New figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that drug-related deaths last year hit the highest level since records began in 1993. 4,359 people died from drug poisoning in England and Wales in 2018, up 16% from 2017.

The ONS figures reveal that in Tower Hamlets drug-related deaths (covering drug poisoning and drug misuse) have fallen over recent years, from 86 in 2014/16 to 65 in 2016/18, in contrast to the national figures.

Professor Alex Stevens (Professor in Criminal Justice, University of Kent) told the Today programme (15th August) that “central government cuts have forced councils to slash spending on drug treatment services by 27% since 2015/16, and by over 50% in some areas with the highest rates of drug-related death…”

Despite the shocking figures, the government is only now admitting the impact of their austerity agenda, with new spending pledges from new Prime Minister Boris Johnson on police numbers and health budgets.

The Prime Minister announced plans to hire an additional 20,000 police officers by 2022 – meaning that after years of austerity, policing numbers will only return to 2010 levels over a decade later, by 2022.

The Prime Minister also promised £1.8bn of “new money” for the NHS – money that could go towards supporting vital NHS drug treatment services – but it emerged that half of the money isn’t new funding and there are no details about where the rest of the funding is coming from.

Many drug treatment services are funded by the Public Health Grant. In the 2015 Budget, the then Chancellor announced a £200 million in-year cut to the Public Health Grant, followed by a further real-terms cut averaging 3.9% each year (until 2020/21) in the 2015 Spending Review. The Public Health Grant has seen a £700 million real-terms reduction between 2014/15 and 2019/20—a fall of almost a quarter (23.5%) per person.

Public Health England estimates that each £1 spent on drug treatment will save £2.50 on costs to society.

Mayor of Tower Hamlets John Biggs said: “Drug use has a devastating impact on individuals, families and wider communities, from the tragic loss of life through to the crime associated with the drug trade. These latest figures showing that drug-related deaths have hit a record level in England are deeply distressing.

“While the number of drug-related deaths has fallen here in Tower Hamlets, there is a lot more we need to do to further reduce the number. Tackling drug crime and drug use needs co-ordinated action between the police, the NHS, local councils and many other public services, but the reality is that nearly a decade of austerity is really taking its toll on those vital services.”

Councillor Asma Begum, Deputy Mayor and Cabinet Member of Community Safety and Equalities, said: “The Prime Minister’s pledges on police numbers and the NHS ring hollow and will do nothing to reverse the damage that austerity has done. The new figures on drug-related deaths show just how devastating cuts to public services can be and it’s hard to see how unplanned and unfunded pledges from Boris Johnson will begin to address the reality of drug use and drug crime.”

Councillor Amina Ali, Cabinet Member for Adults, Health and Wellbeing, said: “The Public Health budget funds many vital frontline services and every pound spent has a cumulative benefit to society. The government’s cuts to these budgets are short-sighted and this has an enormous impact on many services that bring real benefits to people across the country.”

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