Government decides on ‘radical rethink’ on getting people misusing drugs and alcohol back to work
The new Government has decided not to proceed with a controvertial pilot, which would have sanctioned drug users for non-attendance at treatment programmes, and required Jobcentre advisers to assess whether or not claimants could be misusing drugs. In response to a report on the draft regulations, submitted to the DWP by the Social Security Advisory Committee, Ministers “have decided not to take forward previously proposed Welfare Reform Drug Recovery pilots, but instead look at how Government departments can work together to provide the help and support people need to overcome drug and alcohol dependency and get back to work.” This is certainly good news, as the proposed pilot had significant flaws. Claimants who were engaged in treatment faced additional sanctions if they failed to attend part of their programme. For problem drug users with chaotic lifestyles, such a regime would have placed claimants at a high risk of facing multiple sanctions. As well as placing a real administrative burden on treatment providers, this method would therefore have run a high risk of completely disengaging people from the system, forcing them to turn to other sources of income – highlighted by various drugs charities to include crime and prostitution.
The pilot had also proposed that Personal Advisers (PAs) in Jobcentres would be responsible for identifying whether a claimant was a ‘problem drug user’, and for referring some claimants for mandatory drug tests. This raised clear risks of discrimination and mistreatment for claimants – anyone who ‘looked’ like a problem drug user could find their benefit entitlement contingent on answering mandatory questions about drug use. In addition, his proposal posed significant health and safety risks for PAs and risked significantly undermining the relationship between PAs and claimants.
Perhaps most importantly, given the ethical concerns about the pilot’s operation, the evidence suggests that the approach set out by the pilot doesn’t work. The Scottish Government’s response to SSAC illustrated this point, concluding that:
“any action that is seen to be coercive or inappropriately punitive will not work and such an approach will deter people from either seeking drug treatment or claiming benefits.”
In short, the pilot could have caused serious harm – leading to increased disengagement from treatment services and exacerbating the problem drug use it was supposedly setting out to challenge.
So the decision to shelve the pilot is good news. But what is yet to be seen is what the new Government’s ‘radical’ approach to the problem will involve. Secretary of State Ian Duncan Smith is on record promoting abstinence as the best response to problem drug use. While DrugScope welcomed the pilot’s demise they have also previously stated that while abstinence is a positive outcome, this is only “when it is safely and realistically achievable”. It therefore remains to be seen whether the Coalition’s new approach will be any more evidence based than the previous Government’s proposals – or whether one set of moral judgements will simply be replaced with another.