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12 August 2013

Labour’s woes deepen after Chris Bryant’s car crash performance on Today

Shadow immigration minister forced to backtrack on criticisms of Tesco and Next over use of foreign workers.

By George Eaton

After Labour’s summer slumber, Chris Bryant is attempting to win some favourable headlines today with his speech criticising “unscrupulous employers”, most notably Tesco and Next, for using foreign workers to undercut their domestic counterparts. But unfortunately for the shadow immigration minister, his appearance on the Today programme this morning turned into a car crash performance worthy of The Thick Of It

The preview of the speech in yesterday’s Telegraph suggested that Bryant would criticise Tesco for moving its distribution centre to Kent and telling staff that “they could only move to the new centre if they took a cut in pay. The result? A large percentage of the staff at the new centre are from Eastern bloc.” When Evan Davis noted that Tesco had responded by pointing out that no such distribution centre exists, a flustered Bryant replied: “I don’t know where Kent came into it, it was always Essex…I don’t know how the word Kent got into it” before falling back on the defence that he hadn’t “said anything yet” and that it was not “all that fruitful” to focus on specifics. 

But the backtracking continued as Bryant claimed that his attack on “unscrupulous employers whose only interest seems to be finding labour as cheaply as possible” did not refer to Tesco and Next. They were, he said, “good employers” who “often try to go the extra mile to find good local workers” all but disowning the criticisms of both companies that appeared in the Telegraph. For instance, he was quoted as saying of Next: “Look at Next PLC, who last year brought 500 Polish workers to work in their South Elmsall [West Yorkshire] warehouse for their summer sale and another 300 this summer.

“They were recruited in Poland and charged £50 to find them accommodation. The advantage to Next? They get to avoid Agency Workers Regulations which apply after a candidate has been employed for over 12 weeks, so Polish temps end up considerably cheaper than the local workforce which includes many former Next employees.” 

One was left with the impression that, in an attempt to win an easy headline, Bryant had spun his speech to the Telegraph as a full-frontal attack on Tesco and Next leaving him open to the charge of inaccuracy. After much prodding by Davis, he eventually conceded: “It is entirely my responsibility for my speech and the briefing of my speech beforehand”.

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Based on that performance, Labour might well wish Bryant (who was being tipped for promotion in the upcoming reshuffle) had never broken the party’s Trappist silence.