Markets are amoral. If a severely disabled person cannot produce more than the minimum wage’s worth of work, no employer will be able to profitably employ them. Some generous ones might do so at a loss, but we cannot assume that there will be enough of them. Many severely disabled people who would like to work thus cannot do so.
Lord Freud, a businessman turned welfare advisor to Tony Blair turned Tory minister, made this point at a fringe event at the recent Tory conference. He suggested that we could allow firms to employ severely disabled people at below the minimum wage.
He also said we should use something like the Universal Credit financial-support scheme to make up the difference – although this has been much less widely reported. That would allow firms to hire severely disabled people without making a loss while guaranteeing they would still take home a decent wage.
At today’s PMQs Freud was hammered by Ed Miliband for these comments. Saying that disabled people 'weren’t worth' the minimum wage, according to Miliband, was a return to the Conservative Party’s worst instincts. The Labour leader called on the Prime Minister to sack Freud.
This is a stain on Miliband’s character. Lord Freud’s comments were motivated by compassion. Unemployment can have appalling effects on people’s self-worth and quality of life. Lifelong unemployment, compounded with the other extreme difficulties of severe disability, can be life-ruining. Lord Freud knows this.
Whatever the politics of it, Freud’s comments were broadly correct. Saying that someone’s market value is a particular level is a claim of fact about how valuable their work can be to an employer. It has absolutely nothing to do with their moral worth as human beings.
Many countries recognise this and subsidise firms for employing workers with disabilities. Denmark has a permanent wage subsidy scheme for disabled people, and the United States, France, the Czech Republic, New Zealand, Argentina and Slovakia all have lower minimum wages for disabled people, combined with disability benefits. (http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_norm/---relconf/documents/meetingdocument/wcms_235287.pdf)
The UK already has something like this. Remploy is a government-owned firm that provides employment services to tens of thousands of disabled people who cannot find work elsewhere. The only difference between Remploy and Lord Freud’s suggestions are that, in the latter, it would be private firms doing the hiring. Indeed, Labour attacked the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition for shutting down Remploy’s factories in 2012.
There is another point here. Lord Freud is not a politician – he is a wonk whose job is to think outside the box. His comments were made off-the-cuff at a fringe event whose purpose was to openly discuss ideas for improving the welfare system. To use his remarks against him to make a small amount of political hay is grotesque.
Lord Freud has apologised, as could be expected. I hope he keeps his job. We have seen a good man’s name dragged into the mud for naked political gain. It is not Lord Freud whose character we’ve seen today, but Ed Miliband’s.