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

Share
Related Topics

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."



d.lawson@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links