It shouldn’t be left to charities to catch the increasing numbers falling through the government’s threadbare safety net
The government has a duty to deliver the public services that guarantee provision and underpin the social fabric that helps prevent mental ill health and addiction in the first place.
The pandemic has revealed the fragile nature of many aspects of our health and social care system as well as the vulnerability of the charity sector. The charity sector is projected to have lost billions of pounds over the last year, scores of smaller charities remain at risk of closure and many more are running reduced services leaving people at risk of losing support.
The sector is playing an increasingly important role across society. There are more than 160,000 registered charities in the UK, often supporting the most vulnerable in our communities. Their services are life-changing and life-saving. But what is the distinction between the duty of the state and the contribution of the charitable sector?
These veterans, who were prepared to die for the British state, couldn’t turn to it in their time of need
Anfield, in my constituency of Liverpool Walton, is home to a veteran-specific residential addiction treatment centre, Tom Harrison House – the only one of its kind in the UK. Having spent time visiting the service and listening to veterans’ experiences of addiction and co-occurring mental health diagnoses, not a single resident was supported into or through their treatment by the Ministry of Defence.
These veterans, who were prepared to die for the British state, couldn’t turn to it in their time of need. It was charitable organisations who were, and still are, picking up the pieces.
The government’s reliance on our hard working third sector is not just confined to the Armed Forces community. My time engaging with mental health and addiction communities over the last year has revealed a clear pattern: without charities, many of those living with substance use disorders would receive no support at all.
In 2012, addiction treatment services were taken out of the NHS and became the responsibility of local authorities as part of the Health and Social Care Act. The changes have resulted in fragmented, overstretched, and under-resourced services.
Following the move, in some parts of the country there has been a 40 per cent cut to treatment services. And it wasn’t just treatment services that felt the sharp edge of austerity; it was early intervention programmes, community and youth centres, education opportunities – undermining prevention as well as cure.
Ten years on, alcohol-specific deaths are at their highest since records began, drug deaths are on the rise, NHS in-patient detoxes are scarce and charities are overstretched and inundated with calls.
The British Liver Trust reported a 500 per cent increase in calls to its helpline during the first lockdown of 2020 alone. Yet, there is still no national alcohol strategy from the government and only one in five people suffering alcohol dependence is in treatment.
I regularly meet people who are now in recovery from addiction to hear their experiences and the barriers they faced to getting treatment. One woman, who we’ll call Ruth, told me about how she was denied access to public funding and unable to pay privately for residential rehab.
Extremely vulnerable, her mental and physical health deteriorated, and she was at one point close to death. Thankfully, she is alive and well today and has rebuilt her life and found freedom from addiction; but her recovery was only thanks to a chance meeting with an addiction charity who had a ‘bursary bed scheme’.
Ruth describes herself as “one of the lucky ones”. Her personal story is uplifting, but what does it say about how we view the state’s duty to care for its citizens?
The work of charities is commendable and often inspiring, but it should not be their responsibility to catch the increasing number of people falling through our threadbare safety net.
The government has a duty to deliver the public services that guarantee provision and underpin the social fabric that helps prevent mental ill health and addiction in the first place. If it fails to take that duty seriously, we will see more and more people hitting rock bottom and the death toll continuing to rise.
Dan Carden is the Labour MP for Liverpool Walton.
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