Lord Freud was clinging to his job as welfare reform minister tonight after he suggested that some disabled workers are “not worth” the national minimum wage and should be paid just £2 an hour.
The Tory peer’s comments provoked outrage among charities and MPs of all parties and he was even rebuked by the Prime Minister.
In an attempt to calm the storm, Lord Freud rushed out a statement in which he apologised “unreservedly” for his “offensive” remarks, made two weeks ago at a fringe meeting at the Conservative conference.
He won the backing of an angry David Cameron who was confronted with his minister’s words during heated clashes in the House of Commons with Ed Miliband.
The Labour leader read out covertly recorded remarks in which Lord Freud appeared to argue that some disabled people should be paid £2 an hour, rather than the full rate of £6.50, if they wanted to work.
In response to a question from a councillor, the minister said: “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.”
Lord Freud went on: “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 ...”
Listen to Lord Freud's comments about disabled people
The Labour leader challenged the Prime Minister: “Is that your view?”
Mr Cameron replied: “No, absolutely not. Of course disabled people should be paid the minimum wage and the minimum wage under this Government is going up and going up in real terms.”
The Labour leader continued: “Surely someone holding those views can’t possibly stay in your Government?”
Mr Cameron said: “Those are not the views of the Government. They are not the views of anyone in the Government.”
Immediately afterwards the employment minister, Esther McVey, said her Tory colleague’s “wrong” words would “haunt him”.
The Conservative MP, Mark Garnier, suggested that Lord Freud should be sacked over his “completely unacceptable” comments.
The deafblind charity Sense condemned the “offensive remarks”, while Leonard Cheshire Disability labelled them as “deeply saddening and ill-informed.”
Dan Scorer, head of policy at Mencap, said he was “shocked” and added: “I think he needs to very seriously consider his position after making these comments.”
Two hours later after contact from Downing Street, the peer issued a statement reading: “I would like to offer a full and unreserved apology. I was foolish to accept the premise of the question. 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.”
Lord Freud, a close ally of the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith who also advised the Blair government, said he was “profoundly sorry for any offence I have caused to any disabled people”.
Downing Street sought to draw a line under the controversy, insisting Mr Cameron retained full confidence in his minister. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “The important thing now is for all Government ministers to be getting on and implementing policies.”
But a Labour spokesman said: “This attempt at an apology is not the end of the matter. Someone holding these views shouldn’t be in Government.”
It is not the first time that Lord Freud has made offensive comments. Last year, he suggested more people were going to food banks because more of them existed and even denied they were even part of the welfare system. He also said children of families affected by the “bedroom tax” could use a sofa bed when visiting a separated parent.
Case study: Martyn Sibley
Martyn Sibley is co-founder of Disability Horizons
I am a regular guy who happens to have a disability called Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA). This means I cannot walk, lift anything heavier than a book or shower myself.
Like many disabled people, my day-to-day life often consists of people making judgements about what I can and can’t do.
I enjoy nothing more than proving them wrong. Which would explain why I have made ludicrous decisions such as flying a plane and going Scuba diving.
But it’s pretty disappointing, frightening even, to see that these negative attitudes are shared by the minister in charge of policy relating to the welfare of disabled people.
I hate to think about the kind of message Lord Freud’s comments send to young disabled people who are eager to find jobs, to get work experience, to build careers, just like I was at their age.
Should we be teaching young disabled people that they are worth less, and should accept less in life, than anyone else?
I’ve worked for big organisations and I now run my own business. I know all about the barriers that disabled people face at work.
Lord Freud’s comments were offensive and wrong. But maybe it will get us talking about how we can break down the barriers.