The room was packed at the Labour party conference as we presented the Demos findings on alcohol abuse and parenting, ensuring a lively debate and some useful feedback.The informed crowd included Simon Antrobus, Chief Executive of the Addaction charity, on the panel, and in the audience Henry Ashworth, Chief Executive of the Portman Group, which is supported by the drinks industry to encourage socially responsible drinking.
For me, the strongest message was the importance of not stigmatizing families. Or as Antrobus put it, providing help and support to families “in an environment that doesn’t call them Troubled Families.” The Government’s Troubled Families agenda builds on the previous Labour government’s 2003 Hidden Harm report and 2005/6 Respect agenda. In many ways, the agenda is similar and the importance of family intervention appears to have bridged the change in government – indeed Louise Casey worked for both Tony Blair and David Cameron on the issue. But, unsurprisingly perhaps in this Labour party conference atmosphere, many felt the word ‘Troubled’ is an unhelpful stigma. Our research points to the value of non-judgemental intervention at all levels – most importantly perhaps from the key worker, but also from society at large. From the audience, a lady who had worked with children’s services in Manchester, proposed the term ‘Complex Families,’ but I feel the word ‘complex’ is troublesome too. If only we could live in a world where we didn’t need to label everything.
Minimum pricing, being introduced in Scotland and mooted for England, was for many in the room the answer to Britain’s penchant for overindulgence. Greater Manchester had even considered introducing its own minimum pricing but for the fact that this would most likely have promoted a Calais-style cheap booze emporium in Liverpool, Sheffield and surrouding areas. Local authorities were urged to use what powers they do have on licencing to limit the accessibility of cheap booze. Patrice Muller of London Economics was supposed to be on the panel to present his research findings which show that minimum pricing won’t affect the heaviest drinkers, or the addicts, but he was sick. The argument that addicts will find a way to feed their habbit whatever the price is perhaps intuitive, but could minimum pricing hit people earlier in their drinking histories and slow or stop their path towards of addiction?
We had a fantastic chair, Dr Clare Gerada, the first female chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners for 50 years. She has spent much of her career tackling substance misuse and made an insightful and engaging chair who took charge of the room as we waited for the legendary Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington to appear. She spoke about the incoming changes to the NHS which means local authorities will be responsible for public health which could lead to a patchwork of different approaches.
Because of the recruitment method, worklessness is a feature of many of the families we spoke to. However, many working families also struggle with alcohol misuse and Ashworth had a useful suggestion that somehow we involve employers in the debate. He proposes a workplace alcohol policy, offering workers help and support to tackle the problems, and presumably training to management to spot signs of trouble. While in theory, this sounds like a sensible suggestion, I cannot help but think in the mind of the paranoid alcoholic, employer interest would seem like a pretext to be fired. Perhaps better to tackle that most British of institutions, the Christmas party (and after work drinks). Of course, no boss wants to appear a spoilsport, but having waitressed several seasons of Christmas parties, I have seen people get into terrible states. And I’ve over-indulged myself amongst colleagues, which in France or Italy would be completely unthinkable.
After our event, I went to use the bathroom and saw this (see above), which I think sums up party conference season pretty well. Being able to hold your drink is still, it would seem, an important attribute for advancement in political circles…..