Sunak faces pressure to help older people return to work after ill health

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Rishi Sunak is under growing pressure to offer more help to older workers who have fallen out of the workforce due to ill health, as official figures show a sharp increase in the rates of long-term sickness in every region of the UK except London.

Highlighting deep regional divisions, figures from the Office for National Statistics show economic inactivity due to long-term sickness has increased most among 50 to 64-year-olds outside the capital since the Covid pandemic.

Rates of economic inactivity – when working-age adults are neither employed nor looking for a job – have ballooned since the health emergency spread to Britain nearly three years ago, in an exodus from the workforce fuelled by rising ill-health and older workers retiring early.

50 to 64-year-olds

It comes as businesses struggle with severe staff shortages, with the sharp decline in labour market participation contributing to Britain’s status as the only country in the developed world with employment still below pre-Covid levels.

Some experts, including Andy Haldane, a former Bank of England chief economist, have said underinvestment in public services and lengthy NHS waiting times could be contributing to the decline in workforce participation.

The analysis of the ONS figures by Labour shows inactivity among 50 to 64-year-olds for reasons of ill health have risen most in Yorkshire and the Humber, where the rate has leapt by 21% since December 2019.

The number of over-50s out of the labour force because of long-term sickness has increased in every part of the UK other than London, with a 20% rise in Wales, and a 13% increase in the north-west of England and the West Midlands. Over the same period, the number in London fell by 7%.

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Figures show the number of working-age adults out of the labour force due to long-term ill health has risen to a record of almost 2.5 million. Almost a quarter would like to work if they felt they had the opportunity or the support to do so.

The chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, used last month’s autumn statement to start a review of barriers to workforce participation, which is due to conclude early in the new year. The government has so far focused on a crackdown on benefit claimants, including asking 600,000 people on universal credit to meet a work coach to help them increase their hours or earnings.

Labour said the government needed to take urgent action to help over-50s and the long-term sick back to work. The party has committed to improving job centres and employment support services, while also devolving budgets to local areas so that support can be tailored for particular communities.

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Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said the increase in economic inactivity among over-50s due to ill-health was damaging living standards for older workers and holding back economic growth.

“It is deeply concerning that this surge has happened in virtually every corner of the country,” Ashworth said. “It’s disgraceful that there are still no proposals from ministers to help inactive people who want to work back into the labour market.

“Labour has a plan to get Britain back to work and support over-50s and the long-term sick into jobs. We will give more power and flexibility to local areas to run employment support services, and ensure that Jobcentres are open and accessible to all who would benefit from targeted, specialist help as part of our ambition to target the highest fall in employment in the G7.”

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