British politics is seldom more alive than when a politician’s comments are called into question by the other side.
Conservative peer and welfare reform minister Lord Freud has been the centre of media and opposition attention over the last few days after making what has been claimed to be disparaging remarks about the disabled.
At a fringe meeting about the Government’s Universal Credit policy at the Conservative party conference last month, Lord Freud was responding to a question about the disabled and the National Minimum Wage from Tunbridge Wells council leader David Scott. Lord Freud’s full response was:
And then 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 we actually…
The outrage over Lord Freud’s comments is generally centred on the first bolded piece of text, where he suggests that “they’re not worth the full wage”. This has been heavily criticised by the Labour party and by campaign groups for the disabled as being totally misrepresentative of the situation many people with disabilities find themselves. The National Minimum Wage is, and the Government assures us still will be in future, designed to cover everyone, including the disabled. The NMW is a massively important policy for hundreds of thousands of people across the country to ensure that they earn a fair wage for their work and is vital to ensuring that people see work as a better alternative to benefits. Of course disabled people are worth the minimum wage.
However, in defence of Lord Freud, his suggestion that the disabled work for £2 an hour is in the event that “someone wants to work” for that wage and that “it’s working”, presumably for the person and the employer. Here, rather than suggesting that the disabled should earn less, he is suggesting that if someone who is disabled is struggling to find work and they find an employer who would normally be unwilling to give them a job – because of the costs of hiring and paying a new employee (regardless of disability) – but would be willing to consider someone for a lower cost of employment, then that is helping the disabled person into work. These jobs could also afford additional flexibilities to suit the worker, if needed, including extra breaks, longer annual leave and less restrictions on the employee moving to another job elsewhere. I believe that giving this choice to disabled people – and it is just an extra option for someone looking for work – does no harm as they are free to continue looking for better paid work whilst earning.
We are now certainly emerging from the recession, but businesses are still very cautious when it comes to employing people, fearing that they will be taking on extra costs if the economy takes another downturn. Unemployment is falling at a record rate but caution still remains and presents itself in the form of increased competition for jobs. Sadly, organisations are still less likely to choose a disabled worker for a given position so Lord Freud’s idea of giving them some form of paid work, in addition to their Universal Credit, would make them better off. Giving disabled workers every option they can to go into employment, if they can and they want to, should be treated as a good thing.
I’ll qualify this defence of Lord Freud, though. I do not believe that disabled people applying for jobs alongside able-bodied people should be treated any differently, and certainly should be entitled to the exact same wage if they get the position. I feel the same way about young people; who currently suffer a staggered entry to the minimum wage with 16-18 year-olds entitled to just £3.79 per hour and 18-21 year-olds only £5.13 per hour compared to the current NMW rate of £6.50 per hour. The “£2 an hour” policy, if it was ever to be implemented, would have to be exclusively as a voluntary policy whereby employers would make agree to take on disabled people over and above their existing work force, as apprenticeships do at the moment. Even still, I believe that this theoretical policy and the apprenticeship policy should pay equal amounts, and apprentices currently earn £2.73 per hour.
Lord Freud has since released a “full and unreserved” apology for his comments, but despite this the calls for him to be deposed continue to come from the Labour party and social media.
Labour will use this story to make hay between now and the General Election about the Conservatives’ apparent insensitivity towards the plight of those struggling in society, and will use it as a weapon in their fight against the Tories’ Universal Credit-based welfare manifesto plans. Lord Freud may not be at the beating heart of Government, but in British politics it is these sorts of gaffes that can change the minds of enough voters to swing elections. Gordon Brown’s “bigoted woman” outburst just before the 2010 General Election was essentially the final nail in the coffin for anyone still optimistic that another Labour Government would be returned.
Lord Freud’s coat is on a shaky peg at Westminster and his apology may not be enough to stem the tide of public support for his resignation or sacking. It may well have been only a Freudian slip, but in British politics that sometimes all it takes.