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In for the Long Haul: Collective Voice & the Next Three Years

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Collective Voice launched in August last year with a brief to influence local and national responses to drug and alcohol recovery to the benefit of service users and their communities. We have spent the last six months engaging with Whitehall, local government, service users, clinicians, academics and the media to promote the interests of the sector and those whose life chances are dependent on the continued provision of accessible, evidence-based interventions. We have used this period to test the viability and utility of this approach. Our conclusion is that more than ever this sector and those who depend on it need a voice to speak on their behalf.

Daunting challenges lie ahead. Investment in recovery is under threat as a result of cuts to the Public Health Grant to local authorities in the spending review. Successive Drug Strategies have identified inadequate access to mental health services and routes to employment and housing as major inhibitors of recovery. Yet the cumulative impact of austerity on these services continues to block service users’ recovery aspirations. The link between the prison and community treatment systems is fractured, making relapse and reoffending on release more likely. NOMS is increasingly concerned that disinvestment will restrict the availability of treatment led disposals in courts, placing even further burdens on the prison service. Most alarmingly, drug-related deaths continue to increase as the heroin and crack using population becomes older and frailer, a process exacerbated by the withdrawal of wider social supports which adds to their vulnerability.

Despite this there is much to celebrate: the successes of individuals in achieving their goals, the commitment of the entire sector to deliver evidence-based recovery interventions, the wider societal benefits that flow from the rapid access to treatment that has become the norm in England over the last 15 years, declining drug use, dramatic reductions in drug-related crime, and low levels of HIV infection. It will be as important to nurture these continuing successes in the immediate future as it will be to respond to the emerging challenges.

What has become increasingly clear since August is that there is a widespread appetite for the sector to be able to respond to these challenges in a consistent and measured but robust way, arguing powerfully and cogently for service users to be able to achieve their aspirations, and for communities to remain safe. We have been heartened by the willingness of other third sector providers, the NHS, commissioners and others to work with us to achieve our shared purpose. Similarly, there has been a real willingness amongst those working with the homeless, offenders, young people, and those with mental health problems to engage with us to address the whole range of needs our shared service user groups need.

Just as significant has been the enthusiasm with which colleagues in government have been willing to engage with Collective Voice. The best civil servants know that real expertise lies outside Whitehall in the lived experience of service users and the professional knowledge and expertise of clinicians, managers and practitioners. They are keen to work with us to mitigate our daunting challenges, seek solutions where they are available and protect the achievements of the past 15 years.

Our experience of the last six months has therefore led the eight founding organisations to commit to continue to provide the core funding that enables Collective Voice to exist. Our current expectation is that this will initially be for a three-year period. To provide a sustainable infrastructure and share the financial burden, additional partners will be sought from the larger third sector bodies able to match existing funders’ commitment.

However, Collective Voice’s purpose is not to represent its funders, but to advance the cause of service users by representing the whole treatment and recovery sector. To make this real we will be holding a series of “roundtables” targeted at particular segments of the sector i.e. NHS providers, commissioners, third sector providers and those providing services to young people. We have been working with organisations drawn from each of these segments and we will jointly be inviting any organisation interested in becoming part of Collective Voice’s endeavour to attend a roundtable meeting with colleagues from across the country. This will explore how the particular perspective and priorities facing each facet of the sector can influence and be informed by Collective Voice’s activities. Details of timings and venues will be posted on the Collective Voice website and elsewhere shortly. A separate process will be established to draw on the experience and insights of service users.

Coming together and making common cause to achieve our shared purpose won’t of itself solve the problems the current environment presents to those delivering and benefiting from services. However, to stay aloof from this effort is to abdicate responsibility. This is why the founders of Collective Voice are continuing to commit to this project and why we want as many people as possible to join us.

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Collective Voice is the national charity working to improve England’s drug and alcohol treatment and recovery systems