Children of Alcoholics

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:58 am on 24th November 2015.

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Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Labour, Birmingham, Hodge Hill 10:58 am, 24th November 2015

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered support for children of alcoholics.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am glad to see the Minister for Children and Families, Edward Timpson in his place. The matter we are about to debate is something I know he will care deeply about, and I very much look forward to working with him over the months—and, I hope, years—to come, to implement many of the things that I will talk about. I think he will embrace wholeheartedly what I call for, and I look forward to turning some of the ideas that we will debate into action.

I have done some difficult jobs in politics with my right hon. and hon. Friends, but in many ways this is the hardest speech I will have made in my 11 years in the House: it will be the first time I have talked publicly about being the child of an alcoholic. My dad was an amazing individual. He was warm and charismatic. He was the son of Irish immigrants. He dragged himself into grammar school and into university. He was a great idealist who devoted his life to public service. His warmth, charisma and idealism inspired me to join the Labour party when I was 15, and it was his example that inspired me to get stuck into politics—to do my bit to try to make our country a bit better.

My dad battled with an addiction to alcohol for most of his adult life. When he lost the woman that he loved so passionately—my mother—at the age of 52 to pancreatic cancer, it knocked him over the edge. I know from first-hand experience the damage and harm that come to families living with an alcoholic. I know what that sense of guilt and shame feels like. I know about the kind of co-dependency that builds up in families as different members of the family do what they can to support each other. In my case, it was a co-dependency with my mum, who I talked to about my dad’s drinking from the age of seven or eight. I know all too well the feeling that most children of alcoholics have as they wrestle with why they cannot fix things or make things better. I know what it feels like to worry constantly about whether your parent is okay. You worry about whether they are on a floor and whether they are eating. I know what it is like to be at a bedside in an intensive care unit, having been told that your parent has maybe a one in 10 chance of surviving. I know the agony of constantly asking yourself whether there was more you could have done to help stop that drinking. I know that there are no answers to those questions.

I know what it feels like to feel second best. “Second Best” was the title of a great book written by Calum Best, the son of George Best, the footballer. Calum has done a great deal over the past few years to highlight the plight of children of alcoholics and to explain what the emotional turmoil feels like. I also know that if anything, I had it easy. Ultimately, I had a loving home. So many children of alcoholics have it an awful lot worse than I did, and many of them are here with us today in the House.

Children of alcoholics are five times more likely to develop an eating disorder. They are something like three times more likely to attempt suicide. They are three to four times more likely to become alcoholics themselves, and that is what happened to my dad. He, too, was the child of an alcoholic. In the months since my dad’s death just before the election campaign started, it has been a struggle to decide whether to speak up and speak out. I have been inspired by such people as my right hon. Friend Caroline Flint to take the plunge.

For me, the challenge was the programming that comes with the fourth commandment, which is for people to honour their mum and dad. I struggled with whether I would be dishonouring my dad’s memory by bringing this issue into the public domain and talking about it. I suppose I concluded that I had to honour the boy who became a man who became my dad, because there was no help for him when he was growing up as the child of an alcoholic. If I want to change things for children in the future, I have to play my part by speaking up.

The final trigger for speaking up was the loss of a great friend to this House, Charles Kennedy. When I read a lot of the media coverage about his death, so much was riddled through with the old clichés about how Charles was a man who battled with demons. Charles was not battling with demons, he was battling with a disease—alcoholism. The sooner we start talking about alcoholism as a disease and the sooner we get rid of the taboos, the stigma and the shame, the easier we will make it for hazardous drinkers in this country to get the help they need to quit or to cut down.

The scale of alcohol harm is profound. It is estimated to cost our country something like £21 billion a year. It costs the national health service something like £3.5 billion a year, and there are something like 1 million accident and emergency admissions related to alcohol harm each year. I have accompanied people on a couple of those admissions myself in the past few years. When we look at different parts of the country, we can see how the problem is getting worse. Figures from the House of Commons Library that I am publishing today show that the number of A&E admissions due to alcohol harm is rising in two thirds of local authority areas. The problem is not going away; it is snowballing and getting worse. As a country, we have to decide not only how we will break the silence around the disease, but how we will break the cycle of alcoholism cascading down the generations.

I would like to offer a few thoughts today, based on my conversations with friends in the House. I thank in particular the host of organisations that have had the good grace to listen to me bleat on about this issue over the past few months. Some of the charities have helped me try to build an integrated picture of my path. In particular, I give enormous thanks to Hilary Henriques of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics. It was through her doors that I walked about a month and a half after my dad died. NACOA was magnificent. It helped me see clearly for the first time that I was not on my own and that my dad’s drinking was not my fault, and that, frankly, there was little I could have done to change things for him. NACOA celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. It is a small group that is run on a shoestring, and it has helped more than 200,000 children in our country over the past few years with the same kind of advice that it gave me earlier this summer.

Additionally, I thank Sir Ian Gilmore at the Royal College of Surgeons; the British Medical Association; the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield; Alcohol Concern; Adfam; Turning Point; and the Institute of Alcohol Studies for the advice that they have given. I do not want to offer the Minister some kind of manifesto that is perfect in all its design; I want to start a conversation, which I hope he will engage with in the months and years to come. Last night, I asked Members of this House and the other place whether they would be interested in joining an all-party group for children of alcoholics, and I have been overwhelmed by the response and moved by the personal stories that colleagues have shared. I hope that the group can work together with a number of other all-party groups—we have the chair of one here this morning—that have done such a magnificent job to champion solutions to the curse of alcohol harm.

Let me offer the Minister a few points to get the debate going. Above all, I want the Government to do more to support extraordinary helplines such as NACOA, which make such an enormous difference. As a former Minister with responsibility for children’s health, I know that there is a challenge when it comes to specialised commissioning for children’s services. There is never enough of a problem in any one part of the country to create a critical mass of demand, so we have to find ways in which local authorities can work together to put in place specialised commissioning. Crucially, however, we need to support charities such as NACOA, which is making so much difference to so many people.

I want to ensure that we have a Minister with clear ownership of the problem. The responsibilities span not only the brief of the Minister here today but those of Department of Health Ministers, so I was glad that the Minister for Government Policy, Mr Letwin, told me that the Minister here today is in charge of co-ordinating the challenge. The Home Office took the lead on the alcohol strategy published in 2012. We need clear, visible ownership of who will provide and lead the support policy for children of alcoholics.

I want the Government to set out clearly a plan of action to support children of alcoholics. Having someone in charge of creating a solution is not good enough if we do not have a plan in place. As the Minister knows, the Government published their alcohol strategy in March 2012. It did not mention children, support for children or the challenge of children of alcoholics. Over the next few months we need the Minister to come up with a specific plan to provide support for the children of alcoholics. He might tell me that the forthcoming report, “Collateral Damage”, to be published in 2016, will be the framework for that. I look forward to hearing what he has to say.