This is unfair to the poorest teenagers in our country

Axing the Education Maintenance Allowance will prevent thousands of young people from deprived backg

Last week the debate around tuition fees focused on whether it would put people from low-income backgrounds off going to university. Yesterday that choice was taken away from them as the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) was axed. When I say axed, that is what was done, in effect: because when you turn to page 42 of the Comprehensive Spending Review green book you see that the saving from "replacing" the EMA is £0.5bn, which also happens to be the entire budget for the scheme.

If you don't know what the EMA was, it was basically a means-tested allowance of between £10 and £30, paid to 16-to-19-year-olds who stayed on in education and who were from deprived backgrounds where household income was below £30,810 per year.

Those receiving the £30 payment made up 80 per cent of all recipients; to able to receive this payment, household income had to be below £20,817 per year. This sum may seem insignificant to some, but in a survey carried out by the National Union of Students in 2008, 65 per cent of participants who were on the highest EMA rate of £30 said that they could not continue to study without the EMA.

But if this still does not convince you to their importance, at least the weight of evidence supporting the EMA far outweighs the arguments of any naysayers. For example, research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows attainment at GCSE and A-level by recipients of the EMA has risen by 5 to 7 percentage points since its introduction, and by even more for those living in the most deprived neighbourhoods. In addition, RCU Market Research Services carried out an investigation on the national scheme and published a report called Evaluation of the EMA National Roll-out 2007, which concluded:

The EMA is reducing Neet (those Not in Employment, Education or Training) and also motivating learners to work harder.

Ipsos MORI published a report in 2008 called Evaluation of Extension of Education Maintenance Allowance to Entry-to-Employment and Programme-Led Apprenticeships. This report reached similar conclusions to the RCU research:

The EMA is reducing Neet and also motivating learners to work harder.

But, if one wants to look for an example of why the axe should not fall on the EMA system, one has only to look to Scotland. The SNP administration in Holyrood which administers the EMA for Scotland, has cut the budget for the allowance by 20 per cent and made regressive changes to the scheme's eligibility criteria. These changes lowered the threshold for the £30 payment and axed the £10 and £20 payments in Scotland.

The action has unfortunately led to fears in Scotland that progress made so far will be undone by the SNP administration's policy. At the time of the cut, the NUS claimed that it would lead to 8,000 students dropping out. As youth unemployment in Scotland has risen by 7,000, it is hard to dispute their early prediction.

The £20 and £10 payments may seem a small sum to some, but this maintenance allowance removes some of the barriers to participation in education, and the £10 and £20 brackets are useful in this case, particularly in covering transportation costs.

Figures on the EMA released by the Scottish government just last year showed that the old system developed under the Labour administration was successful. The figures showed that 39,110 college students and school pupils from low-income families were taking up the allowance in 2007-2008, up on levels for 2006-2007.

The figures also showed that the allowance helped school pupils from low-income families stay on in education: 77 per cent of school pupils on the EMA scheme for the full year achieved the attendance rates and learning expectations set out for them, compared with 70 per cent in 2006-2007. The percentage of those on the EMA for a full year and receiving £10 or £20 payments who completed the scheme increased to 82 per cent (the figures for 2006-2007 were 74 per cent for those on £10 payments and 73 per cent for those on £20 payments).

These figures may seem just a list of endless statistics to some, but they represent something quite different to me. Since I started the Save EMA campaign, I have had hundreds of emails and messages from teenagers on the Save EMA website who are very worried about their future.

Take this one from Alex:

Without the EMA I wouldn't be able to go to college and become what I have always dreamed of being.

This is something I can relate to, as I was on the allowance, and I know that attending sixth form depended on those payments. When they were delayed, it meant that I missed college. Luckily that didn't happen too often, and unlike my older sisters and all the generations in my family before me, I was able to straight on to university.

My old sixth form now has half the students on the EMA. It pains me greatly to think that there are many people like myself at my old school who will not have the same opportunity to stay on in education and get the qualifications they need to live a better life. But I will leave you with the words of Alex, another of the many people who have emailed me and written on our website.

For me, his comment sums up what the Comprehensive Spending Review means to people like us:

I need EMA otherwise I will have no education. In other words . . . no future.

James Mills is part of the Save EMA Campaign.

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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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