What the Wrexham 99p store riot and Esther McVey’s “get a job in Costa” dismissal say about our economy

To suggest that there are lazy youngsters out of work who could easily walk into job serving lattes all day is just far-fetched

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The Independent Online

Grabbing a coffee on the way to work is part of our 21st-century lives. We are never far from a Starbucks, a Caffè Nero or a Costa Coffee. It is hard to imagine our high streets without them. So it follows that there should be plenty of jobs for would-be baristas, right? This is what Esther McVey, the Employment minister, is suggesting when she says that young people out of work should be prepared to take a position in a coffee outlet if they can’t get the job they want.

In an interview with the Daily Mail, she said young people should be prepared to take entry-level jobs: “You could be working at Costa.” From there, careers in hospitality would open up and the next thing you know, she says, you’re running a hotel in Dubai. Failing that, why not start a business from your bedroom, via the internet? The minister makes it sound so easy.

Yes, there are plenty of reasons to feel optimistic about the economy. Figures out yesterday show that the number of people in work is the highest ever, at 30.15 million. But youth unemployment remains stubbornly high – long-term joblessness is at its highest rate for 30 years. So McVey is guilty of a dreadful over-simplification of the reality facing young people.

If only there were the vacancies for what are, after all, not unpleasant jobs. Despite the ubiquity of coffee chains, 1,700 people applied for eight jobs at a Costa Coffee in Nottingham last year. When even graduates are offered low-paid jobs on zero-hours contracts and unsociable hours, the picture is not as rosy as 30 million in work would suggest. For those without a degree, it is even harder. McVey, echoing the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Rachel Reeves, in her speech earlier this week, is right to point out that low-skilled young people need to have a basic level of qualification in English and maths. But to suggest that there are lazy youngsters out of work who could easily walk into job serving lattes all day is just far-fetched.

Britain may be technically enjoying economic growth but, in some areas of the country away from Westminster, the recession is still clear and present: in Liverpool, where McVey and I are both from; in Nottingham, where people fought over those jobs at Costa; and in Wrexham, where this week police were called to a near-riot in a 99p store where prices had been cut to 50p. Shelves were emptied – understandably, when such bargains are on offer – and scuffles broke out when staff cancelled the discount for people still in the queue. What this episode shows us is not how badly behaved people are in Wrexham – I’d be pretty angry too if I thought I was getting a discount that was snatched away at the till – but how the popularity of stores like this is fed by the demands of people whose budgets are squeezed.

David Cameron said yesterday that after taxes people are “better off”, but the Institute for Fiscal Studies says families with children are an average of £891 worse off this year because of tax & benefit changes since 2010. There is no doubt that the economy is growing, and that George Osborne can rightly hail the upgraded growth forecast from the IMF. But times remain hard for a lot of people and, in many high streets across Britain, 99p stores, £1 shops and branches of Poundland are cropping up as much as coffee shops.

The less affluent an area becomes, the shop on your nearest corner is more likely to be a Poundstretcher rather than a Costa Coffee. Together with pawn shops, they are the high-street success story of the last decade, but this is not something Mary Portas would want to celebrate. Perhaps McVey should tell young people to go and look for jobs at a 99p store – but then that wouldn’t send the right message about our booming economy, would it.

Let’s go back to the land in ‘Countryfile’

I assumed it was a sign of getting old when I found myself enjoying Countryfile last Sunday evening. But then I read that the BBC rural affairs programme reaped 8.2 million viewers last week – and not all of them, presumably, were just waiting for the new series of Call The Midwife to begin.

Countryfile’s secret, I believe, lies in that Sunday evening formula of something cosy and not too challenging for the night before going back to work – quintessential Horlicks TV. Yet in their search for ratings, have the producers made it too easy to watch? The programme used to be about real farming issues – low crop yields and the latest sheep disease. Perhaps now it is too glamorous and dumbed down – sometimes I expect presenter Matt Baker to tell viewers “and this is a cow”. A bit like Gardeners’ World, where real horticulture has been ditched in favour of Monty Don telling  us how to wash our plant labels.