Written with Andrew Morton (with special thanks to Alex Pearl)
The release of a recording of Tory peer Lord Freud suggesting that disabled people were "not worth the full [minimum] wage" caused a media maelstrom last week. When asked at a small event organised during the Conservative party conference whether it was preferable for someone with a disability, who could not find work, to be paid below the minimum wage, Freud is reported to have said that although not currently possible, he was "going to go and think about that particular issue, whether there is something we can do nationally, and without distorting the whole thing, [if] actually... someone wants to work for £2 an hour [they can be allowed to]" (the end of Freud's answer is unclear but his train of thought is not difficult to follow). As was to be expected, Prime Minister's Questions that Wednesday was heated; David Cameron distanced himself from Freud's comments and Ed Miliband called for his resignation. Freud has since offered a "full and unreserved apology", but is there anything other than instrumentalism and prejudice to his suggestion?
In the majority of European states with statutory minimum wages, sub-minima (or different minimum wage rates for different groups of people) are common. In Britain, rates are dependent upon age and training (including the apprentice category), and are set separately each year by the Low Pay Commission. For example, this approach differs to The Netherlands, where a 'long tail' of minimum wage rates sees youth minimum wages rising from 30% of the adult minimum wage at 15 years old to 85% at 22. What Freud appears to have been suggesting is a sub-minima for disabled people. In the Czech Republic, France and Portugal sub-minima for disabled people are justified as helping a 'marginal' group into employment (such is the alienating lexicon of 'active labour market policies'). Indeed, this appears to have been what Freud's questioner was forwarding: that a sub-minima could help disabled people into employment with the shortfall - between the 'disabled' minimum wage and 'able' minimum wage - being topped up with benefits. Quite rightly, any suggestion of using physical or mental ability as criteria for less favourable social protection is widely considered unacceptable. As Freud has discovered, to do so is to deny personhood to those he professes to have wanted to help.
Recognising as much was a motivating factor for the reform of 'Remploy' (the Department for Work and Pensions run employment placement service for disabled people). Remploy's purpose of proving direct employment in specialised factories during the last century was replaced with providing general employment assistance during this century. Opposing attitudes really do belong to different epochs; segregated 'special' jobs versus mainstream 'normal' jobs ('ableist' language at its worst). As a Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Freud's very own department oversaw the reform of Remploy; closing 33 factories in 2012 to focus on tailored services, including development, learning, (re)skilling, and training. Rather than as an act of benevolence, Coalition gusto for the reform of Remploy was driven by a belief that Labour's cost cutting could be continued; which it has been. Taking both parties to task reveals a fairly obvious recommendation for cod policy makers: sub-minima for disabled people are not optionable (aptly a financial term). Funding for a dehumanising sub-minima would - on both a moral and economic level - be much better spent on Remploy.
As for Freud, at best, carelessness, and a poor understanding of his department and the people that it serves may prove less a slip and more a great fall; Labour are set to table a Commons motion of no confidence in him to be voted on later this month.