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Education Maintenance Allowance

Volume 521: debated on Wednesday 19 January 2011

I beg to move,

That this House believes that disadvantaged young people should gain greater access to further and higher education; recognises the valuable role that the education maintenance allowance (EMA) has played in supporting young people from less well-off backgrounds to participate and succeed in education; further recognises how EMA has supported choice for students in post-16 education, allowing them to travel to the best institution for their studies, which is of particular importance in rural areas; further notes that EMA is used by the majority of recipients to fund travel to college, as well as books and equipment, and allows recipients to focus on their studies rather than taking a part-time job; notes that EMA has been retained in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; further notes research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies stating that EMA costs are completely offset by its benefits in raising participation; further notes the inquiry into educational access announced by the Education Select Committee; and calls on the Government to rethink its decision on EMA, retaining practical support to improve access to, interest in and participation in further and higher education.

Over the past decade, we have debated the funding of higher education on many occasions. Today, we rightly focus on an equally, if not more, important prior question: whether hundreds of thousands of young people from less well-off backgrounds are to stay in education long enough to have a realistic dream of going to university.

To know what is at risk, we must look at how far we have come. Twenty-five years ago, the staying-on rate in England was 47%; throughout Merseyside, where I left school in 1986, the figure was even lower; and today it is 82%. Those figures tell an incredible story of human and social progress from the mid-1980s to today. A deep-rooted culture in some communities whereby employment at 16 years old was the norm, not education, has begun to be broken.

Students and families who in the past might well have felt that education was not for the likes of them now see it as a viable route, and in the past 10 years the education maintenance allowance has played an important part in that progress. It has sent out an empowering message of hope—that we can dare to dream, whoever we are and wherever we come from. It was one of the best policies of our Government, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) who brought it in.

Sustaining that progress must be worked at; instead, it is about to be thrown into reverse. In the real world, the debate about tuition fees is already changing views on university, but for the least well-off the full impact becomes clear only when it is set alongside the abolition of EMA. To those young people, it feels as though we have a Government who are stacking the odds against them—a Government who talked about social mobility in their early days but have now launched an all-out attack on the aspirations of those facing the biggest obstacles in life. They see a Government who are kicking away the ladder of opportunity. Today, the House has an opportunity to change that message and to make Ministers change course.

Before we get into the detail, however, I want the House to focus on the 650,000 young people who receive EMA. They have a strong sense that many Members do not have any idea what their lives are like.

Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that every single one of those 650,000 recipients should receive exactly the same amount of money that they currently receive, or does he believe that there is any scope for saving and better targeting?

The right hon. Gentleman used to believe in EMA, because he stood right where I am standing now and told the House that he would keep it—no, that he would build on it. So it is pretty desperate—

I shall come to the right hon. Gentleman’s question, but a little more humility might serve him well during the course of this debate.

Those young people feel that Members here—

I shall not give way; I am sorry. Those young people feel that Members, and indeed that the right hon. Gentleman, have no real idea of what their lives are like.

Some 80% of recipients come from homes where the household income is less than £20,800 a year, and many live difficult lives. Many are part of larger families and go without the basics during the average week, because they know that anything they take off their parents deprives younger brothers or sisters. Many others are young carers who face some of the toughest circumstances imaginable—like the one whom I met, caring for both parents, at Lambeth college—and try desperately to keep their own hopes alive of a better future while supporting loved ones on meagre resources. Some are young parents who might have missed out on an education and want a second chance, like the young mum from Gateshead who came to our hearing here in Westminster. Some have special needs and disabilities, like Daniel in my constituency, who is on the autistic spectrum. I helped him to find appropriate supported accommodation when he was in his early teenage years, and his grandmother told me at the weekend that EMA had been a vital part of his transition from residential care to mainstream college—vital in helping him to learn the everyday skills of managing his life.

The right hon. Gentleman says that there are 650,000 or so EMA claimants, but he must also know that only about 12% of those people—66,000—say that they would not go into A-level education if they did not have it. EMA costs £564 million. Does he not think there are better and less expensive ways of targeting money on the kids who really need the help? [Interruption.]

Order. Members are in a very excitable state today. I know that the matter arouses great passions, but we must have some semblance of decorum in the debate. I also remind colleagues that interventions should be brief.

The hon. Gentleman is talking about 78,000 young lives—those of the people the Government say would not stay in education were there to be no EMA.

Let me come to the heart of the Government’s misunderstanding of this issue. They talk only about participation, but for the others—the Secretary of State does not seem to understand this—EMA provides the chance to fulfil themselves in education because it means that they can devote themselves to their studies.

The right hon. Gentleman is building a very powerful case for the defence and protection of EMA. Will he take this opportunity to congratulate the Scottish National party Government in Scotland on retaining EMA and ensuring that we are fulfilling our pledge to the most vulnerable and poorest students in Scotland?

My knowledge of Scottish politics is okay, but I think I am right in telling the hon. Gentleman that it was the Labour Administration who brought in the education maintenance allowance in Scotland, so I warn him off that subject.

I have detailed the lives of some of the young people I have met in recent weeks who are receiving EMA because it is important that the House focus its mind on those young people before we get much further into the debate. I want to clear up one myth at the beginning. EMA is overwhelmingly used to provide the basics to support education—travel, books, equipment and food.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Lib Dem-Tory run Warrington borough council recently passed a motion asking the Government to think again on tuition fees and EMA? In their letter to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Liberal leader and the Tory deputy leader said that the removal of EMA would cause real hardship. If the Government’s own allies do not support them, how can they go ahead with this?

I am aware of that, as I represent a neighbouring authority area. It shows that some Liberal Democrats at local level have more guts than some of their colleagues in this place, because they are prepared to say what is right and what is wrong and to stand up for the young people in their area who they know will have their dreams shattered if this help is taken away from them.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is entirely possible that an alternative, more targeted approach to providing support for young people might provide a better solution while still meeting the needs of deficit reduction?

The Government talk of an alternative scheme, but it is a tenth of the size of EMA, which they have closed to new applicants. They have never made a statement to Parliament or set out any details of that alternative scheme. It has taken Labour Members to bring those Ministers here to account for themselves this afternoon, and that is quite disgraceful. We do not have an alternative to judge EMA against, and EMA is a scheme that works.

I will make further progress before giving way.

EMA is one of the few practical policies that has directly supported social mobility and equality of opportunity, so today I will set out a comprehensive case for its retention—the educational case, the social case, the economic case and the democratic case. The Government wanted to close down EMA quietly. They have closed the scheme to new applicants. They have not begun to replace it, as their amendment claims. We have called this debate because EMA has worked and is worth fighting for.

Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that the enhanced learner support fund, which is the Government’s proposed replacement for EMA, will help many of the hard cases with which he illustrated the earlier part of his speech? Some 90% of students are telling us that they do not need EMA and will continue with their studies without it. If he does not accept that figure, what would he accept as the dead-weight figure?

The hon. Lady has just shown how hopelessly out of touch Government Members are. Is she telling me that nine out of 10 young people in her constituency who get EMA are saying they do not need it? If so, she has been speaking to some very different young people—although I am glad that she has at least been speaking to them, unlike those on her Front Bench. She needs to answer this question. The Government are proposing a scheme that is a tenth—

I am about to do that. The Government are proposing a scheme that is a tenth of the size of the previous one, so a fair assumption is that it will help one in 10 of the people who are getting help today. How is that compatible with the full participation in education of all 16 to 18-year-olds, to which the Government amendment refers?

I have never set my face against changes or savings to the EMA scheme. I proposed a change last year—that of giving young people between 16 and 18 the choice of unlimited free travel or EMA. Today I say this to the Secretary of State: I am prepared to discuss changes while keeping the principle of a national weekly payment scheme to support young people in education, but I am not prepared to see a successful scheme, which brings a huge range of social benefits, dismantled and replaced with a residual scheme a fraction of the size. He will have to work very hard to convince us that a scheme a tenth of the size will, in the words of his amendment, improve

“access to, enthusiasm for and participation in further and higher education.”

How can it possibly do that?

I met students at Dudley college, 78% of whom receive EMA. More than 90% of them told me that they would be unable to continue their education if EMA was withdrawn. They are not using it for luxuries but for their books, bus fare and lunch. In particular, those on vocational courses who are studying construction, catering, hairdressing and so on need to buy uniforms and equipment. That is what they are spending it on, and if it is withdrawn they will not be able to continue their education.

My hon. Friend represents a constituency with one of the highest take-up rates of EMA in the country, and he is absolutely right. Some of the sneering comments about recipients of EMA show a complete failure to understand what their lives are like and underestimate the determination of those young people to make a success of themselves and to get skills that will stand them in good stead throughout the rest of their lives.

I will give way in a moment.

The Government’s answer is, “We are raising the school leaving age to 18.” What kind of answer is that? Do they really think they can simply mandate that young people will have to stay on and then provide no practical support to make it work? Perhaps that is why the Chairman of the Select Committee on Education said yesterday that he thought the removal of EMA would be damaging. The Government have a lot of convincing to do as regards senior voices on their own side of the House.

Will my right hon. Friend take on board what the Labour-led Welsh Assembly Government have done in keeping the £30 higher level because they recognise just how important it is for younger people?

As I said, 80% of people get the £30 higher level. I also said that I am not opposed to talking to the Secretary of State about changes. However, if he is to fulfil his goal of keeping young people in education, he will have to talk about a scheme on a much bigger scale than he is proposing, and he will have to do that today.

Let me set out, first, the educational case for EMA. EMA has had a positive impact on participation in post-16 education: that is accepted by all. The Government’s figures suggest that EMA makes all the difference for 78,000 young people. However, as we enter 2011, the financial outlook for many families is changing for the worse. Calculations about the affordability of staying on will have to be redone when the loss of EMA is set alongside changes to other benefits and wages. New research released yesterday by the University and College Lecturers Union suggested that seven in 10 EMA recipients will drop out of education if EMA is taken away.

I regret the removal of EMA and the necessity to remove it, which was caused by an orgy of overspending by the Administration of whom the right hon. Gentleman was a part. A diet of cold, hard decisions now has to be taken by Ministers, and I have some sympathy with them. Choices have to be made, such as between providing nursery education for two-year-olds in the poorest areas or retaining EMA. The right hon. Gentleman accepts that there can be changes to EMA. Is there any reason why a slimmed-down version, such as that proposed by the Government, with constructive input from all sides, cannot deliver for the most needy and minimise the negative impacts?

The hon. Gentleman is having it both ways. He started by saying that he regrets the removal of EMA, before going on to make his attack. I will make two points to him. First, he said that EMA was essentially unaffordable. Why then does the Institute for Fiscal Studies say that the costs of EMA are “completely offset” by the wider benefits that it brings? He might want to reflect on that point.

Secondly, why did the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State promise young people that they would keep EMA? More than that, why did the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), stand at the Dispatch Box after the general election and say that EMA would be retained? Why did they do that if it is now such a bad idea? Will he answer that?

On that particular point, following our joint interview yesterday, I looked up the Prime Minister’s interview on Cameron Direct. He expressed some concerns and talked about the mixed messages that he had received from students on EMA. He said that the Conservative party had no plans to remove EMA. That is not a matter of pure semantics. There was no promise, and the right hon. Gentleman should not put out an untruth about the Prime Minister on this subject.

We will leave those kinds of points to Back Benchers; we do not expect them from the Chair of the Select Committee.

The fundamental point that the Government are missing is that participation is only part—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) does not have to put his hand up—he can just stand up. Participation is only part of the story; EMA helps students to succeed once they arrive at college. It stands to reason that young people do better if they can afford the books or equipment that support the course. As many young people have told me, EMA means that they do not have to take a part-time job, so they can focus all their energy and attention on their studies. College after college reports that EMA improves attendance, helps people to stay the course, reduces the drop-out rate and, in the end, brings a higher rate of achievement.

The infamous Cameron Direct meeting that has been raised took place in Hammersmith on 6 January last year. Sadly, I was not at the meeting because I was handing out leaflets outside, but this morning I spoke to the person who asked the relevant question. The Prime Minister said:

“We’ve looked at Educational Maintenance Allowances…no we don’t have any plans to get rid of them.”

Where does my right hon. Friend think the Government now stand with their credibility on this issue?

I think that it is very difficult. The Government’s access to education adviser, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), and I were at an open meeting last week in the Commons. A young woman from Cornwall said that she had been at a meeting where the Prime Minister had made a personal commitment that he would keep education maintenance allowance. The Government have some very hard questions to ask themselves this week. Now that the voters of Oldham have told them what they think about broken promises, the Government need to reflect on whether they will carry on in such an arrogant and high-handed manner, thinking it fine to say one thing to young people before the election and change the script afterwards. I am afraid that they will lose those young people for the rest of their lives if they do not change course.

I will give way to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and then to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley).

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he agree that it is entirely unacceptable that the Government still have not done a full equality impact assessment of this policy? If they had, they might be rather less cavalier about the devastating implications of scrapping EMA.

The hon. Lady makes a point of such importance that it must be addressed by the Secretary of State. In going about his business, he is wiping away important initiatives that work and are providing real opportunity for young people, with no assessment of the damage that the policies will do and no real understanding of how they might set back social mobility and equality in our country. The Government seem to have dispensed with some of the norms of government that we took seriously, such as equality impact assessments and consultations on the major changes to educational provision. Instead, they promised to keep EMA, and then simply pull the plug when it suits them. It is not good enough.

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. Education maintenance allowance was piloted in Stoke-on-Trent and other cities, because we needed to give additional help to students, such as those who have come down from Burslem and Tunstall today to make the point that they need that additional money. Our staying-on rates have improved from 56.3% to 80.5%. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Secretary of State how it can be that people who currently receive EMA will not get that money, when people in the areas of deprivation that we represent need it for their travel costs and everything else? If they do not get it, they will not be in higher education, they will not get jobs, and there will be no solution to youth unemployment.

My hon. Friend brings me back to the point that I was making: EMA is not just about participation, as the Government say, but about helping people to make the best of themselves when they are in education and bringing out their full potential. The Government’s one-sided argument about a 90% dead-weight cost fails to acknowledge that it helps young people with one of the biggest challenges in life—to shine academically. It is very hard to put a value on that. It might open doors that would otherwise have remained closed.

Crucially, EMA supports the important principle of student choice for all in post-16 education. It means that the best sixth-form colleges, which are often some distance away, particularly in rural areas, are within the reach of young people. In most places, they do not get help with travel and transport costs, so EMA means that the doors of those fantastic institutions are opened to young people from ordinary working-class backgrounds.

It is kind of the right hon. Gentleman to give way, I am sure. I listened carefully to the powerful case studies of people he has met over recent weeks. I am concerned, however, that he might be out of touch with some of his constituents, and that he does not fully understand the needs of those with complex needs. Is he seriously arguing that a capped payment of £30 a week will fully meet the needs of the people he described? In that case, why does he not support a discretionary learner support fund that would allow individual schools to tailor provision to the needs of their students? Why is he so scared of that?

All I can say is that I do not think the hon. Gentleman was listening. I said that EMA makes life possible, and makes the calculations that young people have to do to stay in education that bit more doable. Is he seriously arguing that taking it from those young people will help them to make a success of their lives and circumstances? I find that hard to believe.

The vast majority of EMA is spent on travel, as a survey for the Association of Colleges confirmed this week. It states that

“94% of Colleges believe that the abolition of the EMA will affect students’ ability to travel to and from College.”

The survey also suggests that some students may be at risk of not being able to follow the college course of their choice due to the cost or availability of transport. That goes to the heart of student choice in education. If students do not have the ability to travel, they cannot get on to the courses that they want to study. The Secretary of State needs to come up with a convincing answer to that.

I want the Secretary of State also to think about the effect of the change on the aspirations of young people who are still in secondary school. I want him to reflect on what a young woman from my constituency told me this week—that her 15-year-old brother had already given up at school because, without EMA, he could not see any way that he would be able to go to Wigan and Leigh college to study the motor engineering course that he had planned to do. Is there not a real risk that taking the lifeline of EMA away from young people will lower the aspirations of children in secondary school? Better participation, attendance, retention and results, supporting choice and keeping hope alive for all kids—surely it all adds up to a compelling educational case for keeping EMA.

Is not the No. 1 factor in education teacher quality, which the right hon. Gentleman has not mentioned? The UK has one of the worst records of having qualified teachers for low-income pupils. Why did his Government not do anything about that when they were in power?

We did plenty of things to improve the quality of teaching, including through Teach First. I spoke about giving all young people the chance to get into the best sixth-form colleges in the country, so that they can access good teaching. Would the hon. Lady care to explain how, under her party’s plans, those young people will carry on being able to benefit from the very best teaching and get the best opportunities in life? I do not think she can do so.

EMA was being piloted when my right hon. Friend and I joined the House, and it has been a real achievement in the 10 years since. Some 1,700 students at Newcastle-under-Lyme college benefit from it, and it has raised staying-on rates. Where is the fairness in removing that income from those students and their households? Is it not the case that the impact of that will be felt not in the likes of Surrey Heath but in Bermondsey, Sheffield, Leigh, Manchester, Newcastle-under-Lyme and Stoke-on-Trent?

It will be felt keenly in such places. Combined with the trebling of tuition fees, my worry is that it will have a depressing effect on the aspirations of young people in the former industrial and inner-city communities that we worked so hard to lift during our time in government. That is why today’s debate goes to the heart of why I and many of my hon. Friends came into politics. We care passionately about people’s opportunities in those areas, and we are not prepared to see the ladder kicked away from under young people in the way that the Government propose.

The evidence that I have given on the educational benefits of EMA demolishes the claim that it has no benefit to society beyond persuading 10% of students to stay on. Until recently, I was at a loss to understand how Ministers could make that one-sided argument and use such selective facts to back up their decision, but maybe I have stumbled on the answer. Last week, I came across a parliamentary question answered by the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), asking how many further education and sixth-form colleges the Secretary of State had visited since he was appointed in May. I shall share with the House the revealing answer:

“The Secretary of State has made no such visits since this date.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2011; Vol. 521, c. 342W.]

The Secretary of State was quick to get to his feet a little earlier, and I trust that he will rise again now to correct what surely must have been an inaccurate answer.

I certainly will. All those who saw me at Farnborough sixth-form college, when I had the privilege of opening the John Guy building, will know of my great commitment to that superb college, at which so many of my students are educated.

Either that is a school sixth form or the answer that the Secretary of State’s Department issued was wrong, but it is an appalling state of affairs if he has barely ever managed to take himself along to a sixth-form college to speak to the staff and students who will be affected. [Interruption.] Yes, he has been to one in his own constituency but no one else’s. That is very helpful of him. I might remind him that he is responsible for everyone’s constituents. At a stroke he is axing a £500 million scheme, which will have a profound effect on 650,000 young lives and on the viability of 230 FE colleges and 95 sixth-form colleges, for which he has policy responsibility, without so much as troubling himself to go along and hear at first hand what the decision will mean.

The Secretary of State needs to climb down from his ivory tower once in a while and get out in the real world. How many students has he met who will be directly affected by the changes? Has he met any? I am not sure whether he is nodding, but if he had met some I am absolutely sure that, if nothing else, he would long since have asked his Ministers to stop implying that those high-achieving and talented young people can be described as “dead weight”.

Through my right hon. Friend, may I issue an invitation to the Secretary of State to come with me to City of Westminster college? Its principal has written to me to say that 1,500 of his students will lose their EMA, which in his experience has transformed attendance and achievement at the college.

I will do so, but I cannot answer for the Secretary of State. I have been to sixth-form colleges in London, and that brings me to my case about social mobility. If he visits a sixth-form college while he is in the job, may I suggest that he could do worse than visit the one that my hon. Friend mentions, or indeed Newham sixth-form college, which I visited yesterday? If he does, he might meet the young man who told me about the practical effect of losing EMA. He feels that he will have to lower his ambitions in the universities to which he applies, because he thinks his exam grades will undoubtedly suffer.

The Chairman of the Education Committee cements the impression that the Conservatives have not really thought about what it is like to be a young person in the circumstances that I have described. It is hard to put a value on the self-confidence and peace of mind that financial security gives a young person. It creates the conditions for their academic potential to be realised.

The Secretary of State talks frequently about social mobility under the Labour Government, citing the number of young people on free school meals gaining a place at Oxford or Cambridge. Time and again, he has used that figure selectively to paint a misleading picture of Labour’s record, and I wish to set the matter straight.

First, I politely point out to the Secretary of State that Oxbridge is not the be-all and end-all. If he examines the university system as a whole, which my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) has taken the trouble to do, he will see that between 2005 and 2007 the number of young people on free school meals gaining a place at university increased by 18%, double the rate of increase for all young people. Does the Secretary of State recognise those figures and, if so, does he accept that EMA has played an important role in securing that social progress? Does he further accept that the proportion of children on free school meals who stayed on in full-time education at 16 increased from 60% in 2005 to 70% in 2009? That is why more are applying to, and getting into, universities.

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us how many children eligible for free school meals made it into Oxford and Cambridge in the last year for which we have figures, and in the year before that, and whether he considers it to be a triumph of social mobility or an indictment of his Government’s record?

Is the Secretary of State worried about anything else, or is that it? The figure is 40, which came down from 44. It did go down, but I have just told him that if he looks at all universities, he will see that the rate of increase in successful applications from children on free school meals was double the rate in the rest of the population. Is he not proud of that fact, and why does he talk only about Oxbridge? If his real passion in life is helping young people on free school meals to gain places at Oxford and Cambridge—as mine is, by the way, as somebody who took that route many years ago—can he tell the House how on earth scrapping EMA is more likely to make that happen? Precisely how does he imagine those kids on free school meals will get to Oxford and Cambridge when there is no EMA?

The right hon. Gentleman makes his case with his usual passion and makes some important points about empowering student choice. He says that the Government are going too far in reducing the scheme by 90%, but acknowledges that some savings can be made. In these difficult times, what would be a safe reduction in the budget?

I said that I am prepared to sit down and talk about making savings as long as we maintain the principle of a national scheme that supports the kids who most need support. I made the same offer on school sports. I will have that discussion, but I am saying to the Secretary of State do not just dismantle the whole scheme and lose all the benefits that come with it. If we had been asked to make a reduction in EMA commensurate with the rest of public spending, we would have struggled to argue against it, but that is not what the Government propose. The hon. Gentleman stood alongside the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State at the last election promising young people that they would keep EMA. They are the ones with the questions to answer.

The truth is that the Secretary of State cannot will the ends without the means. That will not happen. However talented those young people are, they cannot live off thin air. They cannot have a part-time job and walk miles to college and still get straight A’s. I wonder whether he has much idea of what their lives are like. In 2003, he wrote an article in The Times that acquires a new significance in the light of this debate. He wrote that

“anyone put off from attending a good university by fear of that debt doesn’t deserve to be at any university in the first place.”

Those are difficult sentiments for an Education Secretary to be associated with, as are these, which appear in the same article:

“Some people will, apparently, be put off applying to our elite institutions by the prospect of taking on a debt of this size. Which, as far as I’m concerned, is all to the good.”

How genuine is his commitment to those people who want to get in to Oxbridge?

I have worries about the Secretary of State’s elitist instincts, but I read in The Times last week another interesting piece—from Mrs Gove—which contains insights from home that raise further questions about whether he is living in the same world as the rest of us—[Interruption.] He should listen to this. She says:

“Like all angst-ridden working mothers, I live in terror of upsetting my cleaner.”

Angst-ridden mums in Leigh talk of little else. I sympathise with Mrs Gove’s predicament, but I wonder whether the Secretary of State could pass on a bit of advice to all the wives of his Cabinet colleagues who fret about the same curses of modern living. May I respectfully suggest that the best way to stay on the right side of the cleaner might be not to clean the oven oneself, but to press one’s other half not to remove the cleaner’s kids’ EMA?

May I press the right hon. Gentleman a little further on exactly what percentage reduction he would make to EMA? He said he is open to reducing it, but by what percentage?

I said that I would make a reduction commensurate with the overall reduction in spending. I would be prepared to sit down and say, “Can we make the EMA scheme work for young people at that level?”, but the Government are not proposing that. They are proposing a scheme that is a tenth of the size of the current one. If the Secretary of State is making offers and rethinking, and if he has been ordered into yet another U-turn by the Prime Minister, I am prepared to talk about it, but the onus is on Government Members to tell us the details of what they are offering.

In answer to my previous question, the right hon. Gentleman spoke of preserving a national scheme, but he has made the powerful point that different students face different costs. Does he agree that if a sufficient pot of money is available, decisions are better made by individual schools that know their pupils’ circumstances, rather than through a national standard scheme?

My brother is the vice-principal of a sixth-form college, and I have asked him that question. He says that it would be an impossible task for his college to decide between one student and another. Colleges want to help students, but they would have to make those decisions with an inadequate fund that covers only a tenth of the amount that it currently covers. The hon. Gentleman’s suggestion would mean passing on an impossible problem, but I welcome the spirit of his remarks. He will notice that I have deliberately moved a broad motion that invites the support of all hon. Members who want the Government to think again. It sounds as if he is one of them.

Let us not throw out everything about EMA that is a success, and that brings me to the economic case for keeping it. In short, EMA is good not just for the individuals who receive it, but for all of us in building a higher-skilled and more prosperous society, in which the costs of social failure are lower. Yesterday, the chief executive of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers called on the Government to rethink their decision. He said:

“Tough decisions have to be made, but the UK economy will increasingly need skilled engineers and technicians over the next few years. Our long-term economic health depends on making the right decisions now.”

Haroon Chowdry of the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that even taking into account a dead-weight cost of 88%, the costs of EMA are “completely offset”. He said:

“The initial outlay of the EMA policy is likely to be more than recouped by the increase in productivity that we expect to result from the 16- and 17-year-olds staying on in education for longer”.

Has the Secretary of State made an economic impact assessment of his policy alongside an equality impact assessment? I have not seen one. Has he assessed how EMA helps to build a skilled work force that benefits us all? If we take that support away, we lose not just those skills—taxpayers must also face the higher costs of social failure as young people drop out of education. Has he made an assessment of that?

On the Government’s own figures, around 78,000 are unlikely to be able to stay in further education without EMA. We cannot know for sure whether all those young people will end up unemployed if they lose EMA, but given today’s figures showing record youth unemployment, it does not look good for them. Will not the Government have to provide support for them in some other form—perhaps a less constructive form—when they have reduced hope for the future?

In view of my right hon. Friend’s point about improved qualifications, will he note the figures that East Berkshire college has provided to me? It has a number of students on EMA. I have worked out that its figures on improved retention would mean that 45 or 50 young people in the town that I represent would be unlikely to complete their course if they did not have EMA.

My hon. Friend is exactly right—that is borne out by the experience of many colleges around the country. Some of those young people are at risk of ending up in the benefits system. Will not the Secretary of State’s policy lead to an increase in 16 to 17-year-olds seeking to claim jobseeker’s allowance in exceptional circumstances, or certainly to an increase in the numbers claiming JSA at 18? We know that every young person not in education, employment or training costs more than £55,000, according to research for the Audit Commission. The IFS has said that EMA successfully reduced the number of NEETs. Will it not therefore cost more to get rid of EMA?

Those costs will add up on many levels. As Paul Gregg at Bristol university has found, youth unemployment imposes a “wage scar” that can last for decades. He suggests that scrapping EMA fails to take account of other benefits, such as lower crime. That adds to the fears that through a combination of the Government’s policies, they are taking hope away from a whole generation.

I have set out the education case, the social mobility case and the economic case for keeping EMA, so let us now deal with the democratic case. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State made personal promises to young people to keep EMA. Failing to honour them will do great damage to young people’s trust in Parliament and politics. From this Dispatch Box, the Secretary of State said:

“We are entirely in favour not only of the existence of the EMA but of the provisions in the Bill to secure an extension to it.”—[Official Report, 14 January 2008; Vol. 470, c. 669.]

Weeks before the general election, he said:

“Ed Balls keeps saying we are committed to scrapping the EMA. I have never said this. We won’t.”

On the back of these statements, does the Secretary of State not accept that young people embarking on a two-year course in September 2010 had a reasonable expectation that they would receive EMA support for the duration of their course, and that they could not have expected that the rug might be pulled from under them?

Beyond that, do the Government have a democratic mandate for this change? This time it is not the yellow Tories, but the real Tories who have broken their promises to young people. However, did any of the people who voted Lib Dem in May vote to curtail the life chances of the least well-off in this way? Unsurprisingly, the Government’s amendment shifts the ground on to deficit reduction, but if that is now the Government’s main argument why did the schools Minister, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, say to the House in a holding answer dated 7 June:

“The Government are committed to retaining the education maintenance allowance”?—[Official Report, 14 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 307W.]

What changed after June? Did the full costs of the risky, unwanted reorganisation of the NHS become known, or did the Prime Minister choose his marriage tax break—costed before the election at £550 million, which is almost the same amount as EMA—as a priority above EMA? This confirms the growing impression that this is a shambolic ministerial team that changes its argument and does not know what it is doing.

The House may be forgiven for feeling a certain sense of déjà vu. This is a rushed decision with no warning, no consultation with those most affected, no evidence to support the decision, a growing backlash as the implications sink in, and a desperate rearguard action to justify it with dodgy statistics. If this is starting to sound familiar, it is because we have been here before with, for instance, Building Schools for the Future, school sport partnerships, and Bookstart. The fingerprints of this repeat offender are all over the scene of the crime. My question today to Liberal Democrat Members is this: how much longer are they prepared to carry the can in their constituencies for the disastrous decisions of this Secretary of State?

The right hon. Gentleman knows that I respect both his passion and his commitment on this issue, and he also knows that there is concern on both sides of the House about the policy to get rid of EMA without an adequate replacement. I repeat now what I have said privately, however: I will work with him, as I am working with the Secretary of State, to make sure, as far as I can, that the successor scheme achieves the objectives that are expressed in both the Opposition motion and the Government amendment. If together we can do that, then together we will improve the reputation of this House and politics in this country.

I respect the right hon. Gentleman’s intentions on this issue, but what he has just said will not be good enough for young people listening to this debate whose lives will be directly affected by the loss of EMA. A vague promise to work with the Secretary of State, with an unspecified amount of money to produce an unspecified result, is not going to do the job for them. The Lib Dems have to decide whether they want to keep the benefits of this successful scheme. Do they want the same numbers of young people in their constituencies to enter further education, or are they prepared to take a risk on this Secretary of State and this Tory-led Government?

Today’s debate provides the House with an opportunity to change the message that this Government are sending out to young people. They feel bewildered and angry that they have been singled out to bear the brunt of deficit reduction, and do not understand why they in particular are to face higher costs than generations before. In Newham, they ask why they are paying with their life chances for the mistakes of others a few miles away in the City of London. In Leigh, they cannot understand why the Government want to turn the clock back to an education system based on social class, with places at university going only to those with money and connections. Today, we can show that we are listening to them. We can make a stand for equality of opportunity in education, and stop these moves towards a more elitist education system. We can call a halt to this all-out attack on the aspirations of those who have least, and keep hope alive for the hundreds of thousands of young people who will be cut adrift if the Government get their way. We can tell all young people that we value them, and stop a Government who are gambling with their life chances. I commend this motion to the House.

Order. Before I call the Secretary of State, let me say that many Members wish to speak, and if we have fewer interventions, we will get through contributions more quickly.

I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:

“believes in full participation in education and training for young people up to the age of 18 and considers that support must be in place to allow those who face the greatest barriers to participation to access this opportunity; notes that the previous Government left this country with one of the largest budget deficits in the world and that savings have had to be made in order to avoid burdening future generations; further notes that the Government has increased funding for deprivation within the 16 to 19 budget and has already begun to replace the current education maintenance allowance system with more targeted support for those who face genuine barriers, including travel; and commits the Government to working with young people, schools and colleges and others outside and inside Parliament on arrangements for supporting students in further education and on improving access to, enthusiasm for and participation in further and higher education.”

It is always a pleasure to debate education with the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham). In previous Opposition day debates and on other platforms, I have always been impressed by the passion and commitment he brings to the aspirations of extending opportunity and advancing social mobility, and I believe he is right to focus in particular on what we can do better to support children in the 16 to 18 age range, whom we want to succeed in the examinations they take, and to whom we want to extend broader opportunities. In that respect, I welcome both the opportunity this debate provides and the wealth of interest it has provoked.

I may also say that it was uncharacteristic of the right hon. Gentleman, for whom I have a great deal of respect and affection, to make a personal comment about a member of my family in the course of his speech. I am sure that, on reflection, he will recognise that it was inappropriate and beneath him, and that he will withdraw it.

I also recognise, however, that the right hon. Gentleman was motivated in bringing forward this debate by his passion to increase social mobility. I also recognise that his bringing this passion to bear allows us all to consider what the right policies are for generating a greater degree of social mobility and for making opportunity more equal in our society.

Not yet.

Let us consider policies on vocational education. One concern I have is that in a debate about staying on in education, the right hon. Gentleman made no mention of specific proposals to improve vocational education. I therefore have this question: does he back or oppose the policies we are putting in place? Does he back or oppose the additional investment that is going into university technical colleges? If he backs that, it is welcome, and shows that he recognises that action is being taken. If he opposes it, however, he will have to answer for saying no to reform. Does he back or oppose the expansion in the number of studio schools, specifically targeting disadvantaged young people who need a special type of education in order to encourage them to stay on? Does he back or oppose the growth in apprenticeships—the 75,000 additional apprenticeships that we are providing? All of these questions are to do with decisions about investments in improving education and the life chances of the very poorest, and we do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman is in favour or against.

In a few seconds.

This is not just about improving vocational education. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I believe in aspiration. I believe that other young people born into circumstances similar to our own, whose parents never went to university, should have the chance to go to university. That is why we are putting in place policies to improve academic education. Again, however, we do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman supports or opposes the investment we are putting in to improve it. Does he support or oppose our reading check at the age of six, to make sure every child is decoding fluently, and will be literate by the time they leave primary school? Is he in favour of that, or against? Does he oppose or support our position on GCSEs? Does he believe it is right or wrong to get rid of modules in order to make them more rigorous? Does he back or oppose the English baccalaureate? Does he believe it is right to encourage more students—[Interruption.] There is only one answer that he and some—some, I stress—Opposition Members have to the question of how to increase aspiration, and it is represented by three letters: EMA. It is important that we remove barriers and that we have the right support, but in respect of social mobility it is also important that we have a coherent and inclusive widespread education policy. From the Opposition, on all these areas we have either mulish silence or reactionary opposition.

Is the right hon. Gentleman for or against our drive to ensure that more students get good GCSEs in English, mathematics, sciences, languages, modern history and geography? I could not tell last week. At the beginning of last week he was against, in the middle of last week he was almost in favour, and towards the end of last week Labour MPs were telling me that it was now their party’s position to support our English baccalaureate.

The one thing that I can tell the Secretary of State is that 1,700 students in Newcastle-under-Lyme will be affected by the withdrawal of EMA. This is his policy, so can he tell the House how many students in Surrey Heath will be affected?

Overall, 45% of students are eligible for EMA. The proportion is smaller in Surrey Heath than in Newcastle-under-Lyme, but of course the number of students who will receive enhanced support depends on the new improved provision that we hope to bring in.

Ten youngsters from City and Islington college have come to Westminster to listen to this debate on EMA and they would very much like to have 10 minutes with the Secretary of State. I warn him that they are articulate, clever and very persuasive—but may I ask him to give them 10 minutes this afternoon?

If the hon. Lady will join us, I would be delighted to talk to them at any time. Perhaps I should visit their college so that rather more than 10 of them can have a word with me.

No, thank you. It would be a pleasure to spend time with the hon. Lady and her constituents. I know how many of them in London schools are passionately committed to greater equality.

The Secretary of State has said time and time again that he supports breaking down the barriers and that he supports aspiration. Is he aware that Salford had the lowest staying-on rate in the whole of Britain before the introduction of EMA, but within months of its introduction the number of young people staying on at 16, not just to go to university but to get the vocational qualifications they need to have the chance of a decent future, increased by 10%? I am at a loss to know why he thinks that abolishing EMA will give young people in Salford the same opportunities as they have had for the past few years. I cannot believe that the Secretary of State is setting out on a deliberate path to limit the aspiration and social mobility of young people in Salford.

The right hon. Lady knows that I am a fan of her and her policies. [Interruption.] It is a pity that more of them are not adopted by the Labour party now. However, she will also be aware that a number of things have helped to improve the staying-on rate and ensured that children have more opportunities. Central to that is ensuring that the right offer is in place in terms of the nature of qualifications, and that we improve both vocational and academic learning, as well as teacher quality. As my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) said, policies to improve teacher quality were not mentioned in the speech made by the right hon. Member for Leigh, which lasted for nearly an hour. He did not make it clear, at any point, whether he backed or opposed our investment in expanding Teach First.

Not yet. That was a choice and it costs, so does the right hon. Gentleman support it? We do not know. Does he back our expansion of Future Leaders? That is an investment, it costs, and we chose. Does he back it? Our expansion in the number of national and local leaders of education costs, and we invested, so does he back it or oppose it? On all those policies, we hear silence. On policies to tackle underperformance, we are extending academy freedoms to 400 new schools. Does he support that extension of opportunity? Does he support, or would he reverse, our policies to get stronger schools to help weaker schools? Does he support, or would he reverse, our policy on getting the schools commissioner back in place to turn failing schools around? Those are all policies being introduced by this coalition Government to extend social mobility and opportunity, but on every one the right hon. Gentleman is silent. He has only one policy: to spend money that we do not have.

The right hon. Gentleman visited Westminster academy, in my constituency, which was established by the previous Government and which introduced and piloted Teach First. Some 80% of sixth-formers at that school receive EMA, but how many will receive a version of EMA when he withdraws 90% of it?

I did have the great pleasure of visiting Westminster academy, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to do so again later this month. I hope that the hon. Lady will join me then, when we will have a seminar on how we can extend school autonomy and freedom in order to drive up standards for the poorest. The number of children who will receive support, which may be enhanced support in some cases, depends precisely on their circumstances. The point was made in research commissioned by the previous Government—not by us—that the current arrangements for EMA are poorly targeted. Some who need more support do not receive it, and some who receive support should not be receiving the amount that they do.

I wish to make some progress, because I wish to discuss one big factor that is referred to in our amendment and lies behind our position, but which the right hon. Member for Leigh completely ignored: the elephant in the room is the dire economic situation that we inherited from his Government. I know that various Labour Members—not all, because some of them are reasonable—will say, “EMA, EMA”, as though they were on the benches at Goodison Park—[Interruption.]or anywhere else. But any policy involves a choice, the choice is dependent on the money, and the question is: where is the money coming from?

I shall not give way at this stage, because every Labour Member needs to be reminded of the mess that the Labour party landed this country in. I am not going to be put off, deflected or diverted from spelling out these facts. They are the facts that determine every decision that a responsible coalition Government have to take. Seven days after this coalition Government were formed, the International Monetary Fund said that this country had the largest deficit of any G20 country. Why was that? Labour Members say that it was because of the financial crisis, but the truth is that we entered that crisis with the largest structural deficit of any country in the G7. The fault for that debt and deficit lies—

No, not yet. The fault for that debt and deficit lies with the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues. The OECD said that in 2000, thanks to Conservative policies, the UK had one of the best structural fiscal positions in the world, but by 2007 we had one of the worst in the G7. Why were we in such a weak position? It was because Labour had doubled our debt. In 1997 our national debt was £351 billion, whereas in 2010, by the time the Labour Government had left office, it was £893 billion. You cannot spend money that you do not have. The truth was revealed in a statement secreted in a Treasury desk by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne). In a note to the succeeding Chief Secretary to the Treasury, he said “There’s no money.” Not a single member of the Labour party has yet had the courage to accept that truth, and to atone and apologise for it.

The Secretary of State is talking about things that have been written down. Does he also accept that this is also about values? Will he therefore clarify for the House whether he wishes to apologise for the remarks, to which my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State referred, that he made in his article in The Times about the attitude to debt and the consequences for people going to university?

That article in The Times was actually in favour of the previous Government’s efforts to improve access to university. Unlike many Labour Members, I supported what Tony Blair was doing on university tuition fees; I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman did. But never mind that, because the truth is that no Labour Member has atoned or apologised for the huge economic mess in which we have been landed. This is appropriate, because the motion stands in the name of the right hon. Member for Leigh, and he was the Chief Secretary to the Treasury when the ship was steered towards the rocks, so he cannot point the finger at anyone else—

Not yet. Between June 2007 and January 2008 Northern Rock collapsed, the international banking crisis began and the global recession started. All of that happened while the right hon. Gentleman was at the Treasury.

Not yet. That may just be coincidence, but what was deliberate was that instead of getting control of public expenditure—[Interruption.] I know that the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) does not like being reminded of what happened under her Government and on her watch, but as long as I have breath in my body I will remind the people of this country of the devastating mess that the Labour party made of the economy. It is rank hypocrisy—

Sit down. It is rank hypocrisy—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman voted for it; we all know the role he played.

Order. The Secretary of State is getting very excited. Members are trying to intervene, but I will decide when they have stood on their feet too long. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would like to carry on putting his points across to the Chamber.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Yes, I am passionate about this. Why should young people be saddled with the economic mess left by that lot? That lot then come back here to say that we are taking opportunity away, knocking the ladder away and increasing youth unemployment, but who created this mess? It was the guilty men and women on the Opposition Front Bench. When the right hon. Member for Leigh was Chief Secretary to the Treasury—

No.

When the right hon. Gentleman was Chief Secretary to the Treasury, in the first three months—we should remember that the economy was growing at the time—he borrowed an additional £7 billion, and in the next three months he borrowed an additional £21 billion. For every hour that he was Chief Secretary, our debt rose by £5 million—and as I said, the economy was growing at that time. Perhaps he will now take the opportunity to defend his impressive stewardship of this nation’s finances during those seven magical months.

I was the Chief Secretary to the Treasury who produced the spending review that was described by the Prime Minister as “tough” in 2007. If the right hon. Gentleman is so clear about all those “facts” that he is setting out for the House, why did he promise in March 2010 to keep the education maintenance allowance?

Since coming into office, I have had many opportunities to look at the devastating mess that was left to us. I have also had the opportunity to reflect on the number of interviews and books written by those who sat alongside the right hon. Gentleman in government. One is a chap called Darling—do we remember him as Chancellor of the Exchequer? He pointed out that in autumn 2007 we had reached the limits of what should have been spent, but when the right hon. Gentleman was still in the Treasury he was spending and borrowing more.

It is also the case that a gentleman called Blair—Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, the former Member for Sedgefield—said:

“from 2005 onwards, Labour was insufficiently vigorous in limiting or eliminating the structural deficit”.

Mr Blair reflected on what should have been done and said that we should have taken “a new Labour way” out of the crisis. First, he said that we should have kept direct tax rates competitive, which we have done. He thought there should be a gradual rise in VAT and other indirect taxes, which we have brought about, and that we should have pushed further and faster on reform of public services, which we have also done. Why? Because, Mr Blair said, the danger is that

“If governments don’t tackle deficits, the bill is footed by taxpayers, who fear that big deficits now mean big taxes in the future, the prospect of which reduces confidence, investment and purchasing power. This then increases the risk of a prolonged slump”.

And that is precisely what the policies of the deficit deniers on the Opposition side would do—increase the risk of a prolonged slump, with economic policies that make no sense, at a time when we all need to focus on helping the poorest by getting the deficit down.

At one moment the deficit is cited as the reason for the abolition of EMA, and in another moment we will no doubt hear the educational reasons. The right hon. Gentleman cannot seem to make up his mind. I wrote to all the secondary schools in my constituency asking what percentage of 16 to 19-year-olds were receiving EMA—in a constituency and borough where incomes are considerably lower than in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency. In every case the heads replied that it was more than 50%. In one school it was as high as 75%, and in Walsall college it was nearly 60%. These were matters that I raised on the Adjournment last week. What will happen to those who now receive EMA, and young people in the future, who want to stay on beyond the compulsory leaving age but find it very difficult, financially, to do so?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, whose commitment to this issue I know to be profound, which is why he raised it on the Adjournment last week, when the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb) had a chance to reply. I would, of course, expect that in any disadvantaged constituency such as the one that the hon. Gentleman represents so well, a significant number would be in receipt of EMA. Nearly half of students receive EMA.

I put that to the right hon. Member for Leigh, but I received no reply. He grudgingly acknowledges, under questioning from Government Members, that there is a case for reform—so far, so good—but when put to the test and asked what sort of reform, what numbers, what tests and on what basis, he did not—[Interruption.] Is he now retracting? Free bus travel is mentioned, but has the cost to the Exchequer been taken into account? [Interruption.] Look, I am asking the right hon. Gentleman questions, but once again he is ducking and diving, dodging and weaving, and refusing to address the vacuum where policy should be.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the suggestion made by the shadow Secretary of State—that the cuts to every budget should be proportional—would have been the wrong course to go down, because that would have prevented the Government from protecting the schools budget in real terms?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It was interesting to hear the shadow Secretary of State arguing for the equivalent of the Geddes axe, with every service receiving the same cuts. That would presumably mean cuts to the NHS, cuts to the schools budget and cuts to Sure Start simply in order to satisfy his desire for consistency on this policy. As the right hon. Gentleman should have discovered when he was Chief Secretary to the Treasury, to govern is to choose, and to have priorities.

There are 1,200 students in my constituency who receive EMA. My right hon. Friend is giving them a very good lesson about who is responsible for the difficulties they will encounter over the coming months: the previous Government. Will he also teach them two other lessons? First, the shadow Secretary of State was part of the Government who spent all the money so that there is nothing left. When it has been spent, there should be some answers about what needs to be done with the wreckage left behind. Secondly, there is the lesson that when we are in tough times, we need to focus resources on those who are most vulnerable.

I am happy to give way to my hon. Friend the Member for—Nuneaton, I believe. [Interruption.] No, I should have said my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher).

Is my right hon. Friend aware that almost 80% of institutions offer tailored support to disadvantaged young people quite separately from EMA, yet only 11% know about it? Is it not more sensible to target help by increasing knowledge about that alternative funding that is available, as it comes from institutions and so will not cost the taxpayer as much?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. One point identified by the previous Government’s research commission is that one of the biggest barriers to participation is inadequate advice and guidance.

I am now confronted with an embarrassment of riches. I would like to give way to ensure that as many Members as possible have the chance to intervene. I give way first to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey).

I am grateful to the Secretary of State. Erdington has high youth unemployment, but excellent young people who want to get on. Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that it is the combination of soaring tuition fees, the abolition of EMA, the scrapping of the future jobs fund and now the cuts forced by his Government on local youth services—a toxic combination—that will dash hopes, deny aspiration, fuel rising youth unemployment and lead once again, as in the 1980s, to a lost generation of young people?

That is a passionate intervention, and I know that the hon. Gentleman has devoted his whole life in the trade union movement and elsewhere to trying to secure a better deal for the worse-off. I take nothing away from the force with which he makes his case, but practical steps are being taken, including in his own constituency, to provide a better deal for the worse off. That includes a new arrangement with a comprehensive in Sutton Coldfield to sponsor a school in his constituency so that they can both enjoy academy status and both have their standards driven up. I hope that I can co-operate with him and secure his support on that policy, alongside many other policies that we wish to introduce so as to target support better on the disadvantaged.

In response to the hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher), the Secretary of State mentioned the discretionary support fund that is available for schools, but one of the most common questions that I have been asked by principals of colleges and schools in my constituency is whether the fund is available for transport. EMA is vital to give young people a choice of college and school courses, so will he comment on whether funds will be available to help young people with the cost of transport?

That is a very good point. The hon. Lady has alighted on something that is critical and constructive. I shall say a little more about transport in my speech, but one thing I should say is that local authorities have a statutory duty to ensure that there is no barrier to participation for 16 to 18-year-olds because of transport. Currently the discretionary learner support fund cannot be used to fund transport, but I would like to ensure that any replacement for EMA can cover additional transport costs. However, we must ensure that local authorities cannot shirk their responsibilities in law.

Can the Secretary of State give some assurance that the reform will mean that the people who have been highlighted by the shadow Secretary of State as being most in need will get more help, and that the new system will be better for those people, whom we should care about most?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The aim of the coalition Government is to target support better on those who need it, and our first concern is for those with special educational needs, those with learning difficulties and those who face real barriers to participation. I have had an opportunity to talk to my hon. Friend, who I know is passionate about these issues, and a number of his colleagues to try to ensure that the solution we frame, in keeping with the principles outlined by the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), captures exactly those most deserving cases.

Some 1,400 students at Lewisham college, most of whom are from ethnic minorities, receive EMA. Would it not be invidious for the principal of that college to have to choose just 140 of those students under the Secretary of State’s revised scheme? More importantly, what does the Secretary of State have to say to students on two-year courses, 229 of whom will be cut off at this moment without any possible hope of continuing their courses, without the £30 a week that matters enormously to very low-paid families in my constituency?

Any Member of Parliament representing a Lewisham constituency is dealing with a huge range of difficult educational and social issues. I had the opportunity to visit Haberdashers’ Aske’s Knights Academy, which has a sixth form, in Lewisham last Friday. I had a chance to talk to the students and principals there and they would like to see several changes, broadly in line with the coalition Government’s education policy. One position that I think is shared between the right hon. Lady, me and the students to whom I spoke is the belief that any replacement for the EMA needs to be, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) pointed out, targeted on those in the most need. Of course, those people will be more heavily represented in a constituency such as the right hon. Lady’s.

I shall have something more to say on EMA if I am called to speak later, but on transport let me set out the situation in north Lincolnshire. When our Labour-run council came to power it increased the cost of the post-16 travel pass by 500%, so it was giving money with one hand through the EMA and taking it back with the other through the transport passes, which went up from £30, when the Conservatives ran the council, to £180—and they are now £195. Will the Secretary of State ensure that whatever replaces EMA will provide for people in constituencies such as mine who live in very rural areas, for whom getting to college is a great expense?

My hon. Friend makes a very good case. As he is a former teacher and he came to the House to advance social mobility, I take seriously everything he says on these issues.

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) is tweeting from the Chamber right now that the shadow Secretary of State has refused to meet the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), but in fact the shadow Secretary of State has already met him, and is prepared to meet him at any time. Is it in order for a Member, in the course of a debate, to make points about participants in the debate without doing it here so that everyone can hear the point they are making and have an opportunity to rebut it?

What I can say is that it is for me to keep order in the Chamber. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has brought this to my attention, and I am sure that no hon. Member will be tweeting from the Chamber to let people outside know what is going on.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making his point, but I do not know what it says about my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) or the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) that while they were making their interventions, he thought his own Twitter feed was more intriguing than the points they had to make. However, he is a genial soul and I know they will forgive him everything, as will I.

Let me return to the central theme of many of the interventions we have just heard—the need to target support better on the poorest. In the context of everything we are doing in education, the coalition Government have already made a series of decisions, with constrained resources, to make sure that the poorest benefit from our policies. We are extending free child care to 15 hours a week for all three and four-year-olds. That did not happen under the previous Government and I had hoped they would support it, but we have introduced it. We are also extending free child care to 100,000 of the poorest two-year-olds. That happened on this watch. Those 100,000 children would not have received free child care and preparation for school if it had not been for the commitment of the coalition Government. I am grateful that some Opposition Members, such as the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), support us, and I am sure that many others recognise that this is a progressive step that all should applaud.

We are also implementing a pupil premium—£625 million this year, rising to £2.5 billion by the end of the comprehensive spending review. As a direct result of that, every poor child will have thousands more spent on their education. That money will be invested in better teaching, one-to-one tuition and catch-up learning, all of which is additional money on top of the schools budget. That policy was rejected by the Labour party in coalition negotiations. In order to make sure that all those interventions to help the poorest could be funded, the coalition Government had to take some tough choices, one of which is to replace EMA with a new system of support.

In a second.

The reason we are replacing EMA—beyond the desperate financial situation that we inherited—is that we are making our policy based on evidence that was commissioned, sifted, prepared and analysed by an organisation that was working for the previous Government. The National Foundation for Educational Research was commissioned by my predecessor to look at the barriers to continued participation in education for 16, 17 and 18 year-olds. I shall go into some detail about what the report argued. It concluded that EMA or any replacement for it should be targeted better at those young people who feel that they cannot continue in learning without financial support. That argument has consistently been made in the debate by a number of people from different parties. Yes, we acknowledge that there will have to be cuts—although the right hon. Member for Leigh will not say how many—and, yes, we acknowledge that some of the people who currently receive it might not be the most deserving. If the economy were growing it would be fantastic to offer that incentive, but given that it is not, let us make sure that those most in need are supported.

Half of young people receive EMA, but only 12% of them—so 6% of students overall—said that they needed financial support to stay in learning. The NFER says that financial support should be increasingly targeted at those most in need, and I could not agree more. Specific financial barriers to learning—which have, I must in fairness add, been mentioned by the right hon. Member for Leigh—are faced by particular students. I am particularly conscious of the need to support students who have learning difficulties, and I am aware that when students have caring responsibilities they need more support. I am particularly aware that when students are teenage parents, additional financial support will be required because of their specific circumstances. In the scheme that we are developing, all those considerations weigh heavily with me.

There are also individuals in specific circumstances who need additional support, as the right hon. Member for Leigh has also pointed out. Additional support sometimes depends on the course one pursues. If one is pursuing a catering course, the cost of buying whites and knives and so on will be more than the cost of an academic course in a sixth form where the books are supplied and the costs of participation are less. We need to take that into account, as well as the need for straightforward support. There are poorer students at school who will be eligible for free school meals—and quite right too—who will not have that support in FE colleges. One of the questions in my mind is how we can ensure that the basic maintenance needs to keep body and soul together, which poorer students require, will be available, whatever institution they attend.

There are also students—particularly, but not exclusively, in rural areas—who face barriers to participation because of transport costs and transport sparsity. Again, I am looking at all those areas. I am helped by the detailed work that has already been undertaken by the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark. His job as access advocate is not just to explain how our policies can help social mobility at every stage; he is making sure that the replacement for EMA deals with all the real-world issues. I am grateful to him for his support, as I am grateful to any hon. Member who can make constructive suggestions about how we can better target the money given the constraints under which we operate.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the research about students staying on was flawed? It was narrow, talked only to young people in sixth forms and did not talk to their parents, who actually make the decision about whether the child can stay on at school.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making that point. In fact, the survey was wide-ranging; more than 2,000 people were approached. It was scientifically conducted, and the organisation was commissioned by the previous Secretary of State. I had my differences with him, but I think the research is impeccable. However, the hon. Lady makes a good point about parents. As I am sure all Members are aware, any child who stays in education beyond the age of 16 makes their family, and of course the mother, eligible for child benefit. One of the things that the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) explicitly stated when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer was that he envisaged, in the first instance, that child benefit would go in order to pay for EMA. He said subsequently that actually they could pay for both child benefit and EMA because of the success of the Labour Government in removing our debt. Now that we have a massive debt, there is a tough decision to be made, and this Government have decided to keep child benefit for those over the age of 16. The question for Opposition Members who want to maintain EMA at its full level is whether they would cut child benefit to pay for it.

I want to take the Secretary of State back to the subject of vulnerable young people, particularly young carers. I have raised the point in debate on a number of occasions, for example in the Christmas pre-recess Adjournment debate. Removing a national scheme, from which a group of young carers in Salford benefit, particularly because almost all of them are in receipt of EMA, and replacing it with a scheme one tenth of the size and at the discretion of college principals, will not be the answer. College principals do not know who their young carers are. The right hon. Gentleman needs to be clearer, and more work needs to be done, because those young people deserve the support offered by EMA and they will not manage without it. They will struggle and their caring work load will swamp them.

The hon. Lady makes a good point. We want to ensure that learners with caring responsibilities are looked after. They are a small but growing number, who face enormous challenges and are living heroically, attempting to balance their responsibilities. In any replacement scheme, we need to ensure better targeting. The truth is that the current scheme does not effectively target those people.

The NFER data that the Secretary of State has highlighted are startling, in that they demonstrate the amount of dead-weight and inefficiency in the existing arrangements. Can my right hon. Friend tell us whether he has had any helpful suggestions from the Opposition as to what changes could be made to target support more efficiently, particularly in light of the needs of many students that he has highlighted?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I have had a couple of helpful suggestions from Opposition Back Benchers—I shall not name them—who recognise that we need to make reductions and believe that support can be better targeted. I have looked at their submissions and they have helped to shape my thinking. In the same way, I have been fortunate in that a number of Liberal Democrat and Conservative colleagues have made points to me about how a replacement scheme should be targeted. Many of the arguments had occurred to me beforehand, but many were made with such force and passion and were backed up with such persuasive facts that they have certainly shaped our policy. The opportunity exists for other Members to make such points, and although I am not sure that the seminar-style atmosphere of an Opposition day debate is necessarily ideal for such submissions, I am always grateful to receive them.

On behalf of students and staff at Craven college in my constituency, I thank the Secretary of State. They made strong representations to me about the need to look at travel in the reworked EMA, so I thank my right hon. Friend for agreeing to do that.

I want to make some progress.

On travel, it is important that we recognise that local authorities are under a statutory duty to support young people aged between 16 and 19, and, up to the age of 24, any young learner with learning difficulties, to get to school or college. It is the law. Local authorities are failing in their statutory duty if they do not provide support. The Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009 strengthened that duty. Local authorities must consult young people and their parents, publish an appropriate plan and ensure that there is access.

I appreciate that local authorities, like all of us, are having to deal with the consequences of the desperate financial mess the previous Government bequeathed us, but the best local authorities are showing the way. Oxfordshire provides transport and totally waives the cost for any student whose family is in receipt of income support, housing benefit, free school meals or council tax benefit. Essex waives travel costs for children in receipt of a range of benefits. In Liberal Democrat-controlled Hull, any student in receipt of education maintenance allowance also receives a travel grant to cope with the full cost—

I suspect they won’t if a Labour council takes power, but if people are wise enough to vote Liberal Democrat at the next local election in Hull—[Hon. Members: “Oh.”]—or for the Conservatives in any seat where we are well placed to defeat Labour, they will have a council that is fulfilling its statutory duty. It is no surprise that there are Liberal Democrat and Conservative councils that ensure that all students receive the support they deserve. It is striking that that is in addition to EMA.

Transport costs are obviously a major factor for students all over the country. Can the Secretary of State explain why under the Transport for London fares rise approved by Boris Johnson, EMA-receiving students are charged 65p per bus fare, whereas under the previous Ken Livingstone regime they all had free bus travel to encourage young people in London to stay on in education? Will the Secretary of State have a word with his friend the Mayor of London?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that opening salvo in the Re-elect Ken campaign. Behind it, there is an important point, which is that in London transport and travel costs are significantly less—whoever the Mayor is—than those faced by people in rural constituencies. I was particularly struck by the testimony of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) that students in his constituency may need to undertake a round trip of two hours a day to reach a further education college. In constituencies such as those represented by the hon. Members for Wells (Tessa Munt) or for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), significant journeys have to be undertaken. I am also aware that because of the nature of sixth-form and FE college provision, many students will travel further for their sixth-form education than they would for school education. That is why the statutory duty exists. I am grateful that the Local Government Association has been so positive about so many coalition policies, and I shall work with local authorities to ensure that we can continue to provide that support. Let us be clear: EMA was designed and implemented to augment an existing statutory duty, not to replace it.

I shall not give way at this stage. I am conscious of the amount of time that has passed, and conscious too that many hon. Members want to speak in the remaining part of the debate.

If we are to increase participation, and if we are to generate greater social mobility, we need to be clear: we need to remove barriers. We also need to ask who faces the largest barriers. How can we help them better and what are the other barriers, as well as the financial one? The research shows us that, yes, the cost of transport, the cost of equipment or the cost of some maintenance can be a factor for some students, but it also shows us that there are bigger barriers: poor guidance, with students not being offered the right advice; poor choices, with an inadequate range of courses available; and above all, poor attainment. The real barrier to participation in education after the age of 16 is the quality of education that a person has received up to the age of 16. Yes, half this country’s students are in receipt of EMA, but by the time that half this country’s students reach the age of 16, they do not have five good GCSEs. We discovered the other week that barely 15% of students have GCSEs in the five essential areas of English, mathematics, science, languages and the humanities.

If we really believe in generating social mobility in this country, we must ask ourselves how every pound is best invested. Graham Allen is quite clear: spend it at the beginning. Frank Field is quite clear: spend it early on. The coalition Government are quite clear—

I am sorry, Mr Deputy Speaker.

The hon. Member for Nottingham North—a Labour Member—and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead are quite clear that we should invest in the early years. That is what the coalition Government are doing, and at a greater rate and in a more powerful way than the previous Government. The investment in early years, the reform of education, the investment in the pupil premium and the range of reforms that I mentioned earlier—the right hon. Member for Leigh has remained silent about them—make up a powerful package to generate greater social mobility.

The question for all hon. Members is: are we going to be sufficiently grown up to acknowledge that we have a deficit, or are we going to be deficit deniers? Are we going to be progressive enough to target support at those who need it most, or are we going to say that the existing system is perfect and need not be reformed? Are we going to say, “Let’s get our whole school system right,” or are we just going to spend more on one unreformed benefit? There is a basic choice today: vote with the Opposition, and therefore vote for reaction, complacency and deficit denial; or vote with the Government, and therefore vote for progressive policies, an education policy that will really change things and an opportunity, at last, to kick-start social mobility in this country.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate. I wish that the Secretary of State would stop the nonsense of talking about deficit denial. We know that the bankers caused the crisis. We invested in the economy to ensure that we could keep people in work and in their homes, and so that we could fund education—that is the difference between us and the Government.

We are considering not only cuts to EMA, but the Government’s wholesale betrayal of balancing their cuts towards young people. EMA has been a lifeline for young people, especially those from less well-off backgrounds, of whom there are many in my constituency. However, the cut must be considered in the context of what has happened to the likes of Halton under this Government. In addition to the cut in EMA, we have faced a massive £180 million cut in Building Schools for the Future. The tuition fees policy will have a particular effect on my constituents, and we experienced a £1.2 million education cut last year, although Tory-controlled Cheshire West and Cheshire East councils had a cut of only £600,000. We must not forget that the Government have made a deliberate ideological attempt to make cuts in Labour authorities and areas.

EMA has been an important tool to support young people in education and to encourage them to stay on, succeed and realise their aspirations. It also supports choice because it allows young people to choose the institution that is best for them, not just the nearest one. Ending the payment stacks the odds even more against those who have least but want to get on in life.

Halton benefited from being one of the original pilot areas for EMA. There was a 55% increase in EMA recipients between 2004 and 2010, with last year’s numbers exceeding 2,000 recipients. From talking to young people, I know how important EMA has been to them, so its withdrawal will lead to students dropping out and becoming NEETs—those not in employment, education or training—which will have a significant economic and social impact in deprived areas such as Halton. That would go against the so-called coalition’s policy of reducing the number of NEETs, and it would also reverse the marvellous progress that has been made in Halton to reduce its proportion of NEETs from 8.3% in 2007 to 4.5% last year.

The Association of Colleges reports that the National Foundation for Educational Research estimates that 12% of young people who received EMA believed that they would not have participated in their courses if they had not received it. In some colleges, half the students surveyed said that they felt that they would not be able to continue their course following the withdrawal of EMA, while a further third thought that they would need to weigh up the pros and cons of staying on at college.

Mike Sheehan is the widely respected principal of my constituency’s Riverside college—the college I attended. He has turned round a number of failing colleges and is achieving great things at Riverside college. He says that the withdrawal of EMA on new year’s eve has adversely affected recruitment to the college’s January programme. The figures are down by almost three quarters—just 25 students compared with 106 last January. He is worried about the students who enrolled on two-year courses in full expectation of receiving EMA throughout their course. It is unfair that EMA is being withdrawn partway through courses, and the Association of Colleges says that that will affect 300,000 young people throughout the country. Mr Sheehan says:

“Attendance, retention and achievement have risen drastically at Riverside College in recent years. We are absolutely convinced that EMA has played a significant part in bringing about these improvements. It has provided a real incentive for young people to attend fully and to stay at college.”

Some surveys have pointed to higher attendance and take-up rates for courses among young males from disadvantaged backgrounds who receive EMA. That is especially important in deprived areas such as Halton, and that is to say nothing about the higher earning potential of better-qualified students who complete college and the contribution to the economy that they can therefore make. According to this month’s Commons Library statistics on EMA and the Government’s research figures, that contribution more than offsets the costs of the EMA programme.

Both the Secretary of State and his shadow spokesman touched on a fundamental aspect of EMA for students from poorer backgrounds: the ability to pay for meals, books and educational equipment. One of the main uses of EMA, however, is the funding of transport. In December 2010, the Association of Colleges commissioned a survey to detail the accessibility of transport to people aged 16 to 19 attending college. It found that 94% of colleges believe that the abolition of EMA will affect students’ ability to travel to and from college. The support given by local authorities is extremely varied. Some 29% of authorities provide transport while 20% give financial support. Around 18% provide both, but 27% provide neither. Existing local authority transport provision is extremely patchy, and local authorities cannot be expected to pick up the tab for the withdrawal of EMA.

The Secretary of State might wish to examine Halton’s case. We had £30 million taken out of a £130 million budget as a result of the local government settlement, in-year cuts and other changes to programmes. If he thinks that any council, let alone a small one such as Halton, can bear such a cut without services being affected, he is in a different world. Councils cannot find additional funding to fill that sort of gap.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, as with the rest of the cuts agenda, the Secretary of State’s debt argument is simply a spurious decoy? Estimates of the debt position improved following the election, so the position was better after the election than when the Secretary of State promised that he would not abolish EMA.

We worked hard on the economy to keep people in work and to give them housing support. Today’s unemployment figures show the effect of the cuts that have already taken place, and we will see the real effects in the next year or two. The Government’s position is a red herring.

I will make another point to the Secretary of State, if he will listen for a second: if he is to bring forward another policy, when will we see it? As Mr Sheehan told me, the situation is causing a lot of uncertainty in colleges.

This is another example of the Government’s broken promises, as we have seen with the economy, health and transport. We have heard that the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State said that they would keep EMA, so this is a big broken promise on education. They are letting down hundreds of thousands of young people throughout the country, and at least 2,000 or 3,000 young people in my constituency will be affected over the next few years. This disgraceful policy discriminates against the poorest and the most deprived communities, so the Secretary of State should apologise for it today.

Order. Before I call the next speaker, I point out that many hon. Members wish to speak. The previous speaker set a good example by not using the full eight minutes. The fewer the interventions, the more speakers I can call.

It is a pleasure to take part in the debate about scrapping the education maintenance allowance. I share the frustration of many Opposition Members about the potential impact of abolishing it. However, although they may deny the relevance of the deficit, my anger is directed at the Labour party and the state in which the previous Government left the public finances.

I am entirely happy to chair a Committee and to bear witness to the reality of education funding. I am involved in education and serve on the Committee because I care passionately about improving the quality of education and opportunity in this country. We may hear from others later, but the shadow Secretary of State did at least have the goodness to recognise that there was room for reducing the deficit. However, he would not tell us where, what, when or how. When I consider the attempt to make more effective interventions in the early years and I look at the nursery education opportunities for two-year-olds, I ask myself whether I would prefer to cut that or keep the EMA.

A Labour Member suggested that there might be differences between Members. In my constituency, some students travel for an hour and 40 minutes each way to attend Bishop Burton further education college. That is a real issue for a rural area such as mine. However, I know that half of all 17 and 18-year-old full-time students are eligible for EMA, and I am aware of the chronic crisis and pressure on education budgets—the desperate desire to deliver the outcomes that we have struggled to provide from our system. I have said it before, and I will risk repeating it: I know that the Labour Government were utterly committed to trying to close the gap. They had will and they had resource—a resource which has sadly gone—yet too often the gap widened rather than narrowed. I do not blame the Opposition for using this issue today, but I hope that we will collectively, not in a party political way, take the limited funds that are available—the deficit is not an irrelevant fact but the fundamental elephant in the room—and look to do what is best. We had a lot of spending previously, and we have a diet of hard decisions now. They must be faced.

The shadow Secretary of State suggested that the best approach was to cut everything by the same amount. Is that really the strategically sensible way to ensure that we improve outcomes for people in our society, not least those with least? I do not think that it is. So I am interested to know how the discretionary learner fund—the replacement for EMA—will work, because of the realities faced by my constituents, who travel over three hours a day to get to an FE college, and who then achieve at the end of that. If those people manage to do that in the face of great difficulty and personal inconvenience, I want to be sure that colleges such as Bishop Burton, which run private enterprises to make profits so that they can have a fleet of vehicles, are not disadvantaged. Despite those vehicles, the college is worried that the students, who often live in small hamlets, need to travel from their home to the pick-up point for the college bus. We need to ensure that we have a system—whether financed by local authorities or the replacement for EMA—that covers that.

It is hard to believe that EMA as it stands is the most sensible use of scarce resource. I am not trying to make a party political point, and I am mindful of my position as Chair of the Select Committee, but I want us to devise the system that works most effectively and yet does not deny the reality.

When I was first elected as a councillor—in Cambridge—many years ago, I went to a budget survey meeting with the public in a local shopping centre, which the then Labour council had arranged. I was handed a form which gave a list of spending areas for the budget debate. It said, “Please tick all those areas where you would like to see more spending.” I am a small-state Conservative in some ways, and I found many items on which I wanted to spend more. I was terribly aware of what went on in my ward—the lack of provision for young people, the need to do more in many areas—and I wanted to tick many boxes. However, the Labour council had sensibly included a proviso, which said, “All we ask is that for every box you tick to give more money, you identify another item on which you want to spend less.”

That is the challenge that faces the Select Committee, which will look under the bonnet of the new fund. It will examine engagement and participation by 16 to 19-year-olds. We want to ensure that the dire warnings by the shadow Secretary of State are not fulfilled and that young people are not put off education, but we must realise that we are in a highly constrained position because of this Government’s financial inheritance. Like that wise Labour council many years ago, every time we say, “Let’s save EMA”—Opposition Members have not made it clear so far whether they want to save all or half of EMA—we should ask, “What will we cut?” Just as, in that shopping centre, members of the public, like me, were told, “It’s not enough to say you want better youth services; you’ve got to tell us where to save the money too,” if hon. Members are to do justice to the young people, whom we all want to see given decent and proper opportunity, we must ensure that we do so in a financially responsible manner.

It is an interesting debate, but I found it hard to concentrate on the Secretary of State’s speech because I was expecting a speech that was focused particularly on the motion and on EMA, but he seemed to want to talk about almost everything else. He spoke endlessly about the economy but said little about EMA.

In my brief speech, I want to make a couple of points. First, as a former Chair of the Education Committee, I say to the current Chair that, as Nye Bevan said, it is a question of priorities, but he and I, and other hon. Members, served on the Committee when it conducted an inquiry into NEETs—one of our last inquiries under the previous Government, and I believe that the impact on NEETs of the removal of EMA will prove very much more expensive than the NEET budget.

I beg the Government to think in terms of the broader picture. The previous Government introduced EMA because we knew that if we could keep a young person on in education from 16 to 18, we had got ’em—they stayed on, and not just to go to Oxford and Cambridge, which the Secretary of State is obsessed with. The one thing that annoys me most is the obsession with which kids who had free school meals went to Oxford and Cambridge. I am a London School of Economics graduate, but I must point out that there are many much better universities than Oxford and Cambridge. There are brilliant universities—the university of Huddersfield in my constituency is fantastic. It has one of the best design and engineering departments in the country. So please, Secretary of State, do not be obsessive about Oxford and Cambridge.

The record is there to show that as a result of the successful policy of introducing EMA, many more young people—a tremendous number—now stay on from 16 to 18. They do not do all the posh things such as going to Oxford and Cambridge or the Russell Group universities, but they stay on for apprenticeships and training; they go for craft training and become technicians. The Secretary of State shares my desire to get more kids to become technicians. There is nothing wrong with that, and EMA has meant that many more have come through. We know that without EMA, many young people will be put off doing so.

With EMA, we have changed the educational culture; it is the one area in which we have done so. Kids now stay on until they are 18 and that opens up their lives to new opportunities. The abolition of EMA will change the culture back to what it was before.

In a moment.

We must also consider the long-term implications and the unintended consequences. I pray in aid a recent report from the Equalities Commission. It showed how many young people from ethnic minorities were unemployed and the sort of employment those who worked had. For example, 25% of Pakistanis are taxi drivers. It showed how many Pakistani, Bangladeshi, black and white working-class young people have been brought into education and stay in education because of EMA. If those young people are not in education or training, they will not get jobs. The long-term cost to our communities will be frightening.

In the local college in my constituency, 50% of young people surveyed who receive EMA have said that they are unlikely to be able to stay on in education. That is a damning indictment. Secondly, is my hon. Friend aware that it is predicted that the Government will spend some £40 million trying to cancel EMA? Young people will feel very let down if it is true that so much money will be spent doing that. It is appalling.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I agree with it, but may I press on and say two more things? The first is that when I chaired the Children, Schools and Families Committee, it always believed in evidence-based policy. That means listening to all the evidence, not just taking one bit that we like and saying, “I’ll base the policy on this,” and ignoring all the other evidence. I ask the current Chair of the Education Committee, when he has an inquiry on the subject—he will have one; it will be too late, but he will have one—to bear in mind that we always took all the evidence.

I have not heard one mention today of Professor Alison Wolf, whom the Secretary of State appointed to look at 14-to-19 education and vocational opportunities. What on earth happened to that? This is just like the increase in student fees; we are to have a White Paper, after the Government have decided what they will do about student fees. It is a classic case of putting the cart before the horse. The fact is that the Secretary of State has got one of the country’s leading experts—Professor Alison Wolf from King’s College London—to look at the issue, but he will make all the major decisions that will influence how many young people stay on in further and vocational education before she brings forward her report in spring.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding the House that the coalition Government enjoy the support and advice of the leading figure in the world of vocational education. I am aware of two detailed reports on the effectiveness of the education maintenance allowance: the 2007 Institute for Fiscal Studies report, which showed that the allowance had a marginal impact on both attainment and attendance, and of course the National Foundation for Educational Research report, which was published in the autumn last year. Can he tell me of any other serious reports, from the NFER or anyone else, that make a contrary case?

May I remind the Secretary of State of what one of his favourites, the Policy Exchange, said?

“The only possible remaining argument for the EMA is social justice—that young people from poorer backgrounds deserve to be supported from 16 rather than at 18. This is a pretty weak argument”.

So that is another one, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies has looked again at its original research, as he well knows.

Has the hon. Gentleman actually read the 2007 IFS report, or the 2010 NFER report? If he had read those, and the Policy Exchange report, he would have seen that those three serious academic reports all say that EMA does not produce the benefits that he, in his passion, would like it to.

The IFS report, taken on its own, shows that even if only 8% to 10% of people took up EMA, that would pay for its cost, in terms of the fuller picture. Today, we are talking about the full cost and impact, and the change in the culture in our country. It is interesting; I thought that the Secretary of State was going to tell us what the hell had happened to the Alison Wolf report, and why he was introducing policy before he had even bothered to listen to the leading expert, who he has working on the issue. A lot of us have actually contributed to her inquiry. What was the point of talking to the Government, and giving one’s advice and experience, when the Government ignore it because the Secretary of State has introduced his policy before Alison Wolf introduced hers? We will wait and see what the report brings us.

We are at a pivotal moment. I think most people in the House would agree that we have to make some changes—extraordinary ones. If I sat down with a group of people who care about education in this House, and we discussed what we were to cut, we could think extraordinary things. If I were really pushed and wanted to defend EMA, I would go for larger class sizes, because there is real evidence that slightly larger class sizes do not make all that much difference. That might upset some of my colleagues, and I agree that there are priorities to be set and choices to be made, but this Secretary of State has never given us a chance to set priorities.

I will not give way. The fact is that we could have that negotiation and discussion. It is right that there should be priorities, but removing EMA will hurt all communities, up and down the land. In my constituency of Huddersfield, two FE colleges, Kirklees college and Huddersfield New college, depend heavily on education maintenance allowances; they do a wonderful job in bringing young people who would not otherwise have the chance into education across the piece.

I am reminded that many people on the Conservative side do not actually know much about FE. [Interruption.] Listen a minute. Only last June, the Association of Colleges gave a golden award to six people who went to FE colleges. A person could not get through the Conservatives and Liberals who were gathered around Colin Firth as he got his award. He never went to university; he went to an FE college. Those people in this House who understand the wonderful job that FE colleges do will share my feeling that this is a shameful day in education policy—a day on which the Secretary of State did not have the courage to defend his arguments, but instead first used the lifebelt of taking more and more interventions to save him making a speech, and secondly went on about the broader economy. This is a shameful day, and the Secretary of State should be ashamed of it.

May I say how pleased I am that the Secretary of State is working with schools and colleges on how the enhanced learner support fund should operate? The few comments that I shall make today are intended to feed into the work that I understand is going on in the vital area of supporting participation in 16-to-19 education and training, and into the work that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) is carrying out. I believe that there should be a comprehensive view across all education and training for that age group.

Over several years, I have received a number of representations about the unfairness of the EMA system, and I am quite convinced that there is a need for reform, but equally I am concerned that its replacement should provide sufficient support. On the point about unfairness, I would like to quote just one constituency case—a rather unusual one. A single parent, earning just over £30,000 a year, had triplets in a local sixth form. I wrote pleading letters to the relevant Labour Minister, saying that surely there should be more flexibility to take into account individual circumstances, but to no avail. Of course child benefit is not very helpful when one has triplets, either, because for the second and third triplet, the rate is considerably lower.

There must be many cases where a family has two or more siblings in post-16 education, yet the system that the Labour party is defending so vigorously did not have the capacity to respond to individual circumstances. I believe that we need something that is individual and targeted. It is clear to me that we need to address potential barriers to entry faced by individual students in accessing the most appropriate courses of their choice, and how those barriers can best be overcome.

Like the Secretary of State, I believe in choice and social mobility. That means access to the right institution that offers the right range of subjects for the particular student. I represent a constituency that is relatively affluent, but it certainly includes young people who need and deserve our support. It has a mix of urban and rural areas. I concur with the points made about the very long journeys that have to be undertaken by some students.

I shall deal briefly with the main barriers, as I see them. I see transport as a major barrier. It is not enough to say that local authorities have a statutory duty. The local authorities that cover my constituency have long since abandoned providing transport for sixth-form students, and have taken the attitude that EMA replaced the need to cover public transport. They have been quite gruelling, saying, “Ah, there’s another school or college that is closer, where you could do more or less what you want to do.” That is not good enough.

Poole local authority, for example, has grammar schools. If a young person has gone to a secondary modern school from the poorer part of town, it is right that they should have access to the grammar school if they have worked hard to get the qualifications. I ask the Secretary of State to look at that. We believe in social mobility, and with the grammar school system there is a particular problem.

With reference to FE colleges, we need to take on board why young people go on to further education. It is often because it offers a totally different type of course from those they were able to do at school. Again, there is a problem with a local authority funding transport because somebody wants to go to a college of further education rather than to their local comprehensive school. School might have been a bad experience. I have lectured in further education for many years. It is inspiring to turn around students who have had bad school experiences and turn out to be brilliant students in a different setting. I am concerned that we may be depriving some children of those opportunities.

My constituency has no FE colleges, which inevitably means a great deal of travel for youngsters there. Students from my constituency go further afield, beyond Bournemouth and Poole college, in the opposite direction to the specialist college, Kingston Maurward, which has incredibly interesting courses. Originally one of the agricultural colleges, it offers many courses that are suitable for particular interests, such as work with animals. It is extremely important that transport is paid.

I am concerned that the issue of transport costs is not as simple as it sounded when the Secretary of State was talking about it. I would support the introduction of a young people’s travel card. I would make a sacrifice. I am eligible for a bus pass although I do not have one. Even if I had it, I do not think I need to be able to travel all over the country for free. I believe many people would accept a cut there.

A further barrier is the cost of equipment. Bournemouth and Poole college has an amazing reputation for catering and hospitality, as hon. Members might imagine. Of course, the equipment is expensive, and students must have help with that. We have discussed the fact that some courses need more expensive books than others—for example, students going on to study art will need expensive materials.

I had better not, given the time.

There is a big difference between school, where free school meals are available, and the local college. Young people’s life chances can be transformed by going to college, but they need to have enough food.

I draw attention to the young people who are vulnerable and particularly disadvantaged—those not living in a family home for whatever reason, children in care, care leavers, young people who are homeless, children and young people with learning difficulties, teenage parents and young carers. We need some red lines: some groups of young people must be protected, come what may. In future, we must enhance access, ensure success and allow our young people to achieve their potential, regardless of background and financial circumstances.

I have two specific questions. One is about young people who are part-way through courses and who may not have EMA for the next year of the course. How will that be tackled? Will there be ring-fencing? I am worried about colleges and schools having pots of money and its going off into other activities. Finally, we seem to be facing a big threat today, but together we could work on the opportunities arising from it.

The Government’s decision to abolish EMA will damage young people’s prospects throughout the country, but in a constituency such as mine in east London, the results will be frankly disastrous. Removing seven eighths of the money and establishing, possibly, a residual discretionary support fund will be no compensation. It will place colleges and schools in the impossible position of allocating resources thinly but fairly among many deserving students.

At present, more than 5,000 students in my local borough of Newham receive EMA—more than two in five of all of our 16 to 19-year-olds. It makes a real difference to them and to their families. Our 16-plus participation rate is up almost 13% since EMA came on-stream, from 81.4% in 2003-04 to 94.1% in 2008-09. Newham sixth-form college is the largest in London, and more than three quarters of students receive EMA. The vast majority are on the full £30 weekly allowance. Students I met reported giving the contribution to their parents for their keep, so let there be no mistake: this money will be sorely missed.

Newham’s average household income is £455 a week. Only three other English local authorities have higher levels of child poverty. Silver spoons are in short supply in Newham. For most of the students at Newham sixth-form college, EMA is not just nice-to-have pocket money but a financial necessity. It helps with the costs of travel, buying books and other course requirements, and contributes to household incomes. EMA is not a bribe, as has been claimed, but a pathway to further and higher education for young people in low-income families. EMA offers a lifeline to many against whom the odds are already stacked. But now, EMA recipients who are halfway through their courses say they do not know how they can carry on when their funding is withdrawn. Others worry about the motivation for younger brothers and sisters to keep attending school and doing their best.

Do we really want a country where young people have to worry about the significant sacrifices that their parents will have to make to allow them to undertake further education? Do we really want young people to have to forgo their lunches a couple of times a week, or walk miles to college because they cannot afford the bus fare? Do we really want them to spend every spare minute they have in part-time work?

Since its creation, EMA has sent a strong signal to teenagers that a positive future is available if they work hard and play by the rules. We can contrast that positive and inclusive message with the hugely discouraging signals we are now sending to our young people: the abolition of EMA alongside the cutting of Aimhigher, the trebling of tuition fees and the ending of the future jobs fund. It is obvious that we are storing up problems for the future, and the Government’s decision to slash the support for young people to stay on in education will be viewed by future generations as a betrayal—a costly mistake—as well as another broken promise.

I am sorry, but I promised not to give way.

The Government, and even the Prime Minister earlier today, try to justify the abolition of EMA by relying on a single research study. But as ever with this Government, when it comes to their use of statistics it pays to read the small print. The research that they point to was carried out by the highly reputable National Foundation for Educational Research, but that study was not an evaluation of EMA; it was a much broader project, looking at barriers to learning for all 16 to 19-year-olds. The research sampled only year 11 students—students not in the sixth form, with no experience of the additional costs associated with further education—so the study cannot legitimately bear the conclusion that the Government want to draw from it. The research is an excuse for their decision to abolish EMA, not a reasoned explanation.

As my right hon. and hon. Friends have said, other independent studies found that EMA does increase participation in post-16 learning, particularly among young people from families on low incomes. Members do not have to take my word for it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) said, the Institute for Fiscal Studies—that well-known left-wing organisation!—looked at the Government’s case and found it wanting, stating that it was based on selective assumptions. It concluded that EMA is an effective use of public money. I do not believe that cutting EMA is inevitable in the light of the financial situation. I am not a deficit denier; I simply believe that abolishing EMA is not economically sound. Bankers’ bonuses flourish, yet ordinary young people pay the price. There is no policy justification for the cut. Let there be no mistake: the abolition of EMA is a political choice.

Let me tell those who still think that the allowance is a bribe about Tom Chigbo, a London boy, and the first black president of Cambridge student union. He lives in my constituency. He tells me that he would not have got to Cambridge without EMA: he used it for travel and food and to attend additional lectures and seminars in London, which made his personal statement stand out and gave him something to talk about at interview. Members who will vote in the Government Lobby should remember Tom and the others up and down the country whose future they are blighting and whose potential they are capping.

Today we are debating a scheme introduced by the previous Government that has done some good for poorer students but is also wasteful and inefficient. We need to work out how to maintain and support poorer students while cutting overall costs. Sadly, this is a typical tale of the previous Government’s waste and the current Government having to mop up the mess.

Much of the discussion has been about access, but I firmly believe that raising the school-leaving age to 18 by 2015 will address the issue. I want to concentrate mainly on looking at how best we can give money to students in genuine need. The system currently costs £565 million a year, at a time when, we all accept, the Government are short of money. We cannot pay for everything, so we have to find savings. Of those receiving the allowance, 10% have parents earning more than £25,000 a year, and 47% of those in full-time education are claiming it. Are we saying that all those people need it?

The 18 October 2010 edition of The Observer reported on a Local Government Association report published that month suggesting that 90% of those claiming did not need that benefit. That means that only £56 million gets into the pockets of the poorest in our society, whereas we want to increase discretionary payments to £78 million by 2015.

No, I am short of time.

Under our proposals, poorer students in my constituency of Morecambe and Lunesdale will be better off, while we will save the taxpayer money. I thank the Secretary of State, who sadly is not here, for the £250,000 he recently put towards Morecambe college.

EMA was a typical Labour scatter-gun approach: some people benefit, but money is given to many who do not need it. Of course students oppose our proposals, but they aim to support the poor and not give money to everyone who wants it. We must put dogma to one side, as the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) said, and sort this mess out where it counts. I believe that together we could do that constructively.

Order. Before calling the next speaker, I must inform Members that—would Members please resume their seats?—52 of them still wish to speak. To be fair, and to try to call them all, I will reduce the time limit to six minutes. I hope that they will bear it in mind when speaking that many Members wish to contribute.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. This happens again and again. We are given a restricted time limit, and in the course of the debate it is reduced. One reason why is that the two Front Benchers’ speeches took 50 minutes and 46 minutes. If Front Benchers, taking interventions again and again, are going to reduce the opportunities of Back Benchers to make speeches of reasonable length, we ought to look at the whole system, because it is unacceptable to reduce the length of speeches in the course of a debate.

Sir Gerald, I understand your frustration and anger at the reduction in the time limit. As you will know, it is beyond the power of the Chair to curtail the opening speeches or to prevent Members making interventions in the first place when they have their name down to speak in that very debate, but I am sure that other Members will want to take up your point with the Procedure Committee. It is not a matter for me, however. I am trying, with this debate, to be as fair as I possibly can, and even with six minutes not every Member who has asked to speak will be called before the winding-up speeches. I am afraid that I can do nothing more at this stage, but I will certainly draw the issue to the Speaker’s attention.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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?

No, thank you.

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 a 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