i Editor's Letter: First hearing

  • @stefanohat


I don't often agree with a Cabinet Minister who is over-stating to make a political point, even rarer when it's Iain Duncan Smith. But in his heavy-handed attack on Cait Reilly this weekend, he had a point. Well, at first hearing.

Reilly is the geology student who successfully argued at the Appeal Court that her unpaid work placement at Poundland in return for continued benefits payments breached laws on forced labour.

IDS, the Work and Pensions Secretary, called the idea the placement breached Reilly's human rights "rubbish". "I'm sorry, but there is a group of people out there who think they're too good for this kind of stuff," he said. "Let me remind you that [former Tesco chief executive] Terry Leahy started his life stacking shelves. The next time those smart people who say there's something wrong with this go into their supermarket, [they should] ask themselves this simple question, when they can't find the food they want on the shelves, who is more important − them, the geologist, or the person who stacked the shelves?"

Now IDS might have been on surer ground if several of the brands that had been involved with the Government's scheme had not pulled out of it, but is there a grain of truth in his sentiment? Why is geology more important than shelf-stacking? Journalism more important than waiting tables? The middle-class's work experience or cash-in-hand jobs are the working class's "careers". Years of study and rigorous qualifications define the professions. But what if years of rigour were applied to jobs hitherto regarded as "menial"?

It's too easy to sneer at hamburger universities or beautician colleges. Just as IDS should know that to belittle a geologist's years of scientific study is a simplistic low blow with a mixed message, unworthy of his lofty status, and Sandhurst training.