By Andy Bruce
British finance minister Jeremy Hunt on Thursday announced incentives and sanctions aimed at tackling the country’s soaring levels of inactivity among working-age people, an increasingly acute economic problem.
The “Back to Work” plan, billed as a way to help people “stay healthy, get off benefits and move into work”, will form part of the Autumn Statement that Hunt will present next Wednesday.
The plans were welcomed by business groups but the Institute for Employment Studies (IES), a non-partisan think tank, said Hunt’s tough talk about people who “coast on the hard work of taxpayers” was misplaced.
The opposition Labour Party said the plan failed to tackle the root causes behind economic inactivity.
A record 2.6 million Britons were not working because of long-term sickness as of mid-2023, which economists say reflects the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic but also high waiting times in an increasingly stretched health service.
The plan, which includes 2.5 billion pounds ($3.1 billion) of investment over the next five years, aims to boost the support available to those with physical or mental conditions so they can stay in work, helping up to 1.1 million people.
But it also includes tougher benefit sanctions “for people who are able to work but refuse to engage” with their local employment office.
Hunt, hoping to assuage the many Conservative lawmakers who are alarmed at Labour’s big lead in opinion polls, looks set to trim taxes in his Nov. 22 budget update.
“These changes mean there’s help and support for everyone – but for those who refuse it, there are consequences too. Anyone choosing to coast on the hard work of taxpayers will lose their benefits,” Hunt said of the “Back to Work” plan.
Tony Wilson, director of the IES, said extra investment in employment support was welcome but he criticised Hunt’s characterisation of people who coast.
“This sort of language just pushes people away – alienating those who could benefit from support, alienating employers and alienating partners like GPs and voluntary services,” Wilson said.
Labour said Hunt’s plan was “more of the same”.
“This poor excuse of a proposal does nothing to fundamentally change the state of our health service or our Jobcentres after a decade of failure from the Tories,” said Labour’s work and pensions spokeswoman Liz Kendall.
The Recruitment and Employment Confederation, a trade body, said it welcomed the plans.
($1 = 0.8050 pounds)