The government’s welfare reform bill, due to return to the House of Lords in October, will give Jobcentre staff unprecedented new powers that are intrusive, potentially coercive and take the benefit system into worrying new directions. As the bill stands, benefit claimants who refuse to answer probing questions about their drug or alcohol use or attend a substance misuse “assessment” could see their benefit withdrawn for up to 26 weeks and potentially have Jobcentre staff “impose” one or more drug tests to determine whether there is or has been any drug in their body.
The priority group will, the government insists, be 100,000 heroin and/or crack cocaine users claiming benefit but not engaged in treatment. However, the powers in the bill extend to all drugs including alcohol, meaning their impact could be felt far wider. The overall commitment to improving treatment, training and employment support for problem drug users is laudable but it is difficult to see how waving the stick of benefit sanctions or drug-testing claimants will be effective in doing so.
A drug test does not distinguish between recreational use and problematic use, or whether someone would benefit from treatment. While some employers do drug-test their employees, in most cases this is only where there are issues of safety or public confidence at stake. Even then, the employment contract, case law and data protection legislation provide some safeguards. Drug-testing is used within the criminal justice system, for example for Class A drugs on arrest, but extending this to the benefit system, with the potential to test for “any drug”, represents a concerning shift in the balance between the state and citizens.
There are further concerns about rights and liberties. For the first time Jobcentres will be able to share information with the police, the probation service and “others” to check the “accuracy” of information provided by the claimant. This could include information about drug-testing on arrest, court orders and sentencing and substance-related treatment received in prison or the community. While the bill protects against evidence acquired by Jobcentres being used in criminal proceedings against the claimant, the information sharing is two-way with no obvious barrier preventing the police using the information to prompt or inform a line of inquiry or criminal investigation.
A requirement to undergo treatment as part of a “rehabilitation plan” can be imposed as a condition of receiving benefit. Government claims that claimants cannot be required to undergo a particular type of drug treatment, eg a detox or methadone prescribing, are not consistent with the power to direct attendance for treatment at a “specified institution or place”. What if only methadone or detox were available?
People with drug and alcohol problems are subject to the same benefit rules as other claimants, but the bill undermines privacy, data protection and the principles of confidentiality and consensual, non-coercive treatment enshrined in the new NHS constitution. Beyond relevant conditions of entitlement, which are already onerous, the benefit system has a poor track record in seeking to influence wider behaviours. The government has presented no evidence in support of the new powers. There is a need to “modernise” the welfare system, but surely principles should be preserved that Beveridge would still recognise.
By Martin Barnes