So the fury at Freud rolls on, and no wonder. Whatever his intent – that more people with ,mental health problems or learning disabilities (brigaded under the heading ‘mentally damaged’ by the questioner) should have the opportunity of work – his simple statement that such people are ‘not worth’ the minimum wage will, to quote Esther McVey, haunt him. I hope he goes, not just because of this but because he’s responsible for bad policy, which has failed disabled people and wasted £billions of taxpayers money. He was hired originally, I understand, to assist Tony Blair and John Hutton to win the case for DWP to spend money the Treasury under Gordon Brown refused to commit to employment support. His answer was ‘payment by results’ facilitated by the ‘ame-del switch.’ This extract from a Work and Pensions Committee Inquiry into the Work Programme provides details. The problem is that the projected savings are not being realised, which in turn appears to be pushing DWP towards ever more draconian sanctions regimes, deterrents and the demonisation of claimants.
But……. let’s contrast what underlay Freud’s comments with what various welfare reform opponents have advocated recently, and indeed an idea that was proposed by the Shadow Disability Minister Kate Green MP last week.
Here’s the transcript of the question asked and Freud’s response:
Questioner: “The other area I’m really concerned about is obviously the disabled. I have a number of mentally damaged individuals, who to be quite frank aren’t worth the Minimum Wage, but want to work. And we have been trying to support them in work, but you can’t find people who are willing to pay the Minimum Wage.
“We had a young man who was keen to do gardening; now the only way we managed to get him to work was actually setting up a company for him, because as a director in a company we didn’t have to pay the Minimum Wage, we could actually give him the earnings from that. But trying to actually maintain his support and allow him to actually work-which he wanted to do–so to actually stay with benefits, and stay with some way of actually managing to continue on in that way. And I think yes, those are marginal areas but they are critical of actually keeping people who want to work supported in that process. And it’s how do you deal with those sort of cases?”
David Freud: “…You make a really good point about the disabled. Now I had not thought through, and we have not got a system for, you know, kind of going below the Minimum Wage.
“But we do have… You know, Universal Credit is really useful for people with the fluctuating conditions who can do some work – go up and down – because they can earn and get…and get, you know, bolstered through Universal Credit, and they can move that amount up and down.
“Now, there is a small…there is a group, and I know exactly who you mean, where actually as you say they’re not worth the full wage and actually I’m going to go and think about that particular issue, whether there is something we can do nationally, and without distorting the whole thing, which actually if someone wants to work for £2 an hour, and it’s working can we actually…”
Terrible eh? Here’s what Carers Watch and Pats Petition wrote this year, under the heading ‘We need to talk about the elephant in the room’:
‘The real world out there is a competitive labour market. Employers hire the candidate who convinces them that they will be the most productive and stand up to the most pressure. The candidate who is the fittest, gets the job. That’s the real world of getting a job.
But what should an employer do when they are asked to take on a disabled person whose impairments will bring extra costs to the employer? No-one even asks the question. It’s the elephant in the room that no-one talks about. They’ll talk about reasonable adjustments and enabling people to overcome the barriers to being productive, but can that work for everyone?
Until we start asking these questions, we won’t find the solution. Governments intervene in markets all the time to promote equality: but apparently not for disabled people.’
Hmmm, so David Freud talks about the apparently same ‘elephant in the room’ in response to a question at a Party Conference fringe session, and is roundly attacked, including by…. Pats Petition. Now of course, Pats Petition and Carers Watch have not advocated that disabled people should be paid less than the minimum wage when in work. But the view they do appear to share is the idea that some disabled people are intrinsically less competitive and less likely to be hired by employers and that a level playing field cannot realistically be created through reasonable adjustments or supports alone.
Being a free marketeer, Freud links productivity to pay and presented with the idea that paying people beneath the minimum wage might be a way to secure jobs for people who he believes employers legitimately don’t regard as worth employing says he will go away and look at it, with a view to Universal Credit making up the shortfall.
Carers Watch and Pats Petition have suggested:
‘Because someone is less competitive it doesn’t mean they can’t work and contribute and there are still lots of options that might help them. Quotas, subsidies, campaigns, lots of opportunities for permitted and voluntary work. The government could intervene in the job market to make it a level playing field. Perhaps this needs a name – Supported Work.’
Presumably then Carers Watch and Pats Petition would countenance the idea of subsidising the costs of employing a ‘less competitive’ disabled person. But no matter how much less competitive a person is, they maintain that their labour should never be judged as worth less than the minimum hourly wage.
The problem with what both Carers Watch/Pats Petition’s suggestion and David Freud’s proposition (and an idea being considered by Labour -see below) share is an essentialist view of the impact of impairments and health conditions on a person’s competitiveness. One does not need to be in denial of the functional limitations imposed by impairments and health conditions to understand that productivity or competitiveness are – for all people – highly contextual and influenced by a huge range of factors. Yet this essentialist approach to the impact of a persons impairment on their productivity is finding voice elsewhere. The proposals of ‘The New Approach‘ include some important ideas about taking a more flexible and rounded approach to identifying the factors influencing a persons work prospects and the support they may require, common with the proposals of the Poverty and Disability Taskforce established by the Labour Party. But it goes on to propose that a person’s ‘reduced capability for work’ be expressed as percentage ‘limitation’, that the person be given a ‘statement of support needs’ setting out that percentage and that ‘an employer has to make an adjustment for (the persons) limitation.’ Labour appear to be considering something very similar to this idea.
Employers do not make adjustments for the ‘limitations’ imposed by an impairment or health condition. They make adjustments to remove the barriers that would otherwise amount to discrimination by preventing a person capable of doing a particular job from doing it. As with the question of productivity and competitiveness, such barriers are specific to particular job roles, employers and individuals – they cannot be generalised.
In seeming to appropriate the idea of a statement of some kind. Labour appear to have forgotten why in the The Equality Act 2010 they prohibited employers from using pre-employment health questionnaires. Evidence showed that such questionnaires were used during recruitment processes to screen out disabled applicants. Perhaps the ‘Statement of Support’ would only be passed to an employer once a job offer has been made, but the idea that disabled people’s job prospects will be aided by official advice saying that they have only 25% ‘unlimited’ capability to work strikes me as naive at best. How on earth could a person hope to bring a claim of discrimination by an employer when the government says they are officially less capable/productive than their peers?
As the World Report on Disability said: ‘People’s capabilities depend on external conditions that can be modified by government action….the capabilities of people with disabilities can be expanded; their well-being, agency, and freedom improved; and their human rights realized’
Employers – and disabled people – can be supported to get in, get on and stay in work. The Access to Work Scheme (properly functioning) can be transformative and moreover has proven return on investment. The State could do far more, by using existing resources more intelligently, as Liz Sayce and I set out in the report ‘Taking Control of Employment Support’ which proposed that the Work Programme and Work Choice be dissolved and the money put in the hands of disabled people and employers to commission the support and adjustments they identify are necessary. The wider framework of public policy and services – from education, to health and social care, to public transportation – needs to be reformed to help create the opportunity infrastructure than optimises the chance of disabled people getting jobs and enjoying satisfying working lives. Equality law needs to be robustly enforced and people should enjoy accessible modes of redress where they have faced discrimination. The world of work itself is changing and can be changed further to include more people working in different ways, in different places, for different amounts of time. The Welfare State should be reformed to under-write people making whatever contribution they are able to.
All these things must be tried before we judge anyone to be intrinsically incapable of work. At the same time disabled people should not face sanctions and loss of income until such time as it is proven that they enjoy genuine equality in the labour market. And we should never, ever, consider paying anyone less than the minimum wage.