Let the unemployed pick fruit, says Tory councillor

A senior Conservative councillor provoked anger after he suggested jobless Northerners should travel south to pick fruit.

The party distanced itself from the remark by David Shakespeare, the leader of Buckinghamshire County Council. He made the comment at a Local Government Association meeting over how authorities should respond to lengthening dole queues in less affluent parts of the country.

Mr Shakespeare said: "The North may replace the Romanians in the cherry orchards. That may be a good thing."

Labour MPs called on Mr Shakespeare, who is the leader of the Tory group on the LGA, to resign. In a letter to David Cameron, the MP for Barnsley East, Michael Dugher, denounced the comments as "out-of-touch, insensitive and insulting". Tom Blenkinsop, the MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, said: "To see Northerners in this second-class, undermining and disrespectful way is typical for a very Southern-orientated political party like the Conservatives."

The Tories stopped short of disciplining him. But a spokesman said: "This is an unacceptable use of language and does not represent the views of the Conservative Party."

Last night Mr Shakespeare said the comment was a joke and everyone at the meeting where it was made had laughed at the time. He said: "I'm sure anybody with any kind of sense of humour wouldn't have taken it seriously, but it's being peddled around maybe for political purposes."

The former frontbencher, Howard Flight, who is about to become a Tory peer, caused uproar last month by suggesting child benefit changes would encourage "breeding" among the poor.

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