Leaving drug addicts destitute

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
20 Aug 2010

The Home Office is considering withdrawing benefits from claimants with illegal drug or alcohol problems who do not turn up for treatment, the BBC reports. This might seem at first glance reasonable, and will have some popular appeal, but the end result will be disastrous.

The proposal was first floated by the last government, but in May the Social Security Advisory Committee warned that withdrawing benefits from addicts would lead them into crime and prostitution.

After weighing up the evidence, this independent statutory Committee had concluded that it felt strongly that the scheme “is unlikely to be effective, contains a number of significant flaws and is unlikely to produce robust results”, indeed “runs a high risk of causing significant harm”.

Claimants already led chaotic lives which caused them harm, and there was no reason to suppose that punishing them still more would be helpful – indeed the threat could drive them further away from getting help. The idea was dropped.

A lot of people with drug and alcohol problems are mentally ill. According to a 2003 article in the British Journal of Psychiatry focused on community mental health and substance misuse services, 75 per cent of drug service and 85 per cent of alcohol service patients “had a past-year psychiatric disorder... Large proportions are not identified by services and receive no specialist intervention.”

It is not just the claimants who will suffer, but also their families. Some people struggling with substance misuse problems are just about holding things together for the sake of their children, or other family members for whom they are caring.

Cutting off their benefits if they fail to turn up to a treatment session will devastate the lives of their children too, some of whom will end up in care.

In addition, carers who strive to help drug-dependent relatives and friends may find their efforts undermined, and in some cases have to meet their loved ones’ living costs themselves.

It is also likely that the scheme will punish some people who are ill but do not have drug problems. As the Social Security Advisory Committee warned, “The use of reasonable suspicion also brings with it the worrying likelihood that claimants with certain physical and mental health conditions could be ‘suspected’ of having a drug problem that is a barrier to their finding work.” Job advisers would “have a series of factors to consider in order to help with identification.

The list includes incoherent answers to questions and unkempt appearance/hygiene issues, symptoms that could well be associated with a number of non-drug related physical and mental health conditions. Claimants could therefore face mandatory questions about their drug use, when they in fact do not use illegal drugs.

So sick claimants could face extra stress and humiliation, and some might drop out of the process of claiming if they could not cope, leaving them extremely vulnerable.

Ironically, people who are ready for treatment for alcohol or drug problems can find this difficult to get. If scarce places on programmes are taken up by people coerced into signing up when they are not yet able to benefit, this will get worse.

So this proposal not only lacks compassion but will also do more harm than good. While the government will save some money by leaving people suspected of having drug and alcohol problems destitute, the overall cost to social services, the NHS and criminal justice service may far outweigh any savings.

Better treatment for people with substance misuse problems, and increased support for their families and health professionals in GP practices and emergency departments to take timely action when patients might benefit, would seem a wiser use of resources.

If people of faith and others of goodwill make their objections known now, the government may back down from this proposal. Otherwise, much damage may be done to the vulnerable before the scheme proves disastrous and is dropped.

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© Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and she is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. Savi is an Ekklesia associate.

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