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

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."

React Now

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

Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Leeds

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Leeds This i...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Bristol

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon would turn Britain into a 'communist dictatorship, warns Sarah Vine  

Election 2015: much of the concern about the ‘legitimacy’ question is misplaced

John Rentoul
Ukip leader Nigel Farage  

Election 2015: Ukip is a non-sectarian, non-racist party with a forward-thinking plan for Britain

Nigel Farage
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power