Reducing the harm from illegal drugs
It is almost two years since the government introduced its latest drugs strategy and less than 18 months remain in the current funding period to March 2025. A National Audit Office report published today (20 October 2023) examines whether the government is well positioned to achieve the strategy’s 10-year ambitions. It covers:
- the development of the 2021 drugs strategy, its objectives and funding;
- progress in implementing the strategy; and
- the approach to achieving the strategy’s long-term outcomes.
The NAO quite reasonably says that it is too early to conclude whether the 2021 strategy will reduce the harm from illegal drugs. It will take time for new funding and interventions to address a complex set of issues, and many of the indicators used to measure progress lag behind activity. Their report therefore assesses whether departments are making the planned progress in implementing the strategy, and whether the Joint Combating Drugs Unit (JCDU) has an effective approach to understanding the impact it is having and managing the risks to achieving the strategy’s aims. It does not examine the effectiveness of interventions at the local level.
As usual, the NAO report is admirably clear and concise and the full report is well worth reading for those in the drugs & alcohol field. The headline findings are:
- The 2021 strategy is based on thorough independent analysis of the actions needed to tackle the harms from illegal drugs (undertaken by Dame Carol Black).
- The government established new structures and provided a renewed focus on efforts to tackle the harm from illegal drugs.
- The strategy has not yet led to a fundamental shift in departments’ approaches or begun to address the complex causes of illegal drug use.
- The strategy aims to reduce the demand for drugs, but government does not yet have the evidence to know how to do so.
Progress to date
The JCDU established effective arrangements to initiate the strategy but now needs to evolve its role. In particular, the JCDU has not yet assessed how it can work more effectively with central and local government partners to understand the impact of projects and judge what changes are needed to achieve the strategy’s 10-year aims.
The new local partnerships are improving collaboration but are at different levels of maturity and the JCDU does not yet understand how this is impacting the provision of local services.
Progress implementing the strategy is mixed. The NAO says the Home Office has stepped up activity to reduce supply and local government has done well in recruiting new treatment workers. However, departments have made slower than expected progress implementing some projects, which meant that not all of the 2022-23 funding allocation was used. Departments underspent by £22 million (15%) across the treatment and recovery workstream and by £8 million (64%) on the reducing demand workstream. The DHSC’s delays in finalising the allocation of the public health grant in 2022-23 and 2023-24 have also made it more difficult for local authorities to commission new services and recruit staff.
The infographic below shows current challenges to success local delivery of the strategy.
The NAO’s overall conclusion is that the JCDU and relevant departments need to develop a deeper understanding of the impacts of government spending, working closely with local service providers to understand and help address the practical challenges they face. The JCDU and departments need to be realistic about what is achievable in the first three years and assess how to adapt their approach to achieve the strategy’s 10-year outcomes. In doing so, the JCDU should seek to provide confidence to local government that this is a long-term commitment. For me this is the most important line in the report, I am already hearing reports that some local authorities have suspended commissioning and recruitment plans until it knows what money will (or will not) be forthcoming after next year.
The NAO also recommends that the Government must also urgently develop a plan to reduce the demand for illegal drugs. The current lack of emphasis on preventing illegal drug use means that departments risk only addressing the consequences, rather than the causes, of harm. The 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.