James Heale James Heale

Sunak targets Britain’s ‘sick note culture’

Sunak at the CSJ this morning. Photo by Yui Mok - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Rishi Sunak has returned to one of his pet bugbears: getting the unemployed back into work. His speech to the Centre for Social Justice this morning was peppered with his favourite facts about the post-pandemic welfare crisis embroiling Britain.

The number on long-term sickness benefits has jumped by a third since Covid and now stands at an eye-watering 2.8 million. Those claiming personal independence payments has doubled from 2,200 new awards a month in 2019 to 5,300 in 2023. Spending on benefits for people of working age with a disability or health condition has duly increased by almost two-thirds to £69 billion. He said, bluntly, that Britain ‘cannot afford’ the current system which is ‘not fair on taxpayers.’

Sunak made an eye-catching manifesto pledge this morning

His remedy is, in part, to end Britain’s ‘sick note culture’ by making it harder to get fit notes from doctors. A new system will therefore be trialed in parts of the country to see if the existing system of GPs’ referrals should be replaced by specialist teams linked to the benefits system. This was the line that led the newspapers this morning, prompting Labour to claim that it was nothing new.

Alison McGovern, Labour’s acting shadow work and pensions secretary, said ahead of Sunak’s address that ‘Today’s announcement proves that this failed government has run out of ideas, announcing the same minor alternation to fit notes that we’ve heard them try before.’

Yet this was a chunkier and more thoughtful speech than some might have been expected. Sunak unveiled a broader range of schemes than what had been previously trailed. New policies included accelerating the final rollout of Universal Credit, increasing sanctions and changing the rules to to ensure someone working less than half of a full-time week will have to look for more work. Reforms to disability benefit will be unveiled in a Green Paper next week.

Sunak’s tone was balanced too, reflecting the passion with which he regards the subject. He stressed the work being done to tackle those who commit benefits fraud, arguing it should be treated with the same gravity as tax fraud. But the Prime Minister also said repeatedly that he did not want to demonise those on benefits, instead emphasising the moral element of these reforms.

‘If you just cared about costs, you can just freeze benefits’ he said, arguing welfare reform is not just about making economies. In the subsequent Q&A, he declined the chance to frame the debate as a clash of generational values, when asked if this was a problem specifically with younger Britons.

The key question is how much of this will start to take effect before the next election. Much like the small boat crossings or NHS waiting times, the welfare crisis is an issue which has ballooned over the course of this parliament and which looks likely to be resolved in years, not months.

Sunak made an eye-catching manifesto pledge this morning, promising that in the next parliament he will legislate so that anyone on benefits for 12 months who does not comply with conditions set by their work coach will have their claim closed and benefits removed entirely.

But how likely is it that he is going to be in government to enact it? Given the current state of the polls, the beneficiaries of the hard work currently being undertaken in Whitehall is likely to be Labour.


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