27/02/2012 06:45 GMT

Sir Stuart Rose Backs Government Work Experience Scheme

The former head of Marks & Spencer has defended the Government's controversial work experience scheme and accused protesters of attempting to "sabotage" it.

Sir Stuart Rose said it was "baffling" that anyone would complain about jobless youngsters being given work opportunities at a time of high youth unemployment and called on firms to support the programme.

"We're offering young people the opportunity to really understand what the workplace is about and it appears there is some plan to sabotage this, which I think is nonsense," he told Sky News.

Activist groups have been pressuring firms to quit the scheme amid accusations that it was "slave labour" because youngsters worked for nothing, while keeping their benefits.

But the former executive chairman of M&S said parents should tell their jobless children to "get stuck in" and grasp the opportunity being offered.

Sir Stuart added: "If you are drawing unemployment benefit and you are looking to get into the workplace and somebody says to you, "We'll give you some experience" and you have got a week apparently to withdraw from it if it doesn't suit you, why would you not do it?

"If I was the parent of one of these people I'd say, "Go on to it, lad, get in there, get stuck in."

The British businessman said he stacked shelves and sweep warehouses when he began his retail career as a M&S management trainee 40 years ago, describing the duties as part of working life.

"It's about getting people into the routine of working, making sure they are up in the morning, making sure they're presentable, make sure they arrive on time, make sure they know what it's like to have a properly constructed work programme, and shelf stacking is just a part of it." he added.

Sir Stuart said the notion that youngsters on the scheme are being exploited was "nonsense" adding it was "baffling" they are being led to believe so.

He said firms were apparently being "intimidated" by the campaigners, adding: "One or two have shown a little less than backbone, if I might say so.

"I think you have got to stick with it. If there are one or two issues of administration in the process that need sorting out, then let's sort it out, but it seems to me quite straightforward."

There has been growing controversy over the work experience programme in recent weeks with a series of protests by campaigners.

Supermarket giant Tesco has offered to pay youngsters on the scheme and asked ministers to remove the threat of benefit sanctions against those not completing their work experience, while a number of other companies have been reviewing their involvement.

Employment Minister Chris Grayling has defended the scheme, saying that half of those who joined it after the launch at the end of last year had now found a job, often with companies which offered them work experience.

He also claimed that firms reportedly pulling out of the programme, including supermarket giant Sainsbury's, had never formally been involved in the government initiative because they ran their own scheme.

About 100 organisations were involved in the scheme and not one had pulled out, he added