Labour could reintroduce EMA, says Tristram Hunt

The shadow education secretary says the reinstatement of the Education Maintenance ­Allowance (EMA) could be funded by removing Winter Fuel Payments from the wealthiest pensioners.

Since becoming shadow education secretary three weeks ago, Tristram Hunt has successfully begun to regain control of the debate from Michael Gove, and Labour's new star pupil has made another notable intervention today. In an interview with the Daily Mirror, he suggests that the party could reintroduce the Education Maintenance ­Allowance (EMA), scrapped by the coalition in 2010, and pay for it through its previous pledge to remove Winter Fuel Payments from the wealthiest pensioners. He says: "A bit of rebalancing towards young people wouldn’t go amiss."

Hunt's words will cheer Labour activists who have long warned that the abolition of EMA, which paid up to £30 a week to 16-to-18-years-olds living in households whose income is less than £30,800 a year, will reduce working-class participation in education and decreas social mobility. The coalition rejected the payment as a deadweight cost since around 90% of pupils would have stayed on anyway. But an IFS study suggested that it benefited the economy by increasing the productivity of all pupils (for instance, EMA recipients were required to attend 100% of their lectures). 

In addition, a report by Barnardo's warned that the coalition's £180m replacement Bursary Fund (targeted at young people who are in care, leaving care or on income support) was leaving many disadvantaged pupils without support. It found that some were skipping meals in order to afford their bus fares to college. The charity's chief executive Anne Marie Carrie said: 

"The Bursary Fund is an unfair and totally inadequate replacement for the Education Maintenance Allowance.

"The government has a moral duty to urgently invest in adequate help for 16- to 19-year-olds from poorer backgrounds to stay the course and complete their education or training.

"The alternative is to risk losing a whole generation to the trap of long-term unemployment because they don't have any qualifications."

She suggested increasing payments to £30 a week and widening funding to all those who have received free school meals. Reforming the fund along those lines would be a reasonable aim for Labour. While Ed Miliband and Ed Balls would likely baulk at the full £500m cost of reintroducing EMA (the removal of Winter Fuel Payments from the wealthiest 5% of pensioners would raise just £100m), providing more support for those who need it would offer a powerful dividing line with the Tories. 

Shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt in his seat of Stoke Central in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear