Drugs Policy debate with Diane Abbott

Photo of Diane AbbottDiane Abbott Shadow Home Secretary  1:52 pm, 18th July 2017

Everyone in this Chamber knows that drug abuse casts a long shadow over our society. Whether it is the many thousands of crimes committed by drug users seeking to fund their habit—fully 45% of acquisitive crime is committed by regular heroin or crack cocaine users—the chaos caused in families and communities by drug use, or the lives ruined or cut short by it, the scale of the problem is truly shocking. We have the highest recorded level of mortality from drugs misuse since records began. There are record numbers of deaths from morphine or heroin, and from cocaine abuse. Under this Government, the UK has become the drugs overdose capital of Europe.

According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, one in three of Europe’s overdose deaths—they are mainly related to opioids—occurs in the UK. That is roughly 10 families a day bereaved as a result of illegal drugs—more than are bereaved in traffic accidents. We have an overwhelming economic, moral and public health case for examining this country’s drugs policy.

Labour Members welcome the publication this month of the 2017 drugs strategy, even though it comes two years after the Government’s self-imposed deadline. However, having waited nearly two years for it, we have to confess to being a little disappointed. Let us remember what has happened along the way. Drug rehabilitation centres have been closed; budgets to tackle drug abuse have been cut; key services such as the NHS are under increasing pressure; and there have been cuts to police officers and Border Force guards by the thousand. In the light of these constrained resources, it is not clear how much impact this strategy, in which there is much to welcome in principle, will have.

Official drug strategies always include reducing demand, increasing awareness and education, restricting supply, tackling organised crime and improving treatment and recovery, so those elements, although important, are not new. The Government’s recognition of the importance of evidence-based treatment, recovery and harm reduction is welcome, but what stakeholders, and families and communities up and down the country who are suffering from drug abuse, want to know is whether the strategy is not just old methods in a shinier package. We frequently use the term “war on drugs”; I ask the Minister how exactly we expect to win a war with reduced forces and resources on the frontline.

Responsibility for drug and alcohol treatment was transferred from the NHS to local authorities in 2013, which was undoubtedly a good idea in principle; local authorities are much better placed than central Government to facilitate co-operation between drug and alcohol services, local police, those involved in social and youth work, education and housing and other stakeholders, but sadly local authorities gained those new responsibilities at a time of bone-crunching pressure on their budgets, and this transfer of responsibility meant an end to ring-fenced budgets for drug treatment.

Photo of Diana R. JohnsonDiana R. Johnson Labour, Kingston upon Hull North

I agree exactly with my right hon. Friend, but does she think that when the Government transferred that responsibility to local authorities, they missed a trick by not making it clear that police and crime commissioners and representatives from the criminal justice system should sit on health and wellbeing boards, so that they could provide input on drug and alcohol treatment services?

Photo of Diane AbbottDiane Abbott Shadow Home Secretary

My hon. Friend is exactly right, because the purpose of transferring responsibility to local authorities was that they should bring together all the stakeholders, including police and crime commissioners and the local police.

Photo of John MannJohn Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the vast number of Labour local authorities that, in 2013, took their drug service out of the NHS and gave it to private providers? That includes mine in Nottinghamshire. Should we not have a Labour party position that would stop them doing this?

Photo of Diane AbbottDiane Abbott Shadow Home Secretary

It is unfortunate that many authorities, including many Labour authorities, privatised these services. Privatising them necessarily makes it harder to achieve the co-ordination and co-operation that was the whole point of having these services sit in the local authorities.

Local councils face unprecedented cuts to their funding—anything from 25% to 40% of their entire budget. Is it any wonder that drug-related deaths are increasing when local authorities do not have the funds necessary for comprehensive treatment programmes?

Photo of Norman LambNorman LambLiberal Democrat Spokesperson (Health), Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Commons)

The right hon. Lady has talked about the war on drugs, and how it has been undermined by a lack of resources, but does she favour simply increasing the resources in that war, or a more enlightened approach that involves decriminalisation and, potentially, the regulation of cannabis markets so that we take the criminals out of the market altogether?

Photo of Diane AbbottDiane Abbott Shadow Home Secretary

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. We cannot have a meaningful strategy on drug abuse without looking at the question of resources, but I would be the first to say that it is more complex than simply providing more money.

To give an overview of what local authorities are facing, Barnsley cut its drug and alcohol service by more than a third between 2015-16 and 2016-17. Some services will be unavailable and key drugs practitioners will be made redundant. Staffordshire County Council was forced to make cuts of 45% to its drug and alcohol treatment budget over the past two years, due to its local commissioning group pulling the expected £15 million of NHS funding. Middlesbrough Council, which sadly has one of the highest rates of death from heroin overdoses in the country, cut its budget by £1 million last year.

When the Home Office announced those policies, it correctly said that for every £1 spent on public health, £2.50 is saved. However, instead of helping local authorities to follow that logic, the Government have obliged them to pursue short-term cuts. Some local authorities have tried, and some have been particularly innovative in seeking efficiencies in their public health budgets, but the reality is that too many are looking at significant reductions in services, and some are even privatising services. When it comes to public health, the Government talk a good talk but do not follow through with the resources. I note with dismay that the strategy includes no mention of providing more resources to local authorities, which after all are on the frontline of any strategy against drug use.

Photo of Ruth GeorgeRuth George Labour, High Peak

Bearing in mind the figures that my right hon. Friend has set out—for every £1 spent on public health, £2.50 is saved for the public purse—does she agree that the overall cuts of £85 million to local authorities’ public health budgets are a false economy that are not serving our communities, or even the Exchequer?

Photo of Diane AbbottDiane Abbott Shadow Home Secretary

I think that the public health cuts were disastrous. The Treasury, in an extraordinary example of short-term thinking, clawed back the funds that had been promised. The King’s Fund has shown that local authorities in England are being forced to spend more than 5% less on public health initiatives this year than in 2014, and tackling drug misuse in adults will face a 5.5% cut of more than £22 million. Until the Government put their money where their mouth is on the drugs strategy, they will have to accept that some stakeholders remain sceptical.

There was an interesting discussion about alcohol earlier in the debate. Ministers seem to struggle with the notion that alcohol is actually a drug, but the truth is that in absolute terms alcohol causes more harm than any illegal drug. It is shocking that the strategy managed only two paragraphs on alcohol, which is a major killer in Britain today. Professor Ian Gilmore, chair of Alcohol Health Alliance UK, has said that

“we also need a dedicated strategy on alcohol which recognises the breadth of harm done by alcohol. In the UK alcohol is responsible for over 26,000 deaths per year, over 1 million hospital admissions per year, and…alcohol cost the UK economy between £27—£52 billion in 2016.”

In 2015, there were 8,000 casualties caused by drink-driving alone. Professor Ian Gilmore continued:

“The time has come for the Government to take an evidence-based approach to controlling the supply of and reducing the demand for a legal drug which is sold on virtually every street corner, sometimes at pocket money prices.”

Photo of Paul FlynnPaul Flynn Labour, Newport West

Portugal de-penalised drug use in 2001 and, as a result, halved the number of heroin users in the country, and the number of deaths has fallen from 80 a year to 16 a year. In the 30 years in which my right hon. Friend and I have been in the House, can she think of any initiative by any Government that has reduced drug harm so spectacularly?

Photo of Diane AbbottDiane Abbott Shadow Home Secretary

My hon. Friend is a passionate proponent of decriminalisation, and I think that he makes his own case.

The strategy claims that the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 has been hugely successful in stopping the proliferation of legal highs. It is true that in the first six months since the Act came into force nearly 500 people were arrested. However, as various drug charities suspected, despite those measures demand for the substances continues to increase. So-called legal highs have simply been pushed into the black market or on to the internet, which I suspect is why the Government have in the same breath claimed that they will focus on eliminating the vast range of problems that these substances cause. That exposes something that the Opposition made clear during the passage of the Act: legislation is effective only if there is a wider strategy in place.

The strategy has now been produced, but meanwhile legal highs are more dangerous than ever, affecting the poorest and most vulnerable in society. It remains the case that too many people, particularly women, go to prison without a drug habit and leave with a drug habit. I believe that Ministers, working with the Ministry of Justice, could do a great deal more to make our prisons drug-free zones. It is an elementary issue, but one that the Government continue to fail to address.

I am sure that most Members were as alarmed as I was last year by CCTVfootage of a drone making deliveries to a prison. That is the favoured manner of getting contraband, in the form of mobile phones, weapons and drugs, into our prisons. There are no easy answers, but if there are not enough guards to guard the prisoners, I find it hard to believe that they could devote much time to searching one another or taking down drug-mule drones. My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Justice has repeatedly said that the decimation of prison officer numbers under the Conservatives is a key reason for the Government’s inability to stem the growing influx of drugs into prisons. What specific extra staffing resources will be given to prisons to enable officers and prison authorities to meet the objectives of the new drugs strategy?

The Minister referred to global issues and to the international war on drugs, but she will be aware that it is largely regarded as failing. We would like to hear how Ministers plan to make the international war on drugs more successful than it has been. There are some aspects of the strategy that we welcome. For example, it is excellent that greater efforts will be made to provide young people with effective, evidence-based drug prevention education. As a parent, I think that most parents are unable to keep up with the kinds of drugs that young people are discovering nowadays. As I said earlier, it is very important that prisoners are given more help to get into recovery and that their progress is monitored closely. We need far clearer and more explicit guidelines on the value of opioid maintenance treatment which, if properly implemented, allows many people with opioid dependence to live their life and, crucially, prevents overdoses.

Another important aspect of the strategy is its recognition that people can slip through the cracks of dual diagnosis of mental health problems and problem substance use. I am glad that the strategy, at least in principle, wants those people to be better catered for, rather than shunted between services that are reluctant to take on complex and demanding cases.

There is a tendency to regard drug use and abuse as a personal failure. We in the Opposition would rather regard it as a societal failure. We say that any drug strategy has to look at the broader picture, including what is happening in society and the resources available. Although we welcome the drug strategy in principle, we question whether the resources or the will is there to make its worthy aims real and manifest.

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