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Tuesday, 29 February, 2000, 13:00 GMT
Brown risks jobs row

Brown hopes to cut jobless total to lowest possible
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

When former minister Norman Tebbit launched his infamous "get on your bike" order to the jobless at the Conservative Party conference of 1981, it caused a political outcry.

Chancellor Gordon Brown is now risking a similar charge that his latest jobs package amounts to "get on your bike - but we will buy you the bike".

He is telling the jobless in unemployment blackspots that, with government assistance, most of them should be able to find work.

They will beoffered help to overcome skill mismatches and cash "incentives" to encourage them to take low paid jobs.

Some will even get money to pay for travelling costs to allow them to take jobs outside their immediate areas.

But the Chancellor has brushed aside comparisons with the Tories, arguing that the job market is radically different from the one which existed when Lord Tebbit made his infamous remark.

Then, unemployment hit record highs of up to 4m and often there were less than 500,000 vacancies on the books.

And it was argued that, here was a Tory minister responsible for creating mass unemployment and then telling the jobless it was their own fault for not doing enough to get a job.

Not enough jobs

His critics insisted, with some justification, that even if the army of unemployed took to their bikes, there simply were not enough jobs in the economy to soak them all up.

Gordon Brown: no need to get on your bike
But the Chancellor points out that now, with unemployment at a 20 year low, there are almost as many job vacancies as they are those without work.

He also insists that many of the jobs exist in, or within travelling distance, of some of the worst unemployment blackspots.

His latest initiative is part of Labour's much-vaunted New Deal which aimed to get 250,000 youngsters into work.

Official figures now state that, of the 404,200 who have gone through the various schemes, 185,250 have got jobs as a result.

But the figures are regularly challenged by critics who claim the jobs often turn out to be short term and amount to employers taking advantage of cheap labour.

I grew up in the thirties with an unemployed father. He didn't riot. He got on his bike and looked for work

Norman Tebbit, 1981
There is also some doubt now about the figure of 1m current job vacancies and how many are permanent, full-time jobs. Many are also on the minimum wage of 3.60 an hour.

But the Chancellor is unlikely to accept that people can turn down offers of work just because they think they should earn more.

He is going to target unemployment blackspots to encourage new enterprise, declaring that "in the next decade help for the unemployed will be more businesses in the poorest areas, and not more benefits offices."

He is also determined to withdraw benefits from people who simply refuse to take up offers of work.

That is also likely to cause anger in some quarters as it smacks of the American "workfare" system.

This is a hugely difficult area politically. Many of the jobless and core Labour voters do not take kindly to being told they are workshy.

Yet it is also clear that there are those who, given a push, would be able to find jobs. And, of course, there are always the genuine shirkers.

Full employment pledge

By launching his new crackdown, the Chancellor risks attracting the anger of some of his own backbenchers and supporters.

But the Chancellor clearly believes his new strategy of combating unemployment by boosting local enterprise and helping the jobless retrain and find jobs will prove hugely successful - as it has in the US.

He also has to fulfil his pledge of last autumn when he said his aim was "nothing less than full employment in the next century."

While the timescale may have been a bit vague, he inevitably raised expectations by reintroducing the notion of full employment - something all parties abandoned years ago.

His latest strategy will undoubtedly attract its critics and there will be those who will continue to accuse him of adopting Tebbitesque language.

But he is ready to weather that in the belief that his proposals will reduce unemployment to the lowest level possible.

And if he can pull that off it will represent a huge political coup for the man who still wants to be prime minister.

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See also:

25 Feb 00 |  Business
Brown's Budget dilemma
16 Feb 00 |  Business
Unemployment at 20-year low
29 Feb 00 |  UK Politics
Brown unveils jobs initiative
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