Starmer: Government cuts to blame for drug-related deaths and ‘county lines’

Elliot Chappell
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Keir Starmer has argued that government cuts to the criminal justice system have meant that “the drug problem has got a lot worse in the last ten years”.

Commenting on plans unveiled by the government today to crackdown on ‘county lines’, which Boris Johnson has said could include stripping offenders of passports and driving licences, Starmer said his party will wait to see the details.

“There’s no doubt that the drug problem has got a lot worse in the last ten years, particularly issues like drug-related deaths and the county lines, which are destroying lives,” the Labour leader told Sky News this afternoon.

“The question for the government is not just over the plans today but the money that they have taken out of the system. Millions and millions of pounds have been taken out of the system over the years and that has caused a lot of the problems.”

“So I want to see the plans, I want to see the strategy, I want the Prime Minister to take responsibility for the money that’s been taken out of criminal justice in the last ten years that’s caused many of these problems.”

Ministers have described the strategy announced by the government today as the “largest ever investment in treatment”. Johnson said this afternoon that the plan will provide rehab for 300,000 drug users.

Other measures set to be introduced include using dealers’ seized phones to message clients and discourage drug use. Various figures for the additional spending have been reported, ranging from £580m to £900m.

“Overwhelmingly, the problem is caused by 300,000 people whose lives are simply chaotic, who are torn apart by their own addiction. You’ve got to help them, you’ve got to do treatment. But you’ve also got to come down hard on the county lines gangs,” Boris Johnson said.

The Prime Minister said he wanted to break the cycle of arresting and imprisoning the same drug users “time and time again, and that the strategy would also “come down tougher” on so-called lifestyle drug users.

But, while policy lead at Release Laura Garius welcomed additional spending on treatment, she warned that the focus on punishment for supplying or using drugs “ensures that the UK remains firmly in a failed war on drugs”.

Marie Edmonds, who founded charity Aspirations Program to help people with addictions recover, said that ministers were proposing more community-based drug rehabilitation orders but argued that they “don’t work”.

She instead advised that the government make available facilities for detox with specialist treatment providers where addicts could address the root causes of their issues. Spending on treatment for drug abuse fell by 17% in the four years up to 2018-19, with a 28% cut for young people’s services.

The launch of the ten-year plan by ministers today came after after Commons speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle announced that he will be calling in police over “deeply concerning” allegations of cocaine use in the Palace of Westminster.

“Action on drugs and crime is long, long overdue as the government has allowed serious problems to grow over the last few years. A drug use has increased by 27% since 2010, drug-related deaths were the highest since records began last year, and the number of children referred as suspected victims of county lines has increased by more than 30% since 2019,” Yvette Cooper said earlier today.

The newly appointed Shadow Home Secretary said more than £100m has been cut from treatment services, and that cuts to policing budgets across the country have allowed “gangs to grow, dealing to increase and demand to soar”.

She added: “Drug use is up, serious violence is up, anti-social behaviour is up. More and more offenders are getting away with their crimes as overall prosecutions have plummeted. Any action from the government must be substantial enough to undo the damage they have caused.”

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