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When a new announcement isn't really new

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Mark Easton | 18:13 UK time, Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Some will question the timing of today's government announcement on plans to get tough with jobless alcoholics who refuse treatment while claiming benefits.

Firstly, as a ministerial aide admitted to me this afternoon, the plan is not new - it was just "not noticed" when included in the Welfare Reform Bill earlier this year. "We kept it quiet", he explained, "so we could make a formal announcement later".

Here is the reference in the bill:

claimants_dependent.png

So what exactly is today's hot news? I put that question to the press office at the Department of Work and Pensions. They said this in an email response:

"what's new today is that we are saying for the first time that we will explicitly explore the alcohol route and look to mirror the system we are introducing for drug addicts
 
"does this make sense?"

Well, I don't know if it does "make sense". Exploring the alcohol route is hardly a significant policy shift - after all a consultation paper issued in January [173Kb PDF] included a table of the different kinds of "work-related activity" that ministers might insist jobless claimants undertake or face sanctions.

progression_to_work.png

There in the second box is "alcohol rehabilitation" - clearly, the exploration had already begun.

And the Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell expressed his enthusiasm for the idea of targeting alcoholics when he said this in the Commons last December:

"We are prepared to look at including alcoholics (in the legislation), but it is harder to identify people who have alcohol problems. If [Ian Davidson] has any suggestions on how to do that, we would be happy to look at them. We offer specific help to people who self-identify, but if there are better ways of doing that, we will be happy to look into them."

Here is the nub of the problem - the government would like to prove itself tough on irresponsible alcoholics claiming benefits, but has not worked out how to do this.

With drugs, it is simpler: test positive for an illegal substance and the government can insist that you go into treatment. But having alcohol in your bloodstream is not an offence; nor is evidence that one has a drink problem.

So, today's press release reveals that "the government will commission new research, along with an internal review" in the hope that it will come up with a better solution than the current one: that is, simply to ask the claimant if he or she is an alcoholic.

Knowing that answering "yes" would force you to give up beer or deprive you of your beer money, even the most feckless drinker is likely to postpone any such announcement. (Rather like the government on welfare reform.)

There will inevitably be some who suspect that the choice of today to re-announce relatively flimsy plans for jobless alcoholics is designed to distract the media from the embarrassment of the e-mails scandal.

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