Companies have a “social duty” to hire local workers before recruiting abroad, a Conservative minister has said.
Matthew Hancock said firms should consider recruiting locally over “the easy option” of hiring from abroad.
But JD Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin said the remarks were “irresponsible” as firms were not legally allowed to discriminate in favour of UK workers.
The government said Mr Hancock was just encouraging employers to invest time and money in training.
Mr Hancock, who is in charge of skills policy at the Department for Business, said that while British firms were not legally obliged to prioritise local workers, he believed they had a responsibility to support local employment.
He told BBC Radio 4 that foreign recruitment had been too high during the “boom years” under the last Labour government and, as the economy started to recover, firms should be prepared to spend more to train local staff.
“The responsibility of employers is to the communities they live in as well as to making a pure profit,” he said. “This is about a change of culture. I am arguing that it is companies’ social responsibility, their social duty, to look at employing locally first.”
He added: “Those who put the effort in have ended up with a more motivated employee, who is more connected to their company.”
Former prime minister Gordon Brown told the Labour Party conference in 2007 that the government would be “drawing on the talents of all to create British jobs for British workers”.
At the time, he was criticised by the Conservatives and others for cheap populism and pledging something that was undeliverable, because of free movement of labour within the European Union.
Mr Hancock denied he was saying the same thing now, insisting he was calling for a change in corporate culture rather than a change in the law and his focus was on bigger firms with the capacity to invest in training.
Asked whether “local workers” meant British workers, he said: “It is a matter of making sure that people who are here get given the chance… I am talking about local young unemployed people, certainly who live locally, people who are unemployed here.”
He added: “How many people go to their local job centre where there are people searching for work and ask them to supply candidates before taking someone and bringing them in from abroad?”
Tim Martin, chairman of pub firm JD Wetherspoon, told BBC Radio 5Live that firms would be “in terrible trouble” legally were they to discriminate in favour of British workers: “I think it’s irresponsible, really. The government has now realised that people feel that immigration’s been very high for a number of years and is trying to pass it off onto business to do something about it.”
He said the remarks also risked “division in the workplace”, adding: “It’s a silly thing to say.”
A spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: “Matthew Hancock is not encouraging illegal behaviour. The minister is encouraging employers to invest time and money in training – which the government is also doing.”
Figures published earlier this month showed a further 57,000 fall in total unemployment but long-term joblessness continues to rise while nearly a million 18-24 year olds are still out of work.
Ministers say more than 520,000 people started an apprenticeship last year and they are launching traineeship programmes to help 16-24 year olds prepare for work.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage told the BBC: “Mr Hancock’s comments are totally, utterly meaningless rubbish, while we remain part of the EU’s single market.”
He added: “They (the Conservatives) know they have lost the argument on jobs and immigration and UKIP have stolen a march on them and are attempting, through rhetoric, to take that territory back.”
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