Jeremy Hunt says focus on the ‘economically inactive’. I say he is scapegoating the sick

<span>Photograph: Jordan Pettitt/PA</span>
Photograph: Jordan Pettitt/PA

As the government lurches between screw-ups, sleaze and scandals, it is ironic that one of its key policy agendas is based on the premise that the rest of us aren’t working properly. The chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, has highlighted the “economically inactive” as a key issue facing the UK. The number of working-age people either unable or unwilling to take a job has increased by about 630,000 since 2019, according to government estimates, resulting in a staggering 9 million people missing from the job market.

Broadly, Hunt is concerned about two camps: the over-50s who took early retirement during the pandemic, and the increasing number of people who can’t work because of long-term health conditions and disabilities – a state of affairs put down to factors ranging from soaring NHS waiting lists to long Covid.

Hunt’s strategies to bring the two groups back into the workforce, however, are stark in their differences. Ministers are reportedly looking into a “midlife MOT” to coax older workers back to at least part-time roles, including financial incentives and mentoring schemes. The Treasury is also reportedly considering exempting over-50s who return to work from income tax for up to a year.

Contrast this with their tactics towards people who are off work through no choice of their own due to illness or disability. The government is obliging 600,000 claimants on universal credit to meet a “work coach” so they can increase their hours or earnings, even though many will have health problems or caring responsibilities. Meanwhile, ministers are said to be planning to target the partners of people on benefits to push them into paid work. Stay-at-home mums whose partners receive universal credit could be “blitzed” with an ad campaign to get them into the labour market. Middle-class mums, presumably, will be permitted to stay at home. Then there’s the new anti-fraud drive. Just as long-term sickness shot up, the government announced £280m of fresh investment to “crack down” on benefit fraud and errors for the next two years – despite that accounting for just 4% of total benefit expenditure last year.

If you’re off work because you’re spending more time on the golf course, you could get tax breaks. If you left your job because you were diagnosed with Parkinson’s, you may get a call from the fraud squad. The government is trying a carrot and stick approach to fix the labour gap, except the over-50s get the carrot and the long-term sick get the stick. Reports in the Sunday Times about the upcoming review by the work and pensions secretary, Mel Stride, into the labour market gap suggests more progressive measures to help ill and disabled claimants may yet to be unveiled. These range from cash for occupational health assessments and flexible home working, to enabling those who are able to return to at least part-time work to still receive sickness benefits. These have the potential to be genuinely helpful policies. That ministers are also said to be considering bolstering the sanctions regime and requiring some long-term sick people to meet work coaches more regularly, however, is a worrying sign of their true agenda.

This is in part a story of intergenerational inequality, where the boomer generation can afford to retire early with paid-off mortgages while their children struggle to afford the rent. But it is largely one of class and health, in which those with the means are seen by those in power as “contributors” offered rewards to return to work, while those without are “takers” penalised for being unable to.

Just look at the way the rightwing press has been reporting on the issue. The Sun’s report gleefully described the government’s plan to get mums back into the workforce as a way to “drag them off benefits”. The Mail screams of an “epidemic of inactivity”. The Spectator, meanwhile, claims to have “proof” that more than 5 million people are now on out-of-work benefits, as if there are hordes of claimants hiding under official figures. Whether it is ministers or the press, the implication of such rhetoric is clear: being too ill to work is a lifestyle choice.

Related: Want to know the depth of our NHS crisis? Then talk to disabled people needing day-to-day care | Frances Ryan

In the past few years, as the Tories have focused on the spectacle of Brexit and culture wars, the anti-“welfare” strategy that dominated the early 2010s under David Cameron has been noticeably quieter. But the increasing hardship of the cost of living crisis, coupled with the implosion of support for the Conservative party in the polls, offers a chance to bring it back to the foreground. At a time when many workers can’t afford to put the heating on, it is fertile ground for convincing voters that the work-shy sick are scamming the system.

A government that was genuine about closing the labour gap would actually address the reasons for it. That means providing NHS and social care investment, affordable childcare, tackling disability prejudice from employers, and acknowledging that Brexit robbed us of migrant’s talents.

Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies published last week showed that successive waves of welfare changes have trapped people in dead-end low-paid work, with many still needing top-up benefits to survive. This just shows how self-defeating a drive to get claimants back to work at any cost can be.

Instead of fearing excess claims for disability benefits, the government could start by recognising that a decade of tightening eligibility for out-of-work sickness benefits, on top of cuts to rates, means disabled people are actually far more likely to be incorrectly found “fit for work” than awarded benefits they don’t need.

The tragedy is, this would involve an intellect and morality current ministers are severely lacking. Scapegoating the sick is altogether easier.

  • Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist