Describing disabled people as ‘not worth the full wage,’ Lord Freud just now finds himself embroiled in bitter political arguments and is facing calls from the opposite side of the House of Commons for him to step down from Cabinet. The Conservative Peer and Welfare Secretary was recorded making such remarks at the recent party conference in Birmingham where he, thinking out load, suggested that disabled people aught to be allowed to work for as little as £2 per hours which equates to around a third of the minimum wage.
Disability groups and opponents of the government’s welfare reforms bill have spoken out in the strongest terms saying Lord Freud’s comments are degrading and humiliating to disabled people. Clare Pelham, chief executive of Leonard Cheshire Disability, said:‘We are dismayed at the comments attributed to a government minister that disabled people could be paid at below the minimum wage because they are “not worth the full wage”. ‘Suggesting that some people should be paid at below the minimum wage — the level that society has decided is the very minimum that anyone should expect — is deeply saddening and ill-informed.’
Lord Freud has since unreservedly apologised for his comments and his supporters have suggested that the comments were taken out of context. However, you would be forgiven for not being able to imagine a scenario where such opinions might have a place. Its difficult to imagine Lord Freud, or anybody in public life, making similar comments or judgments about another minority group. For anyone to state that women for example, or LGBT people might not worth as much as white male workers, is simply unthinkable. Although, when it comes to disability, ministers and media seem to have an open ticket to say whatever they like.
Lord Freud’s comment stands as a reminder of this government’s contempt for disabled people and is a kick in the teeth to the thousands of educated and skilled disabled people unable to find work. The way this government have attacked, and spoken about disabled people over the last 5 years, is an embarrassment to us all. Possibly the most talked about and scrutinised group over the last term of government, disabled people are the least represented in politics and the media. One could count on the one hand the numbers of disabled MPs, both past and present in the House of Commons, and number of frontline journalists in positions of influence.
It might take a shift in the tectonic plates below Westminster, but until the government take a whole new approach, disabled people will remain marginalized from the workforce. All the major disability charities have recorded that disabled people are ready and willing to work but can’t get jobs due on to barriers and ongoing discrimination in the employment forum. Ironically some studies have shown disabled employees to have lower rates of sickness and absenteeism than their able-bodied co-workers.
Instead of suggesting that disabled people are of less value than others, legislators should be ensuring that employers, particularly larger ones, hire a fair proportion of disabled staff. There needs to be some sort of positive discrimination in favour of disabled people to enable people access employment more easily. Statistics show that the current equality legislation, when it comes to disability, is ineffective so unemployment rates in the disabled community remain high. The government needs to change their approach and start talking more positively about disability. They could start by changing their thinking today and asking Lord Freud to do the right thing, and step down from government.