Sunak’s disability schemes are generally lame culture warfare fodder

Rishi Sunak’s big speech on disability benefits reform was aimed at showing the government was getting to grips with the economic and health challenges of Britain’s rising rates of long-term illness. Instead, it came across as a government without ideas, with sharp rhetoric and desperate to cut social services at all costs.

It was a “moral mission”, Sunak declared, to overhaul the current welfare system, which was “not fit for purpose”. Disability benefits were too easy to cheat, too soft, and too easy to claim. The speech was a clear appeal to the concept that is in vogue on the right “mental health culture” has “gone too far”.

“Sicknote culture” – the idea that millions of lazy Brits are falling ill with the knowledge of GPs – was also in his sights, although there was little evidence to back up his claim, or explanation of how the changes would work. The underlying message was clear: claimants are lazy and the system is too generous.

The most important announcement was the proposed redesign of the main disability benefit (Pip). Ministers are convinced that far too many people – especially those with mental illness – can claim Pip, a non-means-tested payment designed to help claimants with the extra costs of everyday living.

It will likely focus on limiting eligibility to reduce the Pip law so that fewer awards are given, and at lower rates. Skeptics will point out that his case was tried ten years ago, when Pip was introduced in place of the Disability Living Allowance. That reform – brutally controversial and incompetently managed at the time – clearly failed, even on its own terms.

Sunak softened the austerity pill with pious platitudes. He was “giving hope back” to people who had lost all “dignity and meaning” when they became caught in the vortex of the welfare state, he said. It was a familiar Tory tune – the idea that millions of people are not so much sick as mentally lost.

Sunak put forward other unexplained ideas: long-term unemployed people who refuse to take a job offered to them will have their benefits withdrawn; People with mental health problems would be offered medical treatment as an alternative to benefits. But these felt like culture war fodder rather than serious proposals.

The reaction was intense. The disability organization Scope called it a “full attack on people with disabilities”. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation described the speech as “an irresponsible war of words against people who already don’t get enough support”. The Resolution Foundation said it was “a problem statement, not a plan”.

Labour’s acting shadow secretary of state, Alison McGovern, promised to reduce NHS waiting lists, reform welfare and make work pay, but she was unsure exactly how Labor would do this. What is certain is that the challenge of long-term absenteeism – and its impact on the labor market – will be a priority for the next government.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) estimates that one in ten working-age Britons receive health benefits, and this is expected to rise. The number of new monthly claims has doubled since the pandemic, especially among young people: a 20-year-old today is about as likely to claim health benefits as a 39-year-old was in 2019.

A Labor government would have to strike a balance between limiting the benefits bill and tackling wider causes of mental illness, such as poverty, precarious work, ineffective work support and inadequate NHS care. It doesn’t help – as the IFS noted – that no one can yet fully explain what’s driving the recent explosion in the use of health and disability benefits.