Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Seen but not heard – young people’s treatment issues

In June I spoke on young people’s treatment at the Drugs and Alcohol Today conference. It had been a while since I’d focused on young people’s issues. The new treatment agenda has been built around a vision of recovery that is more relevant to adults (for example, substitute prescribing and abstinence). It is this agenda to which a lot of DrugScope’s own policy work has been responding. I’d not registered some government initiatives, notably the Department for Education’s Positive for Youth programme, including a recently published ‘discussion paper’ on Preventing youth crime and substance misuse. Although, to be fair, it is not exactly prominent on the DfE website and some colleagues in children’s charities were not aware of it either.

In February 2010, we published Young people’s drug and alcohol treatment at the crossroads. Many of its recommendations are still pertinent. For example, we called on government to monitor the impact of funding changes on young people’s services with a focus on local variation; we also made the case for a national policy framework for young adults. But, equally, a lot has changed since then. The Department for Children, Schools and Families is no longer with us (and perceptions are that the Department for Education has a narrower policy focus), Every Child Matters is effectively gone and Public Service Agreements (PSAs) most definitely are. Above all, we are seeing local authority budgets being squeezed to an extent that was not envisaged then, along with a strong emphasis on localism and reducing the involvement of central government.

In December, the London Drug and Alcohol Network (LDAN), part of DrugScope, conducted a survey of young people’s treatment providers. We spoke to 18 London service providers; only three said their current funding situation was safe, and many anticipated substantial cuts. An article in the latest issue of DrugScope’s Druglink magazine shows that this issue has not gone away. Addaction have told DrugScope that some local authorities have imposed funding cuts on their young people’s services of up to 50 per cent.

It’s not all doom and gloom. A lot of the work young people’s services do could fit well with a more public health oriented approach to drug and alcohol issues, when treatment budgets are transferred to the new public health service and local Directors of Public Health. Concerns that the NTA has backed away from young people’s services may partly reflect the fact that much of what those services deliver is not treatment in the normal (or narrow) sense of that word; in financially austere times, it is perhaps understandable that an agency with a strong treatment focus would reconsider that investment. For better or worse, public health has a broader scope. There is also specific provision in the 2010 Drug Strategy for Directors of Public Health and Directors of Children Services to work together, pooling public health and early intervention budgets.

But this is a critical time for the development – indeed survival – of young people’s services. DrugScope will soon be meeting officials in the Department for Education as well as with colleagues at the National Children’s Bureau to ensure that the pressure is maintained. A clear and compelling narrative on young people’s services is currently lacking from government. Nor does there seem to be any mechanism for monitoring what is actually happening to these services on the ground. With the lives of some very vulnerable young people at stake, this cannot simply be a local matter for local people – not least, because with DfE estimates showing that £1 spent on young people’s treatment saves between £5 and £8 in subsequent costs, this is an issue with profound economic and social implications for us all.

Young People’s Drug and Alcohol Treatment at the Crossroads is available at: http://tiny.cc/YP-crossroads

Dr Marcus Roberts, Director of Policy and Membership