‘Significant challenges’ to meeting government’s drug strategy ambitions, warns National Audit Office

The government will need to address gaps in the evidence base, a lack of focus on prevention and uncertainties about future funding in order to meet the objectives of its 2021 drugs strategy, according to a report from the National Audit Office (NAO).

While the strategy has provided ‘fresh impetus’ there are still ‘significant challenges to address barriers to achieving a long-term reduction in drug use, deaths and related crime’ says NAO, which is responsible for auditing the work of government departments. The report assesses progress so far against the ten-year strategy, publication of which came in the wake of a decade-long ‘surge in drug-related crime and deaths’, it says.

Delays in distributing funding has resulted in underspend, and there has been slow progress in recruiting key medical staff.

Departments have made progress in some areas, the report states, with more than 1,200 new drug and alcohol workers already recruited by local government against a target of 950 by 2024-25, and more than 100 new partnerships established with local areas and representatives from the health and criminal justice sectors. However, delays in distributing drug strategy funding and implementing new projects resulted in a 14 per cent underspend in 2022-23, and there has also been ‘slower progress in recruiting medical, mental health and other professionals.’

Lack of certainty post-2025 is also restricting the ability of local areas to recruit and plan, the document warns, with some ‘already asking service providers to plan to reduce services beyond 2025’. The Joint Combating Drugs Unit has begun to prepare for the 2025 spending review, but it has not ‘developed a plan beyond that date’ the report says. It has also not developed sufficient capacity to ‘draw departmental evaluations together to understand the type of interventions that are effective’, it adds, or the local impact of projects.

While the government has committed almost £30m to reducing long-term demand for drugs, this represents just 3 per cent of drugs strategy funding to 2025, compared to more than £100m for disrupting supply. ‘The UK does not have an effective drug prevention system’, says the report, nor does it yet have ‘the evidence it needs to understand how to change behaviours’.

Gareth Davies: Government needs to develop a longer-term funded plan.

‘The government has shown a clear commitment to reducing the harm caused by illegal drugs by establishing a cross departmental drugs strategy and committing £900m in the first three years,’ said NAO head Gareth Davies. ‘But much work needs to be done ahead of the next spending review to ensure it understands how to develop its approach and achieve its long-term aims. Significant challenges remain, and the current lack of emphasis on preventing illegal drug use means that departments risk only addressing the consequences, rather than the causes, of harm. Government will only achieve value for money if it builds on the initial momentum of the new strategy and develops a longer-term, funded plan that delivers a joined-up, holistic response.’

Nic Adamson: Issues run deep and cannot be solved overnight.

‘The headline facts presented in today’s report speak for themselves,’ added Change Grow Live deputy chief executive Nic Adamson. ‘People and communities are suffering, and whilst we have made some progress with achieving the ambition of the national drug strategy, there is still more to do. We need to create lasting change and welcome the NAO’s call for a long-term implementation plan. Sustained, long term funding and commitment is critical. We have made a start, but the issues the sector faces run deep and cannot be solved overnight or in isolation. Local partnership collaboration is key, only by working together can we address the root causes of suffering and ensure that support is accessible and attractive.

Reducing the harm from illegal drugs at https://www.nao.org.uk/reports/reducing-the-harm-from-illegal-drugs/

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