Tories and Labour need to offer a proper cure for sick note Britain: Bill Carmichael

If you have been lucky enough to have a few days off work over Christmas and New Year you have also probably by now experienced the dread of returning to your workplace after a short break.

Perhaps you’ve had to set your alarm to some ungodly hour when it was still dark, and held the hope - often in vain - that the traffic won’t be too bad, or the buses and trains will be free of strikes, floods, staff shortages and signal failures.

Is it any wonder in these cold, wet, dank days that after spending a bit of fun time with family and friends over Christmas, so many of us succumb to the January blues when it is time to resume the daily commute?

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But not everyone is returning to work in January. Indeed a surprisingly large number of people don’t have a job out of choice, and many have never worked, and probably never will.

The Conservatives and Labour need to do more to tackle the issue of worklessness, argues Bill Carmichael. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA WireThe Conservatives and Labour need to do more to tackle the issue of worklessness, argues Bill Carmichael. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
The Conservatives and Labour need to do more to tackle the issue of worklessness, argues Bill Carmichael. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

I’ve been looking at the statistics for worklessness in the UK and the figures are nothing short of astonishing. Out of a working age population (those between 16 and 64 years of age) of over 40 million, fully 8.8 million, or well over a fifth are classed as “economically inactive”.

Of these about 2.6 million are on long term sickness benefits, and of these 62 per cent have been out of work since before the pandemic, and 23 per cent, or around half a million people, have never had a job in their entire lives.

Most worrying of all is that this epidemic of worklessness is affecting the younger generation more than older people.

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The proportion of 30 year olds claiming disability benefits has doubled since 2002, driven largely by mental health diagnoses. Something like 40 per cent of new sickness claims involve mental health issues, such as anxiety and stress.

In the early 1990s about two per cent of the population claimed health-related benefits. Today that proportion has tripled to six per cent.

In cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool and Glasgow around a fifth of working age adults are claiming universal credit or disability benefits.

Of course the Covid pandemic had a role to play in all this, particularly in the increase of mental health issues. But other comparable countries do not have the numbers on benefits that we have, and they have recovered better from lockdowns.

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Having had a friend who suffered severe psychosis and depression, I would never want to downplay the impact of mental health conditions - they can be a living hell for the sufferers and their friends and family.

But anxiety and stress are normal parts of everyday life, and unless they are very extreme and debilitating should not be a reason to give up on work altogether.

The impact on individuals and on the UK as a whole of this economic inactivity are terrible. For example the damage to the economy is not just heavy but positively ruinous in terms of the cost to the taxpayer of the benefits, and the loss to the government of income tax revenue.

And it is going to get much worse. Official figures suggest that spending on benefits for working-age individuals with health conditions is forecast to rise by £11.9 billion, from £61.6 billion in 2023/24 to £73.5 billion in 2027/8.

This is simply unsustainable.

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But perhaps even more important than the financial cost is the waste of talent and potential and the chance to enjoy productive and fulfilling lives for millions of people.

While all these people are living on benefits, employers are struggling to find staff, with about one million job vacancies unfilled.

The solution so far has been massive increases in immigration, but this just piles pressure on already overstretched housing, education and health services, and damages community cohesion.

If a third of those on health-related benefits could be persuaded to return to work, we wouldn’t need any immigration at all.

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The current government realises there is a problem and has tried to address it by tightening up the Work Capability Assessments that people applying for health-related benefits have to go through.

Ministers argue that with many employers now allowing staff to work from home, many people currently deemed incapable of working could move back into the job market.

But this has barely made a difference, and the numbers and costs are still rising.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party has tried to ignore the problem, and beside opposing any changes proposed by the government, has said little about its plans for welfare reform.

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This isn’t good enough by either party. This problem is not going to go away, and whichever party wins the next election it should be among the top priorities.

We need a proper cure for sick note Britain.

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