Elite drug crime unit at serious risk as Government cuts funds

An elite police unit in Yorkshire which helps drug-addicted offenders to get clean and steer clear of crime faces an uncertain future in the wake of deep Government spending cuts.

West Yorkshire Police’s Drugs and Offender Management Unit has earned praise from the Home Office for the way it tracks some of the region’s most harmful and prolific criminals.

But funding for its drug testing programme has been reduced by 14 per cent this year, and Ministers have plans to cut it by a further 14 per cent in 2012-13.

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Ten detention officers have already left the unit and today police authority members will hear that as many more will have to depart over the next 12 months to cover the shortfall.

The worrying picture is outlined in a report by West Yorkshire Chief Constable Sir Norman Bettison, which warns that the unit will be at “serious risk” if its budget shrinks further.

The cuts coincide with Government plans to reduce the number of prison places, leaving police and probation officers with fewer resources at a time when they will have more criminals to monitor in the community.

West Yorkshire Police Authority chairman Mark Burns-Williamson said: “Whilst obviously we want to do the best we can to protect neighbourhood policing in particular, it was always going to be the case that, when we are talking about a shortfall of nearly £100m across the force over the next four years, other services that sit behind the front line like this would be affected.

“I think the concern is not only about the cuts in our own funding, but also cuts in other agencies like the Probation Service and the Prison Service.

“We have to work doubly hard with partners to try to maintain a level of service that deals with the worst offenders. It is going to be more and more difficult to do.”

The unit, which was visited by Policing Minister Nick Herbert in February, was set up in 2003 to steer addicted offenders away from a return to crime by putting them on recovery programmes.

Run from Leeds, with teams based across the county, it specialises in managing criminals “who present the highest risk of harm to communities”.

Mike Quinn, a West Yorkshire probation officer and national vice-chairman of the union Napo, said: “We fully support any provisions to make sure that people are sentenced properly but if costly prison places are going to be reduced and offenders are going somewhere else, the resources have to follow them.

“Surveillance measures like drug testing mean that we can target people appropriately. Arguing that you can reduce prison places while reducing funding for community justice is nonsensical.”

Home Secretary Theresa May, who yesterday met officers from the region’s police forces in Wakefield, said: “We have been clear and have maintained our position in relation to drug programmes but, of course, we are having to make cuts across the board in public sector spending. What we want to do is make sure that, when cuts are being made, they are being made in the best way possible and to ensure that effective services continue, particularly around collaboration.

“We need to save money by getting rid of duplication but also collaborate to improve service.

“We have a new drug strategy, which we have published. We want to put in extra effort to ensure we can take people off drugs and to ensure they do not go back on to drugs.

“We are taking whole new approach to organisations working with addicts, introducing payment by results to focus on reducing the number of addicts who reoffend.”