Making people better, not demonising them, will solve Britain’s sickness problem | Torsten Bell

In policy making, as in life, the goal is to recognise when you have a problem, without getting it out of perspective. Otherwise nothing gets done.

When it comes to people being too sick to work, we certainly have a problem. Only the UK in the G7 hasn’t seen its employment rate recover to pre-pandemic level, thanks to the rise to 2.7 million of those not working because of ill health, the longest sustained increase since the 1990s.

The rise is about young and old. Those in their late 20s/early 30s are most likely to have a mental health problem, and there is a notable U-shape to who’s too sick to work (with old and young most likely to be affected). The same thing is showing up in the benefits system: new claims for personal independence payments are up two-thirds since 2020.

We should be tackling ill health at its root cause (a functioning health service would help) and reforming a benefits system so mean it forces many to prove they are too ill to work if they’re to avoid destitution. What we shouldn’t be doing is whipping up a moral panic. Too many columnists on the right are trying to do exactly that, proclaiming that today’s Brits are uniquely workshy, “a nation of quitters”. Benefit cuts are what follows.

Some history lessons are in order. In 1996, 21% of working-age households were “workless”. Today? Less than 14% are. As we hand-wring about the UK being too lazy, US economists are celebrating a jobs boom. What both miss, focusing just on the past few years and ignoring bigger changes over decades, is that the US still has an employment rate 3% lower than the UK’s. How about we fix our employment problem rather than exploiting it?

Torsten Bell is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation and author of the forthcoming book Great Britain? How We Get Our Future Back


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