Tory leadership hustings: Rishi Sunak vows to be 'much tougher' with welfare system to 'get people off benefits'

·15 min read

Rishi Sunak has vowed to be "much tougher" on how the UK's benefits system operates if he becomes prime minister as he suggested he would force claimants to take jobs when they become available.

Speaking at a leadership hustings in Belfast, Mr Sunak said he wanted to get more people "off benefits and into work" and that this would help businesses which are currently struggling to fill staff vacancies.

The former chancellor said if he defeats Liz Truss and replaces Boris Johnson in No 10 then he would ensure that "if there are hours to do, if there is a job going, people should have to take the job".

He said that other than rising energy bills the main problem facing companies is "getting access to workers and getting people to actually work".

“And I strongly believe that part of the answer to this problem is being much tougher on our welfare system to get people off benefits and into work," he said.

“Right now, there are more people claiming unemployment benefit than there are job vacancies in the economy. Just think about that for a second. And that is happening under a Conservative government. That is clearly not right, something has gone wrong.”

He added: “If there are hours to do, if there is a job going, people should have to take the job as opposed to just being able to stay on benefits and that is the change that I want to bring because I do think that is the right thing, it is the Conservative thing, those are our values, we believe in working hard and we want to support people off welfare into work because it is good for them and their families too because there is dignity in work.”

Follow the latest developments below.

02:08 PM

Belfast hustings finishes

The Belfast hustings has now finished.

Other installments during the Tory leadership contest have been much longer and this one only lasted for just over one hour.

02:07 PM

Rishi Sunak warns Brexit Bill will 'take time to pass'

Rishi Sunak was asked how he would restore powersharing at Stormont.

The former chancellor said he believed it "starts with fixing the protocol".

Mr Sunak said the Government's Northern Ireland Protocol Bill will "take time to pass".

He said that if he becomes PM he would also try to secure a "negotiated outcome" through fresh talks with the EU.

02:02 PM

'As Conservatives we care about inheritance in all its guises'

Rishi Sunak has defended the Government's pledge to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

Speaking in Belfast this afternoon, Mr Sunak said he "believes" in Net Zero and "I do think it is important".

He said: "I think as Conservatives we care about inheritance in all its guises and part of our inheritance that we leave the next generation is the environment so I think it is right that we care about it.

"But you're also right, we need to do it in a way that is pragmatic and bring people along with us."

01:59 PM

Rishi Sunak criticises Liz Truss over defence spending pledge

Liz Truss has pledged to increase defence spending to three per cent of GDP by 2030.

Mr Sunak told Tory members in Belfast: "I don't believe in arbitrary targets when it comes to something as important as security of our realm so I will make a different commitment to you that I will invest whatever it takes to keep you, your families and our country safe because that is the first duty of a prime minister and it is certainly the first duty of a Conservative and Unionist prime minister."

01:54 PM

Rishi Sunak vows to be 'much tougher' on benefits payments

Rishi Sunak said that he would be "much tougher on our welfare system to get people off benefits and into work" when he was asked about staff vacancies in the social care sector.

The former chancellor said that "if there are hours to do, if there is a job going, people should have to take the job as opposed to just being able to stay on benefits".

01:48 PM

Rishi Sunak vows to improve NHS efficiency

Rishi Sunak's audience Q&A is now underway.

Mr Sunak was asked how he intends to sort out issues with the NHS, including an apparent lack of GPs.

The former chancellor said that "we have to be prepared to be bold about the NHS" as he stressed the need to make it more efficient.

He said that changes must be made because otherwise the health service will "swallow up every pound" of public spending.

He said: "We have got to do things differently and take on these conventions because if we don't, if we are not prepared to be bold and radical about getting efficiency out of the NHS, not only will we not get the health care that we need and deserve, we will never be able to cut taxes and I want to do both of those things."

01:44 PM

'I will do what it takes to fix the protocol'

Rishi Sunak told Tory members in Belfast that "Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom is being threatened".

The former chancellor vowed: "I will do what it takes to fix the protocol and protect Northern Ireland's place in our United Kingdom."

01:42 PM

Rishi Sunak now on his feet

Liz Truss has finished her Q&A and Rishi Sunak is now on stage to deliver his opening speech.

The former chancellor said that he believes in hard work and that the "birthright of every child is a world class education".

Mr Sunak said that throughout the Tory leadership contest he has not said the things that people want to hear.

"I have said the things that I believed our country needs to hear," he said.

01:36 PM

'I am proud of what he did'

One audience member told Liz Truss: "You have supported a Prime Minister that has continually lied to the Queen, Parliament and the entire United Kingdom, therefore does this not bring into question your own personal integrity and honesty?"

Ms Truss replied: "I don't agree with that. Boris Johnson has been an excellent prime minister. He delivered on Brexit. He delivered on the Covid vaccine and he delivered on standing up to Vladimir Putin and backing the Ukrainians. I am proud of what he did."

01:33 PM

High taxes are 'choking off growth'

Liz Truss was asked if she would prioritise reducing the national debt and if now is really the right time to cut taxes.

Ms Truss said the UK has the "highest levels of tax for 70 years" and high taxes are "choking off growth".

She said that the UK is forecast to suffer a recession and "if we have a recession it is going to be harder to pay the deficit off".

She argued that her tax cutting plans are the right way forward for the economy.

01:28 PM

Beijing 'becoming increasingly assertive'

One audience member asked Liz Truss if the UK could impose sanctions on China if it invaded Taiwan.

The Foreign Secretary said that China is "becoming increasingly assertive".

She said the UK would be wise to respond to Beijing as part of the wider G7 group because there is "strength in numbers".

01:26 PM

Liz Truss dodges question on Northern Ireland secretary pick

Liz Truss was asked about who she could choose to be her Northern Ireland secretary and if they would be completely committed to the role, rather than just occasionally flying in and out of Belfast.

Ms Truss said it was premature to talk about Cabinet appointments because the Tory leadership race is still ongoing.

But the Foreign Secretary said that whoever she did appoint it would be "based on how good they are at doing the job and whether they get things done".

01:22 PM

Liz Truss wants Brexit Bill passes 'as quickly as possible'

Liz Truss was asked if she would accept a compromise deal from the European Union on post-Brexit border rules in Northern Ireland.

Ms Truss said that she "will not accept anything that doesn't deliver on the key issues".

Asked how long it could take for the Government's Northern Ireland Protocol Bill to become law, she said: "It might take time to get this Bill through the House of Lords but the sooner we start the sooner we will finish and I am determined to get it done as quickly as possible."

The Bill would give UK ministers the ability to unilaterally make changes to post-Brexit border rules in Northern Ireland, without having to seek agreement with the EU.

01:17 PM

Truss commits to more support for NI Tories

It was suggested to Liz Truss that the Conservative Party has neglected its operation in Northern Ireland.

The Foreign Secretary said that she agreed that the party in Northern Ireland "hasn't received the support it should have done over the years".

Ms Truss said she wants to make Northern Ireland Tories a "key part of my team" and wants to see more Tory candidates standing for election.

01:15 PM

Liz Truss challenged over Stormont powersharing

Liz Truss has finished her opening speech and will now answer questions from Tory members in the audience.

Ms Truss was immediately challenged after she failed to mention the stalemate at Stormont during her opening address.

She said that as Foreign Secretary she has been holding talks with the different political parties at Stormont.

She said she is "determined to make it happen" on the question of restoring powersharing.

01:13 PM

Foreign Secretary repeats tax promises

Liz Truss repeated her pledge to reverse the National Insurance hike which came into effect earlier this year.

She also repeated that as PM she would stop a planned hike in corporation tax. That hike was originally announced by Rishi Sunak when he was chancellor.

Mr Sunak has said he would press ahead with the rise if he wins the contest.

01:10 PM

Liz Truss promises to fix Brexit 'bureaucracy'

Liz Truss said the current version of the Northern Ireland Protocol is undermining the United Kingdom.

She said that she was not prepared to "let the situation drift" on the issue of post-Brexit border problems and insisted the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill will help resolve the issues and "sort out the bureaucracy across the Irish Sea".

01:08 PM

'I want our family to stay together'

Liz Truss is now on stage in Belfast.

The Foreign Secretary began by highlighting the importance of the Union and Northern Ireland's place within the United Kingdom.

Ms Truss said: "I want our family to stay together and never ever split up."

01:07 PM

Many undecided voters in audience

Andrew Stephenson, the chairman of the Conservative Party, asked the audience to raise their hand if they are yet to vote in the leadership contest.

Based on the show of hands it appeared that a majority of Tory members in attendance are still undecided.

All to play for for both candidates...

01:05 PM

'We must come together as a party'

Peter Booth, the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party Board, said that the party must unite when the leadership contest finishes.

He said that "at the end of our democratic process we must come together as a party".

He said that with a "combined effort" the Tories will be able to "go forward to victory" at the next general election.

01:03 PM

Hustings in Belfast now underway

We are now up and running in Belfast.

Peter Booth, the chairman of the National Convention and deputy chairman of the Conservative Party Board, told Tory members that he wanted questions for the candidates to be "searching" and "succinct".

Mr Booth said he was sure the audience will want to "test our candidates to seek to establish their strengths".

12:50 PM

Rishi Sunak reiterates cost of living pledge

Conservative leadership contender Rishi Sunak has reiterated his pledge to bring forward more direct cost of living support for the most vulnerable in society if he becomes PM.

Mr Sunak said he “would go further as prime minister and ensure that more support was targeted particularly on the most vulnerable”.

He told BBC Radio Ulster: “Now as chancellor I put in place support, I would go further as prime minister and ensure that more support was targeted particularly on the most vulnerable, and by that I mean two groups in particular: those families on low incomes and also pensioners.

Rishi Sunak reacts during a visit to the Thales Defence System plant in Belfast - Getty Images Europe
Rishi Sunak reacts during a visit to the Thales Defence System plant in Belfast - Getty Images Europe

“And under my plan those groups would get extra financial support directly over the autumn and winter.

“I would, as I did as chancellor, ensure that that support was delivered UK-wide to benefit those people in Northern Ireland because I know it’s an anxious time and it’s right that we support the most vulnerable at a time like that, and that’s what I would do as prime minister.”

12:46 PM

'My plan is the same as Liz’s plan'

Rishi Sunak has said that his plan is "the same as Liz’s plan” in relation to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Speaking to BBC Radio Ulster ahead of this afternoon's hustings event, Mr Sunak said: “I think actually both Liz and I are supporting the same Bill that is in Parliament, that we both support and so in that sense there isn’t a difference between us.

“My plan is the same as Liz’s plan, which is to push on and pass the Bill that is in Parliament, and I’m confident that that’s the right way to resolve the situation, and people should be in no doubt that under my premiership that Bill would continue to make its way through Parliament and become law."

12:44 PM

Eight down, four to go

Today's hustings in Belfast is the eighth of 12 formal hustings events in this Tory leadership contest.

After today, the remaining hustings are:

  • Manchester, August 19

  • Birmingham, August 23

  • Norwich, August 25

  • London, August 31

The winner of the contest will then be announced on September 5.

12:36 PM

What happened at last night’s hustings?

Rishi Sunak last night pledged at a hustings event in Perth, Scotland, not to "ignore" Nicola Sturgeon if he becomes PM but to "take her on" and beat the SNP at the ballot box.

"We have to deliver the economic growth," Mr Sunak told the audience of Tory members.

"We can't trust the SNP to do it, can we? They can't even get the ferries to work. I don't want to ignore Nicola Sturgeon, I want to take her on and beat her."

You can read the full story on last night’s hustings here.

12:25 PM

Poll boost for Liz Truss

Almost two thirds of Tory members surveyed by the Conservative Home website have said they intend to vote for Liz Truss in the party's leadership contest.

Some 60 per cent said they were backing Ms Truss compared to 28 per cent for Mr Sunak.

The survey of 961 people, published this morning, found about 12 per cent are still undecided. It also found that 60 per cent of members had already voted while 40 per cent had not.

12:16 PM

The backdrop for today’s hustings

Two issues are likely to dominate today’s event: The cost-of-living crisis and the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The cost of living challenge facing the winner of the leadership contest was illustrated in stark fashion this morning as inflation was shown to have hit double digits in July.

Both candidates will be under pressure to explain in detail how they would help struggling households.

Rishi Sunak looks at an NLAW anti-tank missile launcher, supplied to Ukraine, as he visits the Thales Defence System plant in Belfast - Reuters
Rishi Sunak looks at an NLAW anti-tank missile launcher, supplied to Ukraine, as he visits the Thales Defence System plant in Belfast - Reuters

On Brexit, today’s hustings comes just one day after Liz Truss began formal dispute proceedings against the European Union, accusing Brussels of a “clear breach” of the UK-EU trade deal.

The Government has launched “formal consultations” over the EU’s refusal to sign off the UK’s membership of its Horizon research programme. The European Commission has refused to finalise a membership agreement because of tensions over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Both candidates are likely to be asked how they would approach the UK’s relationship with the bloc.

12:10 PM

Good afternoon

Good afternoon and welcome to a special Tory leadership edition of the politics live blog.

Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak are set to face Conservative Party members in Belfast from 1pm as they take part in their second Tory leadership hustings in less than 24 hours.

Last night they were in Perth, Scotland, and today’s event in Northern Ireland is the eighth of a total of 12 scheduled hustings.

The contest is now entering a crunch phase, with the candidates aware they are running out of time to win over members ahead of the winner being declared on September 5.

It promises to be another important step on the path to selecting Boris Johnson’s replacement and I will be on hand to guide you through the key developments.