Drug and alcohol treatment funding slashed across England by 16% in four years

Exclusive: Local councils forced to reduce financial support by £105m since Government removed ring-fenced budgets for services in 2012/13, figures show

May Bulman
Friday 25 August 2017 23:58 BST
The ONS revealed that 3,744 people were fatally poisoned by drugs in 2016 – 70 more than the previous year and the highest number since comparable statistics began in 1993
The ONS revealed that 3,744 people were fatally poisoned by drugs in 2016 – 70 more than the previous year and the highest number since comparable statistics began in 1993 (Rex)

Spending on drug and alcohol support services across England has been slashed over the past four years, The Independent can reveal, as death and ill-health linked to substance abuse soars to record levels.

Exclusive figures show that local councils have had to reduce budgets by tens of millions of pounds since 2013, which experts say is creating a “vicious cycle” that is leaving the needs of seriously vulnerable addicts unmet.

Freedom of Information figures show that the 118 councils that replied are spending a total of £452m on alcohol and drug misuse strategies from public health grants this year, compared with £535m in 2013/14 – a cut of 15.5 per cent.

It comes at a time when drug-related deaths across England and Wales are at a record high, with figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showing that 3,744 people were fatally poisoned by drugs in 2016 – 70 more than the previous year and the highest number since comparable statistics began in 1993.

Hospitals are seeing more than one million admissions relating to alcohol each year, with a review published by Public Health England late last year reporting that alcohol is now the “leading risk factor for ill-health, early mortality and disability” among 15 to 49-year-olds.

The new figures, obtained by leading addiction firm UK Addiction Treatment (UKAT), have fuelled growing concern over the Government’s decision to remove ring-fenced budgets for drug and alcohol treatment in 2012, which saw responsibility for public health passed onto local councils, equating to a real terms cut to local authority budgets.

The Local Government Association (LGA), which comprises local authorities in England and Wales, warned that while councils were committed to tackling substance misuse and providing drug users with adequate support and treatment, cuts to the public health grant were “seriously undermining” their efforts.

Julie Cooper MP, the Shadow Health Minister, told The Independent the cuts were “incredibly short-sighted” and would hit the most vulnerable, as well as driving up the demand on an “already overstretched” NHS.

“The Government’s cuts to public health budgets are incredibly short-sighted and will hit some of the most vulnerable in our society. Prevention ought to be at the heart of the Government’s health strategy but instead they are reducing services that are there to keep people well and out of hospital,” she said.

“Cutting support for drug and alcohol treatments will put increasing pressure on our already overstretched NHS and will just push these problems off into the future.”

A recent report published by the Government’s own Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) found that “deepening of socio-economic deprivation” since the financial crisis of 2008 and “lack of access to mainstream mental and physical health services” was driving drug-related deaths.

It said policy changes since the Coalition government came into power in 2010 had affected drug users, with the highest rate of deaths coming in areas of Britain that have also experienced the greatest reductions in funding for local authority services and benefits for working age adults.

The figures reveal that Manchester, a city currently gripped by a Spice epidemic, spent £11.9m (or almost 30 per cent) of its public health grant on substance misuse in 2013/14, but is this year spending just shy of £8.5m – only 16 per cent of the total grant.

Lancashire County Council allocated 34 per cent of its budget to drug and alcohol support four years ago, but is now spending 24 per cent, while Kent County Council is now spending £8.2m on tackling substance misuse – £3.3m less than it did in 2013 and the lowest amount in the last four years, despite a population increase of around 55,000 people over the same period.

In all, the data shows that while 25 per cent of the grant was spent on drugs and alcohol strategies during 2013/14, this has fallen to 17 per cent in the current financial year – indicating a projected real-terms cash cut of £105.1m in the services across all 152 unitary and upper tier councils in England.

At the 2015 Spending Review, the Government announced a 3.9 per cent real-terms cut in public health funding over the next five years, which drug and alcohol support services fear will exacerbate the country’s drug and alcohol dependency issues, placing further strain on the already stretched emergency services.

Eytan Alexander, Founder of UKAT, said the removal of the protected drug and alcohol treatment budget was a “catalyst for disaster” and has left councils having to “spin even more plates” but with access to smaller funds, warning that this would mount more pressure on “already stretched” emergency services.

“What our Freedom of Information Requests reveal is that since the Government made the decision to remove the protected drug and alcohol treatment budget, councils have been forced into spinning even more plates with even less money,” Mr Alexander said.

“This decision was, without a doubt, a catalyst for disaster. Slashing budgets on substance misuse is a false economy as it simply piles the pressure on our already stretched emergency services. The alarming correlation between the real-term cut to Council budgets and the rise in drug-related deaths needs to be addressed and this vicious cycle needs to end.”

Paul Hayes, chief executive of Collective Voice, which represents the largest voluntary sector providers of drug and alcohol treatment in the UK, said providers were finding it increasingly difficult to meet the demand, and warned that the true cuts to funding are “even higher” than the FOI figures suggest.

“From our point of view, it’s gone down by even more than 15 per cent, but it’s variable across the country. Our estimates are based on the changes in contract value between 2013, when there was protected funding, and now – which is about 25 to 30 per cent. It’s incredibly difficult to get accurate numbers, but nobody disputes that there’s been a huge reduction in the amount available,” he said.

“Public Health England and the Government’s key advisors both say the most important thing to prevent drug-related deaths is to get people in treatment, so these reductions in investments are putting lives at risk. It’s deeply troubling that there isn’t enough money in the system to deliver the Government’s very sensible aspirations.

“We’re finding that services are not able to reach out and engage those who are most at risk but who aren’t voluntarily coming into treatment. There’s an awful lot of unmet need, and the system at the moment isn’t able to reach out and deal with those people.”

Cllr Izzi Seccombe, the LGA Community Wellbeing Board chairman, said: “Councils are committed to ensuring drug users get the right support and treatment, and spend more on drug and alcohol treatment than in any other area of public health. This year alone, councils will spend more than £700m on tackling substance misuse.

“However, cuts to the public health grant given by central government to local authorities are seriously undermining this vital work.”

A Department of Health spokesperson said: “Local authorities are best placed to make choices about services for their community which is why decisions about public health spending sit with them. To help, we are giving them £16bn over the current spending period to deliver these services.

“Figures show drug abuse and alcohol consumption are falling, but we will not be complacent. We have shown that we are willing to take tough action to protect the public’s health – as the first country in Europe to legislate for standardised packaging of cigarettes, by introducing a comprehensive Drugs Strategy and in publishing a world-leading childhood obesity plan.”

For support with drug and alcohol issues, visit UKAT’s website or call 0808 250 3801.

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