Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 15.04.33Some disabled ‘not worth minimum wage’

A Conservative minister’s remarks on the disabled recently caused serious embarrassment to David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions.

Lord Freud, who had been responding to a question at a fringe meeting of the Conservative Party, appeared to suggest that the minimum wage was in some cases counterproductive to getting disabled people into work, because some (it was implied those who are mentally defective) were not worth the minimum wage to an employer (BBC 2014d). It was alleged by the Opposition that this sort of remark showed how little the Government cared about the most vulnerable in society.

The Department for Work and Pensions suggested that Lord Freud had been commenting on a potential government top-up scheme to supplement earnings of disabled individuals who could not earn the minimum wage. However, no reference to any such scheme appears in Lord Freud’s comments, nor is such a scheme part of government policy (BBC 2014e). Lord Freud later apologised and withdrew the remark, saying that he had been foolish to accept the premise of the question put to him (BBC 2014e).

How should we react to Lord Freud’s slip? The remark shows up some of the tensions in our way of considering such matters as merit, opportunity, and fairness. Whatever Lord Freud meant, the remark does reveal the basic employer-centric attitude of much Conservative ideology. However, it can also be shown that this attitude has its roots in a fundamental ongoing debate about what sort of society we should have. In part, the controversy is about whether it ought to be moral principles that determine the bedrock of our society, or whether economic principles of production should prevail. In past decades, during the postwar consensus, it was taken for granted that commerce should be necessarily reined in by principles of ‘social justice’, but today it is no longer clear that this is still the case, following the increasing popular interest in libertarianism (personified by UKIP) and the new free market consensus established by Thatcher.

The key question is: who is the most important? Is it the employer or the potential employee? Conservatives will point out that without employers there would be no jobs, so we must make it as easy as possible for them to grow their businesses and provide full employment. This means that wages should be low if necessary, and those (perhaps such as the disabled) who cannot demand a wage in a market environment should be cared for separately by charities – hence the cult of philanthropy in Late Capitalism. Their opponents will counterclaim that jobs below a minimum wage do not benefit the employee or society and have the tendency to promote situations close to slave labour, while those whom are vulnerable are entitled to a basic dignity and should not be excluded from the workplace.

The debate continues.

BBC, 2014d. ‘Welfare Minister apologises for disability pay comments.’ Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-29628557

[Accessed on 9th November 2014]

BBC, 2014e. ‘Freud: Pressure continues over disability pay comments.’ Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-29641409

[Accessed on 9th November 2014]

Image: http://www3.hants.gov.uk/workingforus/equalopps/recruitment-equal-ops-2ticks.htm

[Accessed on 9th November 2014]

JOY EJIOFOR .
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