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Illegal drugs: Progress mixed on Government harm reduction efforts, PAC report finds

9 February 2024

  • Fastest rise in drug use is in younger people as their treatment levels fall sharply
  • PAC calls for funding certainty for local authorities for strategy that requires sustained investment and relentless focus

Government’s efforts to reduce the harm from illegal drugs are seeing mixed progress. In a report published today, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), while welcoming achievements including drug worker recruitment and disruption to supply, finds less clear progress in reducing drug use and related harms. Particularly concerning is that drug use is rising fastest in younger people as the number of under-18s in treatment has fallen sharply.

Unacceptably, drug-related deaths in England increased by 80% between 2011 and 2021, to nearly 3,000 people each year. In June 2022, 19% of 16–24-year-olds reported having taken drugs, with 5% reporting having taken Class A drugs. The report finds that though the Government has made a 10-year commitment to reduce drug use, crime and deaths, requiring sustained investment and relentless focus, Government has only committed funding until 2024-25, creating uncertainty that could hinder its own strategy.

This funding uncertainty also makes it difficult for local authorities to recruit staff and rebuild the treatment workforce, with further delays in funding allocations from Government hindering early progress. The PAC is disappointed that government departments seem unwilling to explore how to provide local authorities with more confidence over long-term funding.

This comes against the background of a significant erosion of councils’ capacity and capability to deliver in this area. The PAC’s report highlights that annual spending on drug and alcohol treatment services fell by 40% in real terms between 2014-15 and 2021-22, leading to a reduction in availability and variations in local outcomes which Government has not yet addressed.

The report also underlines concerns that reductions in treatment services over the past decade have led to an insufficient focus on targeting different cohorts of people affected by drugs and addressing their specific needs. For example, the number of young people in treatment for substance misuse fell by 50% between 2010-11 and 2021-22. Despite high drug use in particular amongst young people, the Government’s strategy makes little reference to age, gender, ethnicity, or how people with different characteristics may experience drug misuse and treatment. The report therefore calls for the Government to properly understand the barriers facing differing cohorts of people who use drugs and ensure that councils are sufficiently targeting these groups.

Chair's comment

Dame Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

“The tragic deaths and harms caused by illegal drug use are a desperate blight on our whole society. Professor Dame Carol Black’s independent review of drugs did so much to articulate the challenges in this area. Her evidence and those of other experts to our inquiry make clear that a steely-eyed focus on investment in treatment and prevention from Government is required to improve the lives of those affected by drugs, and bring down their economic and social costs.

As with our previous alcohol treatment services report, our Committee is having to remind Government that local authorities need long-term certainty to carry out what is some of the most challenging treatment there is to provide. Some progress has been made, in particular in recruiting 1,200 new alcohol and drug workers and bearing down on county lines drugs supply. But deaths continue to rise, drug use showed no reduction in the last 10 years, and the harm caused by illegal drugs is growing. The Government must now dig deep and prove that it is serious about delivering the long-term change implicit in its own strategy.”

Further information

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