Sometimes, news stories come along that make you do a cartoon double-take – you can’t believe what you’ve just read. Backbench Conservative MP Philip Davies’ comments on people with disabilities and employment provided one such moment.
For anyone who hasn’t heard yet, speaking in the Commons last Friday in a debate over the minimum wage and employment opportunities, Davies said that “vulnerable” jobseekers – including those with learning disabilities and mental health problems – were disadvantaged in their search for work because they had to compete with candidates without disabilities, and could not offer to accept lower levels of pay.
“Given that some of those people with a learning disability clearly, by definition, cannot be as productive in their work as somebody who has not got a disability of that nature, then it was inevitable that given the employer was going to have to pay them both the same they were going to take on the person who was going to be more productive, less of a risk,” he said.
Stunning. Where to start on this one?
Well, for a start, Davies perpetuates the myth that people with learning disabilities are always less productive in work than others. Wrong. If that were the case, why would employers take on people with learning disabilities, as they increasingly do, now? Many of the employers I speak to say that people with learning disabilities make great employees and can be every bit as productive as someone without a disability. They also tend to be punctual, diligent and honest.
So it’s in no sense inevitable that employers will take on a non-disabled person over a person with learning disabilities. Of course, where employers do overlook somebody with disabilities in favour of someone without a disability, it’s not right. That’s why we have anti-stigma campaigns and equalities legislation.
More enlightened employers take people on merit, regardless of disability, but making disabled people cheaper to employ is surely not the way to persuade the less enlightened. It just cannot be right to expect people with disabilities to work for less than the minimum wage to get onto the jobs ladder.
Would Davies have said that it was OK to pay people less on the grounds of race, sex or age? I don’t think so. So why did he feel it was acceptable to say that about people with disabilities? Everyone should expect a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work – it’s why the minimum wage was introduced in the first place.
And isn’t the minimum wage already low enough for anyone having to meet life’s commitments? People with learning disabilities have bills to pay like everyone else. Some may have additional protected benefits, but for many, going below the minimum wage would cause real hardship – especially at a time of raging inflation on basic expenses.
Davies’ comments also raise the issue of people with learning disabilities’ ‘worth’ to society. Are they worth less to society because many don’t have jobs, or are perceived not be able to do jobs? Has the equality legislation of recent years meant so little?
People with learning disabilities would like nothing more than to be treated as equals, but this all seems to imply that’s still a long way off.
The government has been quick to distance itself from Davies’ comments – as you would expect – but it is nonetheless worrying that someone from the governing party came out with something like this.
Davies comments again show how prevalent learning disability (as well as mental health and disability in general) discrimination still is in the UK. Until our politicians stop coming out with rhetoric like this, tackling discrimination and stigma – in and outside of the workplace – will continue to be an uphill struggle.