How do we value a person’s contribution? Is it by their productive capacity or their productive performance, or is it by the person’s time and intent to contribute? Do we attempt to measure their intrinsic worth as a human being or their economic worth in the productive economy?
The remarks by an unpaid Minister, Lord Freud, who has now been removed from front bench duties, have caused uproar in the commons. His crime? To accept that, in some circumstances, private companies should be able to circumvent draconian minimum wage legislation in order to make employing a section of disabled people financially viable.
This could improve the lives of society’s most vulnerable immeasurably, opening up opportunities to the world of work and infinite positive benefits to self-esteem and general fulfilment that employment brings. And yet, because Lord Freud is a Conservative, the remarks have been deliberately misconstrued and used as a weapon to damage Cameron by Labour, the political party that is ostensibly on the side of the most vulnerable.
In defence of Lord Freud, he has at no point suggested that disabled people are intrinsically worth less than their able-bodied counterparts. He has not suggested that – even if less economically productive than an average able-bodied equivalent – they deserve to receive a lesser financial recompense for their labour. There is no hint of discrimination. Merely a recognition of differing capabilities amongst individuals to do work, and the value of that work to an employer.
What Lord Freud has done is make an off-the-cuff and rather brave, albeit unwise, acquiescence toward a novel idea posed by a Conservative Party Conference delegate to placate the difficulties faced by some disabled people when seeking work. He has dared to suggest that it is not always a financially positive decision for private companies to employ people with certain disabilities at minimum wage when they could, for the same price, employ a more productive person without a disability. In this economic climate we cannot expect the private sector to act as a collection of charities. Through his oh-so-briefly considered comments, Lord Freud accepted the notion that, in order to raise the percentage of disabled people in work, which remains stubbornly fixed at around 50 percent, the government may step in to support the private sector, allowing companies to pay disabled individuals below minimum wage which would in turn be subsidised by the government. Hardly the face of heartless Conservatism, despite Labour’s best efforts to take the shine off yesterday’s positive unemployment figures.
In reality we are talking of an economically compassionate approach to helping people who find employment opportunities extremely hard to find. This is not about a choice between work at minimum wage and work at a reduced wage. This is about some disabled people getting work at all or staying in care, or at home, sadly unproductive and without the pride that work brings. By demanding the minimum wage for all Mencap and all the others in the chorus are in fact condemning economically and socially productive people to a life of hand outs and reduced self-esteem.
David Cameron, in his infinite weakness in the face of a surprisingly effective Commons ambush by Milliband has distanced himself from Lord Freud’s comments. Lord Freud has been pushed to make a full and frank apology for his “foolish and offensive” remarks and today he was demoted. Once again, Labour have exploited the vulnerable for their own gain, while damaging the reputation of a decent peer with a valuable business background, rare in politics, in the process. If given proper consideration, it’s ideas like this that could give a well needed boost to those who have a disability and are struggling to find work in the productive economy. His choice of words may have been but if the problem here is one of offence, of the risk of making disabled people feel under-valued, then his gaffe surely shouldn’t be used for political point scoring by the political left.
In this political climate we call for the heads of politicians all too easily. Lord Freud isn’t a career politician; it is highly unlikely that he has received the sort of media and public relations training that allows one to instinctively shut one’s mouth before something clumsy and open to deliberate misinterpretation spills out. I personally believe that it is people like Lord Freud who are – or were – willing to debate novel ideas to make people’s lives better and more fulfilling, who could make those strong employment figures better yet and improve the lives of thousands in the process. Our politicians must be allowed to debate contentious issues and make mistakes without living in fear of witch hunts by the media and the opposition, or we will be forever stuck in this current trend of tinkering around the edges on major policy issues rather than thinking outside the box and breaking boundaries.
In the midst of this furore there are some commentators seriously proposing that an employer, in order to employ someone with severe learning difficulties should also employ a full time mentor to assist them These people have obviously never had to read a balance sheet or had to compete in the highly competitive economic circumstances that the political failures of the last 10 years have created. Labour might shout and scream but what innovative suggestions, pray tell, have they? None.