Rishi Sunak Pledges Welfare Overhaul If Conservatives Win Election

(Bloomberg) -- UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he would reform Britain’s welfare system if the Conservative Party wins the next general election, pledging to clamp down on the number of people who are written off work for health reasons.

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Speaking in central London on Friday, Sunak said he would introduce changes in the next Parliament that would tighten the rules that currently take people out of the labor market, particularly on mental health grounds.

“Right now, the gateway to ill health benefits is writing too many off,” Sunak said. “There is nothing fair about expecting taxpayers to support those who could work but choose not to.”

By talking tough on welfare, the prime minister is appealing to his governing Conservative Party’s right-wing base as he tries to close a 20-point polling gap on the opposition Labour Party ahead of an election that he must hold by January. But Sunak acknowledged the risk of alienating more moderate voters.

“Some people will hear this speech and accuse me of lacking compassion,” Sunak said. “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 day.”

Sunak said his welfare plans come from a concern about Britain’s spiraling benefits bill and a surge in the number of people who have become economically inactive. The UK is currently the only Group of Seven industrialized nation where the employment rate has failed to recover to pre-pandemic levels.

The lack of available workers has become one of the country’s most pressing economic issues — contributing to reduced productivity, greater wage growth as employers try to attract workers, and inflationary pressures as a result.

“The situation as it is, is unsustainable,” Sunak said. “We can’t lose so many people from our workforce whose contributions could help drive growth.”

The proposals announced by Sunak included:

  • Creating an expectation that people with less severe health conditions should return to work

  • Shifting responsibility for issuing so-called “fit notes” from GPs to specialist work and health professionals

  • Making people work more in order to receive full benefits

  • Tightening eligibility for so-called personal independence payments

  • A crackdown on benefits fraud

Sunak put a particular focus on mental health, saying that there was a risk of “over-medicalising the everyday challenges and worries of life” and that encouraging people back into work would help boost mental health.

To be sure, it’s unclear whether Sunak will be able to deliver his welfare reform agenda given his party’s precarious position in the polls and the upcoming general election. His plans were also criticized by figures in the health sector, with the British Medical Association warning that those suffering ill health need prompt care.

“Rather than pushing a hostile rhetoric on ‘sick-note culture’, perhaps the prime minister should focus on removing what is stopping patients from receiving the physical and mental health care they need, which in turn prevents them from going back to work,” said Katie Bramall-Stainer, chair of GPC England, the representative body for GPs in England.

Sunak was also criticized by the mental health charity Mind, which said it was “deeply disappointed” by his remarks.

The premier’s remarks “continue a trend in recent rhetoric which conjures up the image of a ‘mental health culture’ that has ‘gone too far’,” said Mind Chief Executive Officer Sarah Hughes. “This is harmful, inaccurate and contrary to the reality for people up and down the country.”

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