Why is the government spending £0.5bn a year on pocket money?

In December I wrote here about the Education Maintenance Allowance and how I wasn’t entirely convinced we need to keep paying it. This year the debate rages on.

The battle-lines are firmly drawn between those who reckon that the payment (given to the children of low- and middle-earners while they are in the sixth form) is generally unnecessary and mainly spent on alcopops; and those who claim that without it, thousands of 16-year-olds would be unable to pay for their bus fares and books.

“EMA enables those youngsters from less well-off homes to buy the books they need, or to buy the equipment that they need to support a vocational course, or perhaps more importantly, not to have to take a part-time job so that they can then focus exclusively on their studies”, said Ed Miliband in today’s Commons debate on the subject.

I don’t get the problem. Surely if books and transport are the problem we can pay for this without having to give 650,000 people £10-£30 a week at a total cost of over half a billion quid?

We can give current EMA recipients who live more than, say, two miles from college a bus pass or perhaps even a bike. And we can give colleges a little extra money for books, which they can dole out to those who need them. We might also wonder why young people today can’t take on the part time jobs that previous generations used to get their hands on pocket money. Would a couple of hours a week spent stacking shelves or shifting beer barrels really distract them from their studies that much? Given the other distractions of modern life, it seems unlikely.
However, the key point here is that everyone knows that some people need a little extra help, but also that the EMA goes to many that simply don’t. Note that even Andy Burnham admitted on the BBC that students “may spend some of it on food and even the occasional time out with friends.”

So why all the arguments? Seems to me that this is another one of those situations in which everyone really agrees with each other. In which case we should, as planned, scrap the EMA, deliver some extra help to the particularly needy in one way or another (the benefits system appears to have little trouble in finding and financing the disadvantaged) and then get on with arguing about the really important things – how to make sure there are jobs for this generation of students when they finally leave college, for example.