Ed Miliband revealed at prime minister’s questions that Freud had recently suggested that people with mental disabilities could be paid as little as £2 an hour.
The prime minister asked senior officials to tell Freud to apologise or risk the sack.
Within 90 minutes of the order from the prime minister, after Miliband had challenged him over Freud’s remarks, the minister said in a written statement: “I would like to offer a full and unreserved apology. I was foolish to accept the premise of the question.
“To be clear, all disabled people should be paid at least the minimum wage, without exception, and I accept it is offensive to suggest anything else.
“I care passionately about disabled people. I am proud to have played a full part in a government that is fully committed to helping disabled people overcome the many barriers they face in finding employment. I am profoundly sorry for any offence I have caused to any disabled people.”
But disabled groups remained unhappy. Clare Pelham, chief executive of Leonard Cheshire Disability, told the BBC: “That final sentence in his apology when he apologises – if he has caused any offence to disabled people – is him slightly missing the point. He’s offended everyone; everyone is offended by the idea that disabled people are not worth a full wage.”
The row broke out after Miliband disclosed that Freud had suggested at a fringe meeting at the Tory conference in Birmingham last month that people with mental disabilities could be paid £2 an hour, well below the minimum wage which currently stands at £6.50 an hour.
About 100,000 disabled people are paid the minimum wage.
The Labour leader quoted Freud responding positively to David Scott, a Tory councillor from Tunbridge Wells, who said that “mentally damaged individuals” would like to work but cannot find employment because employers believe they “aren’t worth the minimum wage”. Freud said to Scott: “You make a really good point about the disabled … There is a group where actually, as you say, they’re not worth the full wage.”
Miliband then quoted further from Freud, who had been recorded, who added that he was looking at “whether there is something we can do nationally … if someone wants to work for £2 an hour”.
Amid cries of “outrage” and “shame” from the Labour benches, Miliband said: “Surely someone holding those views can’t possibly stay in his government.”
The prime minister, who was informed of Freud’s remarks shortly before prime minister’s questions, said: “Those are not the views of the government, they are not the views of anyone in the government. The minimum wage is paid to everybody, disabled people included.”
Miliband pressed the prime minister, prompting Cameron to raise his voice as he appeared to allude to his severely disabled late son Ivan and his late father Ian, whose legs were deformed from the knee downwards.
The prime minister said: “Let me tell you: I don’t need lectures from anyone about looking after disabled people. So I don’t want to hear any more of that. We pay the minimum wage, we are reforming disability benefits, we want to help disabled people in our country, we want to help more of them into work. And instead of casting aspersions why doesn’t he get back to talking about the economy?”
Miliband said: “In the dog days of this government the Conservative party is going back to its worst instincts – unfunded tax cuts, hitting the poorest hardest, now undermining the minimum wage. The nasty party is back.”
Esther McVey, a fellow DWP minister, said the remarks would “haunt” her colleague.
Speaking on the Daily Politics on BBC2, McVey said: “Those words will haunt him. I cannot justify those words. They were wrong. We have the minimum wage. Everybody has the minimum wage. We have done a lot to support people with disabilities.”
Freud is likely to argue in private that the full exchanges at the fringe meeting show he was trying to help people with mental illness into the workplace.
He is also likely to say that he was suggesting that the universal credit system could help people with “fluctuating conditions”.Downing Street made no secret of the way in which Cameron instructed Freud to issue a full apology. Cameron’s spokesman said: “The PM gave very clear instructions to his office about how it needed to be taken forward. You’ve seen the outcome from that.”
The prime minister was understood to be furious with Freud for slipping up. But Downing Street was loth to lose Freud who is seen to have a full grasp of the universal credit reforms which have run into such trouble.
Cameron poached Freud in 2009 after the former investment banker, who had acted as an unpaid adviser to the last Labour government, decided that Gordon Brown was not committed to radical welfare reform.
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