Help for children who are addicted to drink or drugs is being slashed in the latest round of cuts to public health services that ministers are imposing on councils.
Councils across England have made £2.4m of cuts to specialist drug and alcohol misuse services for children and young people this year. Spending is falling from £40.9m to £38.5m as part of steps taken by local authorities to cope with a £72m Whitehall cut to their public health grant.
The disclosure prompted warnings that highly vulnerable children with complex addiction problems are being denied the treatment they need at a time when under-18 drug use is rising.
Labour, which uncovered the figures from analysis of government documents, said the downward trend was shameful and would prove a damaging false economy in the long-term.
“When we are facing growing addiction problems in society, to be cutting children’s specialist drink and drug services is both shameful and utterly counterproductive, potentially condemning the next generation to serious problems in the future”, said John Ashworth, the shadow health and social care secretary.
Spending on public health programmes across England as a whole is falling from £3.31bn last year to £3.24bn this year – the fifth year in a row budgets that have fallen. Some of the biggest cuts have been in Stoke-on-Trent, down £1.4m; Shropshire, down £488,000; Northumberland, down £330,000 and Surrey, £323,000.
Dr Emily Finch, the vice-chair of the addictions faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said cutting services was misguided given that more under-18s were using drugs.
“These cuts to children and young people’s drug and alcohol services are the latest in a worrying trend that has resulted in treatment services all but disappearing in some areas.
“Despite more young people using drugs than there were five years ago, the amount of young people accessing treatment has fallen by 19%. These figures suggest that fewer children are getting the help they need with their drug and alcohol use”, she said.
“Funding cuts, the increasing numbers of young people using drugs and more young people being arrested for drug offences, adds up to a very concerning situation where vulnerable children exposed to drug use may have no access to help and support.”
The House of Commons Library has verified Labour’s findings. They are based on comparisons of figures for spending in 24 areas of public health contained in annual datasets published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
Labour’s analysis also shows that 82% of councils have shrunk their public health budgets for this year. Some of the biggest falls are in Kensington and Chelsea in London, which has cut its spending by £3.7m or 13%, Northumberland by £2.43m or 12% and Rutland by £220,000 or 12%.
Across England as a whole £27m less is being spent on drug and alcohol treatment services, despite deaths from drug addiction having reached an all-time high.
The budget for sexual health is also down year-on-year by £14.5m and spending on anti-obesity efforts and stop smoking services by £1.4m and £4.9m respectively.
The Department of Health and Social Care declined to comment directly on the cuts, which critics say are at odds with the government’s stated desire to ramp up the prevention of ill-health to keep the NHS sustainable.
“We gave local authorities more than £3bn this year to fund public health services, and our long-term plan for the NHS – backed by an extra £33.9bn a year by 2023/24 – has prevention at its heart”, a spokesperson said.
“Drug and alcohol use in this country is lower now than it was a decade ago, and more people are leaving addiction treatment successfully.”
Ministers have come under growing criticism in recent years for cutting back on public health programmes at a time when lifestyle-related ill-health is growing, especially obesity.
Public Health England revealed on Friday that its budget for 2020-21 would increase by 1% in real terms, the first above inflation rise for many years. Duncan Selbie, its chief executive, welcomed the rise but said that “you wouldn’t write home” about it.