Paul Vallely: Come over here, take our jobs ... Actually, no

Iain Duncan Smith has picked up the chords to Gordon Brown's tune on immigration, because voters like that refrain

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If I was going there, I wouldn't start from here. The destination is the reform of the welfare system to make work pay. That is undoubtedly a good idea. It is something the last Labour government tried to do, and something the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, is determined finally to bring about. There are, classically, two ways of going about it: cutting benefits and/or raising wages, though the tricky bit is tapering the impact of one on the other to avoid creating poverty traps and disincentives to work. But three days ago the coalition's most zealous reformer added something else to the mix.

The change cannot be brought about, he said, without curbing immigration – to stop "them" from stealing "our" jobs. Oh dear. We are back to Gordon Brown's "British jobs for British workers". It didn't work for him, and it won't work for Duncan Smith either.

You can see why they try it. The logic is superficially impeccable. The number of British-born workers without a job has increased by 223,000 over the past 10 years. In the same period some 1.7 million foreign-born workers have migrated here from eastern Europe and a further million immigrants have arrived from non-EU countries.

Do the maths. Get rid of 223,000 foreigners and their jobs will be made available for those jobless Brits. The red-meat tabloids have done the calculation. So has no less a statistician than Roger Daltrey, the lead singer with those archetypal Sixties rebels, The Who. Gordon Brown's government "left the British working man screwed like he'd never been screwed before by cheap labour coming in from Europe", opined Daltrey, 67, the man who once sang that he hoped he'd die before he got old.

The Government has capped the number of non-EU foreign nationals allowed to work in Britain, but it can't do anything to curb EU citizens who have the right to move and work freely within member states. So Duncan Smith has resorted to exhortation, urging British businesses to hire local jobless youths instead.

Business people are unimpressed. They want young recruits who can read, write, communicate well and have a strong work ethic. It's all there in bright young Polish graduates, but how do you get demotivated unskilled British kids out of bed, they ask. Ah, says Iain Duncan Smith, they just need extra skills training.

But all these youngsters have had 11 years of training. It is called school, and it has often proved unequal to the task. School-leavers' educational standards are "woefully low", according to the former chief executive of Tesco, Sir Terry Leahy, who has lamented that employers "are often left to pick up the pieces".

I mention Tesco because it does not just moan about such matters. It has set up more than 20 "regeneration partnership" stores in run-down areas that take at least half of their staff from the local long-term unemployed register. But the individuals who go for those jobs are self-selecting. One young lad I met on a Tesco scheme was the only one of his friends to apply; all his mates preferred benefits and drug-dealing. What marked him out was that the two adults with whom he lived both went out to work, which was unusual on the sink estate where they lived.

Teachers who work in such areas regularly tell heartbreaking tales of kids who are bright enough to do well but who cannot struggle free of the mindset of their peers. If the Government wants to break the cycle of welfare dependency it needs to address that culture, replacing it with one of motivation, aspiration and the celebration of achievement. That requires co-ordination by schools, social services, community groups and charities such as Barnardo's that specialise in developing parenting skills. Slashing Sure-Start nurseries is not exactly the best way to begin.

What is not needed is pandering to scapegoat strategies. Contrary to the benefit-scrounging asylum-seeker stereotype, most migrants work hard – and in two sectors where there are no Britons willing or able to do the same jobs. The first is in low-skilled, low-paid jobs such as cleaning, care of the elderly, food-packing, fruit-picking and the rest. The second is in high-end specialist jobs – in the City, IT, hi-tech manufacturing and the university sector – all important to the national economy, and all currently suffering from the coalition's knee-jerk restrictions on non-EU immigration.

Evan Davis made an interesting programme last year in the Cambridgeshire town of Wisbech, which had 9,000 immigrants in a town with a workforce of 30,000 and where 2,000 people are on the dole. He selected a dozen jobless locals – a representative sample, not just the 12 wackiest as most TV reality programmes do. He got them to do the jobs of 12 migrant workers for three days: sorting potatoes, picking asparagus, working on a building site and in an Indian restaurant. The doleys did not acquit themselves well – moaning, complaining, slacking, dawdling and sometimes not turning up for work at all. Most striking was their crippling sense of grievance and entitlement.

The programme dispelled the myth, its presenter concluded, "that if you took an immigrant out of a job, there would be one more job for a British worker". Or as a confidential Foreign Office memo to the Treasury put it in 2004: "In many cases, the jobs undertaken by low-skilled migrants are valuable and irreplaceable, and would not be done otherwise. Evidence suggests that the effect of migration on both the employment prospects and wages of native workers is negligible."

Last year, I spent a day canvassing at a council election with a member of the British National Party – with my journalist's hat on. At door after door the complaint was raised about the country being swamped by immigrants. Yet only a handful of those he canvassed were unemployed. Most were retired. The shibboleth of "them stealing our jobs" seemed a lightning conductor for a general dissatisfaction or frustration. And yet being unemployed was the direct experience of only a tiny minority; the rest had learned to parrot it from the poisonous propaganda of right-wing newspapers and the sour sloganising of the BNP and the Tory right. Yet all would bear the consequences of the damage that blaming problems on immigrants does to racial tensions in local communities.

David Cameron in the Commons once taunted Gordon Brown, waving two leaflets carrying headlines about British jobs for British workers. "Here's one he borrowed off the National Front," he jeered. "Here's another he borrowed off the British National Party. Where was his moral compass when he was doing that?"

That was before private polling for the coalition showed that immigration and welfare benefit, along with crime, are the key concerns for voters. "The minister who dares to speak the truth," one right-wing rag recently branded Iain Duncan Smith. "The minister peddling the same old lies" would be nearer the mark.

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