McNeil provokes outrage but brings rights of drug misusers’ children to centre stage

Proposals to cut benefits of drug misusers who start families have focused the debate on children’s rights. Gordon Carson reports

Duncan McNeil’s ( pictured left) proposal to withdraw benefits from problem drug users in Scotland if they start a family could scarcely have provoked more controversy.

The Labour member of the Scottish parliament for Greenock and Inverclyde was accused of “dehumanising” problem users by the Scottish Drugs Forum and his comments have kept internet chatrooms busy for days (see

But, however misguided some think McNeil’s proposals are, many support the principle that guides them – that services should focus on the impact of drugs on users’ children, not just users themselves.

McNeil feels a “great job” has been done for the rights of problem users, but says their responsibilities, particularly towards their children, are either “non-existent or unknown”.

To counter this he suggests they should sign contracts stating they will not start a family while misusing drugs, and agree to enter drug cessation services within a strict timetable, or face benefit cuts.

However, Ruth Stark (pictured right), professional officer for the British Association of Social Workers in Scotland, says such severe sanctions
would drive people away from services.

She says: “We use contracts all the time but you have to have a realistic sanction at the end.

“A reduction in benefits is not going to help a pregnant mother or her children if her level of income is reduced even more. We can counsel people not to have children.”

Stark’s view is shared by the Scottish Drugs Forum, which says McNeil’s proposals could “drive problems further underground”.

A spokesperson says more early intervention is needed because support services for parents with drug problems are usually provided only at crisis point. The “narrow focus” on the pharmaceutical element of drug treatment, on heroin substitutes such as methadone, has not helped either, she says.

“We have consistently argued that methadone treatment can only ever be truly successful when used as part of a comprehensive package of measures,” she adds.

The forum proposes that specialist adult drug services should be given specific funding for family support workers who could help reduce the effects of drug misuse on children. Also, it says there needs to be better sexual health and contraceptive advice provided to female drug misusers.

Professor Neil McKeganey, director of the Centre for Drug Misuse Research at Glasgow University, says McNeil should be “congratulated” for giving prominence to the issue.

He says: “For far too long we have focused entirely on the needs of the adult addicts and scarcely noticed that many have children, many of whom have been seriously neglected. The idea of counselling people fully away from starting a family meets with our liberal expectations that nobody is being forced to do anything.

“But it’s wildly optimistic to think that it will radically respond to the challenge we face.”

However, he does not think the best approach is to threaten users who break contracts with sanctions.

Instead, he says there should be more inducement to get them to enter and stay in treatment and improve the lives of their children.

He says: “Why are we providing state benefits when we know in many instances they are being used to fund drug use?”

“Would it not make more sense to provide food, clothes, heating allowance, things that improve their lives, rather than cash payment to spend on drugs?”

Parental Drug Misuse

  • Four to six per cent of children under 16 in Scotland have a parent who is a problem drug user, twice as many as in England and Wales, according to 2003’s Hidden Harm report

  • In this years Hidden Harm – Next Steps document, the Scottish executive says “serious and chaotic” drug abuse is incompatible with effective parenting.

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