Job-march man must mark time

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A jobless gardener who walked 160 miles for an interview because his JobCentre would not pay the coach fare will have to wait a further two weeks to hear if his marathon trek has paid off.

Chris Owen, 26, yesterday emerged from his interview at a recruitment agency still bitter that he had been forced into the five-day march to try to land the six-month contract.

Government policy dictates that his JobCentre was unable to to pay the pounds 18.50 return fare under the Travel to Interview Scheme because the job working as a gardener abroad was for less than a year.

Mr Owen, concerned that media attention would deter his potential employer, refused to disclose the name of the company that is recruiting gardeners to work in Italy, Greece, Corsica, Sardinia and Italy.

Last night he and his friend Richard Morgan, 31, who had accompanied him on the long walk to London, were making their way back to Cwmbran, Gwent, courtesy of British Rail.

The company's kindness was in marked contrast to Eric Forth, the Employment minister, who, when questioned on the affair, said: "If someone wants to dramatise his position by doing [that], that is entirely a matter for him."

The minister's reaction angered Mr Owen, who was laid off in July last year. "It's not a nice thing to say. I don't think he is fit to hold that job if he goes around making statements like that."

Labour's employment spokesman, Michael Meacher, said it was "absolutely absurd" that the JobCentre had refused to pay the fare. "The Government should reconsider the limitations of the scheme if they are serious about helping people back to work."

It was a sentiment echoed by Mr Owen, who said he would change his strategy next time if he failed to get the job. "I'm going to get on my bike next time, my feet are too sore."