Long-term sickness forcing people out of work and damaging economy, Labour warns

Shadow work and pensions minister Liz Kendall (PA Archive)
Shadow work and pensions minister Liz Kendall (PA Archive)

Long-term sickness is forcing millions of Britons out of work and damaging the economy, a shadow minister warned on Thursday.

Shadow work and pensions secretary Liz Kendall said that urgent reform to social care and mental health was needed to prevent both old and young people from becoming “written off” and locked out of the jobs market.

A record 2.3 million Britons are not working because of long-term illness, according to the most recent figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Economics have warned that the issue represents a “serious fiscal threat” to the UK.

Speaking to the Standard on a visit to St Thomas’ hospital in Waterloo, Ms Kendall said that the scale of economic activity in the UK was “terrible for families and businesses”.

“Companies need to draw on the skills and talent of the entire population if they are going to succeed. To grow the economy we have to invest in the health of the population. This means bringing down waiting lists, investing in mental health care and reforming the care system.

“The reality is that life expectancy in this country was stalling even before the pandemic, and the decline of our core health is creating a huge knock-on impact. A healthy society and economy are two sides of the same coin and we need to get these systems working together.”

Figures released by City Hall in April show that 14.2 per cent of people aged 16-24 in London were unemployed in the year up to September 2022, the equivalent of 68,400 young Londoners.

She added: “We can’t allow young people to be written off. Being out of work when you are young causes a long-lasting and severe impact to your life chances. For the over-50s, there are too many people out of work and many are spending ages waiting to get hip and knee operations done.”

An increasing number of older adults are also struggling to re-enter the workplace as they are caring for an elderly relative or loved one, the frontbencher added.

Labour recently announced a pledge to recruit 8,500 more mental health professionals to reduce waiting times, on top of delivering an extra 2 million operations, scans, and appointments a year by paying NHS staff extra to run evening and weekend clinics. The party claim this could be funded by the abolition of non-dom tax status, which would raise £1.1 billion.

Her comments came after Chancellor Jeremy Hunt on Thursday announced incentives and sanctions aimed at tackling the UK’s economic activity among working-age people.

The “Back to Work” plan is intended to help people “stay healthy, get off benefits and move into work”, and will form part of the Autumn Statement that Mr Hunt will present next Wednesday. It includes plans to boost the support available to those with physical or mental conditions so they can stay in work and includes tougher benefit sanctions for “people who are able to work but refuse to engage” with their local employment office.

The Department of Health and Social Care was contacted for comment.