a third of the students receive EMA. He has made his case with great force and maturity, and I am sure that Amersham and Wycombe students will agree that he has served them well.
I should like to address the case advanced by the Opposition. The shadow Secretary of State said that Government Members had no real idea what EMA recipients' lives are like, but how would any of us know? Members on both sides of the House may naturally radiate youthful beauty, but not too many are aged between 16 and 18. What about income? If hon. Members look at the much quoted Institute for Fiscal Studies website and enter their salary into a tool called "Where do you fit in?" they will find that they are in the top 3% of the income distribution of this country. My salary now is just my parliamentary salary, and I will take no lectures on having a silver spoon and particular privileges from those who are on the same income. How are any of us to understand, as the shadow Secretary of State asked, what it is really like to be in receipt of EMA?
Emily Thornberry: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
In the end, each of us must read our correspondence and try to walk in the shoes of our constituents. I will therefore take no lectures from those who pretend that they have some special connection to a particular group.
I shall not bore the House with my own background, but I would certainly have qualified for EMA when I was a sixth-former. How did I cope? The answer is that I coped with a mixture of commercial sponsorship and weekend work. I listened to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello). We must wonder where the jobs will come from, but there is case for saying that people should look to themselves.
Further to the comments made about being out of touch, I must tell Opposition Members that a breadwinner on the minimum wage would work about six hours to earn that £30. None of us should take for granted the importance of what amounts to the best part of a day's pay. Are we out of touch? Certainly not.
Opposition Members like to believe that some infinite pool of funds can be dipped into at will, which is certainly not the case. The measure cannot be considered in isolation. We must bear in mind that whatever we spend must be taxed or borrowed, or indeed debased. It is absolutely wrong to attempt to bribe 16 to 18-year-olds with their own money at interest, as Opposition Members have sought to do.
One hon. Gentleman suggested that we were going back to the 1880s, but I am afraid that that is facile. A paper from the Centre for Policy Studies, "A shower, not a hurricane", showed that from the top level of spending, all we shall be doing in five years is going back to the real levels of 2009. That is the tragedy of Labour's profligacy. Labour left us in such a situation that just mitigating the worst of its spending excesses is causing thoroughgoing misery across the country, and yet we are only going back to 2009.
I will not talk about the waste in the programme as I am running out of time, but I am happy to be able to inform the House that I have had frequent discussions
with the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning about social mobility and aspiration and the role of further education in helping people to enjoy social mobility, and I have discovered that, like me, the Minister came from an ordinary background, and that, like me, he has a ferocious passion to help people from ordinary backgrounds get on, go to university and make the most of their lives. It seems to me that Opposition Members are determined to oppose every change in isolation, without regard to the context of this country's situation. They are putting the worst possible construction on every Government policy, and that is simply not fair to a dedicated and passionate Minister.
What has upset me most about the debate is that the shadow Secretary of State has sought to sow fear and despair and to write off young people. It is not for the shadow Secretary of State to tell young people that they should not aspire. He has suggested that the Government's policy is robbing them of their future, but I say no. Rather, I echo his words to every single 16 to 18-year-old and everyone who might be about to go into further education: "Believe in yourself, because you do matter, and yes, do dare to dream, whoever you are."
Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): I represent one of the most deprived constituencies in the country. Today's unemployment figures show that my Gorton constituency has an unemployment rate of 9%. Very few jobs will be available for those who are going to be thrown on to the streets by the Government's decision today, particularly when we take into account the huge job cuts that have been forced on Manchester city council by the grossly disproportionate Government cuts in local government funding for Manchester and other needy areas.
I have come to the Chamber to speak in this debate because the principal of Xaverian college in my constituency, just around the corner from where I live, wrote to me in a tone of huge anxiety and agitation about what the Government are doing. I also received a letter from the assistant principal of Loreto college in Manchester, a constituent of mine, who wrote that
"the EMA has been the most significant Government instrument to encourage marginalised and vulnerable sixteen year olds to remain in education."
I do not know whether these people vote Labour or Conservative-I cannot imagine that they are stupid enough to vote Liberal Democrat-but whichever way they vote, they contacted me because of educational issues.
In order to understand what is going to happen to the 300,000 young people whose EMA will be cancelled part way through their course, we can return to the letter from the assistant principal of Loreto. He wrote:
"the loss to our economy will be measurable, and further I believe that it is in no one's interest to have disaffected young people on the streets."
The Government have decided to do this. They have chosen to do it; it has not been forced on them. They could have dealt with the bankers, with bankers' bonuses and with a host of other issues, but instead they chose to do this, for socially discriminatory reasons. Some 66% of those on full EMA are from single-parent families, and 21% of those on EMA are living with both parents.
This proposal is also racially discriminatory. Some 84% of Bangladeshis receiving EMA and 70% of those of Pakistani heritage who do so receive the full EMA. They use it for all kinds of utterly essential reasons. We must also note that the participation rate in higher education in disadvantaged areas is only 19%.
Thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), young people who are on EMA miss fewer courses, are more likely to stay in education, are socially responsible and have good achievements at their colleges. EMA has made all of those things possible, and this Government are going to take it away from them for socially discriminatory reasons based on the kind of Government they are.
Let us be clear that we are looking at a Government who cut money and cut benefits right across the spectrum of those who can least stand it. Members of this Government have never needed these benefits. They abolished the health in pregnancy grant, which Ministers have never needed. They abolished child trust funds, but Ministers have inherited wealth. They reduced the scope of Sure Start, but Ministers have never needed Sure Start. They are scrapping 500,000 school meals. How many Ministers in this Government have had to get free school meals for their kids? They are interfering with housing benefit, but they live in affluent owner-occupation, in houses that, often, they have inherited. They are taking away social housing rights from our constituents-a huge proportion of my constituents live in social housing-but Ministers have never had to worry about the kind of house they will live in and their right to go on living there.
The Government could have decided on other polices. This callous and heartless Government are the most right wing since the 1930s. They are targeting the weakest when they could have gone for the strongest. The Government could have gone for Sir Philip Green, with his tax-dodging in Monte Carlo, and Lord Ashcroft-but no, those people get away scot-free. It is the poor, the deprived, those in single-parent households and the ethnic minorities that this Government go for. That tells us what the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives are really like. Oldham made a judgment about it last week, and the rest of the country will do the same as soon as it gets the opportunity.
Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): The one thing that I have grown to dislike since I came to this place is the entrenchment that always appears in debates on this subject, and the previous speaker gave an example of that. Nobody comes into politics to target the weak or the poor deliberately; we may have disagreements about how we assist those who need support and in what form it is given, but nobody comes into this place with those aims and those desires. The one thing that I gave really grown to dislike about this Chamber since my election is the constant view that everybody on one side is elitist and determined to attack the poor, and everybody on the other side is virtuous and has only the best interests of their constituents at heart. I like to think that most people come here with the best of intentions for their constituents, even if we disagree about the way in which we get there. That is how I approach this debate.
I am not interested in the politics of this debate in the slightest. I know that there will be people on both sides who will try to hit each other across the head with the politics, but that is not of any interest to me. All I want from this debate are some answers on what we will replace EMA with and what support will be in place for the young people who most need it. I have read both the motion, much of which is perfectly reasonable, and the amendment, which I have no problem with because it talks about supporting young people who are most in need of this help. It is a shame that we have had to get into such a divisive debate.
My view on EMA has changed over the years. The trials started three years after I left sixth-form college, and I recall thinking when EMA was introduced that I had funded my way through sixth-form college by getting a job at McDonald's. That was my approach to begin with, and I believe that many Members still think like that. However, I then got into the teaching profession and started to see the impact of some of the support. Over time, I started to realise that doing as I had done is not a sustainable way for many people to fund their further education from 16 to 18, and that it is not a possibility for many people-it certainly is not since the changes in employment legislation. Although those changes have advantaged part-time workers, they have in some ways made it harder for teenagers to get part-time jobs.
EMA has therefore been positive in many ways. There have been a lot of problems with it, but it has been positive and has certainly raised participation. I personally never agreed with the raising of the compulsory participation age to 18.
Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): My hon. Friend is making some good points. Surely the key component to any post-16 education should be a focus on accessibility and choice, which he has already mentioned, but is not the best way to improve accessibility and choice through targeted funding, which is what we are talking about? If we get better targeted funding, we can get better accessibility.
Andrew Percy: My hon. Friend makes a sensible point, with which I would not disagree, but it is also about what size of pot is available to provide that targeted supply. I have no problem with targeted support-so long as the pot is big enough.
I was mentioning some of the advantages of EMA. It has certainly raised participation and it has also raised attendance. I do not believe the figure of 90%. "Dead-weight" is an unfortunate word to use. We are saying not in any way that young people are the dead-weight, but that there might be some dead-weight in the system.
Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab) rose -
Andrew Percy: I will give way one last time.
Yasmin Qureshi: I am grateful. The hon. Gentleman said that he did not accept that there has been a 90% take-up rate. In my constituency, 934 young people at Bolton sixth-form college receive EMA-75% of the college intake, which is the third largest in the country-while 1,188 people at Bolton community college are taking up EMA. For those young people and those colleges even to function, the continuation of EMA is vital.
Andrew Percy: I was questioning not the take-up rate but the study apparently showing that 90% of young people would have continued with their studies without it. From my own limited experience in the education field, I certainly do not believe that to be true. We should not get too hung up on that.
In my intervention on the Secretary of State, I mentioned that I represent some very deprived communities in Goole, which certainly need support, and some largely rural areas that also require it. It is a shame, as I said, that our local council has made it more difficult for young people in the north Lincolnshire part of my constituency by raising the cost of their travel passes by 500% in one year and again in subsequent years. As I said to the Secretary of State, I hope that whatever replaces EMA will take into account those costs.
I also try to take account of the views of local colleges on this issue. There is Goole college-a small college in my constituency-but most of the young people in my patch have to travel into Scunthorpe or go to colleges in Hull, Selby or York. All those colleges have written to me, asking for support to continue in some form and requesting more information on what will replace EMA. They advanced a powerful case for how EMA support has enhanced not only attendance and participation, but the commitment of young people to their studies.
I confess that I am not so obsessed about whether the replacement of EMA stays in the same form, as there have been some negatives, which I saw as a practitioner. I once did a period of supply teaching in a private school. That was not really me, although the kids were wonderful. One kid there was receiving EMA through certain mechanisms, but I did not think that that was right by any stretch of the imagination. A young lad came to my surgery not so long ago who complained about not getting EMA despite the fact that his friends were-
Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD) rose -
Andrew Percy: I am not giving way any more, as others want to speak.
The lad came to see me because he was not getting EMA, yet his friends who were getting it were also receiving a great deal of support from their parents. It is not a perfect system. Similarly, a lady came to see me who, despite having five jobs as a cleaner, does not receive EMA for her children. She could not understand why other people living in the same houses in the same streets who enjoy the same quality of life and drive the same kind of cars and go on the same kind of holidays are receiving it for their children. There certainly need to be some changes.
As I said at the outset, my concern is not about maintaining a national model, but about ensuring that support is in place that truly supports our young people. I would like to hear more information from Ministers about how big the pot is going to be. There is an argument not so much for a strict national model-I am certainly not in favour of that, as it puts everybody in a straitjacket-but at least for a sign that certain principles will automatically be taken into account as colleges and their administrative institutions make their decisions. That also means that the pot has to be big enough. It is no good removing the EMA and not replacing it with a
pot big enough to support the young people who so desperately need it. I urge Ministers, when they sum up and respond to the debate, to give us more advice on that.
Similarly, I say to Opposition Members that, like the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), I hope we can work together, because we should all have the same aim of supporting the young people who most need it. I wish we could take the politics out of this issue and get some agreement. We are in a difficult situation financially-everyone knows that tough decisions have to be taken-and the Government are doing some very good things in that regard. I would like us to lose the politics a little and work together to find a system. I would vote for any system that would guarantee young people, such as those it has been my privilege to teach, the support they desperately need to stay in further education.
John Robertson (Glasgow North West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy)-what a great name for a Conservative constituency that is. If ever there was a greater name than Goole, I do not know it.
I was brought up by my mother, my sister and my grandmother-my father died when I was three-so going into further education and following on into university was not an option for me. I knew that as soon as I finished school, I would be going to work. Fortunately, back in 1969, in the Harold Wilson days, we had near-enough full employment and getting a job was not a problem. The company I was employed by, where I worked for 31 years, sent me into further education. I would like to thank Langside college and Stow college for the education they gave me, which helped me to become the person I am today, eventually ending up in this place.
I never attended university but I do not consider that to be a loss to me, although I have aspirations for my children and my grandson, who I hope will have that kind of education. I certainly want to make sure that people get the same opportunity to get that education, whether they fall on the rich side or the poor side of society. I disagree with the previous speaker about targeting the weak and using politics, because I do not have a problem with targeting people or politics. I would like to use my politics to make sure that we do target, but that we target the poor. We should target the people who need to be targeted and make sure that they get that help. We should make sure that we supply the money that gets them into education, including the further education that we have fought so hard for over the years. When I left school, only 7% of people went to university; the figure is now approaching 50%, but not for long-not with that crowd in charge. It will not take long for the figure to go back down, but I hope it will never get below double figures.
I have had opportunities. People might think it strange for a Glasgow MP to speak on this subject, but I got involved in EMAs before the general election. I had an Adjournment debate then, and I have had one since. When my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), who is in his place, responded to the first debate, he guaranteed that if Labour won the election not only would it look after those people but EMA
would be maintained for the length of the next Parliament. In the following Adjournment debate, the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), who is also in his place, writing feverishly, dispelled that notion right away. All the promises that were made before the general election by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Education have been broken. The breaking of those promises affects the people I believe we are here to represent-those who cannot vote, who are looking to people like us to promote them and make sure that they get the education and proper start in life that some of us did not get.
What do we have now? In Scotland, we have a system that pays only the £30 rate and we have now found out that because the £10 and £20 rates have been done away with, about 8,000 students will not be students. They will be lost to the further education system in Scotland, thanks to a Scottish National party Government who did away with the allowance. They only kept the £30 rate because an election is coming up and the Labour party is so far ahead in the polls. We said we would keep the allowance, so the SNP had to match it-I do not care how or why they do it, just as long as they do it.
The Conservatives thought they would be coming into power alone. They did not. As for the other party, some Liberal Democrats would sell their soul to get into power; others sold their soul once they got into power. Those are the kind of people we have to deal with. Labour Members have to stand up and fight for the rights of the people out on the streets. Do the Government honestly believe that those young people out in the streets are there for fun? Do they honestly believe that those young people want to be herded and corralled just because they are demonstrating? Those young people think they have rights, and I believe we all-on both sides of the House-fought to give them those rights. Apart from the idiots and the malcontents, the proper students out there demonstrating should be listened to; they are our future and we should give them the chance to move on.
I am nearing the end of the time and I did not even use the speech I prepared-I do not even know why I wrote it. The Government took the flawed view that 90% of young people did not need the money. That is a lie. We know it is a lie. The Government should take a proper look and make a proper assessment of the people who now have EMA and what will happen to them if they no longer have it, and then tell us that the number should be reduced by 90%.
Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con): It ought to be a pleasure to discuss in the Chamber ways in which we can overcome barriers to access to further and higher education. It ought to be a pleasure to discuss how I can tackle the deprivation in my constituency, but sadly, having sat here for most of the afternoon, I can conclude only that debate in the House has ceased to be a pleasure. The discourtesy and personal rudeness from Opposition Members demonstrates why Parliament and this Chamber have lost credibility in the eyes of people outside.
It is extremely important that we discuss how to overcome barriers to accessing further and higher education, whether we believe that scrapping education maintenance
allowance is the right way to do that, or whether there are alternatives that we can look at. EMA was introduced in 1998 in the comprehensive spending review as "an incentive" to encourage more people to stay in education. It was an experiment-a new departure for this country-and one I watched with interest.
After a few years, the then Government decided it was time to try something else-to introduce compulsory education from 16 to 18. Young people were to be obliged to stay in education until the age of 18, so why would we want to continue with an incentive to do something that would become compulsory? Indeed, we are supporting the aspiration of the previous Government to expand compulsory education. We have increased the budget for 16-to-19 education by 1.15%. We are funding an extra 62,000 places in the 16-to-19 sector. I am disappointed that the Labour party does not feel able to support that and would rather retain EMA-an instrument that I believe, the more I discuss it with people in my constituency, is a blunt one.
I object strongly to EMA for a number of reasons, which I hinted at in my intervention on the shadow Secretary of State. The allowance is capped at £30 a week. It is related solely to household income, yet I speak to many people in my constituency who are eligible for EMA but whose needs far exceed £30 a week. If we listened to the Opposition, we would think that EMA was the answer to every social problem.
Mr Chuka Umunna (Streatham) (Lab): If £30 is not enough for people in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, why is the solution simply to take it all away? I am not sure that I follow his line of argument.
Paul Maynard: The hon. Gentleman's intervention demonstrates why he should have been in the Chamber earlier to listen to the debate- [ Interruption. ] He was not here when I made my intervention. The hon. Gentleman asks a question, however, so I am happy to explain. Rather than having an education maintenance allowance that is capped at £30 a week, it would be far better to have a discretionary learner support fund sited in the college that the pupil attends, where the principal and teachers best understand the needs of that pupil and can therefore address their particular barriers. I do not accept that household income has any meaningful correlation with the barriers to accessing further education that someone faces.
The hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) pulls a face at me, so let me explain why. Blackpool and Fylde college is on Ashfield road in my constituency. Right at its front door is a large council estate where some of the most deprived residents in my constituency live. Do they have the same needs as someone in a slightly higher income bracket living two or three miles further up the road? They do not. Household income is not the indicator that must be examined when determining the barriers that must be overcome.
The hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) who, like me, is a passionate defender of young carers, was right to point out that there are groups of young people who face complex hurdles if they are to access further education. I do not accept that the education maintenance allowance is the magic wand that Labour Members seem to believe it is. I join other Government Members who have asked for further
information about what form the discretionary learner support fund will take and how it will enable those with complex needs to access further education, because it is vital that they do so.
Labour Members cannot keep simply backing structures rather than people. It is horrifying that, in a modern democracy, we have a Labour party that still likes to think that it can keep people under its thumb, say, "You'll get £30 a week and no more; we're going to keep you where you are," and then expect people to be grateful. I want a further and higher education system in which all people can participate without being restricted by a barrier of £30 a week and no more. The discretionary learner support fund will enable an individual student's needs to be properly assessed and met, because we will focus on what the need really is, not on the mythical universal provision for which the Labour party hanker, albeit not because Labour Members wish to support their constituents any more. I have never before seen a political party further from the people whom it seeks to represent or that has so forgotten the people from whom it allegedly came.
Roberta Blackman-Woods: Who is being rude now?
Paul Maynard: I am sorry that the hon. Lady says that, but I can say only what I observe in the Chamber. I am saddened that democracy has reached such a level.
I am running out of time, but I leave hon. Members with this thought: in this day and age, we need to ensure that every person who wishes to go into further education is able to do so, and this Government will enable that.
Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): I want to address the question of the impact of EMA head-on. Three colleges in my constituency-St John Rigby college, Wigan and Leigh college and Winstanley college-have approached me to oppose the scrapping of EMA, and there is clear evidence that EMA has had a considerable impact by attracting young people into education and persuading them to stay on. Such evidence comes from not just Wigan, but throughout the country. The view is shared by the Association of Colleges, and it is borne out by research from the Learning and Skills Council and the CfBT Education Trust. That evidence shows that EMA not only attracts young people into education, but when they are there, spurs them on to succeed and achieve. I am therefore disappointed-but not surprised-that the Secretary of State has chosen to base the decision on one unrepresentative and deeply flawed study. It leads me to wonder whether the decision was made a long time before any evidence was considered.
I want to echo some of the concerns have been raised about the language that we bandy about, such as "dead-weight." The term is deeply offensive to the thousands of young people out there who are so concerned about their future. I urge hon. Members, if they are not prepared to support them, at least to show them some respect when they talk about them and their future.
Ministers have missed the point about EMA. It did not just encourage people into education and get them to stay there, but said to students that they should be able to learn without suffering extreme hardship. The vast majority of students who claim EMA do so for
travel and food. Are we seriously saying in 2011 that the extent of our ambition for a generation of young people is telling them that if they walk long distances and go hungry they can have the same opportunities as some of their more privileged peers? It is a poor ambition and I am ashamed that we even have to debate it.
It was a sign of confidence in our young people that the previous Government said, "We will give you that money, and we will trust you and leave how you spend it up to you." The Government talk a lot about getting rid of centralised prescription. Why will they not show the same confidence in young people as us when we were in government?
At the heart of the debate is the question whether EMA is necessary. I tell Ministers that it has become an essential part of household income. If they are serious about getting people to stay on in education until they are 18 by raising the participation age, which I support, they are making a big mistake in removing the mechanism whereby young people can do that.
I urge Ministers again to consider the impact on looked-after children, homeless young people and young carers. I know that they are concerned about that, and I urge them to meet a young person, Shinea, who lives in a homeless hostel run by the charity Centrepoint, for which I had the privilege of working many years ago. Shinea is entirely on her own. She exists on benefits and EMA, and she is trying hard and doing her best. I ask Ministers to meet her before they make a decision that will wreck her chances for good.
The EMA was never just an allowance. It was a contract between the state and young people, which said, "If you work hard and try hard, we will back you and support you, regardless of your background because we think you're worth it."
Roberta Blackman-Woods: Sixty-seven per cent. of young people aged 16 to 18 who attend New college in my constituency receive EMA, and 560 will lose the funding halfway through their course. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is disgraceful that they heard nothing from the Secretary of State today about whether they will receive any support in future and how much it will be?
Lisa Nandy: Apart from agreeing with my hon. Friend, I am also grateful to her for bringing me back to my point, which I had lost in my anger about the Government's decision. Shinea, the young person from Centrepoint, whom I urge Ministers to meet, is midway through her course, as are many young people in my constituency. I tell Ministers that the issue is pressing and needs to be resolved now. At Wigan and Leigh college, 75% of young people in their first year who get EMA say that they will have to drop out next year. I urge Ministers to make a decision and give clarity not only to those young people, but to the many who must decide now whether to go into further education and do not know whether they can afford it. Those young people said to me very clearly that they were told that if they worked hard and tried hard, they would get the EMA. They have kept their side of the bargain; they cannot understand why their Government will not keep their side.
I went to Winstanley college and talked to some young people who are very concerned about the issue, and about tuition fees and the abolition of the Aimhigher
initiative-concerned not for themselves, but for the young people who come after them. They told me they felt that their Government were not only not trying to help them, but were actively putting barriers in their way. The last time I heard young people talk like that was when I was growing up in the '80s and '90s, when the Conservative Government left an entire generation of young people without hope. It was devastating, and the Government are about to create exactly the same thing all over again. The progress made in the past 13 years is unravelling before our eyes. I urge hon. Members, before they walk through the Lobby, to think about their part in that.
Finally, if colleagues will not be persuaded by the moral case, I ask them to be persuaded by the clear economic case. The EMA pumps millions into local economies, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies states clearly that the EMA is an investment in young people that will be recouped in the long term. It will pay for itself. It is precisely in such difficult economic times, with youth unemployment predicted to reach 1 million in the next few years, that we should be investing in our young people. We should be sending them the strong message that we value them, and that they matter to us.
Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): Today we are discussing the important subject of the EMA, an extremely well-intentioned product of the previous Government that, at its most effective, helped young people to continue their education. At its worst, though, it is just another in a series of policies adopted by the previous Government with a lot of dead-weight. I am sorry if that offends the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), but we have to acknowledge that, in the case of many policies of the previous Government, a lot of money was spent and very little achieved, after a certain point. The EMA is one of those cases. It is one of the factors that led the previous Government to rack up such a large deficit for the country-a deficit that the coalition Government now have to sort out.
I do not want to dwell on the debt argument, but it currently costs this country £564 million a year to provide the EMA for our young people. As I say, the scheme is well-intentioned, but when a policy lacks targeting and loses its focus, as the EMA seems to have done in certain ways, all we are doing is building up a credit card of debt for our young people. We are actually encumbering the generation that we are giving the EMA with a massive debt-and we are encumbering their children with huge debts, which they will be paying off, through higher taxes, for years to come. They will suffer reductions in service as a result of the debt interest that this country is paying.
Any sensible Government would want a targeted scheme to allow young people to access further education. That is what I hope the current Government are trying to achieve. Rather than concentrate on the inputs, and tailoring the programme of support for young people on the basis of how much money we put in, we should first set a target for what we want to achieve and what outcomes we want, and then look at what money we need to support that programme. To that end, we need to look at the impediments to some of our younger people gaining access to further education. Gaining that access is a problem, in some ways, for many young
people; 12% have clearly said that if they did not have some sort of financial support, they would not be able to continue their studies, which is certainly something that we need to address and overcome.
I have two fantastic post-16 colleges in my constituency, King Edward VI college and North Warwickshire and Hinckley college. I have met a number of students at North Warwickshire and Hinckley college, and had a detailed discussion with them. Their biggest concern, and the biggest impediment that they saw to young people continuing their studies, was the issue of travel to and from college. That is something that we have to address, and not just for people from rural areas; it is a problem for people from urban areas as well.
We also have to address the fact that, as has been mentioned from the Opposition Benches, during the current academic year many students have been used to receiving EMA and benefiting from it, especially for their travel. The Government must make sure that young people who have gone to college on that basis this year do not drop out next year. We need to clear up quickly what the system will be next year, to make sure that our young people make informed choices about their studies once they finish school this year.
Many local authorities have reduced or stopped the discretionary travel supplement that used to be provided. One or two schemes are still available, but across the country many have disappeared. We need to look into that and see how, as a Government, we can help young people with their travel.
Earlier, the shadow Secretary of State was rather derogatory to our young people, saying that it was not appropriate for them to do part-time work. That is not a concept that we have covered in the Chamber today. Part-time work is extremely important not just to earn money to provide things over and above those that young people need for their education, but to help young people develop soft skills to bridge the gap between education and employment. I speak to many people in commerce who say that younger people need the best soft skills they can get to integrate into the workplace. It is extremely important that that is encouraged in our further education system.
To conclude, as I do not have much time, I wholeheartedly support the Government amendment, especially as it relates to travel, but I have concerns about how the new scheme will look and the amount of money to be put into it. I hope that tonight the Minister will dispel a few of those hares that have been running-
Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Time is up.
Ms Karen Buck (Westminster North) (Lab): The decision to abolish EMA is an act of educational and social vandalism. It has caused huge distress and anger among young people, who do not see, as I do not see and the Opposition do not see, why they should carry a disproportionate burden of the deficit reduction strategy.
We have heard from some speakers about early intervention, particularly in respect of young people. We all believe in the importance of making further progress on early intervention in the early years to pay off in 16 years' time. To abolish EMA is to do away with an early intervention that will pay off in two years,
because EMA is a means of preventing young people from leaving school and failing to obtain the qualifications that will enable them to get jobs and go on into higher education. That will cost money. We know it will cost money, and we know from the IFS that there is research to confirm that measures that leave more young people unemployed and without qualifications will cost us in the short term-this year, next year and the year after. There is no economic case for the abolition of the education maintenance allowance.
Has EMA worked? We hear from Ministers so often, "Let's devolve the responsibility to heads. Let's hear what is being said at a local level." Listen to my heads and to the principals of my further education colleges. They are saying, "Don't do this." Jo Shuter, the principal of Quintin Kynaston school, is an award-winning head teacher who has transformed a school that was extremely challenging a few years ago. She said to me that at a school where 84% of young people are on the education maintenance allowance in the sixth form, abolishing it will be extraordinarily damaging and will wreak havoc on her sixth form. She is not alone in saying that.
The City of Westminster college, which I mentioned earlier, quoted the figure of 250 students this year, every year, who are obtaining qualifications, who were not staying on in school and obtaining qualifications without EMA. Those 250 pupils alone justify the expenditure on EMA. But EMA is not just about staying on into the sixth form, as we heard from many other speakers; it is about giving head teachers a tool to manage attendance and progress at school, and it is much valued for that. It is also about reducing the need for part-time employment. I agree with the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) that part-time work can be a valuable thing. I did it; many of us did it. I also know that in the school that my child attends, which took over from a failing secondary school where just 18% of pupils were obtaining 5 A to C GCSEs, that figure has now increased to 63%. The school did that with Saturday schools and sessions in the school holidays. It is a similar picture at Paddington academy and Westminster academy-some of the most deprived schools in the country.
If we encourage pupils to lose their focus on their studies-another point emphasised by the principal of Quintin Kynaston-they will not work. It is all very well in the high-achieving schools, all very well for the pupils who do not need to be worrying about transforming their educational results, but it is not satisfactory in those schools that are on a journey, and which we know most need the improvements. We have heard from other speakers about how this impacts most severely on large families, on black and minority ethnic families, and on lone-parent families. The removal of EMA is not fair and it is not proportionate in its impact.
I want to spend my last couple of minutes on a particular concern. The reduction of funding for a more targeted programme poses a real question about what we seek to achieve. Are we looking for that money to maintain the staying on at school rates in those groups of people who currently do not, or are we looking to provide additional financial assistance for those pupils who are most challenged? Two into one will not go. There are schools in my constituency where 80%-plus of pupils are on EMA. At City of Westminster college, 75% are on EMA.
Last week, the principal of Westminster academy, which has been so transformed in recent years, told me that 60% of students who have been through the school-almost two thirds-have had multi-agency involvement from the mental health trust and the social services because they are children in need and at risk. That figure is extraordinary. How are we targeting resources to that school, and how will we leave that responsibility without imposing a cost and a burden on the head teachers and principals who will be deciding between all those competing claims-the students who are under financial pressure and that overwhelming number of school students who have challenging circumstances, such as mental health problems, children who are themselves homeless, children in families who are homeless, and children from families where the parents are in prison or have drug or alcohol or mental health problems? An invidious pressure is being put on those schools. It will increase costs and increase the burden, and without doubt it will result in fewer children obtaining educational qualifications, fewer children staying on and great hardship for the families who most need help.
Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): I thank the Labour party for initiating the debate. It is certainly a subject that warrants a debate. Between the wild statements that have at times been made by Members on both sides of the House, some useful points have come out, and they needed to.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) for the work he has been doing. I may be privileged to know some of that more than others, but a lot more work still needs to be done, and I hope that he will come to Bradford and talk to us about the implications of the withdrawal of the education maintenance allowance. There is a lot more work to do, but my right hon. Friend has done enough for me for now. However, my continued support for his work is dependent on the success with which he deals with concerns that I and many hon. Members have about the proposals. The Labour motion is tempting, but it fails to recognise that although EMA has played a valuable role in supporting young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, it is very costly.
Karl Turner: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr Ward: No, I will keep going. With or without a national economic crisis, the operation of EMA is far from perfect. Although they are not in the amendment to the motion, I welcome the comments that have been made on this side of the House about looking at whatever replaces EMA. The Labour motion mentions a rethink of the decision. Had it included a review of EMA, I probably would have supported it. We must look at the scheme and its weaknesses. I thank all those who have campaigned against the withdrawal of EMA, who have undoubtedly made a difference. I did not need convincing that a well thought through and adequately funded replacement was necessary.
Jeremy Corbyn: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I will keep going. I hope that we all start from the same standpoint: that we have made a social contract with young people and their parents to
provide free education for those who want it up to the age of 18. When young people must decide at 16 what to do with the next couple of years of their life, the continuing benefit from that social contract is not available equally to everyone. I think we can also agree that as far as possible we want that decision to be completely unfettered by financial limitations. In plain English, I am sure we all agree that the respective costs, whether for apprenticeships, school, college or for going into employment, should not be allowed to distort and unduly influence the decision-making process.
For those families that are sufficiently well off to be able to keep their child at school or college for a further couple of years, it is a straightforward options analysis: what is best for their son or daughter, what do they want to do with the rest of their lives and what are the local employment opportunities. For youngsters from low-income families, however, the options appraisal is often constrained because they cannot afford to stay in education without EMA.
We have been told that 88% of young people from low-income families would stay on in education without EMA and that it is a dead-weight calculation. On that principle, if the Secretary of State was willing to do his job for two thirds of the salary, would that be a dead-weight? If people are still going to provide some food for their children when they go to school, does that mean that free schools meals are a dead-weight cost? There are so many ways one can look at that concept. I think the proposal shows, more than anything else, a failure to understand that it is not about EMA being so important in getting young people into a situation in which they can do what they want, but the experience of the people who would say, "Yes, we would do it even if it was not available."
Young people from low-income families might face a more serious decision. Affluent families will say, "We'll put our kids through another two years of education, which might mean we go to Tenerife for 10 days rather than 14, or replace the car after four years instead of three." However, for many families that decision is about food and clothing, or whether to send the eldest or youngest child to college because they cannot afford to send both.
Is that over-egging the pudding? In Bradford, 9,000 people receive EMA, 90% of whom receive the top rate, which means that they come from families that earn less than £21,000. We have already decided that anyone who earns less than that should not pay a penny off the student loan as a graduate, and that is not for households, but for individuals. So why are we not really looking at the consequences of the decision we are making on EMA? We need a thorough review. I welcome the work being done, but it must go much further if we are truly to support the new scheme, not only in terms of the content but with regard to the funds available.
John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab):
There have been times this afternoon when, apart from losing the will to live while listening to speeches from Government Members, I thought I must have slipped through a glitch in the space-time continuum and landed on another planet. We have been told that, because £30 is too small an amount, we need to abolish EMA; and someone from a sedentary position on the Liberal Benches told
us that because the Labour Government refused to extend school dinners, we should abolish EMA. I have heard many Liberal MPs speak. They in particular have an important decision to make, because when they talk about the 90% dead-weight they should worry not about offending us but about offending those people outside who are included in that 90%.
Last week, I was at a meeting with about 120 students from throughout Britain and the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) indicated clearly that if the Opposition motion was moderately worded and-as I think he phrased it-sufficiently friendly, he would consider going into the Lobby to vote with us. It will be interesting to see whether he does, because if he does not he will have misled those students last week and others at other meetings over the past few weeks. He has a consistent record of doing so, and I shall be interested to hear what he says when he returns to the Chamber.
I was under the impression that today's debate was about EMA, but according to the Secretary of State it is really about the economy, so let us get one or two facts straight. The real spark for the financial crisis was when BNP Paribas posted its figures on the north American market in autumn 2007. At that point, the British deficit was below 3% of GDP, which I mention because it is the figure in one of the convergence criteria written into the Maastricht treaty by Conservative Ministers, who at the time said that it was quite tight-but achievable. We achieved it year after year, as we did the 60% debt figure that is also in the criteria, but, after the events involving BNP Paribas, followed by Lehman Brothers and Northern Rock, the deficit had to mount because we had to intervene continually. That was the root of the financial crisis
Gavin Barwell: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
John Cryer: I am not going to give way, because I am short of time.
In my borough, I note that 63% of students at Leyton sixth-form college in my constituency receive EMA, and well over 1,000-1,100-receive the top rate of £30 a week. In the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Dr Creasy), who was in the Chamber earlier, 47% of students at Waltham Forest college receive EMA, and more than 800 are on the top rate. Those students and their college principals have told us not to get rid of EMA.
Principals from other boroughs have said the same thing. Eddie Playfair, who has been on television and radio repeatedly over the past few weeks, lives in my constituency but is the head of Newham sixth-form college in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown). He has one of the highest numbers of students on EMA, and he has consistently said, "Don't get rid of it." My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) said the same in her remarks, yet the Government say, "We know best; we're going to get rid of it."
Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way.
John Cryer: No, I will not, because I need to crack on.
The "enhanced discretionary learner support fund"-if ever I heard an Orwellian phrase, that is it-is so far unclear. We have not been told how it will work, but we do know that funding will drop from half a billion-£575 million-a year to £75 million a year, and it is absolute fantasy to suggest that with such funding we will be able to cover all the students who need assistance. I have attended meeting after meeting with students, principals and lecturers, and they all say the same thing: "This will deter people, particularly from poorer backgrounds, from continuing in education." Yet the Government, and Liberal and Tory MPs, have engaged in a process of mendacity and misinformation, saying, "We'll work together and do our best to come up with some scheme that will actually work." The way to send a signal to the Secretary of State, however, is to join us in the Lobby tonight and vote for our motion.
At a time when bankers' bonuses are being doled out to the tune of £7 billion, it is an obscenity to see a Government refusing to intervene with the banks yet at the same time taking money away from some of the poorest students in this country. However, there is one thing that we should be grateful for, and that is that the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister are managing to do what many of us have wanted to do for a long time by politicising a generation of students. I can promise the House that those students who are being politicised by the abolition of EMA and by the tuition fees debacle will not be voting Liberal Democrat and will not be voting Conservative.
Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) and thank the Opposition for this debate on EMA. Historically, they have been vexed about how to pay for the scheme.
If we are to have a credible debate today- [ Interruption. ] I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker. My tie to support the campaign against bowel cancer was making that noise-it is a musical tie that the campaign was giving out.
Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Perhaps next time the hon. Gentleman will be more selective in the ties that he wears in the Chamber, and then we will not need to have the musical accompaniment.
Nadhim Zahawi: Your words of wisdom are taken on board, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I apologise to you.
If we are to have a credible debate, we must look at this issue in the round, and that means that we must look at the economic legacy we inherited from the previous Government. Our structural deficit is one of the largest in the world, and it is simply unsustainable. We are having to borrow £500 million a day. Every time we go to sleep and wake up in the morning, we rack up another £500 million. The debt interest-the money that we have to pay in interest to foreign banks and foreign countries to build their own hospitals and schools with-is £120 million a day, every single day.
I come from a rural constituency with some areas that have no post-16 provision, so I am all too aware of the additional costs that students will have to bear. Shipston high school in my constituency has lobbied me
very hard on this subject, as has Martin Penny, the head of Stratford-upon-Avon college-a fantastic institution in my constituency with 5,000 students and 450 staff. I addressed the students during the week of the tuition fees debate, and after we had cut through the misinformation they understood why we were having to make these decisions.
Charlotte Leslie (Bristol North West) (Con): I apologise for missing the beginning of this very important debate.
I thank my hon. Friend for setting out the economic realities. Does he agree that when there is a dire economic reality, the correct moral thing to do is not to bury our heads in the sand and carry on spending unsustainably, which will end up damaging the very people we want to protect because in the long term it will do the country no good, but to be really rigorous and focused in ensuring that the resources that we do have are absolutely focused on the most vulnerable?
Nadhim Zahawi: That is exactly right. In fact, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), when he was Prime Minister, hoped to pay for EMA by reducing the debt on the young people of this country.
Transport is an important issue that was raised with me by Martin Penny from Stratford-upon-Avon college and has been aired by Members on both sides of the House. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) said, it is an issue not only for rural constituencies but for urban areas too. I am pleased that the Secretary of State has made some encouraging remarks about opening up the discretionary fund to allow such colleges as Stratford-upon-Avon college-which are best placed to judge because they are closest to students and their families-to target some of that money on those who most need it.
In the spending review, the Government committed to refocus the support, because all the data show that the £560 million spent on EMA every year was not well targeted. I am pleased that the Secretary of State confirmed in his opening remarks that the Government will target the money towards those with special educational needs. I was a governor of a special educational needs school that was shut down by the previous Government and I know how important it would be to those families if the money was targeted in that way.
I ran a research company for 11 years, and I am passionate about evidence-based strategy. The National Foundation for Educational Research report commissioned by the previous Government, which we have heard about today, found that almost 90% of young people who receive EMA would have completed their education or training course if they had not received it. In an interview, the shadow Secretary of State admitted that some of the money went towards students buying drinks and partying. He therefore probably agrees with me that the money is not well targeted. I see him leaning forward, and am happy for him to intervene.
Andy Burnham: I will intervene, because I did not say that, and I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman corrected the record. I said that young people should be able to play a full part in the life of the college. If that means trips to musical events, the theatre or political events in the evening, they should be supported to play a full part in them. I would be grateful if he was a bit more careful with his language in future.
Nadhim Zahawi: I thank the shadow Secretary of State, but let me quote him:
"Yes, they may spend some of it on food and even the occasional time out with friends... But part of being in a college means taking part in the whole life of a college, and why should we say to young people from the least well-off backgrounds, well, 'you can't have those things'."
That settles that one. We also know that almost 50% of students are in receipt of EMA. That fact demonstrates that it is not well targeted.
In my old profession, when the research has been done and there is evidence for a strategy, if one does not like the findings, one should not throw them away and go into denial about them. Several Opposition Members have trashed the research because it does not suit their argument. As well as saying that he hoped to pay for the EMA through a reduction in debt, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath said that he would pay for it by scrapping post-16 child benefit. I wonder whether that will become Opposition policy.
The Government have demonstrated their commitment, as we heard clearly today, to invest in the young people of our country. They are investing £7 billion in a fairness premium designed to support young people of all ages. The introduction of the all-age careers service will improve the information, advice and guidance that the National Foundation for Educational Research said needed to be improved. The Government are continuing to invest in providing apprenticeships, and have committed to improving the apprenticeship package so that level 3-the A-level equivalent-becomes the level to achieve.
In government, tough choices have to be made. We on the Government Benches have made those tough choices. We have chosen to safeguard spending on the national health service and education. I urge the Opposition, if they want to have a constructive debate, also to safeguard the national health service and education.
Mr George Howarth (Knowsley) (Lab): Unfortunately, I do not think I will be able to compete with the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) as regards our ties, but I rather hope that I will surpass the arguments that he made.
Before I get into the meat of my argument, I wish to express a debt of gratitude to Frank Gill, the principal of Knowsley community college, of which I am a governor; to the director of children's services in Knowsley, Damian Allen; and to Jette Burford, the principal of Hugh Baird college in Bootle, which some students from my constituency attend.
The points that I wish to make have been shaped by a number of conversations and briefings that I have had, but also by a very interesting meeting that I had last year with some students at All Saints centre for learning in Kirkby, in my constituency. They talked about their hopes and aspirations and said that EMA had been a help to them and would continue to be. They also expressed their concern about the reduction in spending on Aimhigher, which had inspired some of them to go to university when they had not previously thought it possible.
The Secretary of State seems to have three arguments about EMA and his replacement for it, the pupil premium. The first is that EMA does not have any real impact on
participation and on young people staying on in education. Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon cited a piece of research that does not quite indicate what he thinks it does. It was based on a flawed sample, as several of my hon. Friends have said.
Nadhim Zahawi Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr Howarth: I will not. The hon. Gentleman has had his opportunity.
Nadhim Zahawi: You have mentioned me twice.
Nadhim Zahawi: The right hon. Gentleman claims that the sample was flawed. Can he explain why he believes that? It was a representative sample of at least 2,000 interviews, taken in a scientific way.
Mr Howarth: I do not know how long the hon. Gentleman has been in the Chamber, but several of my hon. Friends have gone through the flaws in the report's methodology in great detail.
Mr Howarth: I am not going to repeat them. I do not want to make a speech about that particular issue, but I raised it because the hon. Gentleman used flawed research to support his argument.
On participation, I know that 80% of those attending Knowsley community college who are in the relevant age range receive EMA, and the figure is 84% for Hugh Baird college. Neither the hon. Gentleman nor the Secretary of State can gainsay that. Since 1997, the number of young people from Knowsley who have gone on to higher education has gone up by 187%. EMA was not in place for all that period, of course, but those figures indicate to me that it was part of the package of things that has enabled people to stay on into further and higher education.
The Secretary of State's second argument is that there are better ways to reward young people and improve attainment. When he first made his announcement about EMA, I was prepared to accept that that might be the case. I have waited patiently since October for him to explain how it might be, but he has failed to do so, including today. I sat and listened carefully to his speech, but as several hon. Members have said, he chose to make a speech that was more about economic policy than about EMA. Other ways of supporting young people might work better, but unfortunately we have not been told what his case is and nobody has yet demonstrated it.
My final point is that some on the Government Benches seem to believe the argument about the 90% dead-weight, but there is something wrong about saying to young people in less favourable circumstances, "You don't need any support." Actually, it is a real struggle for families on low incomes. It is a struggle for young people not only to get to college-there has been a lot of discussion of transport costs-but to live anything like a decent life without some support. I find it deeply offensive when people use phrases such as "dead-weight"
when we are talking about people who are struggling to realise their potential and to gain academic qualifications and, in many cases, to go on into higher education when that would have been inconceivable a generation ago.
The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) said that he regretted the tone of this debate, but I regret how the needs of those young people seem to have been jettisoned without any real thought or debate whatever. The Secretary of State had to prove that the changes would work, but he did not do so, and he should now withdraw his proposals.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. A huge number of Members still wish to participate in this debate, and the Front Benchers have given an indication of relatively short wind-ups of 10 minutes each at the end. I am therefore reducing the time limit again-to five minutes from the next speaker I call-in the hope that I will get more speakers in. I hope that all hon. Members will take note of that.
Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): I wish to declare an interest in that one of my children was in receipt of EMA to do A-levels at college, and I was very grateful for that help. I should also like to thank the Opposition for the opportunity to debate this matter.
I shall concentrate on the situation for the 655 students at Strode college in Street, the 1,813 students at Bridgwater college-41% and 50% of whom respectively are in receipt of EMA-and the 2,615 children living in poverty in the Wells constituency. I am grateful to Tom Strode-Walton, James Staniforth, the principal of Strode college, and Fiona McMillan, the principal of Bridgwater college, for the information that they have provided to me for this debate.
If students from disadvantaged backgrounds do not have the right help to access education for AS and A2-levels, there is no chance of them accessing university education until later in life. Strode college estimates that its students have claimed £500,000 in EMA this year. Bridgwater college surveyed its students and estimates that they have claimed in the region of £1.5 million.
The learner support fund at Strode college is currently £17,000, and at Bridgwater in this financial year it is £42,000. The Government propose to triple the current learner support fund for each college to address the loss of EMA to students from September 2011 onwards. That would mean that next year Strode college could expect £51,000, and that Bridgwater college could expect £126,000. It is difficult to understand how those colleges will make that funding stretch to meet students' needs so that they can continue to fund their education.
The Minister should look to remove the main barriers to FE and HE. Many of the arguments that I would wish to make today have been rehearsed already, but in a rural area such as mine, one main barrier is transport to and from college. A county bus ticket in Somerset costs £600 a year. That is likely to increase as Somerset county council stops concessions for students-it will withdraw its subsidy in April-and as the various fuel price increases are included. Public transport in many
rural areas is non-existent, and it is difficult for students to work because they cannot get home on public transport later in the evenings or at weekends, when there is a reduced service. A taxi fare from my village, which is four miles from the main town, is about £15 one way.
The mother of the twins Rhiannon, who wishes to be a vet, and Ayesha, who wants to be a psychologist, wrote to me last night. They live in a very rural part of my patch, and their mother is recovering from an illness. Consequently, they will be caught in a situation in which they have to pay £1,400 or £1,500 each year to get through college.
The other main expenses for which EMA is used have been mentioned: books, kit and clothing. Studying hairdressing at Bridgwater requires £200-worth of equipment. The equipment needed for plumbing, bricklaying, car mechanics and all the other trades is also extremely expensive. Chefs need knives; art and photography students need a constant supply of materials; and those on sports courses need clothing, footwear and equipment, none of which are cheap. Many other courses require textbooks and supporting literature, and all students need to cover those costs.
In my part of rural Somerset, there are several schools without any sixth forms: Whitstone school in Shepton Mallet, St Dunstan's community school in Glastonbury, and Crispin school in Street. Students aged 17 and 18 will be required to stay on in full-time education or training from 2013 and 2015 respectively, and the choice of which school or college to attend must lie freely with the student. It is important that students are not required to attend their nearest A-level provider, as that could lead to their choices being limited. Year 11 students at Whitstone school, for example, might want to study a specific subject that means they will want to go to Frome college, Radstock college or Yeovil college, travelling 18 to 42 miles a day. It is important that future students have the ability to plan, budget and know exactly where they will be. For that reason, the Minister must address the issue of transport. I received advice from the Department for Transport this morning, saying that the local authority must provide home-to-school transport but that it has no legal requirement to help the over-16s, and that only 21% of local authorities use their discretionary powers to offer concessions, over and above the statutory requirements.
I ask the Secretary of State for Education to consider all the issues affecting my constituents in rural Somerset. EMA is not perfect; it needs to be reviewed. I am not wedded to it therefore, but I am sure that if we address the transport issues-
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. Time is up.
Mrs Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): I am very grateful for this opportunity to speak in the debate and to represent the concerns of my Darlington constituents.
More than 100 people in my constituency will lose their jobs as a result of the Government's decision to scrap EMA, and about 1,300 students will lose out. Providing EMA of £30 a week to the children of families whose combined earnings are less than £21,000 is the simplest, fairest and most effective way of keeping young people in education and training.
We have two outstanding colleges and one excellent school sixth form in my constituency. College principals have spoken to me of their concerns about the impact of the removal of EMA on their students and their institutions. The college I attended in the early '90s served at that time a far smaller cohort of young people than it does today. Most came from the well-off areas close to the college. Results were adequate but not great, and admissions to Oxford and Cambridge-which the Secretary of State cares so much about-were rare. Today, the college's biggest challenge is to accommodate the ever-increasing number of young people from across the region who wish to study there. Queen Elizabeth sixth form college in Darlington is consistently among the best performing sixth-form colleges in the country, and one of the secrets of its success is that it can recruit from a wide geographical area.
I was a governor at QE before the introduction of EMA, and recruitment from secondary schools in the less affluent areas was often either non-existent or in single-digit numbers. That has changed and the situation is continuing to improve thanks to EMA. Because many current QE students travel more than a mile and a half to get to college, they rely on public transport to get them there, which has a cost. Those young people are not able to go home for their lunch, so they need money to buy food. They also need money to benefit from participating in the rich array of important extracurricular activities that are on offer but which need to be paid for. Many students on EMA work to supplement their allowance, but in Darlington students are explicitly encouraged to limit the hours they work, which I think is good. Although having part-time jobs brings many benefits to young people, they must not distract them from the aim of getting a qualification.
It is particularly cruel to remove EMA from students who will be only part of the way through their courses when they lose their allowance. With EMA, students could be certain of the support they would receive, and they could make their choices accordingly. There is a predictability to the scheme that allows families to plan ahead. It shifts horizons and encourages the setting of longer-term goals. The idea that my old college could now be using its budget to provide buses to transport students to it from further afield is a credit to the college, but it is inefficient and it disempowers individual students. With EMA, young people had choice; they were responsible for managing their own bank accounts and for making their own financial decisions. If young people spend all their money on beer and cannot afford to get to college the next day, they lose out on future payments-this is a conditional allowance. It is a tough lesson, but one that young people understand and sign up to.
Few things in life are more expensive than a NEET. The number of NEETs in Darlington has reduced and the level of participation in further education there has increased from 82% to 91%. As a former lead member for children's services, I think that EMA is very good value for money.
The Government do not understand social mobility. In fact, they have had to get my predecessor and friend, Alan Milburn, to explain it to them. I just hope that they listen, because social mobility is about making choices and living with the results of those choices.
Scrapping EMA does the opposite of saying, "We are all in this together." It says to our young people, "You are on your own."
Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): I have very much enjoyed listening to many of the speeches in this excellent debate, which has been well worth having. I listened particularly closely to the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), who is not in his place, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), who made some powerful points.
I understand the reasons for the changes-the deficit of £23 billion in November brings things sharply into focus-but I am concerned, as many Members are, about the consequences. I shall briefly make two points that need stressing, although they have been alluded to by a number of hon. and right hon. Members. The first relates to fairness. Those who entered sixth form in September 2010 will cease to receive EMA in September 2011, and the Secretary of State needs to examine that closely, because it is not fair.
John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): Sixth-form colleges in Birmingham are trying to assess how much the lower sixth-formers need their EMA. Does my hon. Friend think that that is a useful process?
Jeremy Lefroy: I think that that is an extremely useful process. I should also mention, in this regard, the people who just joined in January and have no particular scheme available to them.
My second point, which has been made by many hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), is about transport. I have an 18-year-old daughter and I find it strange that she pays for her bus fares to and from school whereas others who could well afford not to have free bus passes receive them. We need to examine that seriously. Today I met a couple of students from Stoke-on-Trent, in Staffordshire, one of whom said that she was paying £7.60 a day in bus fares because she had to take two buses; the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) mentioned that situation earlier. I also wish to pay tribute to the work of the colleges in my constituency, in particular South Staffordshire college and Stafford college. They have brought the figures to me, and have shown me the importance of making these points and representations on their behalf.
Finally, I, like the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), wish to stress the importance of evidence. I agree that evidence is vital. This subject is too important to ignore evidence, because the future prospects of young people are at stake. So my final request to the Secretary of State is that he be guided by the best possible evidence in this matter.
Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab):
Without doubt, the removal of education maintenance allowance will have an enormous impact on the young people of my region of the north-east, including those in my constituency in
Gateshead. It is irrefutable that since its introduction, EMA has changed the landscape of young people's aspirations in Gateshead. Staying on became an option for many, when it had not been before. Now it is being abolished-an action that will come as no surprise to my constituents, as it is entirely consistent with every other action by the coalition since it was elected in May 2010. It is now in the process of redirecting resources and wealth from the least advantaged to the most advantaged, and of crushing and removing opportunity for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society, including in my community.
Nicky Morgan (Loughborough) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am proud of my local authority's role in improving the educational outcomes of young people in my borough and of the fact that it was an EMA pilot authority, prior to which it had invested in bursary awards for poorer students.
I asked all the local colleges in Newcastle and Gateshead about the impact of this proposal and its effect on them and their students. This is the response I received from Gateshead college:
"Our statistics show that 60% of our learners receive EMA",
but among 16 to 18-year-olds it was 70% of students, with
"80% of those in receipt receiving the full payment",
one 10th receiving two-thirds payments, and one 10th receiving a one-third payment. All those young people will be delighted to know that they are regarded by some in this Chamber as waste in the system, and by others as "dead-weight".
The college principal told me:
"I believe that the Department of Education has made the wrong decision and that disadvantaged young people in Gateshead will suffer as a result of this decision and Ministers' ambitions to raise the participation rate to 18 will fail."
"EMA is predominantly taken up by those with low achievement levels at school, those from ethnic minorities and those from single parent families and those whose families are just plainly and simply poor."
"a vital tool for increasing social mobility... I believe that stopping EMA will result in many of these young people, from disadvantaged backgrounds, not continuing their education after 16."
Many of these young people will simply not have the money to travel on public transport, never mind buy books-or even to eat. There is also a significant danger that many students will, on losing their EMA, be forced to drop out of college after their first year. What a potential waste when they have done a year of study!
The views I cite are not those of just one college in the north-east, as many colleges take the same view. Many Members will have received the briefing from the Association of Colleges, which represents colleges across the UK. The briefing clearly states:
"The vast majority of colleges and their governors...across the UK, oppose the abolition of EMA...94% of colleges believe that the abolition of EMA will affect students' ability to travel to and from college."
The Association of Colleges also estimates that up to 300,000 young people will lose their EMA part way through their two-year studies. EMA has provided a real incentive to increasing levels of attainment because payment has been tied to levels of attendance and completion of course work.
Let us be honest: none of this is a surprise to Government Ministers, who know that it is the young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds who will suffer most. They know that many will not be able to start or continue education beyond 16; they know that there will be a rate of attrition-collateral damage-from their policy. Ministers know this, but I am afraid to say that they appear not to care about it. If one were completely cynical, one could be forgiven for thinking that this is precisely what those Ministers want to do. For them, further and higher education is not for the disadvantaged, not for the poor, or for those whose parents or carers are on modest incomes.
I noticed with interest that the Secretary of State earlier offered to visit the local college in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry). Will he make the same offer to me in Gateshead, or to my colleagues in Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Sunderland or Darlington-or would it be too inconvenient for him to travel? The coalition Government talk about building a stronger and more vibrant economy, but I am sorry to say that it looks as if they are going to wreck it.
Elizabeth Truss (South West Norfolk) (Con): This is the latest in a series of debates initiated by the Opposition on educational issues. We have heard a number of lengthy speeches on various subjects, but we do not seem to have heard about issues that get to the core of what education is about, such as the quality of teaching. Instead, the debate seems to have focused on other issues. That is not to say that transport is not important, and I am very pleased that Norfolk county council confirmed yesterday that despite its budget reductions, it will provide transport support for further education students in Norfolk. That is great, but we must focus on getting the greatest bang for our buck.
We have £500 million in the budget, and I am very concerned that the No. 1 factor in terms of the quality of education should be the quality of teaching. The reason why the previous Government failed to make progress on social mobility is that they did not focus enough on teaching quality. Last year's results in the OECD's programme for international student assessment, or PISA, tables showed that the UK had fallen to 28th place in mathematics, to 25th in reading and to 16th in science. A major reason why there was such a big gap in Britain's performance was because of the differential between low-income and high-income students. Britain performed particularly badly on the education of low-income students, despite having doubled the budget per pupil between 1998 and 2008. The Opposition need to ask themselves whether this is about finance or about where they focused their policies when they were in government.
The issue of teachers' qualifications is important, but the UK has one of the largest gaps between the qualifications of those teaching low-income pupils and
the qualifications of those teaching high-income pupils, particularly in mathematics. We have less qualified teachers teaching those from low-income backgrounds compared with those from high-income backgrounds. [ Interruption. ] I am being corrected on my grammar; obviously, I did not go to the right kind of school. [ Interruption. ] I went to Roundhay comprehensive school, as did the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb). [Hon. Members: "Ooh!"]
Under the previous Government there was also a push towards equivalence of qualifications, and people from low-income backgrounds ended up taking fewer academic qualifications. There was a reduction in the percentage of students taking modern foreign languages from 79% in 2000 to 44% in 2008. That had a commensurate effect on the ability to enter top universities in our country.
Labour's record on social mobility was not good either. [ Interruption. ] I am sorry-the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) can intervene on me if he likes.
John Robertson: I thank the hon. Lady for giving me this opportunity, which I did not expect. Is she saying that only the good high-level students should be allowed to have education, while the rest of us should get on with things and not get an education?
Elizabeth Truss: I fear that the hon. Gentleman has not been listening to what I have been saying, which is that we have been failing, as a country, to give the same level of education to low-income students as to high-income students. By not focusing on core issues such as improving teacher quality, the previous Government failed those students. I should like a debate on education standards-indeed, I have asked the Backbench Business Committee for one-because that is the most important thing we should address as a country. We need to debate what goes on inside schools rather than just how people get to school.
James Wharton (Stockton South) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not just the core issue of how we set up and run our schools that is important? The core subjects that we teach in those schools are also very important.
Elizabeth Truss: Absolutely. I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I am very pleased that the Government have introduced the English baccalaureate, which will help us to encourage more students from all backgrounds to study subjects that will help them to get to university. That is a good thing.
I shall finish by talking about the record of the previous Government in getting low-income students to university. Nineteen per cent. of students going into higher education were from families in the lowest income quintile, compared with 30% in Australia and 50% in the United States. That is a shameful record- [ Interruption. ] Members will note that both those countries have a proper tuition fee system. [ Interruption. ]
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. We cannot have all these sedentary interventions.
Elizabeth Truss: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
As a country, we need to stop comparing ourselves with what we were in the past and start comparing ourselves with countries that are making innovations. Our debate on education has been too insular; we are not looking at what is happening internationally. That is what the shadow Secretary of State for Education should focus on, rather than holding an insular debate that is only about our country. We are not just competing against ourselves; we are competing against other nations in the world. The £500 million being spent on EMA could be better targeted. More of it should be used to reform teaching qualifications, so that there are better qualified teachers to help low-income students get ahead in life.
Shabana Mahmood (Birmingham, Ladywood) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate, especially as the scrapping of EMA is second only to the rise in tuition fees as the issue on which I have received the largest amount of correspondence. The Government are certainly politicising vast numbers of young people, albeit in the worst possible way and with the worst possible policies.
The Government's decision to scrap EMA represents a vicious attack on the aspirations of young people in our country, especially the most disadvantaged. The scale of support that is being withdrawn is shocking. Our young people will bear a very heavy burden indeed; the Chancellor once stated that he would not balance the budget on the backs of the poor-a statement that fell apart as soon as he uttered it-but it seems that in addition to balancing the budget on the backs of the poor, the Government also intend to balance it on the backs of the young. The message from the Treasury Bench today is clear: if you happen to be young and poor, you're stuffed.
The scrapping of EMA has particular resonance in my constituency of Birmingham, Ladywood. My constituency has the highest rate of unemployment in the country, and one of the reasons why it is blighted by long-term unemployment is the legacy of the recession of the '80s. The decision of the then Tory Government to walk away from young people and to say that unemployment was a price worth paying created a lost generation of young people in Birmingham, Ladywood, and across Birmingham as a whole. Now, as a result of the decisions of this Tory-Lib Dem Government, the children of that lost generation will become the new lost generation of our time. That is a cruel and deplorable state of affairs, and represents a dereliction of the Government's duty to the young of our country.
The EMA has three main purposes-increasing participation, increasing attendance and thus increasing attainment-and achieves them because of how young people use EMA. They use it primarily for travel, which learner support funds cannot be used for. Being able to travel to the institution that offers the best course for each student is crucial; it may be the single most important reason why attainment rates have improved. Students also use EMA to buy books and other materials.
Because EMA provides additional financial assistance, students have the financial leeway either not to take a part-time job or to decrease the hours they work, enabling
them to focus on getting the best possible grades and qualifications to make a better future for themselves. That is a point made forcefully to me by staff and students using the Connexions service in Birmingham, which supports young people in Birmingham to go into education, employment or training. The service has already faced massive cuts, including the closure of the Aston branch in my constituency, but it does crucial work.
Students supported by Connexions staff have written to me with their views about EMA. All those students and the staff who work with them tell me that without EMA they would not have stayed in post-16 education, or would not have done as well. All of them have used their EMA for help with travel and equipment. My discussions with them have shown me that EMA is especially crucial for students on vocational courses.
As someone who represents a constituency that is 60% non-white, I am also especially concerned about the effect that removal of EMA will have on ethnic minority students and their post-16 participation and attainment rates. Some 70% of British Pakistani students in full-time education receive EMA. The figure is 84% for Bangladeshi students, 56% for black African students and 50% for black Caribbean students. In that context, it is totally unacceptable that the Government have failed to carry out an equality impact assessment on its policy of scrapping EMA.
The Birmingham and Solihull principals group has told me:
"There are going to be a lot of casualties out of this who will never escape poverty as a result of this cut".
I hope that Government Members will bear that in mind when they vote.
Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): The shadow Secretary of State was right to open the debate with his characteristic passion. I come from a borough that is diverse in every sense and in which there is a shocking gap between the educational qualifications and life chances of the haves and have-nots. I cannot think of an issue that is more worthy of being passionate about than widening access to education and closing that attainment gap.
The coalition Government have done good things in that regard already, such as introducing the pupil premium and school reform. The English baccalaureate will ensure that children from less well-off backgrounds will study academic qualifications that they will need in the workplaces of tomorrow, and the Government have also taken action on apprenticeships and investment in the early years. However, given the economic situation that we are in, not every budget can be protected, so the Government had to take a painful decision on education maintenance allowance. It was right in principle to examine that budget, but I have several concerns about the detail.
EMA is an archetypal Labour policy. Its aim, objective and principle were absolutely right. It is laudable to attempt to widen participation in education, so the previous Government should be congratulated on trying to do that. However, the execution of their policy was
expensive and extremely centralist. People have talked about the impact on the poorest in our society, but EMA is paid to people in households earning up to £31,000, which is significantly above average national earnings.
There is some debate about the exact number of people who would not have gone on to further education if they had not received EMA. We have heard about the two reports that have been produced and there is a dispute about the figures. However, everyone to whom I have spoken accepts that some money is going to young people who would have stayed on in further education anyway.
Nadhim Zahawi: Does my hon. Friend agree that if the targeting were somehow linked to those who are closest to the students, the system would be much better?
Gavin Barwell: My hon. Friend neatly brings me to my next point, which is about centralism. I tried to make this point to the shadow Secretary of State. One of the points that has been effectively raised in speeches made by hon. Members on both sides of the House is the differences among students. Young people who have a caring responsibility, a special need or a long distance to travel to college, or who are young parents, have much greater needs than some other students, so a national scheme that makes a flat-rate payment to everyone who comes from a household that earns a certain amount is not necessarily the best way to address the problem.
Nicky Morgan: Does my hon. Friend agree with the principal of Loughborough college, who has put it to me that he is best placed to understand the needs of students and to administer the discretionary learner support fund, but that he needs some certainty about what the fund will be in the next academic year so that he can start planning?
Gavin Barwell: I agree with my hon. Friend, who helpfully takes me on to the next point that I wish to make to Ministers.
The principle behind an enhanced discretionary learner support fund is exactly right. Responsibility should be devolved to people at the front line who know which of their students need help and how much help is required. There are two important caveats, however. First, we need to ensure that sufficient funding is available nationally to deal with students' needs, and it is clear that there is a debate about how much that quantum should be and whether an adequate amount has been allocated by the Government. Secondly, we need more detail-I hope that the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), will be able to give this in the limited time he has to wind up the debate-about the system for allocating the fund to schools and colleges throughout the country. That system will be critical, given that our debate has made clear the extent to which different parts of the country are dependent on EMA funding at present.
Despite the fact that I have some concerns about what the Government are doing, I will support the amendment. I have been a Member of Parliament for a relatively short time-about eight months-and during
that period, I have had to vote for several measures that I would not support in an ideal world. I have sat through several debates in which Opposition Members have set out their objections to some of the things that the Government are doing. However, it seems to me and to most of my constituents, many of whom are also concerned about some of the coalition's policies, that those objections hold weight and credibility only if there is a clearly set out alternative.
We know that the previous Labour Government were committed to reductions in spending of 25% in unprotected Departments. I have sat through debate after debate, in which we have met opposition to coalition proposals, but I have never heard one single alternative. I have never heard an Opposition Member saying, "Here is something that the Government are not cutting that we would cut." Until we get an overall package that adds up from the Opposition, we cannot have a serious debate.
I am conscious of the time and of the fact that several Opposition Members still wish to speak, so I simply end by saying that the Government are right to look at the EMA budget. There is clear evidence that the current scheme is too centralist and that money is being spent on people who do not need the support. Like some Opposition Members, I do not like the term, "dead-weight" and I do not think that we should use it.
Clearly, we can get better value for money from the scheme and it does not need to be so centralist. The Government are right to consider it, but there are points of detail about which my constituents, many people throughout the country and I need reassurance.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. As you can see, no Government Members are standing, but many Opposition Members wish to take part in the debate. If you show self-restraint, several of your colleagues will get in; if you do not, they will not. It is up to you.
Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): It is unfortunate that so many Government Members have tried to deflect the debate and create a smokescreen of talk about Labour overspending. I do not recall the Conservative party or the Liberal Democrats opposing the money that we spent on building new hospitals and new schools and on investing in our universities and our police service as we set about repairing the broken Britain that we inherited in 1997. If our spending was profligate, and if Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members thought that at the time, why did the then shadow Chancellor commit himself to matching our spending plans until the banking crisis hit internationally?
The hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) has just challenged us to come up with alternatives. Here is one alternative: if the Government abandon their plans to halve the tax on bankers' bonuses, they could spend the money on EMAs three times over.
Christopher Pincher: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Paul Blomfield: No, in the light of time, I will not give way.
The hon. Member for Croydon Central also said that we should pay attention to the expertise of those on the front line of educating our young people. Every head of institution in Sheffield to whom I have spoken has made it clear that they oppose the Government's plans. Let us consider Silverdale school, which is not in my constituency, but in that of the Deputy Prime Minister. When he next pops to Sheffield, I hope that he will take the time to talk to teachers and students there. It is a successful school with a real commitment to reaching out beyond the leafy suburbs in which it is located. It draws on many young people from the parts of inner-city Sheffield that I represent, provides them with an outstanding education and transforms their lives. When I was there recently, presenting GCSE certificates, the head and deputy head had no doubt that getting rid of EMAs would undermine that work for the 25% of students who attend the school from my constituency and depend on EMAs.
The biggest provider of 16-to-19 education in our city is Sheffield college, with just over 3,300 learners. Of those, 51% claim the EMA, and-this is a measure of their needs-84% of them are awarded it at the full rate. In my discussions with her, the chief executive of the college made it absolutely clear that the EMA has a significant positive impact on learner retention and achievement, and that its withdrawal would lead to a significant cut in student numbers. That, along with the money lost through scrapping Train to Gain and the reduction in funding for adult learners, will have a significant impact on the college budget, its curriculum and its work.
One of the students at the King Edward VII school in the heart of my constituency, Elicia Ennis, was so moved with anger by the double whammy of the Government's policies on the EMA and university fees that she wrote an article for our local newspaper, Sheffield's The Star. She wrote:
"I completely disagree with the idea of cutting the EMA.
Some students may have abused the system but that's no reason for the entire idea to be axed."
She went on to say-with a full knowledge of the subject, having talked daily to those around her in her sixth form-that
"with fees rising and EMA being cut, people will leave school at 16".
"as a...former Lib Dem supporter I will think twice about voting for the party when we get a chance. More so if Nick Clegg represents them."
We Labour Members know that many Lib Dem Members-and, indeed, some Conservative Members-share our concerns about the abolition of the EMA, just as they shared our concerns about tuition fees, but instead of angsting, and turning to principled abstention or regretful support of the Government's proposals, they should use this opportunity to join us in calling on the Government to rethink their decision on the EMA.
Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): The Government's website, Directgov, states:
"If you are struggling with the costs of learning speak to student services at your school, college or training provider about financial support you may be able to get."
However, we are here to discuss the removal of this benefit-a benefit designed to help those whom the Government recognise as struggling, and designed to encourage young people and assist them with education and access to training.
The motion recognises the different situation in devolved Administrations, but it would be naive to think that the removal of the EMA here will not have an effect in Northern Ireland, just as the recent increase in student tuition fees had an effect there. Indeed, my understanding is that the appropriate Department in Northern Ireland is considering introducing further restrictions on the provision of the EMA in Northern Ireland, and perhaps even abolishing it. That is all the more likely given the Treasury's recent removal of end-of-year flexibility, which places an even greater strain on the Department in Northern Ireland, and on the Department for Education.
The withdrawal of the EMA comes on the back of the decision to increase student fees. It would appear that the coalition Government are adopting an education policy for the well-heeled, and ensuring that from an early age, the less well-off are unable to participate in further and higher education. A few weeks ago, this Government made it impossible for many to attend university in future years, and today they will make it impossible for many who live in disadvantaged areas to take the first step on the further and higher education ladder.
Given the particular historical lack of access to further education for the poorest sections of society in Northern Ireland, we must do all we can to protect the EMA and access to education and training opportunities, which offer vital help to those most in need of it. That will lessen the number of people who are economically inactive and ensure that more have access to educational opportunities.
In 2009-10, nearly 24,000 students were in receipt of the EMA in Northern Ireland. That figure increased this year, but there have been smaller numbers in previous years. However, those figures are not the full story. There are a large number of students who depend on the provision, and for whom it has an integral bearing on their decision to apply for further education and to stay in further education once there. It gives them a sense of stability. The recent survey conducted by the University and Colleges Union and the Association of Colleges found that seven out of 10 students felt they would have to drop out of their course if EMA was withdrawn, and nearly two fifths stated that they would not have started their course without the provision of the grant.
In conclusion, there are many students in my constituency in Northern Ireland who have written to me declaring their opposition to the withdrawal of EMA here in Britain, because it is their fear that a similar path will be followed in Northern Ireland. This is the wrong direction to go, because it penalises, deprives and ensures that those who need that path to education and training will not have it. My party and I will support the Labour motion this evening and oppose the amendment.
Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op):
In his speech at the beginning of the debate, the Secretary
of State suggested that the Opposition have only one answer to the questions that we are addressing in this discussion, and that that answer is the education maintenance allowance. The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), who is not in his place, suggested that we were arguing that that was a magic wand. Another Member on the Government Benches suggested that the Opposition's view was that all we needed to do was to throw money at the problem.
The education maintenance allowance was one of a set of reforms that Labour introduced in government, with the objective of closing the achievement gap between the richest and poorest and supporting those who have not traditionally participated in education to do so. That is why we invested extra money in schools, including the academies programme, and it is why the Labour Government were the first to give support to the excellent Teach First programme, to which the Secretary of State referred. It is why we introduced the 14 to 19 diplomas, and why we focused on literacy and numeracy in primary schools. I could go on.
We are not talking only about money. We are talking also about reform and improvement in our schools, with a focus on teaching and learning. The argument has been made strongly from the Opposition Benches and by some Members on the Government Benches about the increased participation that EMA has enabled, particularly for those from the poorest backgrounds. But, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) said, it was never just about increasing participation.
EMA was also about increasing the attendance of those in that age group attending school or in further education. It meant that people were not forced to work while they were studying, so that they would have more time to study. Importantly, it was about getting better qualifications while studying in that age group so that more young people from those backgrounds got the opportunity to go on to higher education. It remains the case that not enough young people are getting that chance, but the numbers doubled in the poorest cohort while Labour was in power. That progress was in large part due to the education maintenance allowance.
EMA is crucial in Liverpool. More than 7,000 young learners benefit from it. Shortly before Christmas I had the opportunity to visit Liverpool community college and meet young people, who told me that they would not be there studying both academic and vocational courses if it were not for the education maintenance allowance. Maureen Mellor, the principal of the college, has written to all the Liverpool MPs to say that there is now great uncertainty for next year. She wrote:
"It is difficult to plan . . . or to reassure current and prospective students."
One of the schools in my constituency, St John Bosco, is an outstanding school. It is in Croxteth, one of the most deprived wards in Liverpool. Two thirds of the sixth-formers at this outstanding girls' Catholic school are on EMA. Anne Pontifex, the head of the school, said to me this week:
"The removal of EMA may also mean students having to take up additional part-time employment. This will result in many students not giving studies the time and energy required."
I have no problem with an evidence-based review of EMA. The problem is that the Government have already decided to make an 85% cut in the funds that are available. All of the wonderful alternatives that Government
Members have referred to would be funded out of 15% of the money that is currently available. The Government have decided to abolish EMA first and then have a discussion about the alternatives. Yes, let us have a discussion about what the alternatives might be, but let us make that decision first and then see where we go, rather than in the order that the Government propose.
The Government have talked about all of us being in this together. They have talked about deficit reduction and the need for fairness. There is no fairness in this 85% cut represented by the abolition of EMA. It will hit the poorest parts of the country hardest. It will hit the poorest people in the poorest parts of the country hardest, and once again it is another cut from the Government that will hit young people and children harder than the rest of the population.
We have heard some thoughtful speeches from some Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members. I would appeal to them to follow the logic of their speeches and join us in the Lobby, and I would appeal to the Government to think again because the cut could cause great social and economic damage, undermine their stated intent to promote social mobility, and further widen the achievement gap between the poorest and the richest in this country.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I will say it one more time. If hon. Members show restraint, more will get in. If not, they simply will not.
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