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Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Do Lord Freud's comments on disability highlight problem within Conservative Party?

Conservative welfare minister Lord Freud has apologised for suggesting that disabled people are "not worth" the national minimum wage and that some of them should be paid £2 per hour.

Such remarks show a staggering ignorance of disability, equality and economics.

Freud made the comments at a Conservative Party conference fringe meeting, but they only came to light today in a question at PMQs from Labour leader Ed Miliband.

Creating a multi-tier system of pay whereby people with disabilities are paid less would inevitably lead to exploitation and further discrimination.

In his apology, Freud insisted that he was responding to a questioner at the event, and that he "was foolish to accept the premise of the question. To be clear, all disabled people should be paid at least the minimum wage, without exception, and I accept that it is offensive to suggest anything else...I am profoundly sorry for any offence I have caused to any disabled people."

It is not merely disabled people he has offended, but all those who believe in a just society, and have a belief in fairness and equality of opportunity for those with disabilities. It is also offensive on an intellectual level, supposing that discriminating against some of the most vulnerable members of society can offer any positive economic solution. The use of words such as "the disabled" (suggesting a singular homogenous group) is a personal pet hate, but to follow this up with value judgments, using the language of "worth", is patently prejudicial and unbefitting of a government minister - let alone someone with responsibility for welfare.

In responding to Ed Miliband, David Cameron advised that "those are not the views of the Government. They are not the views of anyone in the Government." Sadly, until Freud either resigns or is sacked, he is entirely wrong.

I'm trying to imagine how such a thing could be said in a fringe meeting at any other party conference and escape howls of derision from attendees.  It's amazing that no-one questioned Freud at the time or took issue with his sentiments. Does this incident say more about Freud and his views, or the nature of the Conservative Party?

In spite of a supposed modernising agenda, prejudicial views towards some of the poorest and most vulnerable members of British society continue to be expressed - and even tolerated. If Ed Miliband hadn't questioned the Prime Minister today, we would - in all probability - have never known about Freud's misguided intervention. The Conservative Party appears to be caught in two minds, seeking to portray itself as progressive while failing to rid itself of destructive backward-looking social attitudes many of its members appear to be unwilling to surrender. This doesn't help those who want the party to move forward - and to be seen as more compassionate - and plays into the hands of opportunistic opponents.

It's not the first time he's courted controversy in this way either - in May 2013 he is reported as having suggested that people struggling with the "bedroom tax" could either find a job or buy a sofa-bed.

The problem is not simply Lord Freud - it is the Conservative Party. A party that is working so hard to outflank UKIP that a minister making such prejudicial comments at a conference fringe meeting makes absolutely zero impression on attendees. It's just part of the accepted narrative from a party that has delivered such discriminatory policies as the bedroom tax, introduced the near-criminal actions of Atos fitness tests and overseen cuts to the independent living fund. 

There was a time when the Conservative Party were anxious to rid themselves of the epithet "the nasty party". They're getting there...they now look like the "totally evil party".

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