Disabled party activists have expressed shock and outrage after the Labour chair of the Commons work and pensions committee suggested that employers should be allowed to pay some disabled people less than the minimum wage.
Among the critics were two disabled Labour MPs, Jared O’Mara and Marsha de Cordova, who joined many other disabled people who have criticised the comments of Frank Field, reported by Disability News Service (DNS) last week.
Field made the call in a new collection of essays on employment and disabled people, which was published earlier this month.
In his essay, Field (pictured) suggests granting a “specific exemption” to the National Living Wage “to those whose disabilities are deemed so severe that they will never be capable of enough output to warrant payment of the minimum wage, but who might nevertheless enjoy significant wellbeing gains from involvement in an appropriate workplace environment”.
Such workers, he said, “might be permitted to earn a small amount of money a week with zero or negligible impact” on their receipt of employment and support allowance, the out-of-work disability benefit.
O’Mara told DNS that he was “appalled and disgusted” by Field’s remarks and called on him to apologise immediately, and be subject to party disciplinary action if he refused to do so.
He said: “The suggestion that an hour’s work from a disabled person is worth less than an hour’s work from a non-disabled person is ableist and Dickensian in essence and there is no room for ableism in the UK.
“Offering employers cheap labour as an incentive to hire disabled people is not the way to help those of us on employment and support allowance who want to find employment, and not the way to create a truly equal and fair society.”
De Cordova said Field’s comments smacked of “a return to the workhouse”.
She said disabled people should be paid “a decent wage” for their work, “regardless of what it is”.
Debbie Abrahams, the party’s shadow work and pensions secretary, told a fringe meeting, when asked about his comments: “It is certainly not, I repeat, not, something that is acceptable to me or any member of the shadow cabinet and would not become Labour party policy.
“I want to make that absolutely clear.”
She later told DNS that whether Field resigned as chair of the work and pensions committee should be a “personal decision” for him.
Kate Green, a former shadow minister for disabled people, told DNS that she also did not agree with Field’s comments.
She said: “I have always said that disabled people doing a real job should have real wages and at least the minimum wage.”
She said that whether Field continued in his role was “a matter for everybody in parliament” but she added: “I would not be saying that his ability to chair inquiries is at issue.”
Disability Labour, which represents the interests of disabled Labour party members, condemned his comments “in the strongest possible terms” and said they were “discriminatory”.
In a statement, the organisation said: “For a Labour MP to suggest that disabled people can be less valued in the workplace, leaving them at the mercy of unscrupulous, exploitative employers is outrageous and unacceptable.
“For Frank to also perpetuate the trope that disabled workers are less productive and, by implication, less hardworking, is equally unacceptable.”
Disabled party members attending a fringe meeting organised by Disability Labour also expressed anger at Field’s suggestion.
One said: “I don’t feel Frank Field has any place in the party when he says we as disabled people might be less productive and therefore the minimum wage doesn’t apply to us.”
Another said he was “deeply ashamed” to say that Field was his MP, and he said his CLP [constituency Labour party] was seeking to move motions to condemn his “ignorant” comments “in the strongest possible terms”.
Emily Brothers, a disabled former parliamentary candidate and a member of the Disability Labour executive, told the meeting she did not agree with Field’s comments, although she said she was “happy to have a debate” about it.
Lorna Ely, a member of the representative body of Learning Disability England, who attended the Labour conference this week, said Field “should be ashamed of himself” for his “disgusting attitude”.
She said: “It’s really inappropriate because it brings disabled people down. I thought the Labour party was meant to be thinking forward, but this is a step backwards.”
Ely, who works as a part-time training administrator, said she would “feel very upset and very confused” if she was told that she would be paid less than the minimum wage for her work, and that she would feel she had been discriminated against.
She said she believed Field was “finished” as chair of the committee and should be replaced by someone who was “trustworthy and who acts like an MP”.
O’Mara, who was elected in June for the first time, after defeating former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, said the policy emphasis should be on forcing employers to “make the adjustments that they’re legally obliged to make to ensure that their workplaces are accessible for disabled workers”.
He said: “We should be forcing employers to be positive about disabled people, fighting to change their attitudes and even consider setting up quotas for large employers so that a certain percentage of their employees must have a disability.
“Devaluing the worth of disabled people is not congruent with Labour’s commitment to equality and we should be working together to help people who society places at a disadvantage, not suggesting that they have their rights decimated.”
The Labour party had failed to respond to a request to comment on Field’s comments, and whether it supported his position as chair of the committee, by noon today (Thursday).