Sunak vows £12bn in welfare cuts as part of back-to-work ‘moral mission’

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Rishi Sunak has claimed the Conservatives would save £12bn from the welfare bill by the end of the next parliament by engaging on a “moral mission” to keep people in work and off benefits.

The prime minister is desperately seeking ways to get his stricken election campaign back on track after last week’s D-Day debacle, in which he was forced to apologise for leaving commemorative events early.

A crackdown on welfare will feature in the Tory manifesto, to be launched on Tuesday, along with a promise to make permanent a scheme that exempts first time buyers of homes worth up to £425,000 from stamp duty.

Labour, which launches its manifesto next Thursday, will confirm a promise by Sir Keir Starmer not to increase rates of income tax, national insurance, corporation and VAT in the next parliament.

Sunak’s manifesto launch risks running into public apathy, with opinion polls continuing to show Labour with a typical lead of 20 points and with the Tory election campaign in disarray.

The prime minister kept a low profile on Saturday, cancelling interviews, after he was roundly criticised for returning early from Normandy last Thursday, missing an international D-Day commemoration.

Penny Mordaunt, a cabinet member, told a BBC debate on Friday that Sunak’s actions were “completely wrong”, while some Tory candidates fear the episode has delivered a huge blow to their campaign.

Nigel Farage, Reform UK leader, claims that his party is shaping up to be the “real opposition” to a future Labour government and Tory candidates fear the populist party could soon overtake the Conservatives in the polls.

Against that bleak backdrop, Sunak is promising to bring forward a package of welfare reforms to reduce the rising numbers of people claiming benefits and to keep people in the workplace.

He argues that the number of people inactive for health reasons has increased by 40 per cent from 2mn to 2.8mn since the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the benefit bill for people of working age with a disability or health condition is projected to increase from £69bn to £90bn by the end of the parliament. 

Sunak said: “Reforming welfare is a moral mission. Work is a source of dignity, purpose and hope and I want everyone to be able to overcome whatever barriers they might face to living independent, fulfilling lives.” 

“That’s why we have announced a significant increase in mental health provision, as well as changes to ensure those who can work, do work.”

Measures proposed include extra investment in NHS mental health treatment, reforming disability benefits, reforming “fit notes” and tightening up the system so that those with “moderate mental health or mobility issues” can be helped back to work.

However, Tom Waters, associate director at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said most of the measures had already been announced by the Conservatives and he was sceptical about the savings they would deliver.

“History suggests that reductions in spending are often much harder to realise than is claimed,” he said. “Delivering an additional £12bn saving from this set of measures relative to what was forecast in the March Budget looks difficult in the extreme.”

Labour said: “This is the latest desperate announcement from Rishi Sunak, who has once again plucked numbers out of thin air in an attempt to disguise the fact that he has caused a spiralling benefits bill.”

Meanwhile, Jeremy Hunt, chancellor, told the Sunday Times the Conservatives would “like to make progress” on cutting taxes for people earning over £100,000, including removing some of the tax “cliff edges” in the current system.

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