April 25, 2024
Economy

Epidemic of long-term sick leave is stifling our economy


Imagine The Beatles without Paul McCartney. A Sunday roast without potatoes. Labour without the constant U-turns.

You can’t. These things are intrinsic, indivisible. And yet, today our economy is experiencing something similar. It is missing workers.

Let’s be clear; that there are over four million more people in work since 2010 – with the rate of unemployment more than halved – is a towering Conservative achievement. We should not understate the resilience of our labour market.

But as readers of The Telegraph will know, the shadow of economic inactivity – people not in work nor looking for it – continues to hang over our nation.

Although lower now than the pandemic peak, there remain more than nine million people in this category, and while over four million of them are students or caring for family members, the rise in working-age people out of work due to ill health is a very concerning trend indeed.

Addressing this challenge is my number one mission. And we have a plan. Getting thousands more people off welfare and into work is a key part of the Prime Minister’s plan for a stronger economy.

Thursday’s GDP data is of course challenging but it is unsurprising that growth has slowed given we’ve had the highest inflation in 40 years – and interest rates to match – driven by the Ukraine war and Covid recovery. 

Many European nations have seen growth contract for similar reasons. And controlling inflation has rightly been the Government’s top priority.

But there are reasons to be optimistic. Inflation is down. Real wages are up. Mortgage rates are down.

Still, I find it deeply concerning that 2.8 million people are now off sick, missing out on the financial, social and health benefits we know work brings, and denying the engine of growth, our fantastic British businesses, the labour they need.

The Government has been clear that migration is not the long-term solution. Rather, our plan is based on fundamental welfare reform, to release the locked-up potential already at home in our communities.

It is wrong that the proportion of benefit claimants the welfare system places on to the highest tier of incapacity benefits has trebled over the last decade. The country has not got three times sicker in that time by any other measure.

Nor is it right that people with milder mental health conditions should be automatically parked on long-term sickness benefits and left alone. I believe they should get the right support to bounce back, given the evidence that employment works wonders for our mental health and well-being.

So we’ve taken action, reforming the Work Capability Assessment with measures that will reduce the number of people signed off by 371,000 according to the Office for Budget Responsibility, cutting the benefits bill by about £3 billion over the next parliament and helping thousands more claimants with personalised support to return to work.

It is wrong that fit and able claimants are allowed to remain on benefits for lengthy periods without bothering to engage with the job centre. So we’re introducing tough new sanctions to close the claims of those persistently refusing to engage despite an economy still brimming with vacancies.

It is wrong that many people still struggle to get the support they need to stay in work, where workplace adjustments could help them avoid becoming long-term unemployed.

So we’re reforming the Fit Note system that many under-pressure GPs use to sign people off, ensuring that, instead, people who could stay in work, or return sooner with the right help, are given exactly that.

At the heart of all this is our £2.5 billion Back to Work Plan, which will help more than a million people to find, stay and succeed in work, including through NHS Talking Therapies for up to 384,000 more people, an intervention proven to turn mental health conditions around.

We are taking the steps needed to drive down economic inactivity, and grappling with difficult but necessary welfare reforms that will get the economy growing and change lives for the better.

By contrast, Labour has no plan whatsoever to get people off benefits and into work. It is striking that their only serious welfare proposal is to “end” benefit sanctions at a cost of £2 billion, and to water down the requirements for claimants to move into jobs when offered them.

Together with his multi-billion pound spending splurge on green projects, Sir Keir Starmer’s soft touch approach is not just reckless, it is unfair.

Unfair for the millions who would see their taxes rise. For the families who’ve worked hard to move off benefits and towards financial independence. And for the country as a whole.

We recognise that we have a real opportunity to build a stronger economy. To reduce economic inactivity. To reward hard work and cut taxes. But only the Conservatives have a plan to realise these ambitions. Don’t let Labour wreck it.



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