Lord Freud, disabled workers, and the minimum wage

By Bernadette Meaden
October 15, 2014

The National Minimum Wage is not a living wage, it’s a poverty wage.Yet the Minister in charge of welfare reform, Lord Freud, has suggested that disabled people’s labour is not even worth this much. He has now apologised, but for many disabled people his remarks simply confirm their suspicions of how the government really thinks about them.

Employment Minister Esther McVey dismissed Lord Freud’s remarks as an aberration, not representative of her party’s thinking. Perhaps she had forgotten the words of her own flatmate, Philip Davies MP, who in Parliament in 2011 quite emphatically said that disabled people should be ‘allowed’ to work for less than the minimum wage, "Given that some of those people with a learning disability by definition clearly can’t be as productive as somebody who hasn’t got a disability." You can see a video of him saying this here.

Many disabled people will also remember Iain Duncan Smith saying in 2012 that Remploy workers were, not doing any work... just making cups of coffee”.

In his apology Lord Freud said "I was foolish to accept the premise of the question,". Foolish? For a government minister in charge of the biggest shake up of the welfare system in sixty years, to accept the premise that some people ‘aren’t worth’ the minimum wage? It was far worse than foolish. It betrays an attitude towards disabled people that sees them as less worthy of respect than those who are fortunate enough to be able-bodied, fit and healthy. It sees them as ‘less productive’ as Mr. Davies said, and therefore less useful to society.

When challenged about Lord Freud’s remarks, the Prime Minister angrily said he "did not need lectures from anybody about looking after disabled people." This seemed to be a clear reference to his late son Ivan. It is very sad that the Prime Minister had a disabled child who died, but it cannot make his government immune from criticism about how it treats disabled people.

Mr. Cameron is a multi-millionaire who claimed Disability Living Allowance for his own son, and then cut the DLA budget by 20 per cent when he gained power. He once famously forgot how many houses he owned, but in power imposed the bedroom tax on disabled people who were deemed to have a ‘spare’ bedroom, even if it was used to store something like dialysis equipment. This has led to disabled people taking out payday loans or cutting down on food or heating to try to make up the shortfall in their rent.

When talking about disabled people, Ministers like to talk about the barriers to employment they face, and the Disability Confident initiative launched by the Department for Work and Pensions. Yet the DWP has overseen a massive rise in the number of people on Employment and Support Allowance, who are not fit for work, having their benefit sanctioned.

As Richard Hawkes, Chief Executive of Scope has said, "Disabled people are being sanctioned for things like missing interviews with advisers. How often do sanctions take into account the reality of disabled people's lives? Interviews with advisers can clash with medical appointments and inaccessible transport can make attendance extremely difficult."

In the first three months of 2014, almost 16,000 disabled people had their benefit sanctioned: that means their already very low income was reduced or even stopped completely. These are people who are too unwell or disabled to work, deliberately thrown into destitution by the Department for Work and Pensions.

So, no matter what apology is offered by Lord Freud, his remark that some people are just not worth even the minimum wage will be regarded by many disabled people as an accidentally accurate revelation of the government’s attitude towards them.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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