THE BLOG

Punishment Will Never Solve Addiction

14/08/2015 17:29 BST | Updated 14/08/2016 10:59 BST

Helping people help themselves and their communities are principles in which I've always believed. We should give people a hand-up rather than a hand-out whenever possible, with society fostering a culture of interdependency.

That's why (in theory) I support the aims of a review, led by Dame Carol Black, into the support available for benefit claimants with drug and alcohol problems. Announced by the Department for Work and Pensions, this consultation will explore the challenges people face in remaining or getting back into work and how we can better respond to their needs.

There is no doubt that we need to take a different look at 'worklessness' and at failings in the current welfare system. This could be our opportunity to do things in a way that considers people's whole needs - physical, mental and social - however complex.

However, the Black consultation poses a controversial question. It asks for responses on the 'legal, ethical and other implications' of linking benefit entitlements to take up of appropriate treatment or support. That's Whitehall speak for 'Should we cut benefits for people with drug and alcohol problems who refuse treatment?'

My concern therefore is that this review could lead to punitive policies. And the fact is that sanctioning people who are already in a bad place is never the solution, particularly when we're talking about people who may have serious health problems.

Every hour Turning Point supports someone to leave our services drug or alcohol free. Yes, treatment does work but it's not a case of magic wand waving. Addiction has an iron grip and often it can take several attempts before a person succeeds in completing the long hard road to recovery.

Addiction in itself is not a rational act. Indeed, it's completely irrational so cutting people's benefits would be ineffective. It's unrealistic to believe that threatening someone enslaved by their heroin habit with the loss of state support would make them think 'Ok, I'll stop now.'

The Government insists this review is about helping people with a dependency on drugs or alcohol. My concern though is this is just sugar-coating on a pill that's actually aimed at punishing them. A programme which starts with this presumption - that people need punishing - can never be successful. Starving people into help is generally not a good idea.

Stories about sanctions and benefit clampdowns are a gift for headline writers. But we have to remember we are talking about society's most vulnerable. And I would be worried about a society that penalises the dispossessed. Are we going to make people homeless for example? Where would we draw the line? This is a crucial question if we are to penalise those who become sick through 'life-style' choices. Many diseases and long-term conditions including those which impact the elderly are triggered by choices such as smoking or poor diet. So are we going to sanction people with cancer or diabetes who decline or struggle with treatment?

We also need to consider the consequence of sanctions and whether they would really result in a saving to the taxpayer. At Turning Point, we work with more than 60,000 people from 11-year-olds to 98-year-olds and the majority are affected by substance misuse such as alcohol or drugs. They would fall out of treatment if they were sanctioned and the cost of that would be high, both to the individual and to the economy.

There are other solutions to ensure people access support and employment. We need to invest in preventing the causes of addiction in the first place. We need better investment in programmes which reach people early on before their issues become hard to manage, or prevent them taking hold in the first place. We need an end to silo working and further support for services that work together to address the factors that lead to disadvantage.

The treatment system needs incentives built into it. People need a reason to help themselves and having their benefits taken away isn't a right or effective 'reason.' Instead, we must support people to access the help they need so they can turn their lives around, and that support needs to be tailored to the individual.

Yes, we must help people to help themselves. But we must also recognise that punishing people for their addictions isn't the way forward. If we use this draconian approach, then we are setting them up to fail.