Labour MP told to quit influential post after ‘offensive’ minimum wage call

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Disabled activists have called for a Labour MP to resign as chair of the Commons work and pensions select committee, after he called for employers to be allowed to pay some disabled people less than the minimum wage.

Frank Field (pictured) made the call in a new collection of essays on employment and disabled people, which was published earlier this month.

Three years ago, a Tory minister, Lord Freud, faced calls to be sacked after he was recorded making the same suggestion at a fringe event at the Conservative party conference.

Disabled campaigners have lined up to criticise Field.

Ian Jones, co-founder of the WOWCampaign, said Field’s “offensive” suggestion “reinforces a discriminatory and prejudicial stereotype that disabled people are worth less than others”.

He said: “If Frank Field wants to close the disability employment gap, the WOWCampaign suggest that he starts by putting together a robust plan to tackle the prejudice and discrimination that disabled people face from employers, which both acts as a barrier to them joining the workforce and stops them from achieving their true potential.

“Sadly, rather than do the hard bit, he has pandered to prejudice and ignorance and said some disabled people are not worth the minimum wage.

“Many people in post-Brexit Britain will read ‘some’ and think ‘all’.”

Jones said the Labour party should suspend Field from party membership and withdraw its support for him as chair of the work and pensions committee.

He added: “Prejudice such as this must not be tolerated. A minimum is a minimum for all.”

Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said Field’s suggestion was “grossly offensive and totally unacceptable”.

She said: “Field is a disgrace as both chair of the work and pensions select committee and a so-called Labour MP, and DPAC believe that he must resign his select committee post with immediate effect.”

Kamran Mallick, chief executive of Disability Rights UK (DR UK), was also critical, but stopped short of calling for Field to resign.

He said: “We think Frank Field MP is misguided in advocating that disabled people are paid less than the minimum wage. 

“I am totally opposed to any such suggestion. It would set us on the slippery slope to sheltered employment and performing menial tasks at day centres. 

“We have a right to work and to have the support in work we need to reach our full potential. 

“We respect Frank Field’s position as chair of the DWP select committee and I would like to invite him in to engage in a dialogue with disabled people on this issue.

“I think we need to defeat this whole idea, in parliament and outside it, rather than focus on one individual. We should win the argument through debate in the democratic process.”

Neil Coyle, a Labour member of Field’s work and pensions committee and a former DR UK director, said: “I completely disagree with Frank and made that clear at the launch of the report.

“Disabled people’s living costs are higher and they are more likely to live in poverty.

“Disabled people should not be penalised in work and already earn less for the same jobs as non-disabled people.”

Stephen Lloyd, the disabled Liberal Democrat MP and his party’s shadow work and pensions secretary, said: “I am disappointed that the chair of the work and pensions select committee, Frank Field, has fallen into the trap – some would say right-wing trap – of advocating a lower wage for some people with certain disabilities.

“No reliable evidence has ever been shown that this is effective and it also perpetuates the stereotypes that some disabled people are worth less than others.

“This is both wrong and insulting.”

In his essay, The Future Of Employment Support For The Disabled, Field says that “more bold thinking is required” if the government wants to reduce the disability employment gap.

He suggests that some disabled people will never be productive enough to compete “on a level playing field” for job opportunities, and that this challenge was made “all the more daunting by the otherwise welcome introduction of the National Living Wage (NLW)”.

He says that the introduction of the NLW “cuts even further adrift from the labour market those individuals whose work has an economic value below the legal minimum wage”.

And he suggests granting a “specific exemption” to the NLW “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.

He admits there is a risk that “unscrupulous employers” would take advantage of such an exemption, while he says it would be “important to guard against the risk of negatively affecting the perception of disability employment more broadly”.

But he says the NLW already does not apply to the under-25s and apprentices*, so this exemption could be extended to “those facing the severest barriers to work”.

After being approached for a comment by Disability News Service, Field – who is seen as being on the right of the Labour party and not close to the leadership – claimed it was “absurd” that his idea was about cutting the NLW.

He said: “It is about building a properly resourced package, including work buddies, if we are to provide the stepping stones that will enable people living with severe disabilities to achieve a life’s ambition to work.

“How do we ensure they can fulfil that ambition, in a way which ensures employers meet the sacrosanct requirement to pay the National Living Wage, which is proving incredibly difficult under the present system?

“Not to have that discussion is a betrayal of disabled people and I am not prepared to do that.

“We must have the courage to consider ideas like this one, building ways into gainful, meaningful work.

“Individuals and organisations who claim to represent the views of disabled people should be demanding that politicians discuss ideas like these that could make the dream of work a reality, not trying to silence the debate.”

The essay collection, Opportunities For All, has been published by the Learning and Work Institute, with support from the charity Shaw Trust, and features an introduction by the minister for disabled people, Penny Mordaunt.

A spokesman for Shaw Trust said: “We were very pleased to support the publication of these essays, which represent a range of views on the debate.

“However, these are the views of the original authors and not Shaw Trust.”

Three years ago, Lord Freud, at the time the welfare reform minister, only kept his post after he publicly apologised for suggesting at the Tory party conference that some disabled people were “not worth the full wage”.

He also faced a Labour motion in the House of Commons which expressed no confidence in him as minister for welfare reform and called on David Cameron to sack him.

DPAC organised a protest outside the Department for Work and Pensions’ headquarters, WOWcampaign launched a petition calling for Lord Freud to be sacked, and Labour leader Ed Miliband said they were “not the words of someone who ought to be in charge of policy relating to disabled people”.

Lord Freud said in his apology that “all disabled people should be paid at least the minimum wage, without exception, and I accept that it is offensive to suggest anything else”.

*Under-25s are still entitled to a minimum wage, which is set at lower rates than the NLW, depending on their age, while apprentices are entitled to an even lower rate if they are under-19 or in the first year of their apprenticeship