Most on sickness benefit can work - Tory minister

David TC Davies
[ITV Cymru Wales]

Most people on sickness benefit are capable of working, a Welsh Conservative minister has claimed in a Welsh TV debate.

The Conservatives plan to save £12bn by reforming welfare payments through reforms to health-related schemes.

Welsh Secretary David TC Davies said a majority of those on sickness benefits would "be capable of working if we could give them the confidence to go out into the workplace".

He spoke on the ITV Cymru Wales general election debate on Sunday evening.

On the programme, Welsh Labour's most senior Westminster politician Jo Stevens said there is no money available for Wales from the High Speed 2 rail project.

Meanwhile Plaid Cymru's Westminster leader Liz Saville Roberts conceded there were risks to Wales becoming independent.

The debate saw the three most senior Westminster figures from the Conservatives, Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru go head to head.

David Davies was quizzed on criticism from the Institute of Fiscal Studies, who said to achieve the figure one million would need to come off health-related benefits, or £2,200 would need to be cut per claimant.

Mr Davies said the benefits for people who are sick is predicted to go from around £70bn to £90bn.

"That's absolutely unsustainable. People aren't milking the system, maybe a small number are.

"But the majority of those people would be capable of working if we could give them the confidence to go out into the workplace, and we have to do that."

Conservative manifesto plans include changing capability assessments so people with "moderate mental health issues or mobility problems who could potentially engage with the world of work are given tailored support, instead of being written off on benefits".

There are longstanding calls from across the political spectrum, including the Welsh Labour government, for Wales to receive extra funding as a result of spending on the High Speed 2 (HS2) rail project.

Plaid Cymru, in its manifesto, specifically called for £4bn in funding - an estimate based on other estimates of the cost of building the project.

Jo Stevens, Labour's Shadow Welsh Secretary, said there are "lots of figures being bandied around" and said the actual amount was "£350m".

Referring to the scaling back of HS2 by the prime minister, she added: "It's not the billions of pounds that you mentioned earlier, but whatever figure it is, the fact is that Rishi Sunak has bust that project.

"Any party in this election, like [Plaid Cymru] who are basing their manifesto and spending commitments on money that isn't there is not going to be able to deliver any promises."

Pushed by Liz Saville Roberts on "why can't you stick with Welsh Labour Senedd members who are also calling for HS2 to be funded to Wales properly", Ms Stevens added: "I just answered your question - the money isn't there."

Plaid Cymru believes that Wales should be an independent country.

It was put to Liz Saville Roberts that a recent report had said it was viable option, but that it took Ireland 50 years to have an economy that matched the UK.

She replied: "Unlike the people who campaigned for Brexit, who said everything would be sunlit rosy uploads, yes - we recognise there is a risk here.

"But surely people will look at the state in which the United Kingdom keeps Wales and ask, should we be looking at a different way."

"It's actually very difficult to work out what the situation would be unless we have all the levers with which to build the economy."

"Of course, the British Empire, everyone's had this about every nation that left - that they would be poor if they left. None of them want to go back."

General election box

A significant part of the debate focussed on the NHS, which is run in Wales by the Labour Welsh government.

Mr Davies said the UK government was increasing spending on the NHS in England but the “extra” money being given to Welsh government was “ not finding its way into the NHS in Wales, it’s been taken elsewhere”.

He said that Wales had the longest waiting lists in the UK: “We have 20,000 people in Wales who waited more than two years for treatment, whereas in England with 20 times the population, the comparable figure is just a few hundred”.

Jo Stevens said there “definitely needs to be improvement” in the Welsh NHS but she said in “every nation of the United Kingdom their health services are struggling at the moment”.

She said a Labour UK government would give “an immediate cash injection” to the NHS.

Liz Saville Roberts said it was “intolerable” that "19% of the Welsh population" was on a waiting list.

She said Plaid would make it easier to see a GP by recruiting 500 new ones.

All three politicians agreed that action needed to be taken on social care with Mr Davies calling for a "cross-party agreement".