Jayne Dowle: This sandwiches fiasco is so difficult to stomach

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THERE IS a man who I overheard the other day talking about the Government’s welfare reforms. He is a father of three strapping boys. And judging by the fact he can walk, talk, drive a car and pontificate about the state of the world to anyone who will listen, there is nothing technically wrong – in my opinion – with his ability to work.

The conversation soon turned to work – or rather the lack of it. “Well, you see, it’s hard,” he was saying. “I would apply for jobs, but I’ve got to sort out my garage out first.” The subsequent part of this conversation suggested that he was referring to his garage at home, rather than a small business he was running. And as a parting shot, he mentioned that he hadn’t worked for nine years.

Nine years? A fit, healthy young man like this? Nine years in which he has fathered three children? And clearly, he still feels it is his right to choose a spot of home maintenance over going out and earning money to keep them. What kind of example are his sons growing up with? That it’s okay for dad to opt out of even looking for a job? That work is something you can take or leave, depending on what else you feel like doing that day?

Researchers at Oxford University have been talking about social mobility going down rather than up.

They fret over the children of lawyers being “forced” to train as plumbers. This makes a valid point, but they need to focus their energies on the impact of worklessness itself. There will be children living in families where choosing not to work is at least a third-generation occupation. It means that every notion we ever had about social mobility must be questioned. It also means that every historical assumption we made about ambition and aspiration must be reassessed.

I won’t bore you with the aforementioned father-of-three any longer, except to say that it is little wonder – with people like him – that Greencore is now recruiting staff in Hungary to help make the sandwiches thar it supplies to Tesco and M&S.

Recruiters say that British “workers” are simply not prepared to stand in a factory for 12 hours placing two slices of ham and a tomato between a couple of slices of bread. Instead, the company is recruiting in Hungary, where it has taken on at least 100 workers.

Many of them have degrees. In Hungary though, the average salary is only £7,000 so you can see the attraction even in a job which might only pay the UK minimum wage.

Sir Michael Rake, president of the Confederation of British Industry, says it is a story he has heard many times – “companies right across the country are unable to find the people who are skilled enough or are willing to do the work”. What happened to Great Britain?

Once we were the workshop of the world, our people renowned for hard graft.

And now we can’t even be faffed to make sandwiches. With a father in the steelworks, I lived through all the arguments about the decline of heavy industry, but come on: it was 30 years ago. It can’t be an excuse any longer.

What I see now is this terrible sense of entitlement, even amongst those who leave school with few qualifications, that somehow certain jobs are beneath them. This is the irony. It’s not as if there aren’t British people available to do the work. The trouble is, too many of them just don’t want it.

In Northampton, where Greencore is based, around 8,000 people are unemployed. Why don’t they want the jobs? Because even with the cuts brought in by the coalition Government, they still perceive that they will be better off on benefits. I’m sorry if this sounds brutal, but they just don’t see why they should be bothered to turn up at a job for eight hours a day, eating into their valuable leisure time, when they can get enough money to get by from the state.

How crippling is that? That’s what I mean about social mobility. We live in a country where children accept that their parents simply don’t work. We live in a country where the concept of “payday” for countless individuals is when the benefit money drops into the bank account. The Government can make all the changes to the system it likes, but it will never crack the problem until it gets to grips with this complacency.

How to do it though? The issue is so endemic that it’s like turning around an oil tanker. It’s going to take at least another generation before attitudes change. It can only be done through education, and employers and government working together to offer young people opportunities to break the negative attitudes which have become engrained in their DNA.

And meanwhile, our towns will become nasty places to live, riven with bitterness against the foreigners who come here to “steal our jobs”. By the time that oil tanker turns round – and that bloke sorts out his garage – it might be too late for Britain to become great again.