We've always thought of Iain Duncan Smith as the acceptable, non-confrontational face of the Tory party, a quiet and calm spokesman, the voice of sweet reason in an unreasonable political world. The fact that he made a poor party-leader only enhances his reputation in many eyes.
But just recently he's been baring his teeth a bit, in the face of absurd objections to an honest attempt by government (now that's a first!) to address the pressing issue of youth unemployment and unemployability. He writes ...
Over the past few days, the battle lines have been clearly drawn on the issue of youth unemployment.
In one corner, we find those prepared to do everything they can to give a chance to young people who are looking for a job and help them gain experience of the workplace.
In the other, armed with an unjustified sense of superiority and sporting an intellectual sneer, we find a commentating elite which seems determined to belittle and downgrade any opportunity for young people that doesn’t fit their pre-conceived notion of a ‘worthwhile job’.
Let me start by saying that I am enormously proud of our Work Experience scheme, as well as of the companies who have chosen to take part. Under the scheme, young people on benefits are offered placements of up to two months with a variety of employers to give them an opportunity to get an experience of work. Firms who have signed up include Boots, McDonald’s, Argos, Tesco and Primark. In return for working 30 hours a week, the unemployed continue to receive their normal Jobseekers’ Allowance as well as expenses.
The thinking behind the initiative is the recognition that when considering whether to take a young person on, employers will highly value any relevant work experience. It is up to young people to decide, voluntarily, whether they wish to take part in the scheme, and they can pull out of their placement during the first week without sanction.
This is why the scheme has been so successful. The fact is that 13 weeks after starting their placements, around 50 per cent of those taking part have either taken up permanent posts or have stopped claiming benefits. Take, for example, 20-year-old Samantha Davies, from Neath, South Wales, who took a Work Experience placement at a local nursery. She impressed them so much that she was offered a job, and now she has signed off Jobseeker’s Allowance. Or Chris Burke, from Lewisham, South-East London, who got a job as an administrative apprentice at a local college.
What’s more, the scheme is so popular among young people that it is oversubscribed. As a result, we are expanding it later this year through the new Youth Contract to guarantee a place for every unemployed young person who wants one. Given this, you may be surprised to hear some of the criticism that has been directed at the scheme in recent days, including the claim that young people are being forced into ‘21st-century slavery’, or that we are engaging in so-called ‘workfare’.
Let me be quite clear: this Government does not have a workfare programme. Workfare is an American term used to describe employment programmes which force all jobseekers to work at a certain point of their welfare claim — a practice which we do not consider to be effective.
Here, in Britain, it is true that we have a programme which can require claimants to undertake a short period of compulsory work if we do not believe they are engaging properly in the pursuit of employment. But the programme is carefully targeted and — importantly — it is entirely separate from the voluntary Work Experience scheme which I described above.
The fact is that the Government’s opponents — who constitute a group of modern-day Luddites — are throwing around these misleading terms in a deliberately malicious and provocative fashion, and will stop at nothing in their attempts to mislead the public on this issue. What is utterly unacceptable is that many of Britain’s largest and most prestigious employers have found themselves caught up in the middle of this undignified row.
The firms who have offered work experience to young people on this scheme have been absolutely brilliant and, most importantly, they are making a difference in terms of helping the young unemployed get into work. For example, out of around 1,400 individuals who have taken part in the Work Experience placement at Tesco, more than 300 have been taken on in permanent roles with the supermarket. Most admirably, these firms are offering opportunities and helping the economic prospects of our younger generation.
I hope more companies will see the benefits and choose to take part by investing in our young people in the future. However, to help these youngsters, we also have to expose the lies of those who have launched unedifying attacks on our programme. Sadly, so much of this criticism, I fear, is intellectual snobbery. The implicit message behind these ill-considered attacks is that jobs in retail, such as those with supermarkets or on the High Street, are not real jobs that worthwhile people do.
How insulting and demeaning of the many thousands of people who already work in such jobs up and down the country! I doubt I’m the only person who thinks supermarket shelf-stackers add more value to our society than many of those ‘job snobs’ who are busy pontificating about the Government’s employment policies. They should learn to value work and not sneer at it. Furthermore, those critics waging war against work experience also forget that some of this country’s most successful businessmen and women started their careers on the shop floor. Lest we forget, Tesco’s former chief executive officer Sir Terry Leahy started life scrubbing floors at a Tesco store in his school holidays.
As well as betraying their ignorance and snobbery, our opponents have pathetically opted to use human rights laws, making claims about people being subjected by force to ‘slave labour’. These, though, have no basis in reality, since our work programme is purely voluntary. It’s time to put an end to this damaging nonsense. The hard truth is that finding the right job for someone is not easy. There isn’t always one simple route.
Meanwhile, we are caught in a battle between those who think young people should work only if they are able to secure their dream job, and those like myself who passionately believe that work in all shapes and forms can be valuable, for it gives people a sense of purpose and opens up further opportunities.
Anyone who is gulled by those who believe in the first path is in danger of creating a society with a twisted culture that thinks being a celebrity or appearing on The X Factor is the only route worth pursuing in life. The belief that you can just sit at home or wait to become a TV star and that work simply lands in your lap, in turn, feeds the pernicious idea that success is not related to effort and work.
In light of such attitudes from so many indigenous Britons, it’s small wonder that businesses have hired so many foreign nationals in the past decade or so. The fact is that they can’t find the employees of quality that they need from the available British workforce.
Now is the time to provide opportunities for young people, to help get them back and competing in the workplace, and to give them real opportunities for the future. Work experience is part of the fight-back of welfare reform — based on the principle of enlightenment, not entitlement.
Frankly, this is all common-sense. And IDS's comments about The X Factor are well made. The GOS used to be a teacher and saw at first hand that many youngsters (though by no means all, thank goodness) genuinely do turn their noses up at “normal” jobs, and really do believe that it is their right to wait until they are spotted, their “talent” recognised, and they are launched with little or no effort into a career as a celebrity. This is what our media have done – it doesn't matter whether you have any real talent, the most important thing is “how much you want it”. Of course, if your dog's just been run over, that's a plus; all the world loves a victim.
In this week's Sunday Times News Review there's an article by Eleanor Mills sneering at nostalgia for childhood in the 1950s and 1960s. She quotes an article that has recently swept the internet (we found it on the Liverpool Football Club Forum, but it's all over the place just now) ...
We had no childproof lids on medicine bottles, or locks on doors or cabinets and when we rode our bikes, we had no helmets or shoes, not to mention the risks we took hitchhiking. As children, we would ride in cars with no seatbelts or air bags.
We drank water from the garden hose, not from a bottle. Takeaway food was limited to fish and chips, there were no pizza shops, McDonald’s, KFC, Subway or Nando’s. Even though all the shops closed at 6pm and didn’t open on a Sunday, somehow we didn’t starve to death! We shared one soft drink with four friends from one bottle and no one died from this. We could collect old drink bottles and cash them in at the corner store and buy toffees, gobstoppers and bubble gum. We ate white bread and real butter, drank cow’s milk and soft drinks with sugar, but we weren’t overweight because ... we were always outside playing!
We would leave home in the morning and play all day, as long as we were back when the streetlights came on. No one was able to reach us all day, but we were OK. We would spend hours building go-karts out of old prams and then ride down the hill, only to find out we forgot the brakes” ... and so on.
Eleanor Mills is too young to have grown up in those days, so her opinion is not worth all that much, to be honest. Her view that “... children today have access to experiences and knowledge their 1950s forebears could only dream of: drawing 3-D pictures on iPads, or playing with poetry apps, chatting with friends on Facebook ...” is contemptible. Playing with poetry apps isn't an experience, and sitting in a darkened room fiddling with a mobile phone isn't knowledge, it's a waste of time and imagination and human flesh.
Those of us who did grow up in the 1950s may have been cold and wet a lot of the time because our gaberdine macs leaked and there was no such thing as central heating, but we got a proper education. Even those of us who were not so bright and went to secondary modern schools got a decent preparation and could read and write fluently because secondary moderns were run in imitation of the grammar schools, something that would be considered reprehensible today, but which did us no harm at all.
And we had freedom - we could go off on our bikes or play in the woods until it was time to go home for our teas, and remarkably few of us got raped and murdered or run over, and if we fell in the river we got ourselves out and ran home wet.
Above all we knew that we could do whatever we wanted to do if we worked at it. We didn't sit at home waiting to be discovered. If we thought it would be good to become an astronaut, a scientist, a politician, a doctor, an author or a professional musician, we knew we had to put the time in and we'd stand at least a chance of success. The GOS remembers people at his grammar school who did each and every one of those things (well, actually, he didn't know anyone who became an astronaut, but he could certainly list people who did all the other things; one budding scientist is now a household name, and another friend is now a world-famous composer).
OK, there were bomb-sites still, and smog. But to a child a bomb-site is an adventure playground, and smog was wonderful: walking two miles to school, trailing your hand along the privet hedges because you couldn't see your hand in front of your face, seeing the buses crawling in convoy led by a bus conductor with a flaming torch made from a stick and a rag dipped in the petrol tank ... now that's an experience for a child, and one the GOS has never forgotten!
Still, the GOS is just an old fogey. What does he know? He'll just go back to sitting on the sofa and playing with his Wii, while waiting for Simon Cowell to realise that here is someone who can imitate Whitney Houston to perfection and should be all over the front page of Heat magazine ...
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