“We cannot go on adding over five million people and growing in number, trapped on welfare dependency, putting nothing back into the community, sitting on benefits in many cases, 1.5 million people sat for ten years under the last government, without any work, written off, forgotten about, never seen by anybody, this is not right.” Ian Duncan Smith, Newsnight, 9th June 2011. (Emphasis mine)
“The big difference between him and me is that I would much prefer the person with the learning disability to be given the opportunity to get a job, do something worth while and contribute in a way that they want to, whereas he would prefer them to be sat at home, unable to get a job in the first place. He may think that he is taking the moral high ground by believing that it is far better for these people to be sat at home unemployed without any opportunity, but I do not” Philip Davies MP, House of Commons, 17th June 2011 (Emphasis mine)
The impression I get from many Conservative MPs is that they believe a person only has any worth if they are in paid (or self) employment, an employer, or rich. They seem to believe that if a person does not fit one of these roles that they are not contributing in any way.
This is a massively blinkered viewpoint. For a start, it is common for a parent, usually the mother, not to work in paid employment when raising children. Although maternity leave is not very long, parents put years of their lives into looking after their children. Apart from parents, plenty of other people are not “working.” The sick, the disabled, the retired and the unemployed. I think all of these people put plenty back into the community. We have the people that help others around them, babysitting, helping sick or disabled neighbours with housework, food, transport or more. There are the ones running local events, volunteering for charitable causes or to help run services. (Don’t forget, David Cameron wants everyone to do precisely this type of volunteering as part of the big society.) These people usually care about the community around them and many work to improve their area.
There is a term that I saw used recently by the office of national statistics in their report on unemployment. It is a term that I don’t like. That term is “economically active”. It is used to describe people that are in employment as opposed to those not employed and not looking for employment. I hate it because it again implies that those people are not part of the economy and therefore don’t matter. I think it is wrong because for a start, unemployed people buy things, supporting shops and paying VAT. That’s not inactive, that is keeping the economy going. A parent that chooses to stay at home to look after their children is not economically inactive, they spend money to keep their home and family going, whether that money is from government benefits, savings or their partners earnings.
In the quote that I opened with, Ian Duncan-Smith said – in passing – that people on benefits were sat at home and putting nothing back in to the community. Philip Davies expressed a similar sentiment that people with learning disabilities should “get a job, do something worth while and contribute in a way that they want to” again with an implication that they were contributing nothing if they did not work in paid employment. Philip Davies said a lot more than this in the House of Commons this morning, going as far as to suggest that the disabled should work for less than the current minimum wage rather than “be sat at home unemployed without any opportunity.”
This suggestion misses two points. The first is that even now the minimum wage is not enough to live on. A living wage would be more like £7 – £8.30 per hour, not the £5.93 that is the legal minimum at the moment. Someone earning less than the current legal minimum would still be utterly reliant on state benefits to provide for their needs. The second point that he missed is that, as I described above, a person will not contribute nothing simply because they are not in paid employment. It is also insulting to people with disabilities to say that they are worth less than those around them. Of course employers should take on more disabled people; they are missing out on a vast pool of untapped talent, knowledge and training by ignoring them. Devaluing the disabled as people and treating them as worth less than others is not the way to do this.
Davies also expresses the opinion that “I am sure that there are a lot of myths out there and that many of these people would be just as productive as those without a disability—they might well move up the pay rates much more quickly.” This idea is absurd. Since when are employers some kind of altruistic charity that pays people more than they have to? Most employers pay the minimum wage that they can get away with. If they could hire a disabled person for less money than anyone else, they might do so, but I doubt that they would raise that wage unless they were forced to.
I doubt that the Tories are going to learn the value of other people any time soon, but we must make sure that others do not fall for their rhetoric. As @rattlecans said on twitter, “Anyone who sees a fellow human being as a ‘productivity unit’, as a ‘cost’ has no place in the House of Commons or a boardroom in my view.”
Video: Tony Judt on present society