From education to employment

Rishi Sunak to give speech on welfare reform to end to ‘sick note culture’ – Sector Response

Rishi Sunak Thinking

The Prime Minister has unveiled an ambitious set of welfare reforms aimed at promoting employment and fulfilling his “moral mission” to provide the best possible opportunities for individuals capable of working to either remain in or return to the workforce.

In a speech delivered today, the Prime Minister announced forthcoming changes to the disability benefits system. The goal is to ensure more precise targeting of those most in need and to deliver tailored support aligning with the specific disabilities and health conditions of recipients.

On Tuesday, ONS released the latest labour market data, it was reported that as of February 2024, a record 2.8 million people were out of the workforce due to prolonged illness or health issues. This highlights a worrying surge in long-term sickness absence from work. From within this group, a sizeable number cite mental health challenges like depression, anxiety disorders, or high stress levels as contributing factors. However, for most individuals, these mental health concerns are secondary complications rather than the primary condition preventing their return to employment.

A consultation on Personal Independence Payment (PIP) will be published in the coming days. This will explore potential revisions to eligibility criteria, assessment procedures, and the types of assistance offered. The objective is to move away from the current “one-size-fits-all” approach toward a more personalised system that closely ties support to an individual’s unique condition and needs.

Sector Response

Stephen Evans, chief executive of Learning and Work Institute, said:

“Many disabled people want to work, but don’t get enough help to do so either from employers or from the Government. Focusing on the sign-off process for sick notes will miss the point without more root and branch reform to widen support. Only one in ten out-of-work disabled people get help to find work each year, but two in ten want to work. We need to tackle the employment support gap, help employers to better support people with health conditions and disabilities and look at how they design jobs and recruit, and improve health and other support for disabled people.”

Ben Harrison, Director of the Work Foundation at Lancaster University, said:

“The Prime Minister is right that more action to support those who want to work is badly needed. Over 700,000 more people have become economically inactive due to long-term sickness since the pandemic began, and without substantive action that number may rise further. 

“But making it harder for people to access health related benefits, and pushing people who are managing physical and mental health conditions into taking ‘any job’ with threats of closing their benefit claims altogether will heighten the pressures faced by those people and may make their condition worse.

“Instead, the focus should be on de-risking returning to work for those with long-term health conditions, and critically, on stemming the flow of people who are leaving work due to sickness.

“That means making big improvements to the quality of work on offer so that they can find sustainable employment. The Government has failed in its promise to deliver an Employment Bill this Parliament, leaving 6.8 million people in severely insecure jobs which can have a negative impact on individuals’ health and mean they cycle in and out of work and remain dependent on Universal Credit. Addressing this must be a priority in the next Parliament. 

“We also have to ensure that job flexibility is a day one right so that those with health conditions can have confidence they can agree arrangements that work for them when applying for roles. And we must strengthen statutory sick pay, so that those with fluctuating conditions can sustain employment over the long-term.” 

Louise Murphy, Senior Economist at the Resolution Foundation, said:

“Rising economic inactivity, and especially rising inactivity due to long-term sickness, is one of the biggest economic challenges Britain faces in the 2020s. Not only is it reducing employment and growth, and increasing public spending, it is harming the living standards of those who are too ill to work.

“But the Prime Minister today has set out a problem statement rather than a plan, particularly when it comes to proposals to overhaul our main disability benefit.

“This may reflect the very challenging nature of disability benefit reforms. But whoever wins the next election will need to go beyond rhetoric and consultations if they’re to stem the rising benefit bills and help more people into work.”

Andy Cook, CEO of the CSJ, said:

“It was an honour to welcome the Prime Minister to the Centre for Social Justice this morning to talk about his vision to transform the benefits system.

“People are potential to be developed not problems to be solved, and it was good to hear that thread echo loud and clear from a government that wants to get to grips with surging inactivity. 

“Our Alliance of frontline charities across the country has told us that for many people, sickness pays, not work.  They see people falling out of the workforce too often and too easily.

“Universal credit has been one of the great success stories of the last few years: reducing unemployment, supporting people into work, and becoming one of the unsung heroes of the Covid pandemic. 

“But the growing number of people out of work through ill health is a major cause for concern. The number of people who are economically inactive due to long term sickness has increased by 717,000 since the pandemic. 

“Each year, about 8 – 10 million fit notes are issued, over 90 per cent of which found someone not fit for work. The Prime Minister flagged that ‘good work’ isn’t just the best route out of poverty, it gives us meaning, purpose, routine, and the chance to build a better life.  This notion is what the CSJ is founded on.

“We welcome the focus on what people can do, rather than what they can’t. Reviewing the fit note system, to reduce pressure on GPs and help ensure people can continue to remain in work where currently it is too easy to fall out of it, is a welcome step.

“The answers to this will not be easy. Protecting those that need the most support while encouraging those that can into work is a delicate balance.  But with the cost of disability benefits set to rise by nearly 50 per cent in the next five years, addressing this is a challenge no government can afford to avoid.”

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