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22 April 2024

Britain’s worklessness crisis is getting worse

Rishi Sunak is attempting to tackle “sick-note culture” – but the Tories are exacerbating the problem.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Inflation, GDP, net migration, Labour’s poll lead – these are all numbers Westminster politicians obsess over. But one measure above all is causing angst at the heart of the UK government: economic inactivity. It is a dehumanising bit of Whitehallese for a very human phenomenon – those of working age who are neither in nor seeking work. The number of people inactive because of ill health has hit a new record high of 2.8 million. Now, 9.4 million people – nearly a quarter (22.2 per cent) of the working-age population – are economically inactive.

Ministers despair. In a speech on 19 April, Rishi Sunak described a “sick note culture”. In March the Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride said mental health concerns had “gone too far”, warning of a risk “that we are labelling the normal ups and downs of human life as medical conditions which… serve to hold people back and, ultimately, drive up the benefit bill”. In November 2023 the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Laura Trott, urged disabled people that it was their “duty” to work from home as the government tightened health-related benefits. In his ever more desperate budgets, the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, tweaks the welfare system to try to conjure up an imaginary dormant workforce. It still hasn’t mobilised.

An obvious reason is the record NHS waiting list. If you have to wait longer for treatment, you may be out of work longer. The more you wait, the more likely your condition is to worsen, delaying your return. For example, when Alika, a 31-year-old council worker I spoke to, trapped a nerve in his shoulder, timely painkillers and physiotherapy could have helped him back into his physical job as a housing officer in weeks. Instead, he was left in excruciating pain for a year, unable to exercise or socialise, which led to depression. The wait for therapy was even longer. He still wasn’t working three years after his original injury.

But British worklessness isn’t just a story of the NHS. It also explodes a long-held article of faith within the Department for Work & Pensions: conditionality (being required to fulfil certain demands to avoid having your benefits docked). For years, the government has been shoehorning more conditionality into the system to make it harsher. Sunak is now looking to remove disability benefits from people with mental health conditions. Last November, Hunt announced that if a claimant fails to engage in a toughened-up work search process for six months, they will lose their benefits, and those who fail to find a job after 18 months will be forced to undertake a “mandatory work placement”. And under tighter restrictions, to work capability assessments (tests that decide whether and how much work a sick or disabled claimant is fit to do), hundreds of thousands will receive £390 less a month and only keep their benefits if they participate in “work-related activity”.

If you’re trying to build up the workforce, incentivising jobless people on benefits to seek opportunities and do work experience sounds like common sense. But while the number of claimants subject to conditionality has more than doubled since 2013, the evidence for its effect on working hours remains “inconclusive”, according to the Resolution Foundation, a living standards think tank.

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Matthew Johnson, a politics professor at Northumbria University, told me he was convinced all his life of the need for greater conditionality after growing up in a “welfare-dependent” family. He now favours the other extreme: a universal basic income. “I watched my father disincentivised to work because he’d lose his benefits if he did, so I thought you had to significantly increase the incentives to get people into work,” he said. “But all the evidence I’ve seen over the last ten years suggests the opposite is true: if you provide adequate help, people become productive as a consequence.”

Instead of coaching Britons comfortably into the workforce, the DWP and Jobcentres demand they take poor-quality jobs, often inappropriate for their life circumstances and expertise. The department even has an internal mantra known as “ABC” (“Any job, Better job, Career”) and its officials cling to what they call the “hassle factor” of chivvying claimants into anything resembling work. In a focus group run by the New Economics Foundation, a think tank researching alternative forms of conditionality, one participant who had lost his social media marketing business recalled how he was forced by the Jobcentre to “apply for apprenticeships in sailing and bricklaying”, in a process that “delayed me doing something suitable”.

Evidence suggests “harsh and prescriptive conditionality at best pushes people into low-paid and insecure work, which is a poor outcome for them but also means they’re likely to continue to need support to top up their incomes”, said Tom Pollard, a former DWP adviser now running the New Economics Foundation’s project. After all, nearly 40 per cent of Universal Credit claimants are already working.

At a community centre in Camden, north London, I met Maya, 29, who had lost her job at an HGV training firm during the pandemic (“I loved it, giving the drivers motivational speeches!”). She then had her daughter, now three, and is expected to find 30 hours of work a week or she’ll lose her benefits – a new requirement announced in last year’s Budget. “They say it’s beneficial to be with your child, but then give you the anxiety of working full-time,” she said. “They need more compassion for our situations: not everyone is from a silver-spoon background like the politicians who decide how and when we should work.”

[See also: Katharine Birbalsingh’s prayer ban is a victory for tolerance]

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This article appears in the 24 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Danger