Opinion

Dear Rishi Sunak – we can see sick notes falling without the need to limit benefits. Here's how

Rather than point the finger at those who are unable to work, long-term solutions are needed to lift people out of poverty, writes Big Issue Invest CEO Danyal Sattar

Side profile shot of prime minister Rishi Sunak chairing a meeting

Prime minister Rishi Sunak. Image: Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street

Prime minister Rishi Sunak has recently used an Office for National Statistics (ONS) study into ‘economically inactive’ working-age Britons to evidence his belief that the way to get Britain working is by ending “sick note culture”. 

In the speech that laid out the Conservative’s plan for widespread welfare reform, the prime minister cited a February 2024 ONS report which showed a “worrying” proportion of younger potential workers are among a record high of 2.8 million people currently out of work. 

What the prime minister didn’t say is that the same study found that 600,000 people actually want to work, but can’t because of their poor health. 

At Big Issue Group (BIG), our message is clear – the answer to these issues is not forcing people into work they cannot cope with, it’s addressing the root causes of these health and wellbeing problems. 

The reality is that a large proportion of that 600,000 group will be people living in poverty and feeling the squeeze of an increasingly challenging financial situation on their physical and mental health. Poverty drives ill health, and ill health is a direct route into poverty.  

There are many fantastic social enterprises and enterprising charities that have been set up to try and break this cycle. Big Issue Invest’s portfolio reflects this. In 2023, we made more active investments in organisations offering health and wellbeing solutions than any other type of organisation.  

We currently have 46 active investments in organisations working to help people lead healthier lives. 65% of those are targeting the most deprived areas in the UK, demonstrating our commitment to deliver impact where it’s most needed.  

Smile Together is just one such investment. With a mission to tackle oral health inequality in some of the most remote areas of Devon and Cornwall, improving pathways to care for vulnerable, underserved people in their communities. Since Big Issue Invest’s million-pound investment in 2019, Smile Together has welcomed nearly 100,000 patients for emergency appointments. Impact that makes me smile, for sure. 

It’s not just BIG’s investment arm that’s targeting long-term solutions to poverty. In 2022 we launched Big Issue Recruit, a specialist recruitment service, with a very clear objective: to support people who face barriers to work into sustainable employment. Big Issue Recruit is a person-centred service, supporting individuals pre, during and post-employment. Our job coaches work closely with all candidates to ensure they are upskilled in appropriate areas and equipped with the tools required to successfully sustain employment. 

We all share the prime minister’s vision of getting more people in work. But to get them there, we need to think smart. We need people developing projects they know will work for their communities. We need social investment that helps those projects become realities. We need long-term solutions that lift people out of poverty. Tackle the cause and I suspect we’ll see the symptom of sick notes falling, without the need to limit how many can be handed out. 

Danyal Sattar, CEO of Big Issue Invest. 

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
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