Nadia Whittome talks about sick note culture, disability and mental health

Words: Nadia Whittome
Friday 17 May 2024
reading time: min, words

Labour MP Nadia Whittome talks to us about sick benefits and the real problems Britain is facing, with a significant rise in people out of work and those that are left with lasting COVID-19 symptoms

Nadia 1

Have ill and disabled people had it too easy in this country? Rishi Sunak seems to think so. In a major speech last month, he blamed Britain’s supposed “sick note culture” for the growing numbers of people who are out of work for health reasons. Speaking about the rise in mental health diagnoses among young people, he attributed it to the “over-medicalising of everyday worries”. His solution? A clampdown on fit notes and benefits.

The speech did touch on some real issues, which the government is right to be concerned about. Since the start of the pandemic, the number of people claiming disability benefits has increased by 850,000. More adults than ever before, many of them in their 20s and 30s, are out of the job market because of ill health. These trends are nothing to celebrate.

But what these figures point to is not an epidemic of people deciding they don’t feel like working anymore. The truth is that, as a country, we’re becoming more and more unwell. We have a mental health crisis, exacerbated by years of austerity and the soaring cost of living. Growing poverty makes many people less able to look after themselves. The pandemic likely had an impact, leaving tens of thousands of people with long Covid symptoms. NHS waiting lists have ballooned under this government, with ever-growing numbers of patients waiting years for treatment, while their conditions worsen. Taking away financial support won’t address any of these problems.

Anyone who has recently interacted with the benefit system will know that it’s neither generous nor easy to access. Quite the opposite: the situation is so dire that a United Nations committee recently found that our government’s policy has “undermined the human dignity” of disabled people. Those who successfully go through the degrading process of proving their eligibility, receive sums that often don’t even cover their basic needs. Meanwhile, at a pitiful £116.75 per week, Statutory Sick Pay in the UK is among the lowest in Europe.

Since the Conservatives came to power, the system has become increasingly strict and callous. This is despite mounting evidence that this approach simply doesn’t work. A DWP report released last year showed that not only do sanctions not help people find jobs more quickly or encourage them to work more hours, they often slow down peoples’ progress in returning to work. It’s logical: if you don’t have the means to sustain yourself, how can you be expected to recover? Yet despite the evidence, the Tories have continued with their punitive policies, causing misery for countless disabled people and their families.

At worst, this approach can be deadly. Three years ago, a BBC investigation found that, since 2012, at least 82 people had died soon after a DWP activity, such as termination of benefits. Mental health vulnerabilities played a role in 35 of these deaths. But because the data was only based on press reports, it's likely to just represent the tip of the iceberg. Some of such stories make national news: like that of Errol Graham, a 57-year-old grandfather from Nottingham who starved to death in 2018, eight months after his benefits were stopped. Or young mum Philippa Day, also a Nottingham resident, who took her own life in 2019 following DWP errors. Many other tragic cases we may never hear about.

As someone who’s been open about my diagnosis of PTSD, I find the Prime Minister’s comments about mental health particularly insulting. The 13th of May marks the start of Mental Health Awareness Week, and I have no doubt that, like every year, we’ll see government politicians lining up to talk about how ‘it's ok to not be ok’, and the importance of asking for help. What they probably won’t mention is that many who do ask, are then turned away by desperately underfunded NHS mental health services, or put on an endless waiting list. 

I also don’t want to hear any platitudes about mental health from those who perpetuate the myth that people who are struggling can get over their problems if they just ‘man up’ and force themselves to work. The idea that they’re lazy, faking it or just being dramatic is a large part of mental health stigma - the same stigma that countless campaigns have been set up to fight, and which contributes to discrimination and people not getting the support they need.

Of course, there’s nothing original about scapegoating benefit claimants - we’ve heard it all before over the past fourteen years. Ultimately, the purpose this serves is the same as attacks on refugees or other underprivileged groups: to shift the blame for falling living standards. Having crashed the economy and left public services to crumble, the government is looking for a convenient scapegoat, rather than fixing the problems it has caused.

If we want to build a happier, healthier and more productive society, we need to completely reconsider our welfare system. The purpose of a social safety net shouldn’t be to punish people who are facing more than enough challenges already. It should be to enable disabled people to live a dignified life, regardless of whether, when and how much they’re able to work. Statutory Sick Pay should allow people who are ill to take their time to recover, without worrying if they’ll have enough money to put food on the table.

Shaming people who are disabled or unwell won’t magically make them fit to work. Neither will plunging them into destitution. Instead of villainising those who are out of work, it’s time to raise benefits and sick pay to a liveable level, end benefit sanctions and finally focus on tackling the root causes of our nationwide health crisis.

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