Childhood memories of growing up with an alcoholic father prompted the shadow health secretary to call for greater recognition of the damage done by excessive drinking. During an interview with the Guardian, Jonathan Ashworth said he wanted there to be much more focus on the needs of families affected by alcoholism, claiming the issue would be a priority for him and Labour in 2017.
The Labour MP also said there was a need for urgent action because the cost of alcohol-related harm was not only the £3.5billion NHS price-tag, but up to £7billion in lost productivity for the UK economy.
Ashworth said he was surprised to find himself disclosing, for the first time to a national newspaper, the reason he felt so passionately about the issue. “It’s personal for me, because my dad was an alcoholic,” he said, spilling out early memories of his father falling over drunkenly at the school gates and of returning home to a fridge stacked with cheap booze and no food. Ashworth said he had never really considered his experience as something relevant in policy terms. “You didn’t think there was a problem, you just thought ‘that is life’.”
Then he came across the work being carried out by his Labour colleague, Liam Byrne, whose childhood was affected in a similar way. Byrne’s all-party parliamentary group dedicated to the children of alcoholics revealed that local authorities across the country tend to have no specific strategies to help young people affected in this way. The group, which will this Spring publish research on the issue, said that millions of children were “suffering in silence”.
As well as backing Byrne’s ideas, Ashworth wants to support a telephone helpline run by the National Association for Children of Alcoholics to help make it a nationwide service. He also wants more specialised training for professionals to support children and for councils to be properly funded to reach out to families affected by alcoholism through schools, via community nurses and in Sure Start children’s centres.
Ashworth talked about his own experience as an only child in a working-class part of north Manchester after his mother, who worked as a barmaid, and his father, a croupier in a Salford casino, divorced. He spoke vividly about the days that he stayed with his father – whom he said he loved dearly. “I remember him falling over when he picked me up at the school gates and we’d get home and there would be nothing in the fridge other than cheap horrible bottles of white wine and cans of lager and Stone’s bitter… When I got to 11 or 12, then I was effectively looking after him on the weekends because he was drunk all weekend. And eventually he died.”
Ashworth recalled trying to persuade his father not to move to Thailand one Christmas. The MP said he knew in his heart it would end badly, but his father replied: “No, I’m going,” and he went. “I never saw him again,” said the MP.