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Enforced claimant drug treatment a criminal offence

7 February 2008
In spite of media claims, today's announcement by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith that claimants who use drugs will have to attend a drugs treatment assessment does not mean that they have to undertake treatment or lose benefits."

The Any health professional who knowingly treats a claimant who has been coerced would face being struck off and criminal prosecution.

Jacqui Smith's announced today that "if you are a known drug user receiving benefits, you will be required to attend an assessment by a specialist treatment provider."

This was immediately seized on by papers such as the Telegraph, perhaps as hoped and expected, as "Addicts who drop out of rehab 'to lose benefits'". In fact, what Ms Smith went on to say is that:

strategy will use opportunities presented by the benefits system to provide a more personalised approach so that drug users receive tailored support, such as training, and, in return, are required to attend drug treatment sessions."

In other words, drug users who wish to have training or other support will have to be making efforts to stop abusing substances.

However, to threaten to stop the benefits of a claimant unless they agreed to treatment would leave the person providing the treatment liable to prosecution. This was made clear by Margaret Hodge, the then Minister for Work in February 2006.
The minister was responding to a written question from a Conservative MP. Philip Hollobone who 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 went 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".

A meeting to discuss the possibility of treatment would not constitute a medical intervention. However, any health professional who knowingly provided actual treatment under duress could be struck off. If the treatment included the administering of drugs a criminal charge for assault would be entirely possible.


© 2008 Steve Donnison