Labour has failed in an attempt to persuade MPs to call on the prime minister to sack his welfare reform minister, after he was recorded telling fellow Tories that some disabled people were not worth the minimum wage.
Green said the “eyes of millions of disabled people, their families, friends and carers” were on the House of Commons debate as they discussed the comments by the Conservative peer Lord Freud, which had “sparked an outpouring of anger and outrage”.
But a Labour motion expressing no confidence in Lord Freud in his role as minister for welfare reform and calling on David Cameron to sack him was easily defeated, by 302 votes to 243.
Green said his comments had “further undermined trust” among disabled people in the government, which had already been damaged by delays in assessments for the new personal independence payment (PIP), problems with the work capability assessment (WCA), and the failure of policies aimed at helping disabled people into work.
Green said disabled people had been enduring “hardship, hostility and fear”, while the consequences of ministers’ decisions were causing them “real pain”.
And she pointed out that more than 300,000 people were waiting for an assessment for PIP, the coalition’s replacement for working-age disability living allowance, with another 600,000 waiting for their first WCA.
She said: “As things have got worse, they have lost all faith that ministers understand their lives. They do not believe that the government are on their side. They have become anxious and despairing, desperate and insecure.”
But Mark Harper, the Conservative minister for disabled people, accused Labour of forcing a “cynical” debate and said Green had made an “offensive” speech, while some of the “outrage” being expressed by the Labour party was “not genuine”.
The disabled Conservative MP Paul Maynard said he felt “let down” by Green’s speech.
He said that enabling disabled people to work was “a deeply complex public policy issue”, although he did not believe they should be paid less than the minimum wage.
He said he backed a scheme used in Denmark, “which uses a series of wage incentives to top up what employers are willing to pay”, although he said there were other options.
He said: “I am glad that Lord Freud has made it clear that his comments were not appropriate, but the key thing to remember is the goal we have.
“Only 10 per cent of people with a learning disability are in employment. That is far, far too low.
“I would rather we spent a few hours in this chamber discussing how we might increase that, and I am happy to give the Labour party ideas for its manifesto since it seems to need them so much.”
But another disabled MP, Labour’s Dame Anne Begg, who chairs the Commons work and pensions committee, again called on the government to carry out a cumulative impact assessment of its welfare reforms on disabled people.
She said that disabled people were “feeling beleaguered; they are feeling that they are being asked to pay for the mistakes of the bankers and bear the brunt of the austerity measures”.
She said: “The crux of the matter is that the government have tried to implement too much welfare reform too quickly.”
Anne McGuire, the Labour MP and former minister for disabled people, who herself has a long-term health condition, said that disabled people had for the past four years “been the subject of the most cynical campaign in modern social political history”, which had “vilified them from the beginning”.
She said: “It started with a premise that disability benefits were the subject of widespread fraud and that, by definition, disabled people were cheating the system.
“It progressed by plucking an arbitrary figure – some 600,000 – out of the air and saying those people would lose their benefits.
“It ended with a mess, where disabled people no longer know what benefits they will get, how long it will take to get a decision and whether they can apply in the first place.”
McGuire said that Lord Freud’s comment was not just a “mis-speak” but “more attributable to a mindset”.
She said: “No amount of apology from the noble Lord could disguise the fact that not only did he ‘mis-speak’, but his comments challenged a vision that disabled people thought they had agreed with us: that they can work where possible and they should be treated equally in that regard.”
Her Labour colleague John McDonnell said: “Of course Lord Freud’s statement was a disgrace, but I am more worried about what he is doing than about what he is saying.
“I opposed his appointment under the previous government, and I did so under this one.
“The appointment of a venture capitalist to advise on welfare benefits is bizarre.”
But Esther McVey, the Conservative employment minister and former minister for disabled people, said that Lord Freud had “apologised without reservation for his words”.
She added: “For clarity, nothing that my noble friend said on that occasion was government policy – not now and not in the future.
“National minimum wage entitlement applies to workers whether they are disabled or non-disabled. That is the government’s policy.”
She added: “We have every confidence in Lord Freud, who has done so much – working for both this government and the Labour government – to advance the status and the job outcomes of disabled people.”
The Conservative MP Conor Burns accused Green of making a “disgraceful” speech, while Charles Walker, the Conservative MP who has spoken previously about his own mental health condition, and has campaigned on the issue, said: “Sometimes people get it wrong, like Lord Freud did, but they apologise and are allowed to move on.”
The Conservative MP Jackie Doyle-Price said she agreed with Lord Freud, although not with his language.
She said: “The truth is that the minimum wage acts as a barrier to employment when an employer judges that the amount they have to pay exceeds the value being added by the employee.
“It is surely self-evident that we should try to identify what we can do to eliminate that barrier.
“I am not talking about people being worth less; I am talking about making practical interventions to fix a problem.”
29 October 2014