Leading article: Mind your language, Mr Brown

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The Independent Online

Gordon Brown was quite right to point out yesterday at the TUC Congress that there are too many young people in Britain who are not in education, training or work. The Prime Minister was also right that there is still too much unemployment generally in Britain. But his proposals for rectifying the situation are disappointingly superficial.

For instance, he promised a "guarantee" of an interview for an available job for every lone parent and a "guarantee" for young people leaving school of a place on a pre-apprenticeship course. This suggests that there is pent-up demand for jobs from the unemployed and that they are somehow being let down by the job allocation system. But the painful reality is that unemployment in Britain has little to do with frustrated demand.

The reasons for joblessness in a time of economic growth are complex, but perhaps the two greatest factors are a lack of aspiration and a failing education system in pockets of the country. The perverse incentives of the benefit system are certainly a contributory factor, but the Government is not going to solve the conundrum of long-term unemployment through crude financial incentives such as a "back to work" credit of £40 a week.

But even more disappointing than the superficiality of these proposals were the xenophobic overtones. Mr Brown spoke of "a British job for every British worker". The unspoken inference here is that immigrants have been taking "British" jobs. This has been a staple complaint of xenophobes and the far right for decades. To hear the Prime Minister reflecting such ill-founded arguments is offensive to all those migrants who have made such a massive contribution to the national economy over the years.

These proposals come a day after the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith announced that skilled immigrants from outside the EU will be forced to sit English language tests. This ignores the fact that many migrants tend to want to come to the UK precisely to improve their English skills. Demanding a certain level of proficiency before arrival risks putting them in a Catch-22 situation. The policy also makes no practical sense. If a lack of English skills among foreign workers is really a serious problem, why are these measures targeted only at non-EU immigrants? And will Mr Brown be demanding that Britons who choose to live in France or Spain pass proficiency tests in the native language before departing? The suspicion has to be that this emphasis on the English language is about posturing rather than policy.

We appreciate that Mr Brown is trying to build a broad coalition of support and wants to shatter certain public preconceptions about him. But there are some attitudes in society to which Mr Brown should never pander, no matter how much support it might win him in the short term. Xenophobia is surely one of them.