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Compulsory medical treatment unlawful

1 March 2006

In a statement that will come as a great relief to many claimants a government minister has admitted that it would be unlawful to threaten claimants with benefits cuts if they did not agree to medical treatment.

Margaret Hodge, Minister for Work, was responding on 7 February 2006 to a written question from a Conservative MP. Philip Hollobone wanted to know why the government wasn't forcing incapacity benefit claimants who were drug addicts to take part in rehabilitation schemes.

Ms Hodge explained that

"For drug and alcohol misuse, the most effective medical intervention is likely to be counselling/cognitive behavioural therapy, but neither route is going to be effective unless the patient willingly engages. Compulsory therapy with an unwilling participant is most likely to be ineffective."

Ms Hodge did, however, go on to say that medical treatment could be agreed as part of a claimant's action plan:

"This is because an individual can volunteer to undertake treatment (whether of their own volition or by persuasion from a personal adviser) as happens in Pathways. However, for a health care professional to carry out a medical intervention, there must be patient consent. That consent must be informed consent, given freely. In law, consent given under duress is not given fully and freely and the fear of losing benefit could amount to duress. This means that we cannot sanction a claimant for not undertaking medical treatment if they decided they did not want to do it at any point in the process".

This is good news for claimants who have been worried that they may be forced into inappropriate treatment by unqualified Jobcentre Plus staff. (Though we're a little worried about the idea of claimants being 'persuaded' to undertake treatment).

But it doesn't mean that compulsion can't be used to make claimants do something else instead. The list of 'suitable activities in the green paper from which incapacity benefit claimants will have to choose was:

Work trials
Voluntary work
Permitted work
Preparation for self-employment
Condition management programmes
NHS Expert Patients Programmes
Basic skills programmes
New Deal for disabled
Activities to stabilise health conditions (including mental health problems) for example use of cognitive behavioural therapy

If medical treatment under duress is ruled out that leaves little else on the list other than forced labour for newly sick or disabled benefits claimants.