Drug Treatment Services

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:12 pm on 16th July 2019.

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Photo of Julie Cooper Julie Cooper Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care) (Community Health) 5:12 pm, 16th July 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.

I begin by thanking my hon. Friend Jeff Smith for bringing this debate on this very important subject. As we have already said, the debate is timely, as we hear today that 1,187 people died drug-related deaths in Scotland last year, an increase of 27%. I can say from personal experience of delivering services to drug users in a community pharmacy in my constituency that the problem is not confined to Scotland.

The problem is not new, but there is no doubt that cuts to budgets for addiction support services in recent years have made the situation worse. The cuts to public health budgets that have had an impact on this are downright irresponsible. There have been numerous calls over the years for us to take steps to address the problem, but instead, we prefer to speak about getting tougher in tackling the trade in illegal drugs. Meanwhile, police chiefs are on record as saying that there is no way that police will ever stop addicts buying from dealers, but still we continue to chase drug addicts like criminals.

While other countries move increasingly to a public health approach to drug use, the instinct in the UK is to criminalise addicts. It is worth noting that in Portugal, where drug use has been decriminalised, there has been a steep fall in the number of drug-related deaths and even in the number of drug users. It is time for an intelligent approach here in the UK, an approach that stops drug dealers preying on vulnerable addicts and that recognises that drug addicts are not alien beings, but people in our communities in need of help, not a criminal record.

Drug addicts have families and children who need and love them. My hon. Friend Mr Sweeney spoke movingly of his constituent Chelsea, reminding us of the humanity in all this. In the first instance, addicts need support to stay alive, to safely manage their addiction, to overcome it and to recover their lives.

So what can the Government do? The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has clearly said that maintaining funding of drug treatment services is essential to preventing drug-related death and drug-driven crime in communities. It has also said that if resources are spread too thinly, the effectiveness of drug treatment will suffer, leading to drug-related deaths and drug-driven crime. As a first step, I hope the Minister can tell us that her Government will restore funding to addiction support services, but I also hope she will go much further and consider new ways of tackling the problem to save lives.

Both supervised consumption rooms and heroin-assisted treatments are possible ways to effect some positive changes. Supervised consumption rooms reduce the risk of disease transmission, prevent overdose and also present an opportunity to refer users to appropriate addiction services. Heroin-assisted treatment allows for the provision of pharmacological heroin to dependent individuals who have not responded to other treatments, and involves patients receiving heroin in a clinical setting from a doctor under strict controls.

That has many benefits. It reduces the use of street heroin, which can be of dubious quality and variable strength. It takes away the need for criminal drug dealers, who are preying on vulnerable people and profiting from their addictions. It gets addicts into treatment. It stops desperate addicts resorting to criminal activity to fund their addiction. It improves access to recovery services, HIV treatments and services to address adverse life circumstances. As the police remind us, it also stops drug-taking in open spaces in the community and protects the wider public from contact with used needles.

Both those services reduce pressure on other services in the NHS, police and justice systems, protect the wider public from contaminated needles and ultimately save public money. Cuts to those services are short-sighted in the extreme. Those initiatives are supported by the British Medical Association, and it is a fact that other countries are doing better than us because they have implemented those programmes.

I say to the Minister that we need urgent action. We need mandatory commissioning of drug and alcohol treatment services. We need to amend the Misuse of Drugs Act to enable an innovative, health-focused approach to tackling this problem. We need a Government with the courage and the compassion to act to save lives.