Drugs bust?

There can be no doubt that the government wants to tackle the drugs
problem. Although its drugs tsar’s star quickly burnt out, the
government swiftly replaced Keith Hellawell with an updated drugs
strategy two years ago. This strategy created the context for the
National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse (NTA), a special
health authority created in 2001, to oversee drug treatment
services at a national level in England. Parallel structures were
set up in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Like most government bodies, the NTA has targets to meet: to double
the number of people in effective, well-managed treatment to
200,000 in 2008 (from 100,000 in 1998); to increase the proportion
of people who successfully complete or continue treatment; and to
reduce average waiting times for treatment services and

The NTA says that it is on track to meet the 2008 deadline: in
2002-3, there were 149,000 people in effective treatment. It is
also confident about the numbers completing treatment.

Reducing waiting times has proved trickier. On average, waiting
times are down by about one-third, but the multiple targets (each
service has a different one) typically aim for a two-thirds

Targets aside, how is the NTA performing three years on? Leaving
out the whole controversy around whether the agency should include
alcohol within its remit, opinion is still divided.

Richard Tamlyn, head of consultancy at drugs information charity
DrugScope, says: “The NTA cops a fair amount of criticism, some of
it inappropriate.” He thinks professionals need to remind
themselves of the context into which the NTA was born. “It came
along at a time of great expansion in the treatment field, when the
government was trying to put a central focus on all issues of
drugs. It had an enormous job to do and it’s moving forward.”

Tamlyn believes that the NTA initiative on models of care has been
its most significant achievement. Models of care is equivalent to a
national service framework for drug treatment services, aiming at a
co-ordinated approach to treatment.

For the first time this established an over-arching principle as to
how the different aspects of drug treatment fitted together, giving
commissioners a clear picture of what they needed to commission in
their area. “It pushed on inter-agency co-ordination,” says Tamlyn.
“It encouraged service providers to talk to each other and think
about the whole picture and how users move through the

Tamlyn’s team helps agencies implement models of care. He concedes
that the degree of co-ordination varies across the country. “In
some areas agencies are working well together, but you don’t see
widespread care co-ordination yet. Many are functioning well in
terms of interagency referrals.”

In other areas, though, he sees a silo mentality.

“Someone presents to a service and it grabs hold of them rather
than assessing whether they are appropriate for that service,” he
says. “The thinking is that we must offer them something.”

This leads to concern that people have been trundled through to
specialist services whether they need them or not, blocking them
for those in greater need. One way for the NTA to meet its waiting
times target is to make sure users are signposted to the right

Others are less sure about the success of models of care. Indeed,
some critics go so far as to say that it is the NTA’s weakest area.

Richard Kramer, head of policy at social care charity Turning
Point, has his feet firmly in this camp. “I think it has found it
difficult to implement in practice, which means people aren’t
getting sufficiently co-ordinated care. And because information is
not being shared across agencies, they still get repeat assessments
and referrals.”

Kramer argues there is a big difference between setting a national
framework and implementing it on the ground so that the individual
gets better co-ordinated services. “There’s a long way to go,” he

Turning Point wants the NTA to set up a national steering group to
identify all the different agencies – from housing to education,
employment to GPs – involved in users’ lives. It also wants to link
government programmes, such as Supporting People, to treatment

Tamlyn agrees. “People don’t just need support from specialist
services,” he says. “Tackling substance misuse needs to be part of
all government agendas.”

This is a widely held view. The whole philosophy behind models of
care is about drug treatment but the solution can’t be made up of
just one part. People need to have hope in other aspects of their
lives – hope, for example, that they can get a job or live
somewhere decent.

Peter Martin, chief executive of national drug and alcohol
treatment charity Addaction, says: “We need to help people reinvent
their lives and I don’t see how models of care will do that unless
we include other agencies. The drugs bit that we work with isn’t as
important as what they are doing with the rest of their lives. It’s
left to the providers to make that leap. Addaction experiences
massive difficulties with homeless clients. We can get everything
else in place, but we can’t produce housing.”

Martin is also concerned that the NTA is too bureaucratic. “We
wanted a raging, charging bull and what we have got is becoming a
white elephant,” he says. “We needed it to be small and
authoritative to break away from the we/they dichotomy of the
people who deliver services and the people responsible for
commissioning them. But it hasn’t brought the field together to get
behind the national drugs strategy.”

And there is another, more philosophical concern for Martin. He
fears there is an over-reliance on putting people on substitute

“Addaction works to help create independence,” he says. “There is a
range of treatment options, but the NTA seems to think the answer
is getting people on prescriptions of methadone. It’s short-term
expediency to get people into treatment. What happens to them next?
Where are the additional rehab places we need? It focuses on the
medical model and that’s pretty dated. There are more productive
ways of working with people.”

This is a misconceived view, according to NTA’s chief executive
Paul Hayes. “We see abstinence from illegal drugs as the eventual
goal for the vast majority. But for large numbers of people with
dependency problems, maintenance prescribing will be the most
appropriate effective treatment.”

Hayes agrees, however, with the criticisms levelled at models of
care. “It needs to be broader and include the social integration
agenda. It’s difficult to get it right and some places are doing it
better than others.”

As for the bureaucracy accusation, he holds his hands up: “We are a
bureaucracy, we can’t hide from that. We exist to try to make sure
that money spent on treatment is spent wisely.”

He cites an Audit Commission study into the NTA’s work in the North
East that found it had made a significant contribution to improving
the effectiveness of drug treatment. “The conclusion I draw is that
although we do place an additional burden on the system, we are
excellent value for money.”

Hayes is the first to admit that people think the NTA lacks teeth,
but says: “Theoretically, we don’t have a lot of power; neither do
the Audit Commission and other bodies across government. But we can
work with all the key players to persuade them to do the right
thing – they know our connections and that we have political
support. We have more than enough levers to pull to correct bad
practice when we find it.”

But with a review of all arm’s-length bodies in the Department of
Health about to report, can he be so confident of government

“Our understanding is that the review acknowledges the significant
contribution from the NTA and that it will continue at least until
the end of the current drug strategy in 2008,” he says. “Whether it
goes beyond that is another matter.” CC The publication of the
alcohol harm reduction strategy for England last March came more as
a relief than a celebration. After six years of waiting we finally
knew what we were dealing with. Or so we thought. The reality of
the strategy is that it has promise but no promises. Nothing is
ruled out, but nothing much is ruled in either.

Affectionately known as AHRSE, the strategy is enigmatic in the
area of social care. While there is a welcome emphasis on the need
for health service staff to be trained to identify and deal
appropriately with problematic drinkers, there is no parallel
reference to the wide range of social care staff whose caseloads
are complicated by alcohol.

The lack of social care involvement makes the proposed audit of
service needs even more crucial. The disappointment felt by local
specialist services at having to wait another 12 months could be
offset if the audit results in the dovetailing of alcohol treatment
with other forms of care in a way that reflects drinking’s role in
daily problems.

Although work has not yet begun on the audit of services and needs,
the government has taken its first steps towards alcohol-specific
models of care. This should go a long way towards giving social
workers and others the knowledge and responsibility they might be
expected to have, and puts into context some of the recommendations
made by last year’s commission on the future of alcohol

So there is plenty of scope for action, but little impetus in
taking the strategy forward. By contrast, the pillar of the
strategy highlighting the role and responsibilities of the alcohol
industry is getting a great deal of attention. There is a growing
realisation that the government’s confident assertions that the new
regime due to be introduced by the Licensing Act will, at a stroke,
eliminate the scourge of binge drinking and its after-effects are

This is matched by an understanding that the alcohol industry’s
actions do not always match its rhetoric when it comes to cleaning
up its act. By far the most vigorous activity in moving the
strategy on occurs in the discussions between government and
industry in pursuit of the “progress” that is to be reviewed early
in the next parliament.

Whatever the private conversations, alcohol is a very public
problem. The current emphasis on binge drinking provides a useful
focus for the debate but it is by no means the whole story. The
hidden harm often seen only by the family and their supporters
needs to be brought into the conversation and those who know most
about it given a leading role.

A few weeks ago Tony Blair asked the alcohol industry to set up an
event at which he could remind it of its responsibilities. That’s
good news, but the industry can only ever be part of the problem
rather than the solution. Tackling the problem has to involve
something more than just a private debate between industry leaders
and ministers. When will the discussions with leaders in health,
social care, probation and local planning happen?

A great deal can be done at a local level. This week Alcohol
Concern launched a toolkit for developing local alcohol strategies.
Part of this process involves building trust, confidence and energy
to tackle problems across local communities and services.

A national strategy surely needs to instil a similar energy and
confidence, as well as direction, into the key players at national
level. After six years that is something we are still waiting for.

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