Rishi Sunak vows crackdown on 'sick note culture' with new benefit rules to get fit people back to work

Rishi Sunak speaking on Friday morning  (Yui Mok/PA Wire)
Rishi Sunak speaking on Friday morning (Yui Mok/PA Wire)

Rishi Sunak has claimed there is a “moral mission” to end “sick note culture” and get fit people back to work.

The Prime Minister vowed to reform welfare to “give everyone who can the best possible chance of returning” to their job after being signed off with an illness.

In a major speech in London on Friday, he said there is a "longstanding and proudly British view that work is a source of dignity, purpose, of hope."

"For me, it is a fundamental duty of Government to make sure that hard work is always rewarded,” he said.

He added that since the Covid pandemic "something has gone wrong", adding 850,000 more people are now economically inactive in Britain.

There will be a review of the current system, he said, and specialist work and health professionals will be charged with responsibility for issuing sick notes instead of GPs.

Responses from healthcare professionals, employers and people with experience will be sought in a consultation launching today.

Since 2020, the number of people out of work due to long-term sickness has risen significantly, reaching a record high of 2.8 million people as of February 2024, according to the latest estimates from the Office for National Statistics.

A large proportion of those report suffering from depression, bad nerves or anxiety, although most of those report these as secondary conditions rather than the main one keeping them out of work.

The PM also said the government was drawing up plans to stop "fraudsters" from exploiting "the natural compassion and generosity of the British people".

"We are preparing a new fraud Bill for the next parliament, which will align Department for Work and Pensions with HMRC, so that we treat benefit fraud like tax fraud, with new powers to make seizures and arrest, and we'll also enable penalties to be applied to a wider set of fraudsters through a new civil penalty.”

But charities have criticised the plans as targeting the sick and disabled when public services are “crumbling”.

Scope director of strategy James Taylor said: "We've had decades of disabled people being let down by failing health and work assessments; and a broken welfare system designed to be far more stick than carrot.

"Much of the current record levels of inactivity are because our public services are crumbling, the quality of jobs is poor and the rate of poverty amongst disabled households is growing."

Mr Sunak’s speech comes a month after Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride faced criticism for comments he made about "the normal ups and downs of human life" being labelled as medical conditions which held people back from working.

On Friday Mr Stride repeated the claim and argued that there was aneed for a “grown-up” conversation about mental health and how to keep more people who are unwell in jobs.

He said "enough is enough" as he promised to tackle "skyrocketing" benefits spending.

Ahead of the PM’s speech on welfare reform, Mr Stride told LBC Radio: "If you look at issues like long-term sickness, disability, and you add up all the costs of all the benefits there, you get to about £69 billion.

"The most worrying aspect of all of this... is the increased cost going forward. So all the forecasts are for these benefits to be skyrocketing upwards in time. And that is something that we must address. Enough is enough on that one is my message.

"So what you will be hearing from the Prime Minister is that we will be taking measures to make sure that welfare spend is under control."

Mr Stride said higher spending on welfare is "adding to the pressures for people to be paying, for example, more taxation".

In response to comments by Sarah Hughes, chief executive of mental health charity Mind, that the government is “demonising people for failures of the systems meant to support them”, Mr Stride told Times Radio: “Well, she’s not right in the sense that, of course we are not out there demonising people. Far from it.

“I think we do need to have a grown up conversation about this, and I think we have to recognise that.... we are too readily perhaps materialising or labelling, what in the past would have been seen as the general ups and downs of the human condition, as something more serious than that.”