The revelation from yesterdays PMQs regarding Lord Freud and his comments about how he was looking for creative ways of paying certain people around 1/3 of the minimum wage demands a response. The Peer has already apologised, the PM has already explained that these are not the views of anyone in his Government, which is interesting as Lord Freud continues to be a Government Minister, albeit an unelected one. The Institute of Directors has spoken in the form of their spokesman Christian May who this morning was interviewed on Radio 4 Today. Mr May suggested that a debate is needed which looks at ways of ensuring that employers who do offer jobs to people with acute support needs are able to do so in a way that does not disadvantage the employer. He also suggested that he did not think that any employers or the Government itself would want to take advantage of any flexibility offered to leave any employees underpaid.
One of the most insidious issues in this rather tawdry set of exchanges is how little reference has been made to the needs or opinions of the people who are currently being faced with a Government and at least one of its Ministers appearing to suggest that they are worth 1/3 of most other workers. I have had personal experience of employment situations where the small employer has been left struggling to secure their core activities whilst they work hard to support a much valued and appreciated worker, who nevertheless needed additional time and assistance to do their job. The workers concerned have always been dedicated and committed to their work. In any event the IOD usually speaks up on behalf of large employers that are usually much better placed to deal with such care needs with only modest external assistance. Indeed Mr May should have known that many charities which specialise in this sort of care are also members of the IOD and his role should be to reflect all of the members views, not just a select few. It is also plainly ridiculous to suggest that there are no employers on the lookout for reasons and mechanisms to pay people below the minimum wage, even if they may not be IOD members!
Along with the rather unrealistic understanding by Mr May of the business community that he is supposed represent, there has also been a missing element in the response from the Cabinet. What is required is a decision by Lord Freud to resign or by David Cameron to sack a Minister who is clearly unfit for his role. His roles is meant to be one that works on behalf of men and women with disabilities, not a business advocate, as important as that is within the Cabinet. Why has Lord Freud not engaged with the people affected by his comments. Sadly the Minister has form, as I have mentioned several times in this blog, he spoke about the working of foodbanks without ever having visited one, and turned down a request that I sent to him via Simon Kirby MP. Now he is speaking about the employment of people with particular needs without appearing to bring them into the discussion.
The Prime Minister and his Deputy Prime Minister make decisions about who will be in the Cabinet and who will remain on the back benches. Although this is the traditional way in this country of forming a Government, it offers you and I no way of expressing our views on the decisions taken by these senior Politicians. Yet they and their colleagues regularly refer to the General Election as being the way to hold them to account. In the case of Lord Freud, he is a man who makes decisions that impact the lives of all of our families. Yet he is not accountable to any voters. His appointment is based on a decision by a single MP who is accountable only to the electors of Witney in Oxford and a political party with a membership of a mere 100,000 people. Perhaps it is time to limit the members of our Government to men and women who have been elected and understand the need to show accountability? That would clearly limit the diversity of the cabinet, but it might improve the quality of our Ministers. Alternatively perhaps we need to have some level of confidence that future Cabinet Ministers will be chosen on the basis of experience of the subject in their portfolio, rather than who they know and get on with?