“We’ve got a disability rights campaigner coming on the show to condemn Lord Freud, and we’re looking for someone to put the other side of the story. Are you available?” This is how a stream of producers approached me this morning after I expressed some sympathy with Lord Freud on the Today Programme. I’ve given the same response to a number of outlets throughout the day, which is that I have no interest in trying to justify paying disabled people lower wages. I will, however, talk about the issue he was trying to get at, and why it’s such an important debate. And so I found myself discussing the issue across TV and radio, attracting a fair amount of Twitter anger in the process.
Cutting through the incredibly misleading headlines that “Minister says disabled are worth less” it’s clear that Lord Freud, who by all accounts has done more than almost anyone else in government to help disabled people back into work, was referring to a small number of people whose disability – physical or mental – is so severe that they simply can’t find mainstream work on mainstream levels of pay. So we’re talking about people who, perhaps, require additional care or who can’t lead fully independent lives. We’re categorically not talking about ‘disabled people’ in general.
Lord Freud has been labelled ‘nasty’ and there have been strident calls for his resignation but, leaving the politics aside, what was the substance of the issue he was trying to discuss? To my mind, he was right to reflect on how we can help the most vulnerable in our society gain access to the workplace. If attempting to solve this question marks you out as morally reprehensible then the world has gone completely mad. What we actually saw yesterday was not a vicious Tory concocting new ways to hit the vulnerable, but a political stunt by the Labour Party that deliberately misinterpreted the comments in order to score points at PMQs. Of course, the Tories would do exactly the same given the chance, and indeed they’re no strangers to recording off the cuff comments and leaking them to the media. However, the consequences of this particular political grenade will be to silence difficult debate and deter politicians (of all stripes) from getting involved in difficult topics.
So, instead of discussing whether there might be a system (as there is in other counties) whereby the government could top up the pay of an employee to minimum wage levels and thus find them some meaningful work (with the social and therapeutic benefits it can bring) we’re discussing the political prospects of a Minister nobody had previously heard of. Seems like a strange priority to me.Reuse content