The government announces plans to cut benefit payments to alcoholics unless they seek treatment.
At first glance this sounds like a good idea, providing a further incentive for people suffering from this illness to get help.
I stood alongside John Bird, the founder of the Big Issue, and contributed to a documentary he made, when he was making the point last year that the mental health act should apply to alcoholics so that in the circumstances that they were putting themselves or others at risk, they could be forced to receive treatment. This was highly controversial at the time, being parodied by the press as if it were a plea to “lock up the homeless”. In fact, if used properly, it was an opportunity for alcoholics and addicts to be afforded the same level of care as people with other mental illnesses. As the 1983 mental health act had specifically excluded Alcoholism from the act, this was being abused as a way of excluding addicts and alcoholics from receiving the help they deserved. In fact it was even worse then that. If people had alcoholism and a severe psychosis, for example, the alcoholism could be used as an excuse not to treat the psychosis even. As shocking as this may sound I witnessed this first hand only last year.
So, as you can see, I am quite comfortable with using all forms of encouragement to get addicts and alcoholics to get help. Why am I left feeling so uneasy then? The problem is that current treatments for alcoholism are so woefully inadequate that this will effectively turn into a way of punishing and excluding very vulnerable people. I get calls from people every day saying that they have sought help from their GP but been told that if the 6 sessions of CBT they had to wait so long to get, weren’t effective, then there is nothing else they can offer. This is exactly what I fear will happen to alcoholics. They will be forced to attend an inadequate level of treatment, for the scale of their problems, and then the blame will be turned on them for the failure of the service.
If this is going to work, it is not going to be just another way of saving money on benefit payments. To get this right the government will have to fund proper treatments which will be expensive. Once they realise that, I suspect that the whole issue will be knocked off into the long grass. It’s a great shame because, following the financial argument further, if they did invest the money in more expensive treatments, the money would come back to them several times over. Imagine the difference of having someone not working due to their illness vs the benefit ( and income to the exchequer! ) of them being back in employment, paying taxes and supporting their families. What a tremendous difference that could make financially to the nation, however it will take that initial investment and I doubt the government will have the courage to make that.