Chancellor refuses to say if he’d live on £94 sick pay in toe-curling interview

The Tory Chancellor has refused to say if he could live on the UK's £94-a-week sick pay in a toe-curling Budget interview.

Rishi Sunak, a Winchester College-educated former Goldman Sachs analyst whose father-in-law is a billionaire, came unstuck when faced with the million-pound coronavirus question.

His Budget yesterday announced a £12billion package to tackle COVID-19 – refunding firms the costs of Statutory Sick Pay; speeding up access to sick benefit ESA; removing the Minimum Income Floor in Universal Credit and suspending the need to turn up in person at a Jobcentre.

But he defied pleas by unions to make Statutory Sick Pay more generous or extend it to more people.

The £94.25 payment is still not available to the self-employed or people who earn under £118 a week – and unions say it's one of the least generous systems in Europe.


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BBC Radio 5 Live asked Mr Sunak: "Could you and your family live on £90 a week?"

He replied: "This is – er – thi- thi- – this is, this is about us, people keeping their health safe, so it’s about people being at home protecting themselves, er, and that’s why…"

The presenter then asked a second time: "It’s a really simple question, could you and your family live on £90+ a week?"

The Chancellor of the Exchequer replied: "Uh, uh, thi- thi- thi- thi- this is a safety net, that’s what it’s there for, to provide people to fall back on.

"It’s obviously not the same as your day to day life but the point is it’s a safety net to fall back on for a temporary period of time, I think we overall have a very sensible and workable welfare system. It works.

"We have an NHS which is free at the point of use which is very different to most other countries.

"So taken in the round I do think we’re taking the right steps to support people through this and of course protect their jobs.

"The various other measures we’ve taken make sure those people you’re talking about still have a job to go back to when they get through this.

"The worst thing that could happen is the job they have disappears during this disruption."

Born in Southampton to a GP father and pharmacist mother, Mr Sunak is the eldest of three siblings.

He went to illustrious private school Winchester College where he rose to become head boy, before studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford and later gaining an MBA from Stanford University where he was a Fulbright scholar.

It was there he met his future wife Akshata Murthy, the daughter of Indian billionaire and co-founder of Infosys, N. R. Narayana Murthy.

Mr Sunak defended not extending statutory sick pay (SSP) to those who are ineligible as part of efforts to tackle coronavirus.

He insisted some in the so-called gig economy will have access while others can claim welfare payments.

"For those that don't (have access to SSP), we've strengthened the working of our welfare system so that it works quicker, more responsibly and more generously for those people," he told Today.

Despite unions saying it is not enough, yesterday's Budget has been branded the biggest giveaway since 1992 as Mr Sunak shredded a decade of Tory claims to be balancing the books.

Borrowing is set to soar as the size of the state reaches £1trillion a year for the first time.

Fuel duty was frozen for the 10th year in a row with no rises to taxes on beer, wine, spirits or cider.

And National Insurance contributions will be cut, saving middle and higher earners £85 a year.

The Chancellor said £12bn would go on measures to tackle Coronavirus, plus another £18bn of "fiscal loosening" to help the economy more generally – a £30bn total.

There was also money for the environment, including a new plastics tax.  He promised extra funds for broadband, road building and further education. Yet there was nothing to tackle the scourge of child poverty or the crisis in social care.

Experts have warned the Tories' spending splurge will collapse if currently low interest rates go up, because it will heap debt repayments onto the struggling state.

Mr Sunak admitted there is a risk in the high-borrowing strategy, but he insisted it is the right judgment to take.

Asked on Today about the uncertainty over what might be around the corner for interest rates, he said: "You're absolutely right, you have to make a judgment about the persistence of low interest rates, that's a judgment I have to make as Chancellor.

"The reality is these interest rates have stayed lower for longer than anyone expected and keep falling, and it's right that I as someone in charge of managing our public finances has a view on that."

The Chancellor denied Labour's allegation that he only needed to boost NHS spending to tackle coronavirus because of the damage caused by successive Conservative leaders to the health service.

He said there are 7,700 more nurses on wards than last year, adding to Today: "So that's just not right.

"And more generally, it's because of the way we've managed the economy over the past several years that I'm in a strong position today to be able to sit here and say to you I will do what it takes to help get us through this."

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