The Alcohol 'Problem' Podcast

In conversation with Jon Ashworth MP

September 07, 2022 James Morris / Jon Ashworth Season 2 Episode 2
The Alcohol 'Problem' Podcast
In conversation with Jon Ashworth MP
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers
 In this episode we speak to Jon Ashworth MP about his experience and views of parental alcohol problems and affected others, as well as parliamentary drinking culture, alcohol policy and related issues.

Jon has spoken openly about his father's alcohol problems which lead to his death in 2010. He has campaigned and supported a range of action to help people affected by parental drinking, including having run multiple marathons in support of NACOA.

Jon is currently Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, having previously been Labour’s longest running Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.

Support and further information relating to parental alcohol problems can be found at:

https://nacoa.org.uk/

https://adfam.org.uk/

James Morris:

Thanks so much for joining me, John, it's really great to have you on the show. Because you know, you've been one of a number of MPs who's spoken openly about their experience of growing up with a parent with alcohol dependence or an alcohol problem. And yeah, I think that's really powerful story to share. And you've done that really well and articulately in a number of different spaces. But could you tell me a bit about that experience and how you came to share it

Jon Ashworth:

publicly, please? Yeah, of course. So, alcohol has played such a huge parts of my life I've been, I think, I can never remember not being aware of alcohol. I can never remember alcohol, not being a part of the backdrop to my childhood. Because my dad, as I've said, many times now had a drink problem. And I was aware going to a hospital when my dad was in hospital when I was about five or six. At the time, I didn't quite understand why he was in hospital. But I found out when I was a teenager, it was because of his drinking. And then days, he was drinking a bottle of Canadian whiskey at a Canadian Club whisky he was his was his favourites. And the doctor said to him, Well, you've got to stop doing this, you're gonna kill yourself. So we moved from Canadian called Whiskey to bottles of wine instead of bottles of white wine. And I'm throughout my that time growing up with him. He was I remembered, I mean, they were divorced. I mean, drink, wrecks the marriage as it wrecks a lot of marriages. So my mum and dad were divorced. But the times I was with my dad, he would fill up the fridge with massive bottles of white wine from the corner shop from the off licence, cheap white wine, these big bottles of German wine, and weekends with my dad, when I went to stay with him as a child. You know, he was, he was full of drink a lot of the time. And it was always there. And you know, you get through it, because children can be more resilient than perhaps you think I'm a father. Now, I think my way obviously, and so determined to permanently protect my children. I obviously think of them as if materials are fragile, but I think sometimes you forget how resilient children can actually be. And you sort of grow up quite quickly. In those circumstances, you end up looking after your dad. But I always remember that when I was older now, when I was about 30, or so, my dad had left the country went off to live on his own in Thailand, which I thought was bananas in itself. But he just did it just like that just went, sold everything he had literally went and lived on virtually on a beach. Two years. Two years later, I got the phone call from at 6am telling me, he was dead. And he was only 60. And he just been drinking every day in Thailand for the last for these last two years of his life. And I remember the woman on the phone gave me the news. And she wasn't trying to be insensitive. So don't hold this against her. I think she was just trying to be sort of supportive. But anyway, she did say to me, you didn't know your dad was an alcoholic. And that was like a punch in the stomach that was like, punch which knocked me across the room. Not because it came as a surprise. Of course it didn't. But to hear somebody say it. I think as I say, it was like a punch across the room or like a sort of cartoon character. When you have a big you know, a big weight dropped on their head or a piano do you see in a sort of Roadrunner cartoon or something? To hear someone articulate that out loud, because of course, I always knew it and you always knew that my heart and your point about language and research I think is so important because you obviously focus on the stigma associated with that word, quite rightly. But I think there's something else about that word and in as much as people a lot of people who have a drink problem. Do not identify with that word, will not identify with that word because that for them conjures up something else in their minds that perhaps conjures up some Billy on the street corner drinking out of a brown paper bag or something, I remember as a teenager saying to my dad, that I think you're an alcoholic. And he would say, No, I'm not. I'm not because I can hold down a job. Alcoholics can't go to work. And he said, when I'm at work, I don't drink. And he was right, actually, he had a very complex relationship with drink, because when he the days that you went to work, you didn't actually drink. The problem was the days when he wasn't drinking constantly. And of course, when work was taken away, or he left work at 50 and a half. He was just drinking every single day. But because but there was something about that word, which meant my dad who clearly quite self evidently had a serious drinking problem. just refuse to accept that he was an alcoholic, which in turn was a refuse to accept that you need any help because of that word. So I think you're so right, to focus on that word, and talk about drinking problem or alcohol problems, alcohol dependency, as well, because I think a lot of people who quite clearly have problems refuse to accept that word, and are doing themselves and their families. immense damage as a consequence. That's yeah, well,

James Morris:

Thanks again for for sharing that. It's such a powerful story. And I think it's really complicated in the sense that, yeah, as as you know, I generally advocate for alternative use of language to describe alcohol problems, because, yeah, the stigma associated or embedded with that term, or the idea, or the stereotype of alcoholism is so heavy that it does prevent many people from perhaps Yeah, recognising their drinking problem, because, you know, to adopt that label is to really become a target for stigma, you know, people it's so embedded within negative stereotypes as you describe of, you know, rock bottom and not being able to function and so on. So it's self protective in a way to not adopt that label. But then obviously, there's the complicated side of Alcoholics Anonymous, because so many people do recover through that route, where they take on that label and use that label almost as a way of not just making sense of their alcohol problem and joining community that can help them recover but also as a kind of way of just saying I'm owning this problem and I'm gonna face it head on. So this is really complicated and alcohol problems are so complex and unique and individual that there's there's never going to be a one size fits all. But yeah, I think, you know, having having people like you talk about your experience, and and us to talk about the language and the labels and the ideas and what they mean is our kind of way of unpicking that and trying to work through it. I mean, sometimes some people will say, we just need to de stigmatise the term alcoholism, or the label alcoholic and you know, thought a lot about that. My view is the evidence is, once that term has is so heavily sticky, stigma embedded, it's very hard to roll back on that. But at the same time, I think, yeah, we just need lots of the more conversations we can have, the better, including ones that look at and speak honestly about the pros and cons of different ideas or concepts or language in different contexts.

Jon Ashworth:

I mean, that's absolutely right. And of course, as you know, I do a lot of advocacy work for and indeed, have done some fundraising London Marathon as for Nicola National Association for children of alcoholics who do embrace that word, and you will? I honestly don't know if this is because I do work in this space now, or if it is, or if there has been a degree of change in the last few years, but I do notice more people saying I am a COA. I'm a child of an alcoholic and self identifying in that way. I think I think it's not for me to sort of police the way people want to describe themselves. I think enough, there are people who are prepared to speak out and express their their own testimony, their own lived experience to help others. I think that is so precious, that is so important. But I do know that that term, I think was a barrier in my own relationship with my dad, and as much as he refused to accept identify himself with that term. And who knows, maybe we could have made some progress. If we if we, if we could have explained, you know, explained it to him in different ways. I don't know. On the other hand, you know, he was also a very much a kind of... I was very lucky in as much as my dad's drinking, never turned into violence, or sexual violence, or anything like that. It was, you know, for me as a child it was just there and it's the constant pneus of in what, in many ways is the tediousness of it. See, my dad was my dad was a great personality he was good fun and, you know, and for all of his sort of friends and that he was great companies, great sense of salary, you know, you know, having a drink coming up and they're having a great laugh. Yeah, fantastic. But then I was always the one who had to deal with it at the end. And it's can be pretty, as I say, tedious, particularly when you're a teenager, having to put up with this constantly. But as I say, I was fortunate in as much as I didn't experience any violence or anything like that, which I know a lot of people face in the circumstances, and is, I think, is a real problem, or has been a problem in recent times. Because look, you know, I think we needed to lock down the country for COVID. But we know that when people are in enclosed spaces, and there is alcohol, they can't leave the house. Sadly, tragically, children and partners would have been exposed to some of the some of the very darkest elements of alcohol abuse subtly. And I think we have a problem, we have a problem in as much as you know, not I don't want to be party political on your on your podcast, but we do know, don't we, the specialist services for alcohol specialty services, for addiction, especially service for domestic abuse, and so on. They've been so caught back in these last, in these last in these recent years, they've been so hacked away, that we've taken away so much protection and help, which some of the most vulnerable would be able to turn to. And that is a real worry, for me as a politician.

James Morris:

I couldn't agree more and, you know, someone who's worked in public health and commissioning of alcohol services, for a while, you know, it's obviously been really frustrating. You know, we had some great local alcohol services maybe 10 or 15 years ago, that just weren't able to survive those cuts. And, you know, we've got now a sector of a few big providers now, her drug and alcohol services and, you know, doing some good work, but but it's still, you know, product of lots of cuts, mandates, and really good local services have been lost and alcohol specialist services as well, which basically don't exist anymore. So yeah, I couldn't agree more with you on that point. And then there's also the obvious policy levers that are available that, you know, aren't really being utilised. Obviously, Scotland has minimum price. And, you know, the debate continues on about the evidence. And it's obviously, a fairly low price threshold of 50. Pence, a unit that was delayed for a long time by kind of legal challenges by sections of the alcohol industry, but we do know that the pricing availability and advertising influence consumption, and, you know, indeed, what the level of exposure children, young people and partners, etc, have. So I expect to agree as well, that we need to do better in policy terms as well. But of course, you know, it's about kind of winning over the public as much as it is persuading certain MPs, I guess.

Jon Ashworth:

I mean, absolutely. So, you know, to answer your initial question, actually, when Why did I choose to speak out? Well, I was appointed as to be the shadow Secretary of State for Health. And I thought to myself, Well, look, shadow health secretaries, you know, quite rightly, go on the news every night to complain about any targets and the waiting lists and ambulance delays. And quite rightly, because all of them, everything is eat well, it was terrible, then it's absolutely catastrophic now. But it was terrible then in 2016. But I thought, also, I've got a platform now to speak out on these issues, which I really care about. And I hadn't really spoken out properly before, because I wanted to make a bigger argument about the health of the nation. And I want to make a bigger argument about people who are vulnerable people who are left behind or neglected. And I do think we have an addiction crisis in the country. Through my personal experience, I obviously focused on alcohol, but this substance misuse, gambling, as well. I wanted to talk about these issues. I want to talk about some of the failures in public policy in as much as you go, you know, some some addiction issues, or consequence of mental health problems. But if you go for mental health provider, they'll ask you to get clean, resolve your addiction issues before they can properly treat you in turn, you'll go to an art and addiction service will say, Well, this is a mental health problem. You need to go to a mental health provider. You get bounced around the system quite a lot. But I also wanted to make that bigger argument about public health. about what we do as a society to improve health outcomes, because, you know, the NHS, you know, if you like, should, in theory fix you at the end or fix you when you're ill, fix you when you're broken. But we want, we don't want people to be broken in the first place. It's that famous sort of Desmond Tutu, quote, you can keep pulling people out of the river. But eventually you've got to go upstream and find out why they're falling into the river in the first place. And you've got to do things your government can make it intervene, change things to make big changes, big changes to attitudes. But when I first started in my working career, 20 years ago, the year 2000, I left university and went to work in office jobs in the Labour Party, as a researcher, always been office based policy research jobs, but it was not unusual in the year 2000, for people to be smoking at their desk in an office. I mean, you say that to people now. And they look at you as if you've been honest. It would not be unusual to go perhaps to a conference. And for that to be ashtrays on the tables in 20 years ago, the point I'm making if you have to go to a conference now, and I don't smoke, but if I did smoke, can you imagine how the gas people would be if I took out a cigarette outside smoking it at a conference platform, the point is 20 years old until two years ago, that was part of the norm. So you can change attitudes government can intervene. And of course, the smoking ban was a big intervention the government made which helped change attitudes. So governments can intervene in can change attitudes and change behaviours, which is why I'm very interested in the research on the experiments around minimum unit pricing and so on. All of this takes governments to step up and intervene.

James Morris:

Yeah, I think I saw a statistic some years ago about how just 4% of, you know, health care spending was on prevention out of the whole budget. And yeah, there's so much more we could be doing, as you say, upstream. And yeah, I guess it's complicated, because, of course, you know, it's policy levers as well. But then, you know, we also need to look more broadly in society. And, you know, I kind of feel like, yeah, so much of this kind of addiction crisis, as you say, is driven by this kind of rising tide of mental health issues in young people around uncertainty and climate change and economic insecurity. So I think you said, you know, he didn't want to be party political, but I think it's almost impossible not to, you know, we can't alcohol is a really important issue that we need to look at, and focus in and try and understand in detail, but without disconnecting it from the broader context and environment that drives and shapes how people use and develop problems with alcohol as coping responses or because of cultural norms and the language etc. So, yeah, just kind of going back to your point earlier briefly about, you know, not policing people's language. I think that's another really tricky, kind of complex part of it. Because, yeah, certainly, I don't want to be seen as a kind of word police or anything. And yeah, absolutely, people have to are going to use language or can self identify, and that's not my place, or anyone else's, to tell them how they should or shouldn't self identify. I guess I just say, though, that again, you know, that happens in a context, perhaps the kind of received wisdom is this kind of often falsely dichotomized idea of alcohol problems where you either have a problem and it's really severe and you lose your job, or you don't, and I think sections may be society, push that deliberately, because it serves the purpose of protecting, you know, the majority is drinking, as in inverted commas, normal, and then others, the kind of outgroup is the problem. And yeah, there's all kinds of complex reasons for that. But yeah, I just wanted to sort of clarify as well, I agree that it's not about telling people how they describe themselves, but saying, you know, that there's implications from the way we frame and discuss and think about things. And yeah, and the other thing I was really thinking about as well, that you mentioned, right at the beginning was in terms of kind of resilience, and I guess also as children, you know, we have protective view of our parents, and then there might be some dissonance about how we, you know, see our parents and then in later life, you know, look back and think you know, course or that in a kind of strange way, but of seeing your parent as having an alcohol problem as a child is a difficult thing to do, because that goes against how we're kind of I think, primed or designed in many ways to, you know, trust and love and care about and care for our parents as well. That's kind of part of our innate desire. So it's only really kind of looking back that we might unpick things and see them a bit differently. But

Jon Ashworth:

yeah, absolutely right. And these things stay with children as well. I always ask themselves, they always go over these things and try to understand what you know, wherever they could have done something else and and obviously, you also feel guilty as well and you speak out who wouldn't do whether you're sort of being disrespectful to his legacy or memory but, but I also know that when I speak out like A lot of messages of support. But one of the most important ones was when I was stopped by somebody. They said, Oh, you light up on you. And when you get stopped by people going, you're that MP thing. I'll where's this going? Because anyway, they said to me saw your speech in Parliament, it was going around Facebook, and my son showed it to me, my 14 year old son showed it to me. And because of that, I was able to have a conversation with my son about my drinking. So thank you for speaking out. And just that conversation, that one conversation, I think, makes doing what I was doing worthwhile.

James Morris:

Yeah, and, you know, I'm sure hundreds or 1000s of others have happened as a result of what you've done and, and some of your other colleagues as well have done very bravely. And admirably as well. And yeah, I think, you know, as MPs you're are very much under the spotlight in in in influential positions, and being able to talk about things that potentially might cause people to make assumptions or judgments or you know, view in a less positive light takes a lot of courage and but also brings the issue out into the open more and hopefully enables other people to feel more normalised talking about what often tricky issues to do. And as you know, you know, I'm big fan of other people doing so Adrian, Charles, I think, had a really good impact. And we know that when his documentary came out that lots of people, more people requested help, and more apps were downloaded and so on. And I expect similar effects have happened from others who have recently shared their story. So yeah, as you know, like, I'm just really grateful and supportive of anyone who talks about their experience, because yeah, we just need that to keep that conversation going. And hopefully that in turn will help reduce stigma and increase support for policies that also can help us be more preventative about about alcohols initiative.

Jon Ashworth:

No, absolutely, absolutely. I mean, it's so important when people speak out, it does make a difference. I've seen that directly. And actually, by speaking out, also, we eventually persuade the government. Jeremy odd, it was a health sucked at the time was so moved and persuaded by the points we were making, that he allocated a pot of money to support various charities to help children of children impacted by parental drinking. But suddenly, that money is now dried up and is not being replaced, which is something I'm very disappointed and angry about. But at least for a few years, there was some extra support in place for the various charities who work in this space.

James Morris:

And if you don't mind me asking, How has your experience you think kind of shapes your own relationship with alcohol. I mean, there's obviously kind of a bit of a reputation of a parliamentary drinking culture. And, you know, people kind of often say, who is disgraced that there's subsidised bars in the House of Commons or whatever. But yeah, do you have any sort of personal reflections about alcohol that you're?

Jon Ashworth:

Well, I mean, I do drink. But I'm also very happy not to drink. And I can, you know, very happy to go weeks, if not months, not drinking, but I mean, I do drink. And I'm always sort of conscious thinking about what you know how much I'm drinking when I do drink. There is I mean, the alcohol, culture and politics. And when there was an alcohol culture, it's not as bad as it was years ago. So I've seen it change considerably in 20 years. Since I started off as a researcher in politics to becoming an MP now there's not as much drinking that goes on, I would say, although there is more scrutiny, and a wareness of the inappropriate and sometimes quite horrible behaviour of drinking MPs. We've seen various examples in recent times Haven't we have MPs being alleged sexual assaults and things like that, from you know, Cena and the papers were one or two very dreadful cases in recent times. Assume that alcohol plays a part in some other. Broadly speaking, though, I don't, I don't think MPs drink as much as what used to happen 20 odd years ago, and because the hours are different in Parliament, but there are bars in Parliament, I never really know. This might sound slightly naive point. And I might provoke a backlash by saying this, I never actually know whether the drinks are subsidised or not. I know people say this, but I don't remember this sort of for Well, maybe it's just not for, you know, they don't make a profit on what they sell. It's something like that. I don't know. But it's I suspect, though, like it's a high adrenaline environment. And I suspect in any high adrenaline work environment, a lot of drinking goes on whether they were regardless if they have a bar on their work in their workplace or not imagined most high adrenaline environments have, you know, a local pub, a local bar where we're well aware, perhaps too much drinking goes on. I don't think there's something particular to politics which which is different to other very pressured work environments, I suspect?

James Morris:

Yeah. And I think, you know, I've discussed with other guests before that, you know, it's really important that we don't ignore the benefits of alcohol to people socially, mainly. And you know, it's complex, we can say that moderate levels of alcohol, if we define that as within the guidelines of 14 units a week, are very unlikely to cause health problems, and that there is a place for moderate drinking, I think most people would say, where the benefits for the vast majority of those people presumably outweigh the costs. So I do think, yeah, you know, it's not useful for the case against alcohol harm, if we fall into the arguments that we just the Neo temperance lobby, as if you know, we want to go back to prohibitionist or anything like that. That's not not what we want. But it is a really complex and tricky question, you know, to what extent should regulation, you know, apply or pricing or whatever, and, you know, there's no, you know, there's no fine line, there's lots of grey areas as there is with trying to understand alcohol problems, etc. But, yeah, perhaps we haven't quite got the balance, right, in terms of regulation and cultural permissiveness or attitudes towards it, but

Jon Ashworth:

I mean, absolutely. Right. And I think some of these issues are, I mean, there's obviously, you know, an important and important lobby for alcohol. You know, the scotch whisky industry is a significant part of our economy in Scotland and isn't a significant part of our exports. You know, we've got for parts of the Southwest, the traditional cider industries are important part of their economy. And of course, politicians are always worried about us appearing to be sort of killjoys, you know, every budget of Chancellor will get up and say, I'm taking a penny off a pint. Well, notice every budget, we know when they do so. They'd love to say that so and there's always then follows the picture of them pulling a pint in a pub somewhere that appears next day's tabloid newspapers. So I think I think politicians because sometimes anxious on these issues, and worried about intervening? So these are some of the challenges we always have to confront when we talk about the alcohol industry.

James Morris:

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think the the economic case is pretty clear that that the harms, the costs to society are outweighing the economic benefits, at least that yes, we don't project the benefits exist both kind of socially or individually, as well as there are economic benefits, but obviously, a lot of costs as well. But I guess, you know, my view is, in a way, actually, we need you know, it's like you mentioned earlier with the pandemic and the hidden harm from alcohol use behind closed doors. And even as you say, the sort of lunchtime or workplace drinking culture has improved a lot. But you know, what we've essentially seen over the last 2030 years or longer is a shift essentially, where almost all drinking was done in on trade premises, in pubs and so on to where it's now basically the other way around, sort of 80% I think as much as all consumption is now off trade. So I do think there is a sort of policy case or public health case even for saying, we want to remove the really your kind of curb the really cheap off sale, supermarket stack at high sell it cheap culture sort of partly drives home drinking and try and move more drinking occasions back to safer regulated spaces. But yeah, again, that's a kind of difficult and complex argument.

Jon Ashworth:

Yeah, no, I mean, absolutely. And you know, then you get into sort of questions around, you know, the big supermarkets, and you know, what they can charge. And, of course, there's another issue, which is the sort of meat of a topical issue at the moment is this energy crisis means that pubs and restaurants are facing huge, huge catastrophic energy bills with many of them. And they'll start having less than where I live, I mean, many of them are asking themselves whether they can survive, we could see a wave of pub and restaurant closures, which is devastating for local jobs and livelihoods. But that again, could drive even more alcohol consumption into the home. Yeah, absolutely.

James Morris:

I don't know what the stats are at present. But you know, even pre pandemic, I think pub closures were something like close to 30 a week, which fallen from a period where it was over 50 a week. So yeah, we're still losing pubs in on trade premises. And I'm sure the pandemics probably accelerated that and embedded a kind of home drinking culture even more or heavier patterns, as we know that pandemic people with pre existing heavy alcohol use or alcohol related problems. You were the people whose drinking really, really increased. So yeah, I think we're going to be seeing the effects of that for years to come. And yeah, hopefully, we will start to see some more proactive policy changes to help kind of try and redress that both in terms of as you say, investment in services, as well as the upstream stuff around pricing availability and marketing and perhaps maybe trying to offer more support to potentially more regulated safer on trade spaces. Let's not say that all home drinking is inherently bad. But yeah, of course, we know that a lot of very real harm damage or heavy drinking is done. Alright, John. Well, yeah, unless you've got any final reflections. Well, thank you so much for for coming on the show. And again, for you know, talking so openly about your experience and being you know, really valuable advocate for for this really real issue of alcohol problems. And importantly, I think, you know, affected others that that often doesn't get enough attention or enough space in terms of the spillover effects, how other people's drinking affects other people. I think that that is really something that needs that needs more active attention as well. And

Jon Ashworth:

Thank you for having me. And it's been a really fascinating discussion. And it's such an important issue, and I'm not in there, shutter health brief. Now, I'm in the Shadow Work and Pensions brief. And I'm very, completely preoccupied at the moment with the rising cost of living and the impoverishment of our fellow citizens that we're seeing. And I know that when poverty and deprivation increases, people increasingly turn to alcohol and substance use to self medicate to relieve the pressures that they're under. And that in itself leads to social problems for the individuals health outcomes, family breakdown, sadly, violence and so when, as we've as we've discussed, so this is, this is a really worrying time, but one that I will continue to speak about in public. So thank you for having me.

James Morris:

Thanks again, John. Thanks so much. Thanks for listening to this episode of the alcohol problem podcast. You can find us on Twitter and Instagram, at @alcoholpodcast, so please feel free to follow us or get in touch there.

Jon's experience
Treatment issues
Why speak out
Parliamentary drinking culture
Pros and cons of alcohol and policy implications