Chris Grayling’s job is to make sure that British people can get jobs. But he faces a problem. Since the election, 90 per cent of the rise in employment is accounted for by foreign-born workers. As Employment Minister, Grayling is painfully aware that there is a very large difference between importing workers and creating jobs.
When we meet in his sparsely decorated ministerial office, he is frank about the scale of the problem. ‘There is no doubt,’ he says, ‘that a young person coming out of school, college or university without the experience [of work] is at a disadvantage compared to someone coming into the UK from overseas.’
To ram home the point about the challenges that are faced by young British people entering the jobs market, Grayling points out that ‘Employers may well be looking at a choice between a young British unemployed person, who may not yet have experience under their belt, and somebody from eastern Europe in his mid-twenties with previous experience and the get-up-and-go to move across the continent. I think we have to rebalance the process and give a leg up to the young unemployed people here.’
Having a bias towards unemployed Brits may make economic sense, but it has the drawback of being illegal. No member of the European Union can distinguish between the citizens of member states, however strong the economic logic. When I ask if wage subsidies and the work experience programme are only available to British workers, he concedes that ‘EU law does not allow us to discriminate’.
But he believes that work experience schemes devised by his department will shorten British dole queues because they are only open to people who have been on benefits for a certain period of time. ‘There aren’t many young eastern Europeans who have been out of work for nine months or more in the UK,’ he says. ‘There are not many people who have come from eastern Europe who don’t have previous experience or previous skills. You clearly can’t say: “You’re Polish, I won’t let you receive this.” But in reality this is a scheme that is targeting young unemployed British people.’
Grayling has little doubt about what is to blame for the fact that so many citizens are initially unappealing to employers. Jabbing the floor with his long legs — he must be the tallest member of the government — he says: ‘It is all a factor of a welfare culture that has built up over 40 or 50 years combined with related issues like the fragmentation of family.’
There are places in Britain, he complains, where ‘kids grow up without an expectation they are going to have to work and what has allowed that to happen is a welfare state that is not demanding enough’. The answer to this, he argues, is to make the welfare state a ‘two way deal. We’ll help you but you won’t keep your benefits if you’re not prepared to take part.’
Many Tory ministers anxiously avoid being ideologically pigeonholed, but Grayling is unashamed about his place on the spectrum: ‘I place myself on the right — free enterprise, Eurosceptic, strong belief in the nation,’ he says with the smile of a man ticking his favourite boxes. For him, this means the repatriation of powers from Europe. ‘All of us believe that in areas like employment law we want powers back in London,’ he says. ‘But right now, we are not in that position.’
Coalition with the Liberal Democrats has prevented what Grayling had hoped would be a clarification of the role of the European Convention on Human Rights, but he is just as keen for this now as then. ‘The public will not be pleased to see this country continue to be part of an unchanged system that leaves us where we now are over people like Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada and so forth. I will be disappointed, to say the least, if the next Conservative manifesto does not contain a continuing provision to get a British Bill of Rights.’
And even before then, he argues, Britain should defy the judges in Strasbourg if the court insists on allowing prisoners to vote. ‘I don’t think we should accept votes for prisoners. It is absolutely clear from the original [ECHR] documentation that we should not have to provide those for prisoners.’
Fighting talk, but does he speak for government? ‘I can’t speak for the Prime Minister; it’s not my area of responsibility. But he said that the idea of giving votes for prisoners made him feel “physically sick”. That’s a view I would share.’ And the sooner a Tory-only government takes the fight to Strasbourg, the better. ‘You wouldn’t be surprised to hear me say so, but I want to see a majority Conservative government after the next election that can deliver change in this kind of area.’ It is, actually, unusual to hear a coalition minister say so — and a reminder that Grayling was one of the few Tories who was against entering coalition in the first place.
Then, he was shadow home secretary. Missing out on the Cabinet was seen as punishment for a couple of election-time gaffes, but his hard work since then has left him tipped for promotion. He won’t be drawn on what is expected to be a summer reshuffle. But revealingly, when I ask if he’s done most of what he wanted to do in the job, he talks in the past tense about what he’s achieved in this brief.
One of the puzzles about Grayling, an otherwise straightforward character, is why this man of the right started his political life in David Owen and Shirley Williams’s Social Democratic Party. Usually, MPs offer intellectual explanations for their political journeys. Not Grayling. ‘I have to confess, my involvement in the SDP was significantly encouraged by a young lady I was interested in. Sadly, she appeared more interested in the SDP than in me.’ But Grayling doesn’t look sad at all. He is a man who knows that he prefers Conservative values to the compromises of coalition.