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15.10.14

Minister's apology for saying disabled people 'not worth' minimum wage

Welfare reform minister Lord Freud has offered an “unreserved apology” after it emerged he had told a fringe meeting at the recent Tory conference that some disabled people were “not worth” the minimum wage.

Labour called for Freud to be sacked after he suggested in a Q&A session that some people with mental disabilities could be paid as little as £2 an hour.

In a statement issued by the Department for Work and Pensions, Freud said: “I would like to offer a full and unreserved apology. I was foolish to accept the premise of the question. To be clear, all disabled people should be paid at least the minimum wage, without exception, and I accept that it is offensive to suggest anything else.

“I care passionately about disabled people. I am proud to have played a full part in a government that is fully committed to helping disabled people overcome the many barriers they face in finding employment. I am profoundly sorry for any offence I have caused to any disabled people.”

Ed Miliband brought up the issue during Prime Ministers Questions and challenged the PM, asking if it was his view.

Cameron replied: “No, absolutely not. Of course disabled people should be paid the minimum wage and the minimum wage under this Government is going up and going up in real terms.

"It’s now at £6.50. We will be presenting our evidence to the Low Pay Commission, calling for another real-terms increase in the minimum wage."

Miliband replied: "To be clear about what the Welfare Reform Minister said, it’s very serious. He didn’t just say disabled people weren't worth the minimum wage, he went further and he said he was looking at whether there is something we can do, if someone wants to work for £2 an hour.

"Surely someone holding those views can't possibly stay in your government?"

The PM responded: "Those are not the views of the government. They are not the views of anyone in the government."

Ed Miliband PMQs c. PA Wire
(Ed Miliband at Prime Minister's Questions today c. PA Wire)

Esther McVey, a ministerial colleague of Lord Freud at DWP, said she could not justify his remarks. Speaking on the Daily Politics on BBC2, McVey said: “Those words will haunt him. I cannot justify those words. They were wrong. We have the minimum wage. Everybody has the minimum wage. We have done a lot to support people with disabilities.”

Mencap, the charity that supports people with learning disabilities, has released a statement from Ciara Lawrence, a woman who has a learning disability and is in full-time work. She said: “I find it disgusting that in 2014 a senior politician and member of the House of Lords is alleged to still believe inequality is acceptable. I did not choose to have a learning disability, however I do choose to work a full time job and with the right support around me have become a respected and valued member of my team. The same is true for many other people with a disability.

“People with a disability are often made to feel like second class citizens and face many barriers when trying to receive the same rights as everyone else, especially in employment. Having a politician place further barriers to us being included is incredibly upsetting and frankly quite frightening.”

David Scott, a Conservative councillor from Tunbridge Wells who asked the question that prompted Lord Freud’s remarks, defended him, saying the discussion was about helping vulnerable people into the workplace.

Scott told the BBC’s The World at One: “I was wanting to explore [with Freud] how to help some very vulnerable people in the community and to find ways that these individuals could actually get greater self-worth and be introduced to the workplace to help them … The sentiment is quite clearly that he was concerned: how do we help these individuals to enter the workplace so they can feel they are adding something and gaining worth.”

The full text, released by Labour, shows that Scott had asked: “The other area I’m really concerned about is obviously the disabled. I have a number of mentally damaged individuals, who to be quite frank aren’t worth the minimum wage, but want to work. And we have been trying to support them in work, but you can’t find people who are willing to pay the minimum wage.

“We had a young man who was keen to do gardening; now the only way we managed to get him to work was actually setting up a company for him, because as a director in a company we didn’t have to pay the minimum wage, we could actually give him the earnings from that. But trying to maintain his support and allow him to work, which he wanted to do, so to stay with benefits, and stay with some way of managing to continue on in that way. And I think yes, those are marginal areas but they are critical of actually keeping people who want to work supported in that process. And it’s how do you deal with those sort of cases?”

To which Lord Freud replied: “You make a really good point about the disabled. Now I had not thought through, and we have not got a system for, you know, kind of going below the minimum wage.

“But we do have … you know, universal credit is really useful for people with the fluctuating conditions who can do some work – go up and down – because they can earn and get … and get, you know, bolstered through universal credit, and they can move that amount up and down.

“Now, there is a small … there is a group, and I know exactly who you mean, where actually as you say they’re not worth the full wage and actually I’m going to go and think about that particular issue, whether there is something we can do nationally, and without distorting the whole thing, which actually if someone wants to work for £2 an hour, and it’s working can we actually…”

(Top Image: Lord Freud c. David Jones/PA Wire)

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email us directly at opinion@publicsectorexecutive.com

Comments

Al   16/10/2014 at 12:05

This comment, which it seems completely plausible to be an actual belief held - and not only by one individual, is a clear sign of how people's attitudes, perceptions and beliefs surrounding mental illness need to change. I firmly believe that in the case of a number of, for want of a better word, 'isms' what is in fact needed is a lessening of focussing or obsessing on them. When an issue is recognised and understood, continually referencing it can only over-sensitise people to it. No better than it being a common occurrence. However, in this instance we see an issue which does need addressing. Ignorance, lack of understanding and empathy are still enormous barriers when discussing mental illness as a great many people do not yet truly see mental illness in its correct light - an actual illness. Suffers need help and support, and can with time recover or adapt and improve their situation. But at no point are they lesser people because of what they suffer. Simply because you cannot imagine pain does not mean it is not there. Absence of a visible injury does not indicate the wound does not exist. Perhaps this comment also indicates a worrying deeper train of thought prevalent in our society: that workers, people, are not valued as individuals or indeed as people, but as a commodity. Where a value is placed on them, it is a monetary value based solely on their output, with no allowance for the various factors that make up that person.

Steve Webb   17/10/2014 at 10:15

I know that it's an age old argument, and I know that the comments made have received a high level of criticism, but in my view not high enough. If Lord Freud had referred to race, gender, religion or sexual preferences in the same way he would have been dismissed and ostracised before the last words had left his lips. It is a disgrace that the government, whilst not defending him, haven't seen fit to remove him. I hope that this story doesn't just become tomorrow's chip paper.

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