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19 January 2011

Which way will Hughes turn on the EMA?

Labour is attempting to persuade the Lib Dem deputy leader to vote against the abolition of the EMA.

By Ben Ferguson

The Labour Party will attempt to reverse the Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes into a political corner this afternoon when members of parliament vote on whether the government needs “rethink its decision” to scrap Educational Maintenance Allowances (EMA).

Shadow eduction minister Andy Burnham, who will lead the debate alongside Labour Leader Ed Miliband said, “The language used in the motion has been very carefully worded.”

To quote the motion, Labour are, “…calling on the government to rethink its decision on EMA, retaining practical support to improve access to, interest in and participation in further and higher education.”

Mr Hughes was quoted in the Times Educational Supplement last weekend as saying, “I’ve never abstained in my life before the tuition fees debate. If what Labour is saying is a call for the Government to rethink its plans, I will support that.”

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In contrast to promises made by both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats before the election, EMA, the grant that gives 48% of all 16- to 18-year-olds for staying on at school or college, is due to be scrapped at the end of this academic year.

However, as student protests against the government’s action on education continue across London today, all eyes in Westminster will be on Mr Hughes to see whether he will stick to his words.

The Lib Dem Deputy spent the week in his capacity as the government’s advocate for further and higher education consulting Burnham who has drafted today’s motion.

Labour will be urging as many Liberal Democrats as possible to vote against the government today, however, if such a senior member of the coalition as Mr Hughes joins the opposition in the vote fresh strains will be imposed on the coalition.

Mr Burnham said, “Both Michael Gove and David Cameron specifically promised to keep EMA before the election therefore their plans are a total renege on their commitments.

“The debate today will ask ministers how long do they really want to carry on being lied to?”

Mr Burnham said, “My conversations with Hughes this week have been very constructive and I really believe that he understands the importance of EMA.”

When asked whether he think Hughes will vote in favour of Labour’s motion Burnham said he couldn’t be sure.

Hughes’ office told this journalist last night that Labour’s careful wording would not succeed in luring the veteran Lib Dem MP into their media trap and that the government will independently reassess their decision to abolish EMA and look for realistic alternatives.

Whether as a face-saving measure or not it seems the coalition have not pulled the plug from EMA – or at least some kind of financial incentivisation for young people to remain in education until the age of 18 – quite yet.

But will anything less than EMA do for Labour or are they just championing this cause celebre to make a media mark?

“This is not about playing party political games,” Burnham assures me. “This is about having something of value for young people in Britain. We’re open to a healthy debate and understand the coalition are considering alternatives such as free travel.”

But he warned, “Since 3400 young people are in receipt of EMA in Mr Hughes’ constituency of Bermondsey, he’s definitely got cause for concern. About 70% of students at Southwark College get EMA and he’ll soon feel the political effects if he goes back on his words.”