A row has erupted between the work and pensions secretary and Britain’s top employers over whether businesses have a responsibility to offer their jobs to young British workers – rather than relying on foreign workers.

Ian Duncan Smith urged UK businesses to “give a chance” to unemployed young Britons, and said a “realistic promise” of work formed part of the government’s “contract” with the British people:

“If we do not get this right then we risk leaving more British citizens out of work, and the most vulnerable group who will be the most affected are young people.

“But government cannot do it all. As we work hard to break welfare dependency and get young people ready for the labour market, we need businesses to give them a chance, and not just fall back on labour from abroad.”

Migrationwatch chairman Sir Andrew Green, said Duncan Smith was “absolutely right” to urge businesses to hire more home-grown talent:

“Employers have a responsibility to give young British workers a chance and the government must get a grip of immigration if they are to avoid abandoning a whole generation of young Britons on the dole.”

But businesses rejected Duncan Smith’s call, stressing that firms needed the “best people” and migrants often had a better work ethic and skills. They also said that favouring British workers over other nationalities was likely to be illegal under EU law.

Duncan Smith said more than half the jobs created between 1997 and 2010 went to foreign nationals, and over the last 12 months foreigners were still filling more than half of new posts. The unemployment rate among 16 to 24-year-olds fell by 79,000 to 895,000 in the three months to this April but youth unemployment rates still stand at above 19%.

But Andrew Cave, from the Federation of Small Businesses, said that for decades governments had removed links between the education system and business – and that as a result British applicants now lacked the skills and training considered desirable by employers:

“I do not think it is the role of employers to discriminate on that basis [of nationality] – it is the role of employers to take on the best person for the job.”

David Frost, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said employers hired eastern Europeans because often they were better workers:

“[Firms] expect young people to come forward to them who are able to read, write and communicate, and have a good work ethic, and too often that’s not the case [with British applicants]. There is a stream of highly able eastern European migrants who are … skilled, speak good English and, more importantly, want to work.”

And Neil Carberry, the CBI director for employment policy, said although businesses wanted to give British people a chance, firms had to be allowed to hire the best recruits:

“Employers should choose the best person. The challenge is to ensure that more young Britons are in a position to be the best candidate.”

Shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne told the BBC his party would increase taxes on bank bonuses to help pay for new work opportunities for 60,000 young people:

“There are simply not enough jobs because the government is cutting back too far and too fast. The great tragedy of all of this is that young people lose the habits of work and we as taxpayers have to pick up the bill.”

*Whose side are you on?
Should businesses be forced to consider home-grown graduates over foreign workers? Or do employers have the right to give jobs to the best candidate, wherever they’re from? What do you make of the argument that immigrants have a better work ethic than young British workers?

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