Dominic Lawson: It's not about money. It's about work

For the mentally disabled work can bring not just a sense of having a purpose and a role, but an end to profound loneliness

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To move from obscurity to the most hated man in Britain in the space of a day is an achievement, of sorts. The man who has managed this unenviable feat is Philip Davies, the backbench (and likely to remain so) Conservative MP for Shipley.

"Disgusting", "insane" and "like Hitler" have been some of the printable comments heaped upon Mr Davies's head in the aftermath of some remarks he made during a speech in the House of Commons last Thursday on the Employment Opportunities Bill. The purpose of the measure, according to its proposer, Christopher Chope MP, was to "introduce more freedom, flexibility and opportunity for those seeking employment"; it would "reduce restrictions on foreign nationals lawfully resident in the UK that prevent them from working" and "enable those entitled to the minimum wage to opt out from that entitlement".

It is in that context that Davies made his ill-fated observations. He declared it a "scandal" that "only about 16 per cent of people with learning disabilities have a job". He then argued that employers might be more prepared to take on such people if the applicants were allowed to offer to work for less than the minimum wage (which in October is to rise to £6.08 per hour).

Davies added that "the national minimum wage has been of great benefit to lots of low-paid people" but that if legislators "are not prepared to accept that the minimum wage is making it harder for some of those vulnerable people to get on the first rung of the jobs ladder, we will never get anywhere in trying to help these people into employment".

Does that seem "insane", "disgusting", "like Hitler" – or, as the Daily Mirror declared, "a contemptible bid to impose slave labour"? Even the Daily Telegraph observed that Mr Davies's remarks had "stunned both Labour and Tory MPs". They, like Davies's critics in the media, seemed to imagine that he had proposed that the mentally disabled be "forced" to work for less than the minimum wage; whereas in fact he was merely suggesting that they be allowed to offer their services for less than £6.08 per hour.

There is still a fierce academic debate about the economic and social consequences of the minimum wage; but politically, in this country, the issue is settled. It was introduced by New Labour in 1999 (although back in the days when he was a Financial Times journalist, Ed Balls opposed a minimum wage as likely to increase unemployment). By 2000 even the Conservatives abandoned their opposition, and there is no chance that David Cameron, with his concern to "detoxify the Tory brand", would even dream of trying to repeal the legislation. Yet respected academics with no affiliation to the political right have continued to insist that it has been anything but beneficial to those it most sought to help.

In "Minimum Wages", by David Neumark, a research fellow at the US Institute for the Study of Labour, and William Wascher, of the division of Research and Statistics at the US Federal Reserve, the authors concluded, on the basis of 20 years' research, that "minimum wages reduce employment opportunities for less-skilled workers and tend to reduce their earnings; they are not an effective means of reducing poverty; and they appear to have adverse long-term effects on wages and earnings, in part by reducing the acquisition of human capital... Policymakers should instead look for other tools ... to provide poor families with an acceptable standard of living."

In fact, some states in the US have attempted to increase the scandalously low employment rate of those with learning disabilities by giving them exemptions from minimum wage legislation. It is fair to say that disability rights organisations there have been as excoriating about such exemptions as equivalent bodies here are about Philip Davies's advocacy of the same idea.

The Associated Press last month ran a story on the effects of Ohio's legislation which allowed employers to pay less than the minimum wage to adults with "disabilities limiting their productivity". AP quoted the director of the National Disability Rights Network describing Ohio's legislation as "immoral". However the news agency also quoted the mother of an autistic man with a low wage job in Columbus, Ohio; Mrs Norma Williams said that her son's new job "allows him to have a purpose in life... he has a place to go and a reason to get up in the morning. I don't care about the money".

Similar comments can be found on The Spectator's Coffee House website, which dared to suggest that Philip Davies "should not be dismissed out of hand". In one of them, Glyn Butcher wrote (and I reprint here exactly in the form it appeared), "I have been to mental health services since I was 11 years old... I personally did not find Mr Davies comments offensive he was stateing the TRUTH about service users like myself standing no choice of getting paid employment if I went to an interview and they were people there without disabilitys he was just making a point that people like me want to work that bad that we would work for less money because working in itself gives us a sense of value that money cannot buy. Thank you Mr Davies for understanding me."

Of course such an arrangement can be condemned as a "ruthless exploitation by employers" of the desperation for work on the part of a man such as Glyn Butcher. Set against such rhetorical outrage is the fact that a single adult under the age of 24 is entitled to out-of-work benefits of between £60 and £70 a week; but the minimum that he can legally be paid if he works for 35 hours is over £200 a week. As Christopher Chope told the House of Commons, "If he is offered, and willing to take, 35 hours a week for, say, £140 a week, which is twice what he can get on the dole, the state does not allow him to take it... how ludicrous, mad and silly is that situation?" If it is mad, then the madness will continue: Chope's Employment Opportunities Bill is dead in the water.

While a weekly income of £140 might appear to be well adrift of the amount necessary for the basics of comfort and accommodation, the point is that the mentally disabled (and I don't mean in this context those with temporary or purely psychological problems) will for the most part either live in care homes or with their families. My 16-year-old daughter, who has Down's Syndrome, comes into the latter category. Recently she has been attending a wonderful place in Sussex called Chalk Farm, a small hotel whose staff all have mental disabilities of varying degrees of severity, and which trains such people for similar work elsewhere.

When one thinks of what a transformation in their lives such work can bring – not just a sense of having a purpose and a role, but also an end to what can be profound loneliness – the cruelty lies in not giving employers the maximum incentive to take them on. Yesterday I asked my daughter what she felt about getting just tips for waitressing at a place such as Chalk Farm. Her reply was firm, and to the point: "It's not about money. It's about work."

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