Lord Freud, in context

By Bernadette Meaden
October 17, 2014

When Lord Freud’s remarks about disabled people and the minimum wage became public, many people, myself included, reacted quickly and with anger. Did we over-react? Taking his words in context, was Lord Freud being "compassionate" as some of his defenders claimed, in wishing to find ways of getting severely disabled people into work?

The type of political reporting that seizes on a slip of the tongue, any idea clumsily expressed, and pronounces it a ‘gaffe’, is not conducive to debate. It was also, in this instance, frustrating that after spending the past four years trying and largely failing to draw the attention of opposition politicians and the media to the immense damage caused by Lord Freud's policies, we were getting headlines devoted to some apparently offensive words.

We need politicians to be able to express their opinions freely, and if they ‘misspeak’, explain themselves. What matters surely is a person’s motives, values and intentions, not how smoothly they can express them.

So what was Lord Freud trying to say? On social media, after my first blog on this issue, I was contacted by Bruce Everiss, a Libertarian blogger who thinks the state is ‘vastly too big’ and that we have a ‘dependency culture’. He pointed me to his blog, in which he explained what Lord Freud may have had in mind. It’s a scheme operated in Ireland and several other countries, called the Disabled Wage Subsidy. If a disabled worker is not as productive as his colleagues, he or she gets paid the same wage, but the state compensates the employer for loss of productivity through a grant.

This seems reasonable, probably not something to be offended by, and I’m grateful to Mr Everiss for pointing this out. However, it reveals a contradiction which goes to the heart of Lord Freud’s welfare reforms, and the prevailing approach to people and the economy.

Politicians, even the most vociferous advocates of the free market, are, it seems, quite prepared to subsidise business generously and sometimes with minimal scrutiny. A fascinating Guardian article recently revealed the £85 billion of corporate welfare that the government spends each year, and of which the general public remains largely unaware. This is roughly equal to the annual amount spent on working-age benefits. If we exclude Housing Benefit, which goes into the pockets of landlords, not benefit recipients, it is actually more.

The government deliberately keeps at the top of the political agenda the ‘problem’ of people, working or not working, who need benefits to survive, but happily subsidises business to the same amount, and it is not even a political issue.

So what Lord Freud said may not be as offensive as it first sounded, but the way the government treats those who are not in work, for whatever reason, and those who are in work but need help to make ends meet, is still generally offensive. He has shown a marked lack of respect for people who use foodbanks, for instance.

People who need help, because of illness, disability, unemployment or low pay, are under constant suspicion, pressure and scrutiny, whilst Lord Freud and his colleagues in the Lords simply have to turn up to claim their £300 per day attendance allowance. No doubt they are treated with respect, if not deference as they do so. And the highly subsidised businessmen are courted assiduously.

Unfortunately a view has taken hold in politics that people are poor, not because they don’t have enough money, not because of systemic economic injustice, but because of an assortment of personal shortcomings and social problems. Before they can expect or be entitled to a decent life they have to be ‘fixed’, at great expense to the taxpayer, and at great profit to private providers appointed by government.

If the money that has been spent on the Work Programme, the Work Capability Assessments, Workfare, and the myriad other schemes invented by Lord Freud and his colleagues, had gone into the pockets of the poor, it would have done a lot more good. And it would have created demand in the economy, a lack of which economists are currently fretting about.

So when Lord Freud’s defenders say that his welfare reforms are motivated by compassion, it reminds me of what Tolstoy said, "I sit on a man's back choking him...and assure myself and others that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his load by all possible means – except by getting off his back."

As for the question of how to help disabled people get into work, here’s an idea: why don’t we ask disabled people themselves? Catherine Hale, an independent researcher and member of the Spartacus Network, has done just that. In association with Mind and the Centre for Welfare Reform she has produced a report which sets out an approach informed by the actual experience of disabled people. The real experts.

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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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