Freedom of Information request to the DWP indicates that there are about ninety thousand people claiming sickness benefits where drug and alcohol problems are their most significant issue; but it isn't clear how many of those are not engaged in treatment already.
As the Guardian in their coverage of the proposals makes clear, this isn't the first time these sorts of ideas have entered the political debate. Last year saw similar ideas proposed in relation to those claimants with mental health problems though those have not resurfaced in this proposal.
The Guardian's report points out that DrugScope has been critical of previous moves to introduce benefit sanctions on people with drug and alcohol problems, both under this government and the previous one.
Indeed it has been pointed out to us that this government explicitly ruled out the approach they are now proposing, with Lord Freud telling the House of Lords:
First, it mandates claimants to do something, such as being tested for drugs, that is not directly about helping people to approach the labour market. That does not mean that entering treatment is not the right approach to help many claimants who are substance dependent to address their barriers to work, but-and this leads to my second reason-claimants enter treatment for a series of complex reasons, and whether or not they succeed also depends on a series of complex reasons. Forcing claimants to answer, for example, questions about possible drug use, requiring them to attend substance-related assessments about drug use and insisting that claimants enter a mandatory rehabilitation plan if they decline to enter treatment voluntarily would be asking them to do something a large proportion of them would not want to do. If we took the approach of the previous Government, we would create a high risk of those claimants immediately failing these requirements and having to be sanctioned.Changes to the welfare system introduced in this Parliament (including the increased use of sanctions) on those already in treatment is an issue that our Voices from the Frontline project and recent State of the Sector report suggests has been very detrimental for some. One service manager told us:
The welfare reform agenda has hit our service users very hard. The biggest issues are the length of time to process and change benefits, sanctions, capability assessments, appeals etc. People have been left without money for weeks. The demand for food parcels completely outstrips supply.Another said:
These people are being sanctioned – benefit sanctions or their health benefits get stopped or something like their council tax benefit are stopped and then it’s a battle with the DWP to get their benefits back. There’s no doubt – and we do have to examine the figures this year – but our suicide rates are shooting up and the Board is very concerned. They’re getting more serious and untoward incident reports than they’ve ever had. It’s probably the highest ever volume, this year.DrugScope has consistently argued that sanctions raise the risk that people will disengage from support services, potentially worsening their dependency and with additional impacts on their families and communities. We have also argued that they would be against the requirement of informed consent, as set out in the NHS constitution which makes clear:
You have the right to accept or refuse treatment that is offered to you, and not to be given any physical examination or treatment unless you have given valid consent.And reiterated by the current Chair of the Health Select Committee Dr Sarah Wollaston:
I have sent an urgent letter to No10. We absolutely cannot implement coercive consent to treatment because that is NOT consent to treatment!
— Sarah Wollaston MP (@sarahwollaston) February 14, 2015
The UK Drug Policy Commission in a paper on employers’ readiness to recruit problem drug users looked for evidence that, even if the ethical barriers could be overcome, conditionality would be an effective policy option and said:
We were unable to find any convincing examples to demonstrate that making benefits conditional upon engagement with treatment would be effective at improving outcomes.This is repeated in a JRF paper on welfare sanctions and conditionality in the UK which also pointed to evidence that existing sanctions are associated with the rise in the use of food banks and other material hardships and are:
associated with negative physical and mental health outcomes, increased stress and reduced emotional wellbeing.
So if coercion has the potential to damage the chances of treatment succeeding and sanctions may already be leading to those in treatment failing in their attempts to recover from their problems, what might be a more positive agenda for those on sickness benefits?
- Concentrating on getting the basics right is likely be more effective as introducing new sanctions. We know that where Job Centre Plus and treatment providers work in close cooperation, really strong results can be achieved. For example, one London JCP district achieves more disclosure of substance misuse and also more claimants supported into employment than the other three combined.
- Government should await the evaluation of the ESA healthcare professional led pilots; these might offer a clearer idea of what type of intervention and provider works best in engaging people with treatment and health interventions while avoiding most of the ethical problems referred to above.
As DrugScope highlighted on this blog only weeks ago some drug users are very vulnerable indeed and further barriers to effective engagement could increase health inequalities for this group.