Purnell’s plans for alcoholics

April 16, 2009 at 12:58 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | 1 Comment

I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear a new government proposal for reform of the welfare state, I have to pause for a moment and ask: is this a policy or a headline? For example, when Hazel Blears announced that ‘hit squads’ armed with rubber gloves would be banging on parents’ doors to make sure their kids are ready for school, just about every observer – and probably Blears herself – knew it wasn’t going to happen, but made for a nice headline. Similarly, Caroline Flint’s threat to turf the workless out of their council homes and the government’s plan to make the jobless pick litter both failed to materialise, but at least they ended up in the papers.

So when James Purnell promises/threatens to make unemployed alcoholics seek treatment or lose their benefits, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask whether this story falls into the same category. Because when you think hard about how it would be implemented, you’re left with the irresistible suspicion that it’d either be appallingly intrusive or completely unworkable.

The idea’s apparently been palmed-off to Glasgow University to figure out how it might work, and the first question they’ll face is: how is the state going to define what makes an alcoholic? Are they going to abide by the medical definitions and judge it according to physical & psychological dependency, or will they just pick a number of units drunk per week and define that as the booze barrier? And if they did decide to judge it according to units, how many would you have to drink for the state to label you an alcoholic? Certainly, if they set it as low as the current recommended daily allowance, half the country would end up in A.A. meetings at some point.

Even if they resolve that question, that certainly isn’t the end of their problems. The next difficulty they’ll have is: how is the state going to identify alcoholics? The people who work in job centres are perfectly good at their jobs, but those jobs only involve following pre-approved computer procedures for eight hours a day. None of these people are trained in medicine or psychology, and therefore won’t be qualified to label people as alcoholics, much less terminate their benefits for it.

How does the government get around that? Will they subject every claimant to a full medical? Will they perform breathalyzers on everyone who walks through the door? Or will they be more discreet, and just ask staff walk around council estates with clip boards and ask them to count how many cans of Special Brew are left in recycling bins?

I suppose you could ask them whether they’re alcoholics, but how many people who are ever answer affirmitively? If you deny your addiction to your friends, your family and even yourself, you’re hardly going to open up to someone you only see once a fortnight and who only knows you as a name on a computer. And before we start going down the lie detector test route, we should note that this has already been torn to shreds.

Lastly, if you’re going to do something as serious as terminating someone’s benefits for not attending treatment, you better make sure that you’re offering the best treatment possible. Addiction is an incredibly tough thing to overcome; failures happen regularly, and often to people much better off than the unemployed. We have to realise, too, that alcoholism doesn’t simply happen out of idleness, and that it’s often intertwined with other factors: depression & other mental illnesses, low self-esteem, learning difficulties, social exclusion & sometimes even disability. If these people need help, then it’s in society’s interest to provide that help, but nobody should lose their benefits because the treatment programme they were ordered on was ineffective.

I don’t know, maybe I’ll be proved wrong & the government will develop a system which resolves all these problems and unanswered questions. But if they can’t, the best we can hope for is that this story joins the long line of hyped-up ideas which worked well as tabloid headlines, but were simply too unworkable to become real policies.

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  1. […] forgotten the threats to make the unemployed homeless if they don’t get a job, using breathalisers to check they’re not too tanked-up to work or lie detectors to check they’re telling […]


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