David Cameron risks Coalition split over Tory minister’s disabled minimum wage gaffe
David Cameron is risking a Coalition split after expressing his “full confidence” in a Tory minister who said some disabled people “not worth” the full minimum wage.
Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, is expected to criticise the comments which were made by Lord Freud, the minister in charge of welfare reform, at the Conservative party conference.
They emerged after Ed Miliband, the labour leader, ambushed Mr Cameron with the remarks at Prime Minister’s Questions and called for Lord Freud to be sacked, saying it represented the “return of the nasty party”.
Mr Cameron insisted that the comments did not represent the views of his government as he invoked the memory of his son, Ivan, who died in 2009 after suffering from cerebral palsy and epilepsy.
He responded: “Those are not the views of the government. The minimum wage is paid to everybody – disabled people included. I don’t need lectures from anyone on looking after disabled people.”Lord Freud’s comments were recorded by a Labour researcher at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham two weeks ago.
A Labour insider yesterday suggested that the recording was the first of several to come. “The Conservative Party conference was a rich seam for us,” the source said.
Lord Freud was asked by a Tory councillor during a fringe on Universal credit what could be done for mentally disabled constituents who wanted to work but “to be quite frank aren’t worth the minimum wage”.
In his response, Lord Freud said that “there is a group” who “as you say they’re not worth the full wage”.
He said he was going to “think about that particular issue” and whether something could be done to help “someone [who] wants to work for £2 an hour”.
Within minutes of his comments Esther McVey, the Conservative employment minister, said: “Those words will haunt him. I cannot justify those words. They are wrong.”
The Liberal Democrats also condemned the comments as “completely unacceptable”, although insisted that it was for Mr Cameron to decide whether Lord Freud should be sacked. However Mr Clegg is likely to be pressed further on the issue on his radio programme on Thursday.
Two hours later Lord Freud issued his apology. He said: “I was foolish to accept the premise of the question. All disabled people should be paid at least minimum wage, without exception. I accept it is offensive to suggest anything else.”
The Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman said the Lord Freud issued the apology after Mr Cameron had made it “crystal clear what the next steps should be”.
Scope, the disability charity, yesterday condemned Lord Freud’s comments but he was supported by the Adam Smith Institute, a free market think tank.
Sam Bowman, the organisation’s research director, said: “His 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.
“To point out that someone’s market value is less than minimum wage has nothing to do with their moral value as human beings.”
He was also supported by Anna Soubry, the defence minister, who described him as “compassionate and kind”. She also appeared to criticise Miss McVey’s comments: “It is a real problem we have now in British politics where people take something, often out of context, spin it around, stick it in the internet on social media, and suddenly there is a flurry. I’m not going to play that game.”