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Sunak says welfare reforms not about cost cutting as ‘hostile rhetoric’ criticised

19 Apr 2024 4 minute read
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak giving his speech in central London on welfare reform. Photo Yui Mok/PA Wire

Rishi Sunak has told of the “moral mission” to reform welfare as he announced major changes to the system in the face of criticism of his “hostile rhetoric” and accusations that the proposals are a “full-on assault on disabled people”.

The Prime Minister repeatedly stressed that the system as it stands is letting people down by not being focused enough on the work they might be able to do.

He insisted the changes – including benefits being stopped if someone does not comply with conditions set by a work coach and a pledge to “tighten” the work capability assessment (WCA) – are not solely about cutting costs.

Disability equality charity Scope has questioned whether the announcements are being “driven by bringing costs down rather than how we support disabled people”.


Following the speech in London on Friday, the charity described proposals as feeling “like a full-on assault on disabled people” branding them “dangerous” and saying they risk leaving disabled people “destitute”.

Mr Sunak said there will be a consultation on proposed changes to a “more objective and rigorous approach” in the benefits system.

He suggested greater medical evidence could be required to substantiate a claim for personal independence payments (PIP), and that some people with mental health conditions may be offered talking therapies or respite care rather than cash transfers.

He described the Government’s approach as saying “people with less severe mental health conditions should be expected to engage with the world of work”.

Other proposed changes include having so-called specialist work and health professionals charged with responsibility for issuing fit notes instead of GPs – in a bid to end the “sick note culture”.

The PM warned against “over-medicalising the everyday challenges and worries of life” and said an expected rise in benefits spending in the coming years is “not sustainable”.

He said: “We now spend £69 billion on benefits for people of working age with a disability or health condition.

“That’s more than our entire schools budget, more than our transport budget, more than our policing budget.

“And spending on personal independence payments (PIP) alone is forecast to increase by more than 50% over the next four years.”


He spoke of a “moral mission” to reform welfare to “give everyone who can the best possible chance of returning to work”, describing the “longstanding and proudly British view that work is a source of dignity, purpose, of hope.”

He said: “For me, it is a fundamental duty of Government to make sure that hard work is always rewarded.

He detailed plans for new legislation to prevent “fraudsters” from exploiting “the natural compassion and generosity of the British people”.

The Prime Minister said: “We are preparing a new fraud Bill for the next parliament, which will align DWP (Department for Work and Pensions) with HMRC (HM Revenue and Customs), 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.

“Because when people see others in their community gaming the system that their taxes pay, it erodes support for the very principle of the welfare state.”

He rejected suggestions his welfare reforms were lacking in compassion, saying “the exact opposite is true”.

But Scope’s James Taylor said calls were “pouring into our helpline” from concerned disabled people.

“In a cost-of-living crisis looking to slash disabled people’s income by hitting PIP is a horrific proposal.

“Sanctions and ending claims will only heap more misery on people at the sharp end of our cost-of-living crisis.”

Waiting lists

The British Medical Association criticised the “hostile rhetoric on sicknote culture” and cited the need to tackle lengthy waiting lists in the NHS to get people the care they need.

Dr Katie Bramall-Stainer, chairwoman of GPC England, the BMA’s GP committee, said: “With a waiting list of 7.5 million – not including for mental health problems – delays to diagnostics, and resulting pressures on GP practices, patients cannot get the treatment they need to be able to return to work.

“So rather than pushing a hostile rhetoric on ‘sicknote culture’, perhaps the Prime Minister should focus on removing what is stopping patients from receiving the physical and mental healthcare they need, which in turn prevents them from going back to work.”

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1 month ago

Several problems here. First, not one single person involved in running this out will need the support that they are removing. It was small boats, now it is people that are ill, and they will not stop there. Who is next for them to attack. Second. Attacking it with “sick note culture” thrown out there for the far right voters and daily wail readers. All meant to stoke up hate. Next is long covid, this is a man that contributed to both in health and deaths with eat out to help out and preventing mitigations, he is tone deaf to… Read more »

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago

A ‘Moral Mission’ appears out of Gove’s moral maze delivered by a man with very suspect Humanistic principals…

1 month ago

Sunak says “some people with mental health conditions may be offered talking therapies or respite care rather than cash transfers”
This is strange, because such things are something that there is a duty to offer via the NHS, but now he suggests it should be via the DWP instead?

Steve Duggan
Steve Duggan
1 month ago

Ah, one of the Tories favourite topics, along with bashing immigrants and refugees, kick everyone into work unless they have a certificate from the coroner. They can’t target their rich donors who don’t pay enough tax.

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