The Café Domenica, ten minutes’ walk down the Greenway from Brighton Station, is a happy place to discuss a sad problem. I arrived early for my meeting, and sat with a cappuccino and an almond croissant, enjoying the atmosphere.
The snack was delicious once it came, but paying for it took a long time, because the woman working the electronic till suffered from learning difficulties.
But the sympathetic manner in which her colleague explained the machine to her abolished impatience. One felt oneself drawn into world where kindness and respect resumed their proper importance, and the feverish desire to get things done instantaneously faded away.
Rosa Monckton arrived. The café is her idea, but she speaks here in a personal capacity, and as a mother, rather than as the founder of Team Domenica, a social enterprise charity set up to help people with learning difficulties find work.
Her own daughter, Domenica, suffers from such difficulties, having been born with Down’s Syndrome. Monckton some years ago made a film, Letting Go, about the predicament of the parents of such children, who provide indispensable care for them, and cannot help wondering, “What will become of them when we are dead?”
One way most children can hope to find themselves integrated into wider society is by going out and finding work. For people with learning difficulties, this is much harder, because they are not, in economic terms, as productive as their contemporaries, so about 93 per cent of them are unemployed.
Earlier this year, Monckton wrote a piece for The Spectator, in which she pointed out that the minimum wage is one of the obstacles which stand in the way of people like her daughter, who would benefit enormously from the sense of purpose which comes from having a job, but who cannot be useful enough to an employer to justify that rate of pay.
ConHome: “Can I start by asking whether you got any satisfactory response to your Spectator piece, which made the point about the minimum wage very powerfully, and said that people have had terrible abuse hurled at them when they said that maybe the minimum wage is not helpful.”
Monckton: “I have never been at the receiving end of such vitriol, ever in my life.”
ConHome: “After that piece? From whom? I mean…”
Monckton: “The physical disability lobby, who thought I was talking about them, which I was very clear that I wasn’t. From major charities, who represent people with learning disabilities, saying how could I say that people with a learning disability are worth less than people without.
“And I said that’s absolutely not what I’m saying, and I don’t like valuing people in monetary terms, and this is about self-worth and the reason to be employed.
“I mean it’s an absolute right to have employment, to feel good about yourself, to have reason to get out of bed, and I feel that very strongly.
“However on the plus side, I had hundreds of emails from parents saying, ‘You’re absolutely right, my son or my daughter is sitting at home, they’re perfectly capable of doing something, people are not prepared to pay them the minimum wage.’
“Also very interesting from employers. One in particular who said, ‘I employ 10,000 people. My conscience tells me I should have a hundred with learning disabilities. However we’re not a charity and we can’t do it, my shareholders wouldn’t let me, but you’re absolutely right.’
“I really didn’t want to talk about this today, because we are a charity and I’m not allowed to lobby and I’m a trustee, so I have to be really, really careful.”
ConHome: “So you’re not speaking on behalf of the charity. You’re speaking on behalf of yourself.”
Monckton: “Absolutely. And it’s not something I want to go on about.”
ConHome: “Well someone needs to go on about it. But I see it can’t be you.”
Monckton: “But it’s outrageous. It truly is. You can see what they’re all capable of here.”
ConHome: “But there’s so much of an idea, even more today I think than in the past, that at work you must fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, and you’ve got to do everything as quickly as possible, and if you can serve ten customers instead of nine the café will be more profitable.
“But your people who learn about work here can’t possibly serve coffee at the incredible speed of some brilliant young Italian who’s got a degree from Bologna University and is just in London for a bit of fun, and is earning some money to pay their way.”
Monckton: “What’s good about this is we’ve only been here since September, we have incredible support from the local community, really fantastic, it’s doing so much better than we anticipated in our business plan
“The reason I’ve come from next door is that Eagle Labs are next door, the Barclays Bank thing, they let us use their place for meetings, we’re catering for some of their meetings. Everybody has been so open-hearted and understanding.
“And actually a couple came in last week. It took a bit of time, sometimes, you know, there are lots of accidents that happen, and she said to me as she left, ‘We’re always going to come here. When I go to Starbucks, I’m spending money. When I come here, I leave a little bit of my soul.’”
ConHome: “So it’s a quite different transaction.”
Monckton: “A completely different transaction. It’s sort of joyous.”
ConHome: “I think there are lots of people who want to help but don’t know how to set about it, and they don’t feel they can take on some colossal commitment, but they can do a little.”
Monckton: “But the café’s a small part of what we do. We’ve got 31 candidates this year. We’ve got a training centre upstairs. A lot of them are out in supported internships. A lot of them are out in work experience.”
ConHome: “Does someone go with them?”
Monckton: “With the supported internships, yes. With job experience, no. So we are trying to raise money to pay for job buddies to go with them.
“And we have got six [from the first year’s intake of 21 people] into paid employment, a few hours a week, which is fantastic.
“Two are working in the Co-op. One is working in a doughnut kiosk on Brighton pier. One is in the café at the University of Sussex. And two are in the Grand Hotel, one in the café and one in housekeeping.
“Nobody more than 12 hours a week and some two hours a week. But it’s the first time they’ve had money coming in and felt brilliant about themselves. So we’ve already busted the national average.”
ConHome: “Which is still about 93 per cent unemployment among people with learning disabilities?”
ConHome: “It is very, very sad.”
Monckton: “Sad is exactly the word. And when I’m talking about the national minimum wage, a therapeutic exemption already exists for piece workers who are slower in their output than anybody else.
“That exemption exists. All I am saying is why don’t we use that. So why don’t we look at the people who are in the top level of employment support allowance, which all of our candidates here would be, i.e. not assumed to be capable of employment, and do a little test case.
“So I’m not saying take it away from anybody. Give people who haven’t got a wage a chance, just to see if that would make a difference in getting them into a job.”
ConHome: “The word ‘therapeutic’ immediately helps to explain the idea.”
Monckton: “Well it should, but it doesn’t seem to. And then when I went onto the Politics Show, they do this thing Soap Box, and they came down and they interviewed me, and I explained what I meant.
“And then I was in a studio with Caroline Flint and Eric Pickles. They watched the film that’s been made, and I had thought that perhaps Eric Pickles would be concerned, but I saw his face when he was watching it, and I knew he wouldn’t.
“It’s a sacred cow, without anybody understanding. I’m not saying remove it. I’m not saying that people with physical disabilities shouldn’t be paid the minimum wage. Of course they should.”
ConHome: “If you’re going to keep the wage, you’d have to put an obligation on employers to employ a certain proportion of people with learning disabilities.”
Monckton: “Which they do in France, which they do in most European countries, and which we don’t do here.”
ConHome: “How’s your daughter getting on?”
Monckton: “She’s here somewhere. We’ll meet her later. She’s very happy here, very happy. And what we’ve created, which was completely unexpected, is a community.
“And I think this whole thing of mainstreaming means that very few of them came here with friends. Because we all want a peer group. You want people who have the same interests as you, the same level of intellect as you.
“And if you’re mainstreaming, and you have a teaching assistant glued to your side, you’re not really going to make friends.
“When Domenica was at mainstream school, she didn’t really make any friends. Nobody included her in parties. We invited everybody to birthday parties and she was never asked back.”
ConHome: “Oh Lord, yes.”
Monckton: “And that’s horrible.”
ConHome: “So you’re in fact learning more about what works and what is needed by doing this.”
Monckton: “Absolutely. They’ve all got a Facebook group now. Many of them went to a Halloween party last week. Amazing photographs, all of them together. And that’s so wonderful.
“They’ve got a social life outside of here, which they didn’t have before. And that’s really nice. I mean obviously all with their carers, those who need carers, but it works. It’s building a community. You know, this was the whole Jean Vanier thing. You have to build a community.
“And everybody has the right to belong, and the need to belong. It’s a basic human need. And the loneliness and isolation of people with learning disabilities is profound. And it’s just a question of listening and as you said, just stopping the rushing, and just being for a bit.
“And there’s so much to learn. I mean Domenica’s taught me so many things about what matters. And there are so many different ways of communicating. It’s not just about speech. Loving someone is so easy even a child can do it.”
ConHome: “I suppose if you’re surrounded by people many of whom are quite like yourself, you’re not feeling continually outshone, or the odd one out, who can’t do what everyone else can do.”
Monckton: “You’re not sitting in the corridor because it’s maths and it’s one of the things you can’t understand. And you’re achieving things. Domenica can now make a cup of coffee on her own on the barista machine. That’s fantastic.”
ConHome: “Also it’s something that carries on. You said in that film, everyone who has a child with learning difficulties thinks, ‘What will happen when I’m no longer there?’ You’re confronted by your own mortality.”
Monckton: “Yes, and that’s the really, really difficult thing. Where is Domenica going to live? Who’s going to look after her? And now we have to be thinking of that. It is difficult for employers. It’s a huge commitment.
“It requires an understanding that this person is not going to have the output that everybody else does. However what they bring is a humanity to the workplace. They are going to be incredibly loyal, delighted to be at work, no backstabbing, no climbing a corporate ladder, all of those things.
“It’s complicated. Very, very, very, very complicated. And I have to work out whether, because we want to roll this out, and London is what I’m going to be planning next year, do we just start a chain of cafés?”
ConHome: “Do you have some gleam of an idea of some other kind of enterprise?”
Monckton: “No. Everybody here is on a pathway to employment. That’s the plan. And of our 21 last year we got six in. This year we’ve got 32. What happens to those who are clearly not going to? I do not want to set anybody up to fail.
“If I could find a sustainable way of running the café – if I could find someone in London who’d give us somewhere rent-free, you know, one of those big landlords, the Westminster Estate, the Portman Estate.”
ConHome: “Message to the Duke of Westminster.”
Monckton: “Exactly. How many readers do you have?”