The abolition of EMA played more of a role in the riots than its creation

EMA helped the poorest working class pupils to struggle on in education and avoid dropping out.

Perhaps it was wrong to except much of a Telegraph article that begins with "in my day". Brendan O'Neil, who describes himself as someone who wages a "culture war of words" against prejudice and misanthropy, claimed that the Education Maintenance Allowance [EMA] scheme provided a rock star lifestyle to teenage recipients, regardless of the fact that 80 per cent come from families whose household income is below £21,000 a year.

Of course there will be those who misuse any payment scheme - the MPs' expenses scandal is one obvious example. However, other than anecdotal evidence, there is no proof that the level of misuse of EMA is endemic. In fact, any research into what EMA recipients actually spend their money on has consistently shown that "Young people who were receiving EMA were more likely than other groups of eligible young people to be making a contribution to housekeeping costs, transport and books and equipment for school".

So far, so Jan Moir. More worrying were his other claims. Apparently EMA caused the riots. How you ask? By creating a "new state yoof (sic) gang" filled with a "sense of entitlement and disrespect for local community and parental authority". And by failing to put a "strong, moral case for the importance of education" to working class pupils.

The sad truth is that, if anything, EMA probably helped the poorest working class pupils to struggle on in education and avoid dropping out. Ironically, the best evidence for this comes from the one report the government tried to use to justify the abolition of EMA. The report, by the National Foundation for Educational Research, was not actually about EMA but instead barriers to education. In June, its author, Thomas Spielhofer, gave evidence to parliament in which he said the government "misinterpreted" his report and that he "opposes" EMA's abolition.

The poll of 838 recipients of EMA, cited by the government, found that 88 per cent of them would like to continue participating in their course regardless of financial incentives. What this really showed, according to Spielhofer, was the level of resilience and commitment among those teenagers who wanted to stay in education. He compared it to pensioners receiving free bus passes - many would still like to use buses if they didn't receive them. But, naturally, their use of that service would be affected by their ability to pay for it.

As Spielhofer went to lengths to point out to the select committee, there were no supplementary questions about whether they would have dropped out without the payments due to the cost of studying. When that question was asked of EMA recipients earlier this year, 70 per cent said they would be forced to drop out if they lost their EMA. It was probably no surprise, therefore, that the very next month the education select committee published a report that said the government "rushed" its decision to scrap EMA.

Brendan O'Neil offered not one strand of evidence showing EMA caused the riots. If anything, those teenagers who told journalists its abolition influenced them had more proof. Despite Michael Gove on Newsnight protesting that EMA has not yet been cut, he and others forget that those planning to start courses this September may not be able to without prior knowledge of their funding. According to research by the University and College Union, 40 per cent of EMA recipients would not have even started courses without the payments.

Nevertheless, there is no excuse for violence and many recipients of EMA played no part in the riots. But it's clear that the abolition of EMA, not its introduction, was to blame for the actions of some.

James Mills is campaign director of the Save EMA campaign.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.