David Freud will probably now survive as a minister, having inadvertently provided a public service with his unfortunate comments about the employment of people with disabilities. Alastair Campbell, former press secretary to Tony Blair, last week updated the rule he formulated about the survivability of ministerial scandals. He used to say that, if a minister featured on the front pages of the newspapers for 10 days running, he or she would have to go. Now that the media cycle has picked up speed, Mr Campbell says that, if a minister "trended" on Twitter for four days in a row, it was time for the chop.
Yesterday, Lord Freud was no longer trending on Twitter, so it may be that his prompt apology for having said that some of "the disabled" are "not worth" the national minimum wage was enough to secure his own job. However, something more interesting was going on than a mere subsiding of public outrage. Close examination of the minister's words allowed a different interpretation to gain ground. He had expressed himself badly, but it was at least arguable that he had been trying to think about how best to encourage employers to take on people with disabilities. And it was possible that when he said he would look at "whether there is something we can do if someone wants to work for £2 an hour", he was thinking of ways in which the taxpayer could top up such pay to the level of the minimum wage.
Certainly it was notable that on BBC1's Question Time on Thursday, Angela Eagle, the shadow cabinet minister, lost the sympathy of the studio audience when she seemed too keen to make party political points from Lord Freud's embarrassment.
As we report today, another minister said something controversial about employing people with disabilities at a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party's annual conference this month. Andrew Selous, a junior minister at the Department of Justice, said that people with disabilities work harder than most employees because they are "grateful" to have a job at all. In a way, he made the opposite mistake to Lord Freud, suggesting that, economically, people with disabilities are "worth" more than other workers, and opening himself to the charge of being condescending rather than callous.
Again, however, it is possible to give the minister the benefit of the doubt. Mr Selous was trying to counter negative attitudes of employers towards people with disabilities. Indeed, he was making a point about the difficulties experienced by ex-convicts in finding work, and said that people with disabilities were often in a similar position.
It would have been better if he and Lord Freud had said that the important thing is to challenge employers so that they do not regard people with disabilities – or ex-convicts – as universally less employable than other people.
It is a point made powerfully by David Blunkett, the former Home Secretary, speaking to The Independent yesterday. He said he was "saddened" by Tom Utley's recollection that TE Utley, his father, who was blind, "happily" earned less than his sighted colleagues. Utley senior, Mr Blunkett said, "was always applauded for being able to work on equal terms and to use his remarkable memory before the days of computers and word processors to do his job".
Whatever we think of the precise words used by Lord Freud and Mr Selous, or even their intentions, we should welcome their having raised the subject. The more the question is discussed in public, the greater the hope of breaking down the barriers of prejudice that make it harder for ex-offenders and people with disabilities to get jobs – which is greatly in the interest of the employer, the employee and society as a whole.
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