Hey, Sir Alan – leave those kids alone

I come back to the Hovel after a frugal evening out to find Razors watching Junior Apprentice on the telly. He works punishing hours - nine till five-ish - and so he's entitled to watch any old garbage he wants. Assuming that this is chewing gum for the eyes and nothing he's paying much attention to, I take a phone call without leaving the room. So imagine my astonishment when he says "Shh!" at me. Actually, I'm not astonished at first; I just assume he's joking. So after giving him a puzzled look, I carry on, and blow me down with a feather if he doesn't say "Shh!" again. Blimey, he means it.

I conclude my phone call outside and then come back in and try to see where the appeal resides. What I see is "Sir" Alan Sugar giving a bollocking to a dwarfish adolescent with, as Evelyn Waugh once put it, a face of ageless evil.

Next to him is a larger boy who has unwisely decided to cover the entire lower portion of his face with bum fluff. On the other side is a young, fairly pretty blonde girl.

I begin to glimpse part of this programme's appeal to Razors ("They should call this Barely Legal Apprentice," he says at one point, a remark I pass on to you without comment), but surely that's not enough?

But as I watch closely, I start to understand the fascination, if that is the word. I cannot catch a single thing anyone is saying, as they are all either talking in business jargon or mouthing vapid garbage like "bringing something to the party", despite there being no party in sight. But I certainly grasp the full, pure horror of what is going on: the unpunished corruption of young minds.

At which point, we enter murky philosophical (or even theological) waters. Are these tiny capitalists being turned towards evil by "Sir" Alan Sugar, or were they already evil to begin with? Augustine tells us that evil is against nature and that when God created the devil, He was aware of both his future wickedness and the good that would eventually come of it. But I don't see any good coming out of Sugar or his ghastly protégés.

The dwarf I saw "Sir" Alan shouting at was fired by him for no good reason that I could gather - he had behaved with the venal amorality that I would have thought was the indispensable characteristic of the successful businessman. Indeed, when being chauffeured away in the inevitable Roller, he gave us a tearful speech about how he was now fired up to take over the world, and mark my words, we are all going to be groaning beneath his heel in 20 years, tops.

Charm offensive

The thing is, you either have the entrepreneurial gene, or you don't. Razors and I once thought it would be a laugh to go on The Apprentice and give "Sir" Alan a brain haemorrhage by both fucking up whatever stupid task he gave us and refusing to be cowed by his bullying manner (or else succeeding in our set tasks through intelligence and nonchalant charm, instead of acting like jerks), but we couldn't even be bothered to apply.

It isn't hereditary; my great friend T -- , whose affability and generosity are boundless, is the son of a man who tried his hand at everything, from running hotels in Epping to nightclubs in Soho to a doughnut stall in, I think, Worthing. Not even complete lack of knowledge could stop him: he even - and I swear this is true - claimed at one point to have cracked cold fusion. I forget whether this was before or after the doughnut stall.

But it is going too far, I think, when people barely old enough to shave are being encouraged to demean themselves in the pursuit of a really superfluous amount of money. The question is not, as G K Chesterton said somewhere, of being clever enough to get it, but of being stupid enough to want it, and the desire to accrue wealth beyond an elegant sufficiency is the cause of almost all the woes of the world. Or, at least, the root of all evil.

Well, that's one of the ways I console myself.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The myth of Mandela

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No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.

For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.

IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.

Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.

Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.

Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.

The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.

His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.

He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.

I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.