New government strategies on substance misuse and criminal justice

December 17, 2021

Over the last fortnight, there have been a series of announcements around substance misuse and criminal justice. In this blog, we briefly look at the details of the announcements.

Drugs strategy

Last week, the government announced a new 10-year drugs strategy to reduce the harms associated with drug use. Collective Voice published a detailed joint response with partners from across the sector. MEAM welcomes the strategy’s approach to treatment and recovery, which builds on many of the key recommendations set out in the Black Review of drugs. A few highlights that are particularly relevant to multiple disadvantage include:

  • Additional investment, including £533 million over the next three years to community treatment and recovery, £115 million to support people with housing and employment needs and £120 million to support people leaving prison and serving community sentences. The money will be used to support people in treatment and recovery, help people through transition periods such as leaving prison and build the skills of the workforce.
  • A focus on drug-related deaths and harm, with drug-related deaths being used as a key metric to measure long-term strategic outcomes of the strategy. This is hugely important for people experiencing multiple disadvantage, as the last decade has seen a 60.9% increase in drug related deaths, and almost 40% of deaths of people whilst homeless in 2020 were related to drug poisonings.
  • Multi-agency approaches, including commitments from the Home Office, the Department of Health and Social Care, the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Work and Pension and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Central oversight will be the responsibility of the new Joint Combating Drugs Unit. We see repeatedly that transitions points between services are often where people ‘fall through the gaps’, and an improved focus on prison, mental health, police and accommodation services working together is welcome.

Substance misuse is one of the primary issues for many people experiencing multiple disadvantage. However, there has been a tendency to give alcohol less attention despite the prevalence of its use. In the last year alone, the number of alcohol-specific deaths has increased by almost 20%. It is vital that there is investment across all substances, including alcohol, as noted in our recent briefing on alcohol and multiple disadvantage.

Prisons white paper

The government has also published a white paper setting out its 10-year strategy for the prison estate and regimes. A few of the key commitments relevant to multiple disadvantage include:

  • Improving resettlement, including a commitment to work with the Department for Work and Pensions to help every prison leaver access universal credit from prison by 2024, the introduction of a resettlement passport to support people to navigate different services on release, and a commitment to explore potential legislative change to avoid damaging Friday releases.
  • Multi-agency approaches, including enhanced support services for people with mental health and substance misuse needs. This includes testing a new model of mental health provision within Approved Premises by 2025, providing treatment and wraparound support and building a clear bridge into community mental health services on release. This is accompanied by better information so that people experiencing multiple disadvantage can have their needs, such as mental ill health or substance misuse, properly recognised and appropriate support put in place as a result.
  • Workforce development including investing in training for prison officers to improve staff understanding of how to support people with mental health and substance misuse needs.

The white paper sets out for consultation a range of questions on the content and implementation of some of the proposals. Responses can be submitted until 4th February 2022.

During the pandemic, substance misuse treatment services, prisons, probation and voluntary sector providers have worked tireless to continue to support people in need of treatment, and people leaving prison. The recent announcements are a first step towards rebuilding systems that have suffered from years of disinvestment. However, within both of these strategies exists a ‘tough on crime’ narrative, which runs the risk of stigmatising people who need help and support. MEAM advocates for policy that reflects a greater awareness of person-centred and trauma-informed approaches and language, which is vital if people experiencing multiple disadvantage are to receive the right support. Nevertheless, the new funding and policy commitments made in recent weeks will enable services to provide more flexible and personalised support to individuals, many of whom will be facing multiple disadvantage.