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Welfare reform for ‘sicknote Britain’

Welfare reform for ‘sicknote Britain’
Emma Lunn
Written By:
Emma Lunn

Experts have criticised Government plans to strip GPs of their ability to issue sicknotes to people suffering with mental health issues.

Instead, ‘specialist work and health professionals’ would assess someone’s ability to work and the tailored support they may need. The proposals are part of Government plans to crack down on “sicknote culture”.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak claimed that a surge in people signed off sick with mental health conditions is placing unsustainable pressure on the welfare budget.

But mental health experts have slammed the Government’s proposals.

Dr Sarah Hughes, CEO of Mind, said: “We are deeply disappointed that the Prime Minister’s speech today continues a trend in recent rhetoric [that] conjures up the image of a ‘mental health culture’ that has ‘gone too far’. This is harmful, inaccurate and contrary to the reality for people up and down the country. The truth is that mental health services are at breaking point following years of under-investment, with many people getting increasingly unwell while they wait to receive support. Indeed, the Care Quality Commission’s latest figures on community mental health services show that nearly half of people (44%) waiting for treatment found their mental health deteriorated in this time.

“To imply that it is easy both to be signed off work and then to access benefits is deeply damaging. It is insulting to the 1.9 million people on a waiting list to get mental health support, and to the GPs whose expert judgement is being called into question.”

Sunak said he is on a “moral mission” to give everyone who is able to work the best possible chance of staying in, or returning to, work. A package of measures proposed by the Government also includes additional measures to crack down on fraud, such as removing benefits entirely from long-term unemployed people who don’t accept a job.

Disability benefits system reform

In a speech on Friday (19 April), Sunak announced that the disability benefits system is set to be reformed to ensure it’s more accurately targeted at those who need it most and delivers the right kind of support for people with disabilities and health conditions.

A consultation on Personal Independence Payment (PIP) will be published in the coming days, which will explore changes to the eligibility criteria, assessment process and types of support that can be offered so the system is better targeted towards individual needs and more closely linked to a person’s condition.

The Government said that the PIP assessment process “is significantly easier to game by individuals who seek to exploit the system”.

In 2019, there were an average of about 2,200 new PIP awards per month in England and Wales where the main condition was anxiety and depression – this has more than doubled to 5,300 per month last year. This is driving up the cost of the disability benefits bill to what Sunak called an “unsustainable rate”, and PIP spending alone is expected to grow by 52% from 2023/24 to £32.8bn by 2027/28.

Mel Stride, work and pensions secretary, said in a written statement: “We know that 10 million ‘not fit for work’ fit notes are issued every year. This represents a missed opportunity to help people get the appropriate support they may need to remain in work.

“We should reform the fit note process so that it starts with an objective assessment of what someone can do with the right support, rather than what they cannot. A new fit note process will ensure people get the right help for their needs, reducing pressure on GPs and helping to free up thousands of GP appointments.”