Rishi Sunak has been criticised after saying he wants to reduce the eligibility for welfare benefits and shrink the public sector to pay for tax cuts.

The Prime Minister, who has indicated the general election will be in the second half of the year, said the changes would enhance “fairness”.

His comments were dismissed as “nonsense” by a respected expert on public services, with Labour said it was a cynical attempt to create “dividing lines” ahead of polling day.

Mr Sunak made the comments in an interview on the BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg programme as all parties step up their election campaigning.

Citing the number of people being signed off from work due to sickness tripling over the past decade, the Tory leader said it was evident that the welfare system “is not working”.

He said he wanted reforms that meant “everybody who can work does work”.

He also told the Sunday Telegraph he wanted to “keep cutting taxes” and that it would require “difficult decisions to control welfare”.

The PM told Ms Kuenssberg he was not only looking at the welfare budget, but ways to control public spending “across the board”.

He said: “It is about discipline on public welfare. It is about discipline on public sector pay.”

Mr Sunak said he was concerned about the “very significant rise in the number of people who have been deemed unfit to work” in recent years.

“In the last decade, that system hasn’t been reformed at all and you have seen the number of people who are signed-off has tripled. Now do I think our country is three times sicker than it was a decade ago? The answer is no.

“The system is not working as it was designed to work and now we are bringing forward reforms that will mean that we look at the eligibility for who is signed-off sick.

“That won’t affect all those on existing benefits. It will come in over time on people who are newly presenting to the welfare system.”

He said such reforms were “about fairness” and ensuring everybody who can work does so.

“And for everyone who is working hard, we reward that hard work with tax cuts, that is a conservative approach, it is one that I think is right for our country,” he added.

Appearing on the same show, the Crossbench peer Dame Louise Casey, the former Victims’ Commissioner, savaged the Prime Minister’s pitch as “selling nonsense”.

She said Mr Sunak had shown no acceptance that  “things are really bad for an awful lot of people out there", and that many would not feel any benefit from tax cuts.

Suggested benefit cuts were a tired election gimmick, she said: “If they were going to crack down on welfare, why haven’t they done it by now? And as far as I can see, it isn’t working.

“And the idea that all of these people are benefit scroungers when most of them are working — the vast majority of people on benefits are working.”

South of the border, the Personal Independence Payment of up to £172.75 a week is available to over-16s with a long-term physical or mental health condition or disability.

In Scotland, an Adult Disability Payment worth the same amount is replacing the Personal Independence Payment and Disability Living Allowance for adults.

Following Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s autumn statement in November, the main rate of national insurance fell from 12 to 10% on Saturday.

Both Mr Hunt and Mr Subnak have hinted at more tax cuts in the spring budget on March 6.

Labour says the cuts are eclipsed by ‘stealth tax’ rises caused by frozen income tax thresholds.

Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Sunak was now governing “in his own self interest”.

He told Sky News on Sunday: “He has run out of ideas. They are desperately thrashing around and trying to find the dividing lines to go into the election.

“It is not part of a strategy for growing the economy, it is simply picking tax cuts that the Prime Minister thinks might create a dividing line going into the election.

“That is the wrong way to govern.

“Whichever party you are in, it doesn’t matter whether you are Conservative or whether you are Labour, to simply go down the road of desperately picking anything that creates a divide rather than having a strategy for the country is characteristic of what has gone wrong over the last 14 years.”

He rejected Tory claims that taxes would rise sharply under a Labour government.

However, while he said the tax burden on working people was too high, he refused to say what taxes he would like to see cut, instead emphasising the need to grow the economy.