Sharon was responding to a debate on the future of EMA on behalf of HM Opposition.
Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on securing this important and timely debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), who has had to leave. I know she has been trying for some time to secure the debate, together with our hon. Friend.
Both hon. Friends are proven great champions of young people from low-income backgrounds. I look forward to the Minister's response to the strong arguments that we have heard today. My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan is also a prolific tabler of parliamentary questions, and I commend her on her persistence on this issue; I only wish that Ministers would get into the spirit of open democracy and answer some of the questions more promptly.
This has been a good-natured and high-quality debate, considering the passion that the subject evokes, especially in our party. The debate is not yet over, so perhaps I should not speak too soon. However, I will try to stay within that spirit. We have had some strong speeches, although probably not as many as we would have liked, as a number of hon. Members have not been able to speak. I hope the Minister will take that on board and perhaps ask whether this matter should be debated on the Floor of the House in Government time.
Those who have spoken include: the hon. Members for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), for Stourbridge (Margot James) and for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson); my hon. Friends the Members for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) and for Hyndburn (Graham Jones); and the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who was very brief, as was my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins). There were some excellent contributions and I am sorry that I do not have time to go through them all in detail.
We have had a lot of debate on EMA this week, including the "Save EMA" national campaign day in Westminster and around the country, when 60,000 young people sent a clear message to the Government that this policy is unfair. Yesterday, we had an extremely embarrassing report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies-referred to by some hon. Friends-which laid bare the ridiculously weak evidence base the Government use to support their position.
Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): In mentioning the IFS, my hon. Friend draws attention to the fact that the Government spent a lot of time insisting on the NFER study, which focuses only on participation. EMA, does she not agree, has four main purposes-participation, attendance, attainment and supporting the well-being of people from disadvantaged backgrounds in education? Those things have not been evaluated properly, though the IFS study reported yesterday started to do so.
Mrs Hodgson: My hon. Friend makes a valuable point, one which I hope the Minister and Government will consider before coming forward with an announcement in this regard.
This morning we had a very good seminar in the Boothroyd room, at which young people, teachers and administrators from across the country-including Becky, Codie, John and Jordan from Hylton skills campus in my constituency-talked to politicians about what scrapping EMA will mean to them. It was a shame that the Minister could not be there. With respect to all hon. Members who have contributed to this debate, it would have been much more valuable for the Minister to have heard first-hand what young people and those who work with them say, to those of us willing to listen, about how much impact this choice will have on the lives of people from the poorest backgrounds.
Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): I wanted to put that question to the Minister, had I had the opportunity to speak. How many colleges have the Government spoken to about this policy? I spoke recently to staff from Newcastle college, which carried out a survey of all its EMA recipients, 85% of whom use it for transport costs. I was alarmed to hear it stated in this debate that EMA is regularly and widely abused. That is not the experience of colleges that I have spoken to.
Mrs Hodgson: That was definitely not the experience that Members heard from students this morning. We heard some powerful and at times very moving contributions. Many students told us how EMA is barely enough at the moment to cover their travel costs and their lunch. A young man called Luke told us of his peers who could not eat before or at college because their money did not go far enough. How many more will be in that position when EMA is removed? We know that eating well leads to better attainment. Even though the Minister and his colleagues scrapped the extension to free school meals, he must acknowledge the scientific evidence.
We heard from the principal of Lambeth College that EMA had led to a rise in participation and achievement and a fall in drop-outs. We heard from Cath and Alex, who had brought the young people all the way down from my constituency in Sunderland, that EMA helps young people with financial planning, which reduces the likelihood of their getting into debt in later life. We heard from a student who had dropped out of school in year 8, but was now studying towards GCSE-level qualifications because of EMA. We heard from a young single mother, who could only attend college and take her child to the crèche because of EMA. We also heard from all the staff that EMA was helping young people.
The most poignant moment was a comment from John, who with his peers had got up at 4 am to come down from Sunderland for the meeting. He sat there until the end, then said:
"Sharon said on Friday that I should follow my dreams. EMA gives me the chance to follow my dreams, and if you take it away, I don't know what I'll do."
Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): I will be brief. I wanted to share an example from my constituency. Kyle Simpson is a young Olympic hopeful training alongside Rebecca Adlington. He says EMA makes such a difference. His mum contributes to his training fees, and EMA enables him to go to college and have a little bit of money for transport, food and something of a social life, when he is not training and competing in swimming competitions.
Mrs Hodgson: That is another very good example. Many of the young people I met today were in their first year of study, and had undertaken to stay on in the sixth form or college on the understanding that that support would remain for the full two years. Why would they think otherwise?
After all, the man who painted himself as a modern, trustworthy leader of the Conservative party went around telling people that EMA was safe. In March, the current Education Secretary told the Guardian-in the nicest possible terms, as is his way-that his predecessor was a liar for suggesting that a Conservative Government would scrap EMA. In June, the very Minister sent here today to defend this policy put his commitment to the future of EMA on the parliamentary record.
Imagine the surprise of these young people at finding out that a promise from any of these men is not worth the paper it is written on. If the Minister and his colleagues in the Conservative party were as committed as they say they are to the principle of helping working-class kids access further education, why have they now turned their backs on them?
In the last debate on this subject, I heard the Government and the Minister, as well as some Government Back Benchers here, repeatedly trot out the line that 90% of EMA recipients are what they call "dead-weight". We might hear it again in the Minister's response-I hope not-despite the fact that we have heard plenty of contradictory evidence over the last hour. They should not be referred to in that manner.
I have a lot of respect for the Minister but, frankly, I find it disgusting to hear him and his colleagues talk about ambitious but poor young people as dead-weight. Never mind the fact that without EMA they might have to work every evening and weekend just to afford bus fares, food and books, because they want to better themselves. Because they want to better themselves, he believes that they are undeserving of support.
I do not know about the Minister, but I have actually bothered to go to my local colleges, as have hon. Friends to theirs, and speak to young people who receive EMA. The Minister says that nine out 10 of them would fall into the category of dead-weight, but I can inform him that the young people whom I visited are very much alive and working hard to better themselves, and they are angry with him. Some of them are around today, and they might try to catch his ear as he leaves. Perhaps he should prepare a response.
The Minister will undoubtedly be aware that the Hylton skills campus is part of the City of Sunderland college. Its excellent principal, Angela O'Donoghue, e-mailed me yesterday to tell me that the cuts would have a massive impact on her college. Some 70% of her students receive EMA, and 90% of those receive the full £30. How many of those young people would the Minister say are undeserving of help?
I shall bring my remarks to a close because we want to hear what the Minister has to say. I have done loads of sums-I know that people like to hear about my calculations-but I may have to save them for another day. However, I might write to the Minister and pass the benefit of those sums to him.
Richard Thorold, the principal of Gateshead college, which my son attends, wrote to me. He said:
"Whilst I accept that these are difficult times financially, I believe that financial support for young people continuing their education and training is a valuable investment towards creating a sustainable future for us all."
The key question for the Minister is why do the Government not think so?