FEfocus Editorial - Time to clutch a victory from EMA's defeat

28th January 2011 at 00:00

As media coverage of Parliament dwindled over the last decade or so, politicians were frequently heard to complain through one of their many other outlets for their views. If only people could hear what they were saying, direct and unmediated, they suggested, the British public would have a much higher opinion of the work they do on its behalf.

More than six hours of debate on the education maintenance allowance (EMA) last week left the wearied onlooker sometimes feeling the opposite. Partisan positions were staked out within minutes and grimly held for hours. There was incoherence: one MP suggested that pound;30 a week could not possibly be enough for those with complex needs, so why not support a 90 per cent budget cut?

Schools loomed large, when the majority of EMA recipients are in college. Education secretary Michael Gove defended his credentials and intimate knowledge of the subject by pointing to a visit to a sixth-form college - one which has the third-lowest rate of EMA claimants in the country.

Moreover, the chamber was barely a third full most of the time. And yet the heavily whipped turnout far exceeded that. So it is entirely possible that a majority of MPs had literally no idea what they were talking about as they decided to cut financial support for hundreds of thousands of teenagers.

Perhaps that is the case for many other issues. Either way, it is not surprising that EMA campaigners, having failed with politicians, are turning to judges (page 1). It is rare to force a policy reversal through the courts, however, and even if they succeed, their claim may only affect current recipients rather future applicants.

Perhaps the best hope is on another front, in reports that Chancellor George Osborne is preparing pound;1 billion of measures in March's budget to ameliorate the most unpopular cuts, perhaps including a boost to the EMA successor scheme.

While the Conservative party has gloated about an "admission" from the shadow education secretary that some students might use the cash for leisure, 80 per cent of them come from families in the poorest quarter of the population. It would take at least pound;400 million to maintain their allowances, but that would also ensure that support for education, which should be a priority, at least does not receive a disproportionate cut.

The debating points on the Government's side were all about the need for deficit reduction. But why has it been impressed upon the public that deficit reduction is important? So that we do not pass our debts on to our children, we are told.

The case of the EMA is perhaps unique, however, in that we have heard very clearly from the people who will inherit these debts that the cost of the allowance is a burden they are willing to accept. MPs should not make decisions for the young with so little regard for their wishes.

"Why should young people be saddled with the economic mess left by that lot?" Mr Gove asked the chamber in last week's debate. But why is it fine to burden them with enormous private debts for university fees, but not a much smaller public debt to support them in getting there? The Government should think again, and give its EMA successor plan the funding to make it worthy of the name.

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