Lord Freud and disability row: What is a person really worth?

REUTERS/Toby Melville

Welfare minister Lord Freud has apologised for 'foolish and offensive' remarks after he suggested people with a disability were 'not worth' being paid the minimum wage.

Labour has called on the Conservative peer to resign and many campaigners have expressed outrage at the comments.

Ciara Lawrence, who has a learning disability and is in full time employment said: "I find it disgusting that in 2014 a senior politician and member of the House of Lords is alleged to still believe inequality is acceptable. I did not choose to have a learning disability, however I do choose to work a full time job and with the right support around me have become a respected and valued member of my team. The same is true for many other people with a disability.

"People with a disability are often made to feel like second class citizens and face many barriers when trying to receive the same rights as everyone else, especially in employment. Having a politician place further barriers to us being included is incredibly upsetting and frankly quite frightening."

The comments dominated yesterday's Prime Minister's Questions after the conference recess, with Ed Miliband saying they demonstrated the Conservatives' "worst instincts".

And today the row rumbles on. Initially the tone and seeming lack of respect angered and upset many, but today the debate has moved on to questions of intrinsic worth.

Is our value really measured by how 'productive' we are in society? Does everyone 'have a price'?

Jonathan Bartley, director of Christian thinktank Ekklesia, has tweeted: 

And in a blog for The Spectator Sam Bowman makes the point that markets themselves are 'immoral'. He wrote: "Whatever the politics of it, Freud's comments were broadly correct. Saying that someone's market value is a particular level is a claim of fact about how valuable their work can be to an employer. It has absolutely nothing to do with their moral worth as human beings."

So where does Christian thought fit into all of this? Lynn McCann is a campaigner for better inclusion in the church and leads the Good News Group – a group for adults with learning disabilities at St Andrew's in Leyland, Lancashire.

She says Lord Freud's remarks were ill-advised: "It was the words he used," she says. "My worry is that it will fuel negative and derogatory attitudes that people already have.

"I've experienced it when I've been out with people with disabilities – the things that people say to them, the comments that are made. Just awful."

The Good News Group met last night and one man who had heard Lord Freud's comments was distressed.

McCann said: "He took the news in a very literal way. He just said the Government aren't going to support disabled people anymore and that was his interpretation of it. He was very upset and I sat with him told him how the law was protecting him and the Government had to look after them because it was the law in terms of human rights."

As a church though we need to tackle these issues in a positive way, says McCann.

"What could come out of this? There's a lot of people out there with disabilities. We need to talk about what's really needed which is positive advice and support for employers to see how they can take people on with disabilities.

"The church should be leading the way. I hope as Christians we will not use this opportunity to vilify a politician but to debate and speak on behalf of disabled people and actually employ them in our churches as an example. Let them have positions of responsibility, of serving, be part of everything that we do. We've got a long way to go to achieve this."

Sarah Lothian is a freelance journalist.