Conservatives Pledge £730m to Tackle ‘Sick Note Culture’

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The Conservative Party has pledged nearly £730 million to bolster NHS mental health treatment in England, aiming to address the rising welfare costs if they win the forthcoming general election.

This initiative is designed to cut the economic burden of £12 billion annually by facilitating employment for an additional 500,000 working-age individuals currently on benefits.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the number of people inactive due to health reasons has surged by 33% to 2.8 million since the pandemic. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has identified tackling this so-called “sick note culture” as a cornerstone of his leadership.

In response, Labour has accused Mr Sunak of attempting to “disguise the fact that he has caused a spiralling benefits bill.” Meanwhile, Mr Sunak emphasised the moral imperative of welfare reform, highlighting that work provides dignity, purpose, and hope. He stated, “That’s why we have announced a significant increase in mental health provision, as well as changes to ensure those who can work, do work.”

The Conservative plan includes several reforms initially proposed by Mr Sunak’s administration, such as revising disability benefits for those most in need and tightening work capability assessment criteria. Notably, the proposal would shift the responsibility for issuing sick notes from GPs to specialist work and health professionals.

Building on the announcement to support an additional 384,000 people through talking therapies, as detailed in the 2023 Autumn Statement, the Conservatives assert that the new funding will enable 576,000 individuals to access mental health support by 2029, thereby helping more people remain in work.

The annual cost of £730 million is expected to be offset by the £12 billion in savings anticipated by 2030. This package aims to prevent the benefits cost for working-age individuals with health conditions from escalating from £60 billion to £90 billion by the end of the next parliament.

However, the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has expressed scepticism, with associate director Tom Walters commenting that achieving an additional £12 billion in savings “looks difficult to the extreme.” History, he noted, shows that such reductions in spending are often challenging to realise.

A Labour spokesperson criticised the announcement as a desperate attempt by Mr Sunak to mask a spiralling benefits bill, calling the pledges “reheated” and the promises “vague.” The Liberal Democrats echoed these sentiments, pointing out the Conservative government’s role in the NHS backlog and suggesting that shifting the goalposts would not genuinely address the issue.

The IFS has also cautioned that the next government might need to reduce the scope of state provisions or raise taxes to sustain departmental funding levels. Both the Conservatives and Labour have committed to not increasing income tax, National Insurance, or VAT rates.

Addressing concerns about funding these commitments, Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride mentioned on the BBC’s “Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg” programme that £6 billion could be raised by cracking down on tax avoidance. When questioned why this had not been accomplished by previous Conservative administrations, Mr Stride replied, “We have been doing it and there’s more we can do.”

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