Labour has called on Conservative welfare minister Lord Freud to resign after allegedly saying that some people with disabilities were not worth paying the minimum wage to.
Lord Freud is reported to have made the comments at a fringe meeting of the Conservative Party Conference last month in response to a question about employment opportunities for people with disabilities.
He is reported to have said: “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 can we actually…”
The BBC has reported that David Scott, a Tory councillor from Tunbridge Wells, has confirmed he asked the question of Lord Freud at the Conservative conference and was encouraged by the answer. He says he has cases where the minimum wage precludes a small number of physically/mentally disabled people from working. He gives an example of someone doing gardening who may take three to four hours longer than someone who's not disabled but whom an employer still wants to give a chance. Scott says he doesn't want to undermine the minimum wage but thinks a system to reward them would help their own wellbeing by getting them into work.
However, Labour has hit out at these remarks and called for Lord Freud to resign. Labour leader Ed Miliband tweeted that “Lord Freud said disabled people weren't worth the minimum wage. If these are his views, he can't stay in govt #pmqs”
Miliband also raised the issue at Prime Ministers Questions today [Wednesday], asking Prime Minister David Cameron if the government shared Lord Freud’s views. “These are not the words of someone who ought to be in charge of policy relating to the welfare of disabled people,” he said. “Surely someone holding those views can't possibly stay in his government?”
Cameron quickly distanced the government from Lord Freud’s comments, saying they are not the views of the government, or anyone in it. Cameron added that he would take “no lectures” about looking after disabled people. His late son Ivan was disabled.
Lord Freud has since issued a “full an unreserved apology” for this comments. "I was foolish to accept the premise of the question," he said. "To be clear, all disabled people should be paid at least the minimum wage, without exception, and I accept that it is offensive to suggest anything else."
Former disabled people’s minister Esther McVey has said that Lord Freud’s comments “will haunt him” and that he will have to explain himself.
Freud is not the first member of the government to talk about paying people with disabilities less than the minimum wage. In June 2011, in a debate on the minimum wage, Conservative MP Philip Davies said that: “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. “My view is that for some people, the national minimum wage may be more of a hindrance than a help.”
Representatives of disability charities have reacted with anger to Lord Freud’s comments. Ciara Lawrence, who has a learning disability and is in full-time employment with Mencap, said: “I find it disgusting that in 2014 a senior politician and member of the House of Lords is alleged to still believe inequality is acceptable. I did not choose to have a learning disability, however I do choose to work a full time job and with the right support around me have become a respected and valued member of my team. The same is true for many other people with a disability.
“People with a disability are often made to feel like second class citizens and face many barriers when trying to receive the same rights as everyone else, especially in employment. Having a politician place further barriers to us being included is incredibly upsetting and frankly quite frightening.
“I hope politicians realise that people with a disability should be encouraged to become active citizens, and not to be discriminated against for their disability, and I want to call for a full explanation of how these comments are deemed acceptable in this day and age.”