Deirdre Boyd: Farewell to Jim Dobbin – a great MP and tireless campaigner against addiction

Last weekend saw the death of a great but almost unknown warrior for patients’ rights and care. Jim Dobbin MP, the chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Involuntary Tranquilliser Addiction, died suddenly at the age of 73 while on a human rights visit to Poland. He was the son of a coal miner who went on to become a microbiologist, then served as a Labour MP (Heywood and Middleton in Greater Manchester) since 1997. He won a 5,971 majority at the last election. He was made a papal knight by Pope Benedict.

Over a decade ago, he took up the cause of the 1.5 million sufferers in the UK unwittingly hooked on benzodiazepams and ‘Z drugs’ prescribed by their doctors. It was in response to his prompting that David Cameron took up the issue, stating in Parliament last October (Hansard 900621):

“I pay tribute to the Honourable Gentleman who has campaigned strongly on this issue over many years. He is right to say that this is a terrible affliction; these people are not drug addicts but have become hooked on repeat prescriptions of tranquillisers. The Minister for Public Health [will] make sure that the relevant guidance can be issued.”

Jim did not rest there, but continued to check up on health ministers and civil servants, reporting back to Cameron to inform him that,  “the direction you gave on this issue is not being followed and I ask in the strongest possible terms that you personally intervene”.

He stood for everything that a Member of Parliament ought to be – integrity, principle, compassion, courage and, above all, for putting belief before advancement. Despite the latter, his work was recognised this week by his party leader, Ed Miliband. “Jim’s death is a sad day for Parliament. He was a dedicated public servant… Working in the NHS for more than 30 years, Jim had a deep passion for helping others. I will miss his good friendship and decency,” he praised.

I am one of his many admirers, as we gave each other mutual support in our efforts to secure appropriate government and medical help for people to recover from addiction, often frustrated over the past few years - not least by the disgraceful and misleading Addiction to Medicines report of the  now-abolished National Treatment Agency.  This gave the erroneous impression there were only  just over 30,000 patients with Z-drug withdrawal health problems in the UK, not the estimated 1.5 million, and that there were adequate services to treat them.

Jim became involved in the issue of prescribed drugs by listening to the story of a single constituent, Rob Wilson from Rochdale,  who was withdrawing from Ativan lorazepam. Thus, as he became chair of APPGITA, he urged that “as current or ex-tranquilliser addicts you may be disillusioned with politics and the way the system operates. However, it is only through political action by MPs that we will be able to change things for the better. An MP will normally respond on an issue if lobbied by a constituent”.

He built a formidable team around him, notably his parliamentary researcher Mick Behan and Barry Haslam of Tranx, a support group. Barry told me that, “Jim was an excellent man to work for and he was committed to highlighting the huge gap in patient care of those who had become involuntary tranquilliser addicts, through the poor clinical judgement of their doctors, which has gone on for decades, and prescribing drugs off label”.

Others in the team prefer to remain anonymous, but we acknowledge how difficult their work is – and its very raison d’etre – is reflected in the fact that I am writing this tribute because too many of them have been so debilitated by the lifetime pain-wracking effects of immune system damage from years on benzos that they are physically unable to do so. But Barry has summed up how they all feel:

“It has been a privilege to know and work with Jim over many years through his work as chair of APPGITA and his keen interest in involuntary tranquilliser addiction. He was one of the most decent, dedicated, honest, hardworking and the kindest person that I ever met. Our loss is heaven’s gain and our sympathies and love go out to his wife Pat and family”.

Baylissa Frederick, author of Recovery Road and another supporter of patients trying to withdraw from Z drugs, has spoken  to me too of her sorrow. “He worked so hard and was very dedicated to our cause. He will be sadly missed and his unwavering efforts will never be forgotten by our service users and everyone in our withdrawal recovery community.”

His four main aims were to (1) lobby for the formulation of national clinical withdrawal guidelines based on the Ashton method to achieve drug-free outcomes, (2) lobby for the provision of national specialist treatment for involuntary tranquilliser addicts, (3) ensure proper adherence to and enforcement of existing prescribing guidelines by GPs and (4) lobby for MHRA prescribing guidelines and product warnings to be improved to international standards.

We can only hope that these  ambitions will be put into effect by this Government as a testament to his work.

Deirdre Boyd