Sunak’s plan to tackle sick note culture labelled hostile assault on disabled

The prime minister said it was a ‘moral mission’ to reform the welfare system

Kate Devlin,Andy Gregory
Saturday 20 April 2024 07:26 BST
Mental health benefits to be reduced in favour of treatment, Sunak announces

Rishi Sunak’s plans to slash the spiralling costs of “sick note” benefits have been met with a barrage of criticism from mental health experts and others.

The prime minister said it was a “moral mission” to reform the welfare system, as he warned the number of young economically inactive people in Britain was a “tragedy”.

But he was forced to deny his proposals – which include removing benefits entirely from fit people who refuse to work after 12 months – were about cost-cutting and lacked compassion as he faced accusations of “hostile rhetoric” and a “full-on assault on disabled people”.

Since Covid the number of people out of work due to long-term sickness has risen significantly, reaching 2.8 million people in February.

At £69bn, Britain is now spending more on benefits for people of working age with a disability or health condition than “our entire schools budget”, Mr Sunak warned in a speech.

Setting out his reform plans he announced that benefit payments could be withdrawn from some people with mental health problems, who would be offered treatment instead.

Charities slammed the proposal pointing out that 1.8 million people are already waiting for mental health treatment on the NHS.

The prime minister also unveiled plans that could strip GPs of the right to issue “fit notes”, handing them over to other professionals.

Benefits fraud would also be treated like tax fraud, with new powers to make seizures and arrests and a new civil penalty.

Meanwhile, those who are fit and able to work will have their employment claim closed and their benefits taken away if they do not accept available work, under plans to be brought in after the general election.

Making the announcement the PM said: “Anyone who doesn't comply with the conditions set by the work coach, such as accepting an available job will, after 12 months, have their claim closed and their benefits removed entirely.”

Downing Street said a quarter of a million people have been out of work for more than a year, at a time when there are 900,000 vacancies in the economy.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer hit out at the plans, saying the “biggest problem here frankly is that the government has broken the NHS, and waiting lists are up at 7.6 million”.

The charity Scope said calls were “pouring into” their helpline from concerned disabled people following the speech, which it said felt “like a full-on assault”.

Rishi Sunak has made a speech on major proposals for welfare
Rishi Sunak has made a speech on major proposals for welfare

Mr Sunak insisted he was not downplaying or dismissing illness, but instead calling for a “more ambitious” approach to helping people back to work.

But he said he would not let “down many of the people our welfare system was designed to help” for “fear of causing offence”.

Warning that “something has gone wrong”, Mr Sunak warned that 850,000 more people had been signed off work due to long-term sickness since the pandemic. The change had “wiped out a decade’s worth of progress in which the rate had fallen every single year”, while the biggest proportional increase was among young people.

He added: “There is nothing compassionate about leaving a generation of young people to sit alone in the dark before a flickering screen watching as their dreams slip further from reach every passing day.”

His review of the fit-note system could see specialist work and health professionals charged with responsibility for issuing them instead of GPs.

Recent NHS data showed almost 11 million fit notes were issued last year, of which 94 per cent declared the recipient “not fit to work”.

The PM visits a branch of Timpson after giving his speech on welfare reform in London on Friday
The PM visits a branch of Timpson after giving his speech on welfare reform in London on Friday (Yui Mok/PA)

Under the reforms, more medical evidence could be needed before someone is eligible for personal independence payments (PIP), which are designed to help claimants deal with the extra costs of living with a long-term disability.

Of those out of work because of long-term sickness, a large proportion report suffering from depression or anxiety, although most of those are secondary conditions.

Doctors’ leaders accused the PM of "hostile rhetoric on sicknote culture" and criticised long NHS waiting lists, saying Mr Sunak should “focus on removing what is stopping patients from receiving the physical and mental healthcare they need, which in turn prevents them from going back to work”.

The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy also warned waiting times have seen “too many people.. forced out of work”.

Mental health charity Mind said the PM’s rhetoric was “insulting to the 1.9 million people on a waiting list to get mental health support, and to the GPs whose expert judgement is being called into question”.

While the MS Society for multiple sclerosis warned the reforms “risk pushing even more disabled people into poverty”.

That was echoed by the poverty charity Joseph Rowntree Foundation which warned of an “irresponsible war of words on people who already aren’t getting enough support”.

Labour accused the government of lacking “concrete answers” to the problem, while Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey described Mr Sunak’s speech as “desperate” at a time when millions are unable to access NHS hospitals, GPs or mental health support.

Richard Kramer, chief executive at charity Sense, said: “The government’s ongoing onslaught on disabled people is hard to watch... This rhetoric is unbelievably damaging and unhelpful, presenting disabled people as ‘shirkers’ who don’t want to work. But this isn’t the case – while employment isn’t right for everyone, many disabled people do want to work.”

He added: “We’d urge the government to tackle these issues and offer better support as a priority, instead of focusing their time on scapegoating disabled and sick people.”

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