Friday, August 20, 2010

Why drug addicts should continue to receive benefits

I don't have any specialist knowledge of drug addiction. There have been people in our family who have been alcoholics, so I know something of the horrors of that particular addiction for the person affected and those around them.  I know how that however lucid and rational and determined to stop the alcoholic can be one moment, when that craving for the next drink takes over, it takes a huge effort to overcome it.

One of the most heartbreaking things I have ever seen was a painting by that person. It depicts a woman, her face showing the strain of the conflict raging within her as she stares at the glass in front of her. The title of the painting is simply "To drink, or not to drink."

I find it disappointing to see the BBC reporting that the Home Office is considering resurrecting a Labour plan (so no pretending they oppose it from them, please) to remove welfare benefits from drug addicts who refuse to attend a "treatment awareness programme." While recognising that addicts who are still taking drugs often have lives  too chaotic to enable them to seek work is a good thing, withdrawal of benefits under any circumstances is not.

Does the Home Office not get that people lose families, jobs, dignity and self respect through addiction? Someone in the grip of an addiction is unlikely to be rational enough to comply with such an ordinance - or even if they intend to the day before, something can happen that sets them off course. So they lose their benefits, and possibly with that their home.

What earthly good does it do to have seriously ill people sleeping in the streets? Or in some nomadic existence between homeless shelters, unable to have any base or space of their own? Without being able to feed themselves?  Does the Home Office think that someone in that position will just think "Oh, I'd better go on that course then?". I wish it worked like that, but, sadly, it doesn't.

I'm sure that this isn't the only example of this kind of thing happening, but I remember hearing of a young man, released from prison, where he was sent in the Summer, in the grip of Winter, on a Friday afternoon, with nowhere to go. The Council's homeless people could only offer him a hostel which he knew wouldn't be good for him so he felt he couldn't accept it. He had very little money. He was back on drugs by the end of the weekend and back inside within a few weeks. He might have come out with the motivation to stay clean, but the circumstances in which he found himself made it practically very difficult for him.

Withdrawal of benefit, apart from in my mind being inhumane and morally wrong, is not likely to save much money either - because whatever you save from the benefits, you lose much more in the criminal or health services.

Drug addiction is not a lifestyle choice. It can be overcome, but that takes the person to be at the right time in their life and a lot of specialist support. You would think that everyone who wants to get proper drug rehab treatment would be able to get it - but demand in this regard greatly exceeds supply.

What we're saying when we offer state help with a small amount of money and accommodation to those who need it is that we as a society think that this is the minimum a human being needs - note the word needs - to live. If we withdraw that safety net, we are surely treating people as sub human because we take away from them something vital. And that's before you even start working out whether the current level of benefits does actually meet people's needs.

And if you start with drug addicts, where do you go from there? Oh, she's fat, she's limiting her employment chances and could be a drain on the NHS - let's take her benefits away unless she loses 2lb a week". "He smokes - why are we paying for that? Let's reduce his Job Seekers Allowance."  With our right wing tabloid press, it's very much another day, another scapegoat, so don't think that couldn't happen.

Yes, there are pressures to reduce public spending - but we also, as a country, at least in the sort of liberal society I want to see where, as the preamble to our Constitution says "no-one is enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity", have an obligation to provide state help to those who have no income without moralising in any way about their situation.  This proposal ought to be put back under the stone where it was found. It's important to recognise, also, that this is being consulted on at the moment and I'm sure that those specialist organisations helping addicts will have their say.

1 comment:

Voter said...

You mentioned the press.

I think one reason why the press is as it is is the lack of effectiveness perceived in political circles.

Politicians are seen as useless at tackling problems so that people look to the press.

I am not sure how we would reform parties to make the talented rise to the top.


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