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‘With his Poll Ratings Sinking, Sunak Goes For One More Attempt at Scapegoating the Vulnerable: The “Skivers” Revisited’

The Prime Minister’s announcements on sickness and disability benefits were not just another assault on an already punitive welfare system – they were nuclear-level gaslighting, writes Mary O’Hara

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at a press conference at the Warsaw Armoured Brigade in Poland on 23 April 2024. Photo: Alastair Grant/AP

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With a general election looming, it once again appears to be open season on benefits claimants and disabled people. 

During a weekend welfare policy blitz, the Prime Minister pledged a new slew of curbs on benefits for disabled and chronically ill people if the Conservatives win power again. He also doubled-down on retaining the controversial two-child benefit cap, a key driver of child poverty.

The opening salvo came courtesy of a speech on Friday when Rishi Sunak decried what he called the country’s “sick note culture”, declaring that he was on a “moral mission” to reform the benefits system and tackle the “spiralling” £69 billion disability welfare costs.

Something had to be done, he said, about the growing numbers of economically inactive people who are long-term sick – in particular those deemed to have mental health problems and especially young people, too many of whom were “parked on welfare”.

If the specific language around disability and welfare sounds familiar, that’s because it is.

With terms like “sick note culture” and “parked on welfare”, Sunak was operating straight from the benefits-bashing playbook wielded with great effect by consecutive Conservative administrations to demonise benefits claimants.

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Since the onset of austerity 14 years ago, variations on the same toxic rhetoric have been deployed to justify years of savage cuts to social security and public services. The same rhetoric has been repeatedly leveraged to pit so-called ‘hard-working’ people against anyone in need of state assistance.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation described Sunak’s speech as “an irresponsible war of words on people who already aren’t getting enough support”.

As he faces record low polling numbers, the Prime Minister appears intent on giving the ‘skivers versus strivers’ trope one last whirl. In one section of his speech referring to mental health, he warned against “over-medicalising the everyday challenges and worries of life”.

Among the proposals put forward – which were immediately slammed by disability charities and labelled by one as “a full-on assault on disabled people” – was a possible withdrawal of major ongoing benefits.

Sunak announced a review of Personal Independence Payments (PIP), whereby some payments might be changed to one-off rather than ongoing. As a non-means-tested benefit to help people with extra living costs due to disability or ill health, the possibility of the removal of regular essential payments sparked an understandable outcry from disabled people’s organisations.

Other proposed measures included closing benefits claims for individuals still out of work after 12 months who fail to comply with conditions for accepting available work. Another would make it harder to obtain a sick note. Sunak also asserted that the Government would look at shifting responsibility for classifying individuals as not fit for work away from GPs to other “work and health professionals”.


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According to the Prime Minister, too many GPs have been signing people off work by default. Yet, as many have pointed out, such an assessment belies reality.

James Taylor, director of strategy at disability charity Scope, noted for example that “much of the current levels of [economic] inactivity are because our public services are crumbling, the quality of jobs is poor, and the rate of poverty among disabled households is growing”.

However, not only did Sunak’s speech represent another assault on an already ungenerous and punitive benefits system, it was also nuclear-level gaslighting.

After a decade-and-a-half of the Conservatives in power, actively shredding the social safety net, it was with profound cognitive dissonance that Sunak declared that “the values of our welfare state are timeless. They’re part of our national character” and that “we’re proud to ensure a safety net that is generous for those who genuinely need it – and fair to the taxpayers who fund it”.

As concerning as the speech was, it was soon followed by an article in The Sun on Sunday, penned by Sunak, in which he reiterated some of its key tenets while also aiming fire at families in poverty. Despite calls for it to be abolished, he vowed to keep the controversial two-child benefit cap.

The two-child limit, introduced in 2017, restricts means-tested benefits to families with fewer than three children. According to the Resolution Foundation think tank, the policy leaves larger families £3,200 a year worse off, per additional child, making it a factor in rising child poverty. In 2013-2014, 34% of children in larger families were in poverty. By 2028-29 the foundation estimates that this will soar to a staggering 51%.

Abolishing the two-child limit would cost the Government in the area of £3.6 billion for 2024-25 (if at full coverage). If the policy was abandoned, it could mean as many as half a million fewer children in poverty. It should be a no-brainer politically to lift that many kids out of poverty, yet Sunak seems determined not to act.

A protestor in a wheelchair and police during a demonstration in which a group chained themselves together across Regent Street, London, in protest against the Government’s welfare reforms. Photo: John Stillwell/PA

Responding to The Sun on Sunday article, Alison Garnham, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, observed: “With child poverty at a record high, the Prime Minister has now clearly decided that making kids poor is his political priority. The two-child limit makes it harder for kids, punishing them for having brothers and sisters. It’s time to scrap this nasty policy.”

The kind of demonising, divisive rhetoric used by Sunak and others in his party to justify budget cuts and welfare reforms has tended in the past to find fertile ground with a significant portion of the electorate. This latest attempt at scapegoating, however, stinks of desperation.

The Prime Minister is clearly grasping at straws. What’s less clear is whether Labour will finally commit to abolishing cruel and unnecessary policies like the two-child limit if the party forms the next government. If nothing else, Rishi Sunak has thrown down a gauntlet.

Mary O’Hara is the author of ‘The Shame Game: Overturning the Toxic Poverty Narrative’. The 10th anniversary edition of her book, ‘Austerity Bites: A Journey to the Sharp End of Cuts’ in the UK will be published in September by Policy Press

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