Doctors and addiction charities today expressed deep concerns over government plans to cut the benefits of people suffering from alcoholism or drug addiction who refuse treatment.
In the latest step in Iain Duncan Smith’s controversial reforms of the benefits system, Jobcentre Plus staff will be able to cut the jobseeker’s allowance of claimants who reject treatment for their addiction.
The new rules will come into place in October 2013 when the universal credit, which is designed to wrap benefits into one payment, is introduced.
Under the universal credit reforms, claimants will have to sign a contract in which they agree to look for work in exchange for an undertaking from the government to support them while they do so.
A suspected addict who refused help for their alcoholism or drug addiction could be told by Jobcentre Plus staff that their refusal breaches their contract and that their benefits will be docked.
But doctors warned that current treatment options for addicts were “woefully inadequate”.
Sir Ian Gilmore, Royal College of Physician’s special adviser on alcohol, said: “Current treatment facilities for addicts in this country, particularly those with alcohol dependence, are woefully inadequate and we strongly support initiatives to improve this. However, patients must be treated with respect and given genuine choice in their treatment options, and these must be fully respected in any scheme.”
Martin Barnes, chief executive of drug charity DrugScope, warned that the change set a “dangerous precedent” and would breach the principles of the NHS constitution. The charity has written to the work and pensions secretary asking him to clarify the plans.
He said: “We are surprised and concerned at reports that Ministers believe that stopping benefits is an appropriate or effective way of engaging people with drug or alcohol treatment and supporting their recovery. If accurate, this would be a reversal of the government’s publicly stated position.
Mr Barnes said there was no evidence to suggest that "using the stick of benefit sanctions" would help people engage with treatment and aid recovery.
He added: "Indeed, the risk is that people will disengage from support services, potentially worsening their dependency and the impacts on their families and communities. Linking benefit to a requirement to undergo treatment would set a dangerous precedent for people with physical or mental health problems and would be against the principles for healthcare set out in the NHS Constitution."
Alcohol Concern's chief executive Eric Appleby said: "It's true that a number of people are not living their lives to their full potential because they have a drink problem.
"It's right that the Government recognise that these people need help to overcome their addiction. Incentives are only part of the story: the real answer is to make sure that high quality treatment services are fully funded and available all over the country.
"At the moment, only one in 16 people with an alcohol problem are receiving specialist alcohol treatment. In order to make this work, job centre staff will need to be properly trained in order to recognise when someone has an alcohol problem and to be able to offer the right advice."
Mr Duncan Smith last night used a speech to an event hosted by Alcoholics Anonymous to warn that the Welfare State has failed the almost 360,000 addicts who rely on benefits for their income.
He argued that his new Universal Credit system will encourage them to seek help and become employable again.
"The outdated benefits system fails to get people off drugs and put their lives on track," he said.
"We have started changing how addicts are supported, but we must go further to actively take on the devastation that drugs and alcohol can cause.
"Under Universal Credit we want to do more to encourage and support claimants into rehabilitation for addiction and starting them on the road to recovery and eventually work.
"Getting people into work and encouraging independence is our ultimate goal. Universal Credit will put people on a journey towards a sustainable recovery so they are better placed to look for work in future and we will be outlining our plans shortly."
Statistics from the Department of Work and Pensions show that almost 40,000 people claim incapacity benefits with alcoholism as their primary diagnosis. The DWP says 13,300 of these people have been claiming for at least 10 years. It also says that around 80 per cent of Britain's estimated 400,000 "problem drug users", some 320,000 people are claiming out-of-work benefits.
Simon Antrobus, chief executive of the charity Addaction warned that “abstinence cannot be forced onto people” and that threatening to remove benefits could be counterproductive.
He said: “Encouraging people with serious drug and alcohol problems to access support is always the best option.
“Those that Addaction help on a daily basis will tell you how coming off drugs or alcohol is extremely difficult, and how deciding to access treatment took them a very long time. Remove financial stability during that time, and you can severely damage someone’s chances of beating an addiction and recovering.”