MPs demand closer cross-departmental working on drugs

Policy should be made jointly between DHSC and Home Office, report argues
Dame Diana Johnson Photo:

By Jim Dunton

31 Aug 2023

Watchdog MPs have called for a step-change in government’s work to tackle drug use in society and said that closer collaboration between the Department of Health and Social Care and the Home Office should be at the heart of efforts.

The Home Affairs Committee’s report on drugs, published today, describes current laws as “outdated and in need of reform” and argues in favour of a move away from an “abstinence-only approach” to harm reduction related to drug abuse.

MPs said law enforcement agencies should continue to do everything possible to stamp out the illicit trade in controlled drugs. But they said efforts needed to be bolstered by a stronger public health response to help people escape drug addiction and related criminality.

Dame Carol Black’s independent review in 2021 said the cost of drug misuse to UK society was £19bn a year, with drug-related crime amounting to almost half of that figure.

The government produced its 10-Year Drugs Strategy in response later that year. MPs said that while the plan “rightly emphasises” a change in focus towards a public-health approach, “a significant expansion in the range and availability of health-based interventions” was required for it to have the necessary transformative impact.

MPs said shifting the focus of drugs policy from one “primarily based on criminal-justice principles” required greater joint working in government.

“We believe that this approach would be best supported by making drug policy the joint responsibility of the Home Office and the Department of Health and Social Care, with a minister sitting across both departments,” they said.

In 2021, then-home secretary Sajid Javid announced the creation of a joint drugs combatting unit in response to the Black Review. Home Office minister of state Chris Philp currently includes “combatting drugs lead” among 19 bullet-pointed areas of responsibility on his ministerial profile page.

Neil O’Brien, parliamentary under-secretary of state at DHSC, includes alcohol, drugs and addiction in his brief at the department.

The select committee report also calls for the Home Office and DHSC’s Project ADDER initiative – which aims to reduce drug-related deaths, drug-related offending, and drug use, and to disrupt the supply and trafficking of drugs  –  to be extended across all of England and Wales. Currently it is being piloted in 13 areas of England with those projects set to run until 2025.

Other recommendations include the creation of a national drug-checking service for England to enable people to submit drug samples anonymously by post; piloting a “safe consumption facility”;  and creating a cross-departmental action plan to tackle stigma related to drug treatment and recovery.

Committee chair Dame Diana Johnson said that while the government’s drug strategy was moving in the right direction, “much more meaningful action” was required to tackle the broad range of drug-related problems.

“The criminal justice system will need to continue to do all it can to break up the criminal gangs that drive the trade in illicit drugs. However, it must also recognise that many children and young people involved need to be supported to escape not punished for their involvement,” she said.

“Fundamentally, we need to have the right interventions in place to help people break free from the terrible cycles of addiction and criminality that drug addiction can cause. Simply attempting to remove drugs from people’s lives hasn’t worked. They need the right support to let them deal with addiction, but also psychosocial support and interventions that deal with the underlying trauma that may have led them to drugs in the first place.”

Johnson said the committee’s inquiry had shown members a number of positive, locally-developed schemes that were making a real difference to those suffering from addiction and the wider communities affected.

“The government should learn from the success as it develops best practice that can be implemented nationwide,” she said.

A Home Office spokesperson said the 10-Year Drugs Strategy was a “whole-of-government” approach and that ministers are committed to supporting people who suffer from the clutches of addiction. But they promptly ruled out the recommendation for a pilot to test a safe-consumption facility.

“There is no safe way to take illegal drugs, which devastate lives, ruin families and damage communities, and we have no plans to consider this,” they said.

“Our 10-Year Drugs Strategy set out ambitious plans, backed with a record £3bn funding over three years to tackle the supply of illicit drugs through relentless policing action and building a world-class system of treatment and recovery to turn people’s lives around and prevent crime.”

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