Rishi Sunak speech: Prime Minister's welfare reforms 'will increase hardship and distress'

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Charity Scope said Rishi Sunak’s welfare speech sounded like a “full-on assault on disabled people”.

Rishi Sunak has been warned that his welfare reforms risk increasing hardship and causing distress for some of the most vulnerable people in society.

The Prime Minister gave a speech on Friday (19 April) in which he said he wanted to end the “sick note culture”. Sunak claimed that the system as it stands is letting people down by not being focused enough on the work they might be able to do.

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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.

‘Full-on assault on disabled people’

Charities have hit out at Sunak, and accused of waging a “full-on assault on disabled people”. Iain Porter, from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, explained that two-thirds of people who live in destitution, the most severe form of hardship, have a chronic health condition or a disability.

He said: “Simply cutting people’s eligibility for benefits will just increase this hardship, and the distress that comes with that, without fixing wider problems."

Porter added: "This is an irresponsible war of words on people who already aren’t getting enough support, which the government would rather not talk about. Any sensible aspects of the government’s previously announced planned reforms like a better focus on occupational support have become overshadowed by damaging rhetoric about which illnesses are genuine or not.

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Many people want to work, as the Prime Minister says, but have their hopes dashed by woeful health and wellbeing support and jobcentres unfit for purpose.”

While disability equality charity Scope has questioned whether the announcements are being “driven by bringing costs down rather than how we support disabled people”. It described proposals as feeling “like a full-on assault on disabled people” branding them “dangerous” and saying they risk leaving disabled people “destitute”.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “The biggest problem here frankly is that the government has broken the NHS and waiting lists are up at 7.6 million.

“That is where the focus needs to be. This announcement morning from the Government is a reheated version of something they announced seven years ago. It is no good talking about the problem, what we need is action to make the issues actually be dealt with.”

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NationalWorld columnist Dr Rob Thomas explained that in the NHS sickness had stayed level, adding: “For most there are legitimate reasons but we all know that there are some employers who have a lower threshold of missing work which does cause some friction among other workers.”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak looks at a key after operating a cylinder key machine to copy and cut a cylinder key during a visit to a branch of Timpson, in central London after he gave a major policy speech on welfare reform where he called for an end to the "sick note culture". Credit: PAPrime Minister Rishi Sunak looks at a key after operating a cylinder key machine to copy and cut a cylinder key during a visit to a branch of Timpson, in central London after he gave a major policy speech on welfare reform where he called for an end to the "sick note culture". Credit: PA
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak looks at a key after operating a cylinder key machine to copy and cut a cylinder key during a visit to a branch of Timpson, in central London after he gave a major policy speech on welfare reform where he called for an end to the "sick note culture". Credit: PA | Yui Mok/PA Wire

What did Rishi Sunak say in his speech on welfare reforms?

The Prime Minister made a major speech in London today (19 April) outlining proposals to tighten the benefit system, and rejected claims he was lacking in compassion. Sunak said 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”.

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

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Additional reporting by Aine Fox, Sophie Wingate and Harry Stedman, PA

Ralph Blackburn is NationalWorld’s politics editor based in Westminster, where he gets special access to Parliament, MPs and government briefings. If you liked this article you can follow Ralph on X (Twitter) here and sign up to his free weekly newsletter Politics Uncovered, which brings you the latest analysis and gossip from Westminster every Sunday morning.

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