Monday, 25 April 2011

David Does Drugs

No, not an unsubstantiated allegation against our nation's shiny-faced Chief Prefect, but an apt description of the latest bit of propaganda that Team Tory have released to support their ideologically-driven austerity programme - the numbers of Incapacity Benefit claimants who are obese or addicted to drugs and/or alcohol. Unfortunately, there's a hidden agenda as obvious as the airbrushing on Cameron's campaign posters in this announcement, and - just like Dave's policy of clicking his true-blue shoes together and repeating 'there's no place like the private sector' - the attitudes revealed by the release of this information show how out of touch the Tory-led government is with the world the rest of us live in. Below, a You Didn't Win blogger looks in more detail at what this announcement tells us about the kind of people running our country, and how little they understand about the needs of the most vulnerable:

Last week, the Government announced that more than 80,000 Incapacity Benefit claimants were doing so because of reasons of obesity and addiction (to drugs or alcohol). If you've yet to click on that link, be aware that Reuters have chosen to illustrate the article with a photo of an obligatory headless fatteh. Isn't it funny that, with the rise of the Scourge of Humanity that is the Obesity Epidemic (TM), they focus on that instead of substance dependency? I say 'funny', I really mean 'lazy and disappointing'.

Anyway. It should be remembered that there are just under 2 million receiving Incapacity Benefit (IB) so this 81,000 really only makes up just under 5% of the total claimants. Putting this very small sub-section of claimants beside the total IB bill is probably not accidental - 'those horrible fatties and junkies, costing the public purse £7billion' - certainly fits with the Tory narrative of all these people who could be out at work, contributing to society but instead choosing to leech instead. It's like they write their statements to fulfil Daily Mail wet dreams...

At this point, I'd like to point you to an excellent piece by Vicky Allen in yesterday's Sunday Herald. It's behind a registration wall - free to sign up, and if you uncheck the right boxes, you won't get a heap of spam from them - but I understand that not everyone wants to do that, and probably not just for one article, though I really would recommend this piece highly. As it is, I may quote Ms. Allen a little, as she makes pretty much the same points as I want to, in places. (It's tempting to copy/paste the whole thing and leave it at that, but that's a bit unfair.)

The way the Government has been talking about these people, their conditions exist in a vacuum. The idea that there's probably an underlying cause for both incapacitating obesity and substance dependency seems to have eluded them. If someone has had a severe injury that impedes their mobility, they probably can't take exercise. If someone experienced abuse as a child, they may well self-medicate with drugs and/or alcohol. Not that these are the only causes for such conditions, but they are worthy examples. Some people also self-medicate with food. In this culture where certain foods are actively marketed as treats and rewards, it's not so outlandish as it may seem at first blush - there are also countless women who consciously or subconsiously gain weight as a response to sexual assault, in an attempt to make them less attractive and therefore less attackable. (I'm restraining myself from wandering into a desconstruction of the 'rape as a compliment' myth as it's wildly off topic.)

Some years ago, I read Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg. One thing that has stayed with me for a very long time is the point that the author made about addiction. If you were wealthy and use drugs, you can afford to maintain your habit without too much risk. Paying for your next hit isn't too much trouble, and the drugs you buy as much less likely to be contaminated. Think about it; how often do the police release warnings about unsafe drugs? Not that often, to be fair, but it's usually to say that either a handful of addicts have died after taking heroin cut with something that's lethal, or that they've taken heroin much purer than they usually use (it's not been cut with talc or whatever) and have overdosed. Needle exchanges exist because one of the biggest risks to health was the use of non-sterile needles. The opiate heroin in and of itself, assuming all other factors are as safe as they can be, isn't that hazardous to health. Not that I'm suggesting that we should all go out and start using!

However, if one was a member of an elite group, such as, say the Bullingdon Club, where I wouldn't be surprised if cocaine, for example, was occasionally in circulation, one probably would have direct experience of casual drug use. And if one had been a member of the Bullingdon Club and was now on the front bench, one would probably assume that that meant that one now knows what one is talking about. Never mind that, if one knew that old Johnny had gotten a bit keen on the Charlie, Johnny (or his family) could easily afford the very best in private drug treatment.

So the Government's response to any criticism of unfairly focusing on this very small group has been of the 'we want to help them to help themselves' variety. Supporting them out of their addiction and into work. To quote Chris Grayling "help them back into work, even if that work is different to what they did previously." (Today, BBC Radio 4, 21st April) Reading the subtext; they Government just want them off the benefits, no matter what kind of employment they find themselves in, no matter how inappropriate. And we're back to the culture of forcing people in to jobs they don't want to do (or can't really do) because it's the only job available. Given that ex-users can be vulnerable to relapse in times of stress, is that even going to work in the long term? (How illuminating to read that addiction is specifically not covered by the Equality Act 2010) Would the £580million not be better spent supporting people through dealing with the underlying causes that led to them using and trying to make it much less likely that people will relapse, instead of merely preparing them for employment?

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