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News, gossip and insight from PoliticsHome Editor Paul Waugh

What's EMA for?

The barricades have gone up again around Parliament and this afternoon we could be in for a major student protest.

Unlike tuition fees that come into force in a couple of years, losing £30 a week is very much a here-and-now issue for large numbers of sixth formers. With 650,000 kids in receipt of the allowance, it's no wonder that even some Tory MPs are worried about the impact on their constituents' families.

Of course, it's the very fact that such large numbers - nearly half of 16-18 year olds - do receive the cash that is one of the Government's main arguments for scrapping it. The lack of targeting, plus the half a billion year cost of delivering the scheme, is what's driven Michael Gove towards abolition.

I'm always incredibly sceptical about anecdotal evidence, but the Government are keen to get out the anecdotes that some students spend their EMA on nights out and gym membership.

But it looks like Andy Burnham has given Gove the perfect open goal on this with an interview on the BBC Six last night.

Burnham said: "Yes, they may spend some of it on food and even the occasional time out with friends, but part of being in a college means taking part in the whole life of a college, and why should we say to young people from the least well-off backgrounds, well, 'you can’t have those things'?."

One of the weaker arguments used by the Government, however, is that there is no point in offering a cash "incentive" for sixth formers to stay on when the effective school leaving age is now 18. Surely the point is that poor students will remain poor even if they are compulsorily required to study until 18. They will still need books, cash for travel - and yes, clothes - while they are studying. They may have to get part-time McJobs which richer students simply won't need to distract them from their studies.

Which is why any clues as to the Government's alternative scheme is perhaps the most interesting feature of today's Opposition Day debate. As with Building Schools for the Future, some in Whitehall are amazed that Gove unveiled the abolition of EMA without coming up with an alternative scheme for the poorest.

Of course, targeting can be devilishly difficult - especially if you are slashing the overall cash pot. Simon Hughes is still trying to work out an alternative scheme and that's the main reason he won't be backing Labour in the vote today, despite private chats with Burnham. In yet another clever bit of Big Tentery, Hughes's appointment by the PM as point man on educational access appears to have worked.

Just as important to the size of today's rebellion will be Gove himself. Last night, he addressed Lib Dem MPs to reassure them that he wanted to help the poorest, but in a more effective way.

 

UPDATE: David Cameron had great sport at PMQs today by quoting Gordon Brown, pointing out EMA would be funded from lower debt.

But there's an even better quote from G Brown that causes problems for Labour..

Way back in 1998, when the then Chancellor first mooted EMA in his Comprehensive Spending Review, he said:

"A further reform will make it possible for thousands more young people to stay on in school and to go on to further and higher education.

"We have to raise Britain's appallingly low staying-on rates, and a new educational maintenance allowance--linked to attendance and based on parental income--will be piloted for 16 to 18-year-olds. If, as we expect, the new maintenance allowance succeeds in encouraging more young people to stay on in education, we plan to introduce it nationally, using the money currently spent on post-16 child benefit."

On the 17 March 1998 in his Budget, he had also said:

"It must be right in principle that if Child Benefit is raised, there is a case for higher rate tax payers paying tax on it...following the children's review, we shall bring forward detailed recommendations for reform."

Now, as we know, EMA did not replace child benefit for 16-18 year-olds. And neither was it taxed for higher earners.

But Michael Gove may be tempted to use both quotes to undermine Labour's claims that child benefit for basic rate and for higher earners is sacrosanct.

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