Benefit sanctions plan for drug addicts is not the answer

It emerged today that the Home Office is considering implementing a plan under which those dependant on drugs and alcohol would have their benefits removed if they refused to receive treatment.

It emerged today that the Home Office is considering implementing a plan under which those dependant on drugs and alcohol would have their benefits removed if they refused to receive treatment. The move was originally proposed by the Labour government, but it was scrapped when the Social Security Advisory Committee warned that it could lead addicts into crime and prostitution. However, with its re-appearance in a consultation paper today, it appears the coalition government are once again considering the contentious idea.

The move certainly seems in keeping with Cameron’s iron-fisted clampdown on benefits, and there are many who would argue that in our new-found ‘age of austerity’ , substance-abusers should have to feel the pinch like everyone else. 

Indeed, if there is any social group the prime minister can play hardball with and probably avoid too much criticism, is is drug addicts. His good friends in the tabloid media – who so revel in demonising almost anyone reliant on welfare – are hardly sympathetic when it comes to more liberal approaches to tackling drug problems.

However, a leading figure at a major UK drug charity – arguably the sort of group best placed to comment on the potential effectiveness of any given scheme – has reacted with apprehension and dismay to the news that this move is being considered again.  Martin Barnes, chief executive of charity DrugScope, said on Radio 4 this morning:

“The benefit system can and indeed does have a very important role in terms of advice and support to encourage people both to access treatment and employment. But we seriously question both the fairness and the effectiveness of actually using the stick of compulsion – benefit sanctions – to link a requirement to undergo medical treatment with a condition of receipt of benefit.

Barnes drew attention to the fact that the NHS constitution requires that “medical intervention should be therapeutic, consensual, confidential”, and stated there is “absolutely no evidence” the scheme would have any positive effect upon drug-users, who he labelled a “vulnerable and often marginalised group”.

In this light, it is hard not to question whether the coalition’s reviving of this untested scheme is a wise move. When experts are  heavily questioning the impact it will have, and when the proposal comes only months after the Social Security Advisory Committee canned the idea first time round because they concluded it would cause “significant harm” and have “negative economic and social impacts”, one wonders why the government has decided it is an idea worthy of consideration again.

However keen Mr Cameron is to save billions of pounds, he must surely recognize that all the evidence suggests this is a scheme which will do little more than exacerbate an already awful problem. Many hold true the maxim that ‘a society is ultimately judged by how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members’, and if this plan is followed through on, and the result that all the available evidence suggests will occur, does occur, then it will reflect damningly upon the coalition.

Perhaps, if the prime minister really wants to tackle Britain’s drug issue, he will move away from plans to try and coerce addicts into receiving treatment through arbitrary financial sanctions, and consider a more fundamental review of the country’s drug laws – as repeatedly called for by leading doctors and analysts, and advocated by Left Foot Forward earlier this week.

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