The Benefits of not being an Alcoholic

Some health policies are very well thought-through and their merits are obvious.  Others take a bit of time and thought for their merits to become clear.  Some are well-meaning but wrong.  And some are mad as a bag of wasps in a salad-spinner.

Into which category should we put James Purnell’s suggestion that alcoholics should lose their benefits if they do not seek help?  Over at Liberal Conspiracy, there’s a number of considerations raised to help us decide.

One particularly depressing aspect of this that LibCon doesn’t note is the manner in which Purnell describes his idea.  According to the BBC, he says that

“We have introduced a new policy that will mean heroin and crack addicts get treatment in return for benefits.   We will actually help them rather than simply handing them money which ends up in pockets of drug dealers.  But we can’t abandon anyone to long periods on benefits without help to overcome problems.  So that’s why we are going to look at the arrangements for alcoholics on benefits, just as we did for problem drug users, so that people get the help they need to get sober, to get their life back and get back to work.”

Mr Purnell has previously said that the plans to cut drug addicts’ benefits would give them the chance to “turn their lives around”.

Mr Purnell would seem to have a rather strange account of what is meant by the word “help” in the context of helping people to seek treatment: as far as I can see, the word he should have used is “force”.  Now, I suppose this might be fair enough: there’s perhaps an argument to be made that coercion might be permissible in the case of treatment for addiction.  (Whether the argument is convincing is another matter.)  But the euphemising doesn’t, er, help.  To help someone to do something is to assist or offer assistance: it is not to impose anything.  And, granted the widespread feeling among people who know about these things that alcoholism – addiction generally – is a health problem, then holding back benefits seems to be… well, it’s an odd way to go about things, isn’t it?

One might also note that, if people are “abandoned to long periods on benefits”, then removing the benefits solves the problem only in the most formalistic sense.  People abandoned on benefits become simply abandoned.


I go for the salad-spinner option.

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