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David Burrowes MP: Drug addictions have an impact on families, not just the addict. It's time to break the cycle.

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David Burrowes is the Member of Parliament for Enfield Southgate. Follow David on Twitter.

Before I became a politician, I worked as a criminal defence solicitor in a small, north London practice. We dealt with issues that are typical to towns up and down the country. Many of the clients I saw - if not most of them - had problems with drugs or alcohol. My files were full of grim cases, with details about lives and families damaged by addiction, and about children whose day to day lives were made terrible by their parents’ substance misuse. Over the years the numbers of files increased with sons and daughters joining a family's conveyor belt of crime. It was just one sign of the massive intergenerational problem which has been hidden for too long. 

Today as an MP I am painfully aware that these kinds of issues haven’t gone away. If we’re going to address them properly, perhaps we need to start looking at things differently. Let me be clear before I go further. Drug and alcohol treatment has done some good things over the past decade, and the current Drugs Strategy will drive many more people into long lasting, stable recovery. 

But I would argue that, traditionally, treatment has followed too simple a logic - that the person who is addicted is the person who should get all of the support. While effective, it also misses a key point. Drug and alcohol addiction impacts everyone, in one way or another - particularly families, and particularly the children of addicted parents, who are far more likely to develop their own drug and alcohol problems later in life. In fact seven times more likely. For me, that one statistic was enough to make a convincing case for dealing with addiction as a family’s – rather than an individual’s – problem. Over the past year, I’ve acted as chairman to a commission of experts, whose evidence has only strengthened that conviction. 

This ‘Breaking the Cycle’ commission launches its first report today (download), only three months after the Government created a specialist unit to tackle problems faced by ‘troubled families’ across the UK. That unit estimates that there are 120,000 such families in the UK, each costing the taxpayer £75,000. Echoing my experiences as a solicitor, it’s the commission’s belief that the majority of these families will have problems with substance misuse – and particularly with alcohol. So, if treatment is to include the wider family, and not just the individual, then we could well have found a solution to the Government’s problem. 

What’s more – if we use a model already set up by the drug and alcohol charity Addaction, whose ‘Breaking The Cycle’ programme the commission was named after, we could do it cheaply. The cost per family of that programme is no more than £4,000. There is a lot more to do, of course. We need to ensure every person who works with families has had drug and alcohol training, for example (perhaps surprisingly, this isn’t the case across a wide range of professions – even social work). We also need to better understand the scale of the problem. I suspect that many families who need help are, at the moment, under the radar.

But all of this means a great deal more than saving money and sorting out the red tape. It means that we can help prevent a next generation of addicts in this country. And it means we will show the families of today’s addicts that we, as a society, care about them and their future.


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