Lord Freud, a Conservative Welfare Reform Minister, has admitted comments he made that some disabled people are “not worth” the full national minimum wage“ were “offensive”, after they were disclosed by Ed Miliband during Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday afternoon. The Labour leader has called on the Tory peer to resign. Cameron called for a full apology from Freud.
He has since apologised after slipping up and suggesting that disabled people are “not worth” the national minimum wage and some could only be paid “£2 an hour.” Cameron says the comments made by Lord Freud at the Tory conference do not represent the views of government. However, his austerity measures and the welfare “reforms” tell us a very different story.
Cameron betrayed his anger at being challenged when he once again alluded to his severely disabled late son, Ivan, and his late father, as he told Miliband that he would take no lectures on disabled people.
This is not the first time that the prime minister has used his son in anger, as a tactic designed to cause others emotional discomfort, deflect criticism and to avoid answering difficult questions regarding this government’s harsh and punitive policies towards disabled people.
The Labour leader quoted Freud, saying: “You make a really good point about the disabled. There is a group where actually, as you say, they’re not worth the full wage.”
Amidst cries of “outrage” and “shame” from the Labour benches, Mr Miliband said: “To be clear about what the Welfare Reform Minister said, it’s very serious. He didn’t just say disabled people weren’t worth the minimum wage, he went further and he said he was looking at whether there is something we can do, if someone wants to work for £2 an hour.”
He added: “Surely someone holding those views can’t possibly stay in your Government?”
Cameron said: “Those are not the views of the government, they are not the views of anyone in the government. The minimum wage is paid to everybody, disabled people included.”
Clearly very angry, the prime minister added: “Let me tell you: I don’t need lectures from anyone about looking after disabled people. So I don’t want to hear any more of that. We pay the minimum wage, we are reforming disability benefits, we want to help disabled people in our country, we want to help more of them into work. And instead of casting aspersions why doesn’t he get back to talking about the economy.”
Once again, note the rhetorical diversionary tactics that Cameron used.
Miliband responded: “I suggest, if he wants to protect the rights of disabled people, he reads very carefully what his welfare minister has said because they are not the words of someone who ought to be in charge of policy related to disabled people.
“In the dog days of this government the Conservative party is going back to its worst instincts – unfunded tax cuts, hitting the poorest hardest, now undermining the minimum wage. The nasty party is back.”
In the Guardian, Frances Ryan said: “We are in the climate of the Work Programme and employment and support allowance travesties, in jobseeker’s allowance sanctions and personal independent payment delays. Coerced, free labour and a shrinking, ever conditional benefit system. Freud has not spoken out of turn, but encapsulated Conservative attitudes to both disabled people and workers: pay them as little as possible and they will be grateful for it.
The Tories are not content with forcing disabled people into work. They want to pay them a pittance when they get there. I suppose we can thank Freud. The government has been producing enough measures that infers disabled people are slightly less than human. He’s finally said it out loud.”
I couldn’t agree more. Freud’s comments are simply a reflection of a wider implicit and fundamental Social Darwinism underpinning Tory ideology, and even Tim Montgomerie, who founded the ConservativeHome site has conceded that: “Conservative rhetoric often borders on social Darwinism…and has lost a sense of social justice.”
Of course the problem with such an ideological foundation is that it directly contradicts the basic principles that modern, western democracy was founded on, it is incompatible with our Human Rights Act, which enshrines the principle that we are each of equal worth. And our Equality Act, introduced by Labour to ensure that people are not discriminated against on the grounds of their disability, gender, age and a variety of other protected characteristics.
Sam Bowman, research director of the Adam Smith Institute, has said that Freud was “shamefully mistreated” by Labour leader Ed Miliband.
The Adam Smith Institute – a think tank that promotes Conservative “libertarian and free market ideas”, minarchism and claims it is:“known for its pioneering work on privatization, deregulation, and tax reform, and for its advocacy of internal markets in healthcare and education, working with policy-makers” – has, perhaps unsurprisingly, defended Lord Freud’s disgraceful comments regarding striving disabled workers.
Mr Bowman said: “His (Freud’s) point was that the market value of some people’s wages is below the minimum wage. This is often true of the severely disabled and can have appalling consequences for their self-esteem and quality of life.”
He added: “To point out that someone’s market value is less than minimum wage has nothing to do with their moral value as human beings.”
I beg to differ. We have a government that claims meritocratic principles define those who are worthy and deserving of wealth.We have a government that generates socially divisive narratives founded on ideological dichotomies like strivers and skivers. We have a government that systematically disregards the human rights of disabled people. Their very policies define the moral value they attribute to the poor, disabled people and the wealthy, respectively. This defence is based on a false distinction, because the Tories conflate market value and moral value explicitly, their policies are evidence of that.
The think tank president, Madsen Pirie, once said: “We propose things which people regard as being on the edge of lunacy. The next thing you know, they’re on the edge of policy.”
This group of neoconservatives brought you the fundamentals of Thatcher’s poll tax, the Adam Smith Institute was also the ideological driving force behind the sales of council house stock. If you need any further convincing of their Tory credentials, then their proposals that the National Health Service should establish an internal market with hospitals buying the use of facilities from other districts and from the private sector ought to be sufficient.
The Institute has always been a fierce critic of the NHS, it thinks that the government should only regulate healthcare and that healthcare should be privately funded and privately provided by private sector companies. The Adam Smith Institute said: Congratulations to the new Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, for what could be the biggest revolution in the UK’s state-run National Health Service for 60 years.
Also recommended by this group of privatisation vultures was an internal market system for UK schools that would have (reduced) state funds to follow students to independently run academic institutions. This approach to school funding is now Coalition policy. Following the Institute’s call for the use of private businesses by local governments, many council-run local services, such as waste collection and cleaning, were contracted out. Additionally, local governments are now required to solicit competitive bids for local services.
And it was this group of Hayek-worshipping, pro-exploitation neofeudalists, who don’t declare their funding sources, that called for a radical shake-up of welfare policy, which would make work requirements absolutely central to the benefits system. These proposals subsequently became Tory policy.
And who could forget their peddling of unfettered free markets and trade as an objection to fair trade?
In the UK and elsewhere, such Conservative neoliberal ideas have drastically changed how states operate. By heavily promoting market-based economies that highly value competition and efficiency, such neoliberalist economies have moved countries to retrogressively adopting Social Darwinist philosophies to prop up free market “logic”.
Bourdieu (1999) contends that neoliberalism as a form of national governance has become a doxa, or an unquestioned and simply accepted world-view.(See also Manufacturing consensus: the end of history and the partisan man.)
Harvey (2005) is not surprised that the ideas of capitalism have been infused into political, social, and cultural institutions at state-level. By placing a mathematical quality on social life, the neoconservatives have encouraged a formerly autonomous state to regress into penal state that values production, competition, and profit above all else, and social issues and consequences are increasingly disregarded.
Tories view their brand of economics as a social science that is capable of explaining all human behaviours, since all social agency is thought to be directed by a rationale of individualistic and selfish goals. And the focus on the individual means that ideas related to concepts such as “the public good” and realities such as “the community” are now being discarded as unnecessary components of a welfare state.
Unsurprisingly, then, high unemployment, gross inequality, and increasingly absolute poverty are increasingly blamed on individuals rather than on structural/economic constraints.
Tory economic policy is designed to benefit only a very small class of people. Such a world-view also makes it easier to justify the thought that some people are deserving of much more than others because, after all, it is a common refrain that we are all responsible for our own destinies. (See the just-world fallacy.)
Freud’s comment was not a momentary lapse, nor was it unrepresentative of Tory views more generally. He is the contemptuous architect of the grossly punitive Tory Bedroom Tax that disproportionately affects households of disabled people. The Tories endorsed Freud’s discriminatory policy proposal, and savagely ridiculed the UN rapporteur, Raquel Rolnik, when she pointed out, very professionally and reasonably, that the policy contravened human rights.
He is the same government minister that rejected suggestions that austerity policies have led to an increase in food bank use – making the jaw-droppingly astonishing suggestion that food bank charities are somehow to blame. This former investment banker and peer told the Lords that the increase in the usage of food banks was “supply led”.
He said: “If you put more food banks in, that is the supply. Clearly, food from the food banks is a free good and by definition with a free good there’s almost infinite demand.”
Poverty reduced to individual neoliberal motivational formulae. Yet it is the government that are responsible for policies that create and sustain inequality and poverty.
In the wake of the longer wait for unemployment benefits introduced by George Osborne, a massive increase in the use of cruel benefit sanctions, the introduction of the mandatory review, during which benefits are not payable to disabled people, Freud also rejected suggestions by leading food bank operators that delays in benefit payments drove demand for emergency food aid.
Such brutal, dehumanising and inequitable treatment of our most vulnerable citizens cannot be regarded as an exceptional incident: the Tories have formulated policies that have at their very core the not so very subliminal message that we are worthless and undeserving of support, basic honesty and decency.
Social Darwinism, with its brutalising indifference to human suffering, has been resurrected from nineteenth century and it fits so well with the current political spirit of neofascism. As social bonds are replaced by narcissistic, unadulterated materialism, public concerns are now understood and experienced as utterly private miseries, except when offered up to us on the Jerry Springer Show or Benefit Street as spectacle.
The Tories conflate autonomy (the ability to act according to our own internalised beliefs and values) with independence (not being reliant on or influenced by others). Tories like Freud have poisoned the very idea that we are a social species, connected by mutual interdependencies that require a degree of good will, kindliness and willingness to operate beyond our own exclusive, strangle hold of self-interest.
The time has come to ask ourselves what possible benefit to society such a government actually is – what use is an authoritarian, punitive state that is more concerned with punishing, policing and reducing citizens than with nurturing, supporting and investing in them?