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Would YOU Work for £2 an Hour, Lord Freud

  • Published: 2014-10-20 (Revised/Updated 2016-06-11) : Author: Paul Dodenhoff : Contact: p.dodenhoff@lancaster.ac.uk
  • Synopsis: Paul Dodenhoff responds to Lord Freud's recent comment that some disabled workers are not worth the UK national minimum wage and should be paid £2 an hour.

Quote: "While Lord Freud has apologized for his remarks, perhaps if he paid himself just £2 an hour now for his role as a government welfare reformer, he may actually start to get one of those big boots of his into the real world, rather than living in cloud cuckoo land."

Main Document

Paul Dodenhoff is an independent researcher and writer. See 'bio' for contact details.

It always amazes me, that when I think British politics have sunk as low as it can possibly go, somebody comes along to drag it even further into the gutter. This time it's the turn of Lord Freud, a government welfare reform minister who recently suggested that some disabled workers are 'not worth' the UK national minimum wage and should be paid just £2 an hour. Remarks made some weeks ago at a fringe meeting during a Conservative party conference.

Lord Freud's (recorded) remarks are quoted below:

"You make a really good point about the disabled. Now I had not thought through, and we have not got a system for, you know, kind of going below the minimum wage.

"But we do have ... you know, universal credit is really useful for people with the fluctuating conditions who can do some work - go up and down - because they can earn and get ... and get, you know, bolstered through universal credit, and they can move that amount up and down.

"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...

For anybody not good at maths, for a 40 hour working week, £2 an hour equates to a grand total of £80 a week (or 144 Canadian dollars). According to the Office of National statistics, in 2012 the average household expenditure in the UK was £489 (or 855 Canadian dollars). I'm not sure of Lord Freud's income and expenditure but being a Government minister, we can be quite certain that he will be earning far more than the national minimum wage, and certain to be spending far more than the average UK household.

The first thing to say in response to Lord Freud's remarks, is that if you haven't walked a few miles in somebody else's shoes (for want of a better saying) then you may have limited insight into the life of that person. And most certainly, nobody should be making high level decisions about the lives of other people, if you don't really have a clue about the daily existence of those you are making decisions about. Do you get that concept, Lord Freud

While it's certainly right we should hold a reasoned debate about getting more people into employment, we also need to do so with a bit of common sense and an even bigger dose of reality. Something that many of our current British politicians seem to be sadly lacking in, including Lord Freud. And it's is rather worrying that one of the most senior politicians responsible for welfare reform within the UK, can think it right and fair that people (disabled or not) can work for so little compensation.

However, while the suggestion that a wage of £2 an hour seems to easily cross Lord Freud's mind without much horror, the real give away of Lord Freud's beliefs concerning disability was his use of the phrase 'mentally damaged' that he also used during the conference to describe somebody with a learning difficulty. This latest distasteful episode within British politics speaks volumes about how the disabled are actually perceived within society, not only by Lord Freud and his fellow politicians, but also by the wider general public.

So, let us be quite sure what Lord Freud is actually touching upon here in his remarks about employment of the disabled. Lord Freud was mainly talking about perceived mental disability, and the deep rooted problem that disabled people with learning difficulties are simply not wanted by our business leaders as employees. Something both the Conservatives and the Labor party will be well aware of, seeing that they spend so much time courting business leaders and being courted by business leaders.

Businesses within the UK are often 'alleged' to discriminate over many different characteristics - race, ethnicity, age, sexuality, religion, women with young children and the disabled. Often, employment discrimination against these social groups occur for exactly the same reasons, i.e., that certain social groups are not considered to be productive enough in the work place, and/or considered to carry 'risks' of some kind that may bring operational 'problems' to the work place at some point.

I used the word 'alleged', although it is 100% certain that many employers will indeed discriminate against people who fall into the social categories described above. However, most of this will occur behind closed doors and many employers may not even consider it to be 'discrimination' at all, but legitimated and normal behavior that is primarily driven by perceived 'business needs'. Business needs that often override anything else, including common decency and fairness, not to mention 'the law' of the land.

However, as regards disability, employers are simply not choosing between potential employees on a level playing field nor on individual cases, but on half-truths, falsehoods and stereotypes generated and disseminated about disability (and to be more precise, mental impairment). Or to use Lord Freud's distasteful terminology again, the 'mentally damaged'.

This is the direction Lord Freud is actually coming from in his remarks, and the reason why he suggests that £2 an hour is all the disabled are worth in the marketplace - encouragement to businesses to employ more disabled people. Therefore, within Lord Freud's universe, the disabled are perceived as not capable of working hard enough or smart enough to earn the basic minimum wage, a minimum wage that is already so low, that it is often not enough to actually live upon.

Firstly, I should make it clear that I personally have no problems with people starting up businesses and making pots of money out of them, subject to the proviso that their employees are treated with a fair wage, common decency and respect. However, in recent years within the UK, we have seen a very extreme version of capitalism at play, promoted by both government and businesses as 'moderate' and 'normal' business practice, but are in fact the actions of extremists and self-interested bigots. People so out of touch with real lives and real people, that they would not recognize reality if it actually hit them in the face.

So, rather than tackling discriminatory employment practices head on, Lord Freud and his ilk pander to the whims, foibles and dictates of a short sighted business community, a community that still wouldn't employ a disabled person anyway, even if that person wanted to work for nothing. For who wants somebody in the workplace who is considered not only to be 'mentally damaged', but a nuisance and a hindrance

Am I right or wrong? Please bear in mind that Lord Freud is not the first person of Britain's 'Loony' right wing to loudly indicate political attitudes towards employment of the disability. Below are comments made in the House of Commons by Philip Davies MP in 2011, on the same topic:

' Philip Davies told the Commons: "If an employer is looking at two candidates, one who has got disabilities and one who hasn't, and they have got to pay them both the same rate, I invite you to guess which one the employer is more likely to take on. "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. "My view is that for some people the national minimum wage may be more of a hindrance than a help."If those people who consider it is being a hindrance to them, and in my view that's some of the most vulnerable people in society, if they feel that for a short period of time, taking a lower rate of pay to help them get on their first rung of the jobs ladder, if they judge that that is a good thing, I don't see why we should be standing in their way."

(The Guardian 17 th June 2011)

So, there you go. And these are not isolated comments from our political elite, but comments that surface on a regular basis. Comments not only out of sync with the concept of equality, but speak volumes about how some people actually view the disabled and treat the disabled.

It is also interesting to note that while the Labor party have roundly attacked Lord Freud's distasteful remarks, he is somebody who was also once an adviser to the Labor party on welfare reform. It should also be noted that in 2003, the Labor government themselves published guidance on where it might be 'acceptable' to pay disabled people less than the national minimum wage. So, any criticism of Lord Freud from Britain's main political opposition party ring rather hollow.

Many of the problems that the disabled face daily within the UK, stem partially from extremist viewpoints such as those presented by Lord Freud, Philip Davies and certain sections of the Labor party - as they quickly become internalized as 'normative' of society as an whole. Beliefs, attitudes and stereotypes based on half-truths and falsehoods, that get internalized by the masses and used to drive not only rampant discrimination towards the disabled, but also hate crime.

To make sense of the beliefs and values of our political leaders, we actually need to be academically expert in the fields of politics and philosophy - a situation that most of us are not, nor are actually interested in. However, only by looking at the 'influences' behind each political party, can we discern the policies that may be generated, and also the flaws within the logic of those policies. And the flaws within the current political thinking of the Conservatives, The Labor party and the Lib-Dems are quite immense.

For example, the disabled are viewed as 'worthless' and 'inferior' within society simply because they are not only perceived as being largely economically dependent upon others within society for survival, but actually 'unproductive' within society. Or to put it more crudely, 'unproductive' within the workplace. These are notions that can be seen to drive the remarks made by both Lord Freud recently and by Philip Davies in 2011.

Such notions of 'productivity' comes primarily from academics working within the field of 'functionalism', a philosophy that looks at life in terms of the 'functions' and 'roles' people fulfill within society, functions and roles that also carry an inherent economic value (or worth) attached. It is also one branch of philosophy that underpins much of the political thinking behind the social and economic policies of the three main political parties within the UK.

Therefore, Topliss (1982) in 'Social Responses to Handicap' suggested that the disabled may indeed be perceived as inferior within society, primarily as they are considered as being largely unable to meet the standards of competitive performance in work that is expected of the able-bodied:

' While the particular type or degree of impairment which disables a person for full participation in society may change, it is inevitable that there will always be a line, somewhat indefinite but none the less real, between the able-bodied majority and a disabled minority whose interests are given less salience in the activities of society as a whole. Similarly the values which underpin society must be those which support the interests and activities of the majority, hence the emphasis on vigorous independence and competitive achievement, particularly in the occupational sphere, with the unfortunate spin-off that it encourages a stigmatizing and negative view of the disabilities which handicap individuals in these valued aspects of life. Because of the centrality of such values in the formation of citizens of the type needed to sustain the social arrangements desired by the able-bodied majority, they will continue to be fostered by family upbringing, education and public esteem. By contrast, disablement which handicaps an individual in these areas will continue to be negatively valued, thus tending towards the imputation of general inferiority to the disabled individual, or stigmatization.'

(Topliss 1982:111/2)

But is it true that some disabled people cannot be 'productive' or 'valued' within the workplace? Certainly, if we continue to discriminate against the disabled, and in particular those with learning difficulties, then we will never give the disabled the opportunity to prove themselves. Additionally, often it is not that disabled people cannot be productive within the workplace, but perhaps a basic lack of suitable training that people are given, and a lack of suitably trained mentors and educators within the workplace, that become the main drawback. Discrimination, bullying and harassment within the workplace, also become far too common an experience for many people with learning difficulties, when they do actually find employment. Actions arguably driven by the pressures of competitive productivity within the workplace itself.

Even through advances have been made within British society about how we treat disability, we still misunderstand disability far too often. Conflating physical disability with mental disability, and mental disability with mental illness. We also write off far too many of our young disabled children at a very early age - written off as being unable to learn or simply far too time consuming to teach. However, most children can learn the skills they need in order to achieve what they want from life, with the right resources and the right people in place. Sadly, this is not often the case.

And what economic 'value' can you put on somebody's life anyway? Put simply, if we judge everything by 'productivity', we miss out on the other skills and abilities that people have to offer (disabled or not disabled). Certainly, it is not very 'productive' of Lord Freud to jump in with his big clod hopping boots, and make suggestions about employment of the disabled, without first having a basic understanding of learning difficulties, nor of disabled people in general.

While Lord Freud has apologized for his remarks, perhaps if he paid himself just £2 an hour now for his role as a government welfare reformer, he may actually start to get one of those big boots of his into the real world, rather than living in cloud cuckoo land. Priceless.

Paul Dodenhoff is an independent researcher and writer. See 'bio' for contact details.


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