We promised to keep you updated after the powerful Parliamentary Committee of Public Accounts (PAC) extracted a verbal promise from the Home Office to (finally) evaluate the efficacy of its own drug strategy.
The failure to properly scrutinise the efficacy of drug policy spending is an urgent concern, and the need for such evaluation on a consistent and transparent basis is something Transform has been calling for since 2002, most recently through our campaign for an Impact Assessment of the UK drug strategy.
Well, the PAC has now published its report on those hearings titled "Tackling Problem Drug Use". Despite all the election froth the report was reasonably well reported in the media (including some good duscussion from the BBC's Mark Easton; "Hard drugs and weak evidence").
The PAC report includes some very useful analysis and its recommendations include:
1. The Government spends £1.2 billion a year on measures aimed at tackling problem drug use, yet does not know what overall effect this spending is having. We welcome the Department's commitment to evaluating this spending. From 2011, the Department should publish annual reports on progress against the strategy's action plan. These should set out expenditure on each measure, the outputs and outcomes delivered, and progress towards targets.So the Government is not just being asked to evaluate its current strategy properly, but to do so each year, which, from a PR perspective at least, makes it much harder to gloss over failure than a mega-review every 5-10 years.
2. Around one-quarter of problem drug users are hard-core offenders who resist measures to reduce their offending or 'drop out' of drug treatment. The Department's action plan should set out specific measures directly aimed at driving down offending by hard-core problem drug users for whom the Drug Interventions Programme and drug treatment does not work.This should mean looking at new approaches, including wider provision of heroin prescription which the PAC was particularly interested in (and which is, of course, one of the models of legally regulated availability Transform advocates).
6. Measures to reduce problem drug use by young people have had limited impact. The Department should include reliable and consistent estimates of the number of new young problem drug users each year in its annual report on progress against the strategy. It should evaluate the effectiveness of measures aimed at reducing problem drug use by young people, including long-term residential care services, and should set targets to bring down the overall number of problem drug users, over time.
There used to be just such targets, but they were dropped because they underlined the failure of the Government's current approach. Their reintroduction should increase the pressure to come up with new ways to tackle drug related problems.
I asked the National Audit Office (NAO) what happens next. They explained that:
"The Government is required to publish its [formal] response to the report by the Committee of Public Accounts. This response is called a Treasury Minute.
In the Treasury Minute, the Government will state whether it accepts or does not accept each recommendation in the Committee of Public Accounts report. The Committee of Public Accounts examines the Government response to assess the degree to which the Government responds to recommendations from Parliament.
The National Audit Office examines the commitments made by the Government in the Treasury Minute and follows up the degree to which Government Departments carry out the commitments made in the Treasury Minute. This can result in a follow up examination and report by the National Audit Office. The follow up report may be taken by the Committee of Public Accounts. The Committee can then summon the Accounting Officers (heads of the relevant Government Departments) to account for their role in carrying out the commitments and the resulting impacts."
OK, it's a bit convoluted, but given the Government has already agreed to put in place an evaluative framework, and given the clout of the NAO and PAC, this is potentially a useful route to hold the Government to account. Particularly at a time when public spending is going to be increasingly scrutinised.
All the same, we should probably wait and see what that "Treasury Minute" says first...likely to be at least a month away. So keep watching this space.
It is also useful to see how other countries have addressed the drug policy evaluation issue, and the US, as the chief architect of global drug enforcement policy and the historically dominant influence on the evolution of UK drug policy, warrants particular examination. In 2001 the National Academy of Sciences produced a two hundred page report for the White House Office of Drug Control Policy called 'Informing America’s Policy on Illegal Drugs: What We Don’t Know Keeps Hurting Us'. The report shows that the US faces many similar problems to the UK in evaluating effectiveness, with much of its analysis a clear echo of the new PAC report:
"The committee finds that existing drug use monitoring systems are useful for some important purposes, yet they are strikingly inadequate to support the full range of policy decisions the nation must make."
"The central problem is a woeful lack of investment in programs of data collection and empirical research that would enable evaluation of the nations investment in enforcement."
"Because of a lack of investment in data and research the country is in no better position to evaluate the effectiveness of its enforcement than it was twenty years ago."
"It is unconscionable for this country to continue to carry out a policy of this magnitude and cost without any way of knowing whether or to what extent it is having the desired effect."
There is, of course, a simple and obvious reason why the Government is so reluctant to subject its drug policy to the sort of serious scrutiny that is routine for most other areas of social policy. They know precisely what such scrutiny would reveal, namely that the policy has been a failure on almost all meaningful measures, and offers terrible value for money to the taxpayer, particularly the elements of the budget directed at supply side enforcement. We got some hint of this from the suppressed 2007 Home Office value for money study (that we finally got to see this year after a three year FOI battle), and the 2002 Treasury ‘Stock Take of Anti-Drug Interventions and Cost Effectiveness' (that we also required a protracted FOI saga to access).
The Government are terrified of where meaningful analysis of such historic failings would lead - to a politically unpalatable shift in drug policy away from the criminal justice led punitive prohibitionist paradigm - and instinctively do whatever they need to, by way of obfuscation, spin and propaganda, to avoid facing reality.
Whatever one's take on our approach to drugs, there can never be an excuse for poor evaluation of policy outcomes. Inadequate evaluation means bad policy, and bad policy comes at a huge personal and financial cost to individuals and society at large.