Employment and Support Allowance

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Targeting benefit payments to people who misuse alcohol: positive or punitive?

An exploration of the views of front line workers regarding the implication of the new Employment and Support Allowance for people who misuse alcohol.


Government policies and assistance for people who misuse alcohol raise controversial issues for legislators, policymakers and practitioners alike. Goodman (2007) highlights that government policy adopts both a ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’ approach. While individuals who misuse substances are encouraged to seek treatment, there is also the threat that for those who choose not to engage in programmes, they run the risk of being targeted if they continue in their addiction.

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Thus those whose alcohol addiction has caused them to become involved in criminal/illegal activities and who refuse to engage with alcohol interventions face agencies using enforcement and prosecution if they continue with their behaviours.

Harm caused by alcohol is Scotland’s biggest health challenge. Changing Scotland’s Relationship with Alcohol: A Framework for Action was published to address Scotland’s £2.25 billion alcohol misuse problem. The government’s focus is on reducing costs, recovery and making sure that people who need help are identified sooner and directed towards the right services (Scottish Government, 2009). In line with this, there have been significant changes in welfare policies for people who misuse alcohol.

There is no clear of the number of people with drug and alcohol problems receiving social work interventions. Research is usually based on specialised practice teams, for example, teams working with children and families. Research suggests that approximately 25 per cent of children on child protection registers involve parental alcohol and or drug use. (Advisory Council on the Misuse of drugs (ACMD) 2003) while Hayden (2004) points out that higher estimates have been found among children and families services more broadly. Further research highlights that drug and alcohol misuse is prevalent with the many groups of people social workers often work with, for example, 44 per cent of people with mental ill health use substances in harmful or hazardous ways (Weaver et al, 2003) and among young people aged 14-15, research has shown that drinking alcohol is a regular occurrence (Institute of Alcohol Studies, 2009). Gender is also an important area in the field of substance misuse with research showing that it is often thought for it to be worse for a woman to be drunk than a man (Sandmaier, 1992). It would appear that the experience of alcohol abuse may be different for a man and a woman.

My interest in addictions developed whilst on placement with a voluntary organisation working with young people involved with offending and/or anti social behaviour. The placement demonstrated the increase in the extent to which drug and alcohol use influences the involvement of young people in offending (Rutter et al,

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