Iain Duncan Smith came under fire from business leaders and lawyers yesterday for urging employers to give jobs to young Britons in preference to migrant workers.
The Work and Pensions Secretary delivered a provocative plea for companies to "give our young people a chance" rather than recruiting foreign-born staff. He also suggested that high levels of immigration were hampering attempts by the Government to tackle levels of long-term joblessness.
Critics suggested that companies risked discrimination claims if they acted on his words and he ignoredthat ministers are powerless to stop EU nationals, who constitute most migrant workers, heading to Britain.
David Frost, the director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, was scathing about the qualities of some young British job-seekers. He said employers often found they lacked basic skills, qualifications and a strong work ethic. He added: "There is a stream of highly able Eastern European migrants who are able to fill those jobs. They are skilled, they speak good English and, more importantly, they want to work."
Neil Carberry, the CBI director for employment policy, said: "Employers should choose the best person for the job. The challenge is to ensure that more young Britons are in a position to be the best candidate."
Paul Griffin, the head of employment law at DBS Law, said firms could face discrimination claims if they favoured British candidates over foreigners entitled to work in this country. He added: "Iain Duncan Smith's speech, while on the surface seeming positive, is actually a crude political act to scapegoat migrant workers for a lack of jobs."
Mr Duncan Smith's comments, delivered in Madrid to a right-wing Spanish think-tank, carried echoes of Gordon Brown's ill-fated call in 2007 for "British jobs for British workers".
The Work and Pensions Secretary said tougher border controls were essential to support attempts to get young Britons off benefits. "Controlling immigration is critical or we will risk losing another generation to dependency and hopelessness. As we work hard to break welfare dependency and get young people ready for the labour market we need businesses to play their part and give them a chance, and not just fall back on labour from abroad."
Mr Duncan Smith received strong backing from the Labour former minister, Frank Field, an adviser to the Government on child poverty. Mr Field said: "The crucial thing is that Iain Duncan Smith is speaking for the vast majority of people in this country."