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        The politics of drinking

September 09, 2013



No quick fix and no social justice in CSJ plan for alcohol and drugs

Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice sounds like it ought to be a good thing, but the name is woefully misleading. In its emphasis on reforming individual behaviour it sits in the Thatcherite tradition of denying the social. It offers little in the way of justice for those stricken with poverty by the system it defends. And it’s way to the right of centre.

Its latest contribution to helping the poor turn their lives around is No Quick Fix, a report on “Britain’s Drug and Alcohol Problem”. The basic message is, in the academic equivalent to running around screaming and waving your arms in the air, that everything’s bad and getting worse. The country’s full of addicts and it’s costing us billions. No, make that tens of billions.

It’s a sloppy piece of work. Familiar scare stats consort with a loose grip on trends. Its assertions fly in the face of the latest NHS report on the encouraging progress made in drug treatment and Public Health England does not recognise the picture it paints.

It suffers chronic terminological confusion. Use and addiction are conflated and there is a general fogginess around dependency. Numbers of alcohol-related hospital admissions become numbers of people admitted (there’s a big difference). It equates recovery with abstinence and has a go at the NHS for not doing the same. 

And it is, of course, a highly ideological document with a practical intent, designed to reinforce and extend the government’s assaults on the welfare state and the benefits system.

Surprisingly, I am in qualified agreement with one recommendation – that drug policy and alcohol policy should be combined, and that treatment be made available equally to people with alcohol problems as people with drug problems. But not like this.

The core of a CSJ policy would be a reactionary return to abstinence as the only solution, despite the successes of harm reduction strategies responsive to the individual. There is surely more than one kind of addiction, and more than one way of treating it.

Behind the abstinence doctrine lies the belief that it’s a lack of moral fibre, a lack of willpower, that keeps people drinking and taking drugs. It was Duncan Smith’s old mentor and predecessor in the Chingford parliamentary seat, Norman Tebbitt, who advised the unemployed to get on their bikes and look for work. It’s a question of will, rather than mass unemployment. And it’s the same with drink and drugs.

Duncan Smith, and his boss, David Cameron, supplement this crude notion with a kick to get slackers into the saddle. Cutting their benefits could be the incentive they need. Alcoholics, declares No Quick Fix, are “trapped in dependency further by incapacity benefits”, and it toys with the old temperance theory that drinking causes poverty, rather than a lack of well-paid employment.

This is not hollow rhetoric. On Duncan Smith’s cue Edinburgh City Council is proposing that those who spend too much on alcohol should forfeit housing benefit.

All this comes at a time when alcohol-related crime and drink dependency are already in decline, but it fits the broader strategic aims of the government.

One lengthy section of No Quick Fix blames the TUPE law – which is there to protect the jobs, pay and conditions of workers whose business has been sold to another employer – for holding back drug and alcohol treatment services.

The CSJ, on line with Tory policy, wants to see more of these services transferred from the state to the private sector and charities, but that isn’t happening fast enough because neither want to take on the staffing levels and pay rates that come with them. Private firms are in it to make maximum profit and charities simply don’t have the cash.

Relax TUPE and they’ll be able to sack staff and chop wages. You might wonder what impact this might have on the services themselves, but from the CSJ’s point of view it not only means privatisation but a shift away from the harm reduction practices of the public sector towards abstention-based treatment.

Curiously it’s also in line with current government consultation on reforms to TUPE.

So don’t be fooled into thinking that the CSJ is serious in its intent to tackle drug and alcohol problems, any more than its aim to eradicate poverty. No Quick Fix is a thoroughly political document. The only thing it gets right is the title.

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