‘Abusive, unethical’: Doctors slam Tory plan to stop benefits for drug addicts and obese

© Andrew Wong
Tory proposals to strip obese or drug-dependent people of state benefits if they reject treatment are outrageous and may violate medical ethics, leading mental health experts have warned.

British Psychological Society president Professor Jamie Hacker Hughes said people should not be forced into having psychological treatment. He argued in instances where this has occurred, evidence shows that the treatments fail. 

“There is a major issue around consent, because as psychologists we offer interventions but everybody has got a right to accept or refuse treatment,” Hacker Hughes told The Guardian.

Paul Atkinson, a psychotherapist and member of the Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy, described the proposed benefit sanctions as an outrage.

“It’s the same psychology from the government of punishing rather than working with people,” he told the Guardian.

“Under a regime like welfare and job centers at the moment it is going to be felt as abuse, punitive and moralistic.”

The proposed welfare reforms would be implemented, following a far-reaching review set to be completed before the close of 2015.

A related consultation paper, published by government health adviser Dame Carol Black, concedes deep ethical concerns are at stake.

Nevertheless, it poses the question of whether obese and drug-addicted people should receive benefits if they reject state-provided treatments.

The government’s proposed benefits cuts have been slammed by critics who warn they are discriminatory and target vulnerable people in a reprehensible way. They argue the policy shift will not help addiction sufferers and the obese, but will instead make recovery more difficult.

Drugs and alcohol charity Addaction have expressed deep concern about the proposed policy, while the National Obesity Forum says welfare reforms concerning obesity sufferers must be “extremely carefully done.”

Official figures show that 280,000 welfare claimants of working age suffered from opiate addiction in August 2014, while 170,000 suffered from alcohol dependency.

Speaking to The Guardian on Friday, Hacker Hughes said obesity and addiction sufferers often face complex mental health issues. He strongly warned the government against using benefits sanctions to force people into accepting treatments.

Hacker Hughes said that while there was a well-documented link between unemployment and mental health problems, the Tories’ proposed benefits sanctions risked conflating the symptoms with the cause.

“It’s not just a correlational relationship, but research that’s going on at the moment shows that for every so many people who are unemployed there’s an increase in psychological problems,” Hacker Hughes said.

“Unemployment gives rise to psychological problems, so is the way to look at that to look at psychological problems or to look at causal factors?”

While the scope of the government’s review initially covered those who are obese and reliant on state welfare, it was later broadened to include the cost of addiction to taxpayers.

Black’s consultation paper argues it does not seek to reap punitive reforms, but strives to conceive of how to best encourage those who suffer from “long-term yet treatable conditions” to seek work.

However, many remain unconvinced.

Alastair Bohm of Addaction told RT that cutting drug users’ benefits would make addiction worse.

“At Addaction we know that the people we support are more likely to recover if there is stability in their lives,” he said.

“For those people with drug and alcohol problems in receipt of welfare, their benefits provide the essential building blocks of recovery from addiction – regular income and access to secure and stable accommodation.”

Bohm called on the government to think creatively about welfare dependency, which is often a manifestation of long-term addiction. He urged policy makers to reconsider how employment and treatment services interconnect.

Tam Fry, of the National Obesity Forum, told RT that obesity is a complex and commonly misunderstood condition. He expressed concern about the possibility of weight targets being issued to obese benefit claimants, without an acknowledgement that some individuals find it extremely difficult to lose weight.

He went on to say the root cause of obesity for many is not overeating, but a result of metabolic or genetic factors.

Reflecting on welfare reforms implemented by the government in recent years, Fry expressed hope the government had learnt from its mistakes.

On Monday, government advisers demanded a review of the Tories’ benefits sanctions regime, following months of criticism over its devastating impact on the disabled, single parents and ethnic minority children.

The Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC), which offers the government impartial advice on social policy, insists the Tory policy of scrapping claimants’ benefits payments must be stopped.
It warns the measure should not be resumed until “a firm evidence base” has been established for its effectiveness.

In April, hundreds of psychotherapists, counselors and mental health practitioners said “malign” welfare reforms were having a detrimental effect on Britons’ psychological and emotional wellbeing.

In an open letter, published by The Guardian, they said that effects of the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition’s austerity policies over the past five years were “profoundly disturbing.”

The letter was particularly critical of the coalition government’s benefits sanctions, which have been condemned by human rights advocates as unjust, ill-conceived and ineffective.