The impact discarded needles and ‘drugs rubbish’ have on the local community was in the spotlight today as councillors debated what needs be done to tackle the growing problem in Wrexham.
Members of the the Safeguarding, Communities & Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee met this morning to discuss the result of nine months of detailed work carried out by a Task and Finish group to examine Wrexham’s problem.
The committee considered a weighty report that pulls no punches on local issues; examining the problem of improperly disposed drug paraphernalia, and the impact it could have on communities.
Composed by the ‘Unsafely Discarded Needles Task and Finish Group’, the detailed report notes: “In Wrexham, there are ongoing issues with encampments which produce large amounts of associated drug litter, including human waste, creating no-go areas for the public, as well as many areas in the town centre and communities close to the town centre where drugs litter is regularly found.
“I regularly find 30-40 needles on a daily basis. I have heard some say that Wrexham hasn’t got a problem, but I think they are walking around with their eyes closed. I see it, other councillors see it, the public sees it. In the worst affected areas, people in our communities, especially the most vulnerable like the elderly, young families, feel intimidated and harassed by the people causing the problems. ”
Reports from unnamed Councillors are included about various areas of town, who say: “I could have picked up around 200 needles in two minutes and then there are the used condoms and human faeces that go with it.”
During the meeting data was provided in terms of needles given out in North Wales, with a context of a per-authority basis. However several times the meeting was told that discarded needles were a result of ‘unintended consequences of government policies’.
David Roberts from Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board (BCUHB) told the meeting how previously packs of 12 needles were given out even if service users required one, and now a ‘bespoke service’ was offered by pharmacies where people are given the number of needles they ask for.
Local member for the Stansty ward, Cllr I David Bithell asked for clarity on the policy, stating: “If someone came in and asked for 20 would you supply them?”
The representative from the Health Board replied: “Yes, basically.”
Cllr Bithell continued onto say: “I was quite staggered when I read the report on number of needles in North Wales, residents of Wrexham would be alarmed to hear the details. Wrexham is the largest town in North Wales, and we are trying to attract business and visitors. Agencies need to consider the wider impact, we need a town that is safe and attractive to secure success.”
He added he would like to see a reintroduction of a needle exchange programme with one clinic enabling the exchange system.
The BCUHB representative told the meeting that around 50,000 needles are given out as part of treatment package, with diabetics being the example given. Around 900,000 were attributed for ‘illicit’ purposes and were un-trackable.
Mr Roberts added that sthey were ‘fairly sure’ needles were coming back, however no barcodes or numbers were on the needles nor were they counted to see how many were returned. Therefore the scale of the problem was unknown.
Cllr David A Bithell explained how Wrexham Council’s Street Scene teams do not always carry ‘sharps bins’ around, adding: “One thing we may have to do is to have more sharps bins and collection points. We need to make sure staff on the front line have adequate resources to do that.”
Eyebrows were raised by some councillors to the advice to pop needles in coffee tins or similar and then throw them away, with that policy being described as a ‘serious hazard for the recycling teams’.
Cllr Phil Wynn, who has spoke of problems in his ward of Brynyffynnon before, described how he had observed a ‘drug drop off’ by two people he suspected of being drug users, who had collected needles to use.
Describing how he followed to them to a nearby primary school, he said he then saw them ‘inject into their groin’ in public view.” He added that statistics indicate 5,000 needles used a week in Wrexham, and ‘every needle may involve a Class A drug’.
Cllr Brian Cameron said it was ‘incredible’ there was no agreed policy over discarded needles.
The meeting was told the issue of needle and pharmacy policy was top down from Welsh Government, and therefore agencies who ultimately were funded by Welsh Government were also enacting that policy so ‘hands were tied’.
Cllr Hugh Jones described the situation as ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune” with Cllr Bill Baldwin adding he was ‘alarmed’ that Welsh Government wanted to open more pharmacy services which in turn he believed would distribute more needle. Cllr Brian Cameron said he would want ‘stiffened up service agreements’ with pharmacy distribution to control the number of needles given out.
Cllr I David Bithell noted on that point: “The Welsh Assembly need to be responsible to fund Street Scene and cleaning up or we are drawing down our own budgets, that is not fair on residents of Wrexham. The Welsh Assembly should be funding and supporting our Street Scene teams and departments.”
Cllr David A Bithell said: “The Council do a lot of good work in the community. Some private organisations need to take responsibility themselves, and some of the issues highlighted are on private land.”
Cllr Wynn agreed, saying: “The Environment Department have taken their fair share of cuts. To get grass cut, the bins emptied, our resources are stretched. With this issue if we pass the cost to Street Scene, other services will have to suffer to allow needles to be collected in a timely fashion.” Later he said he felt it was ‘left to chance’ on how needles are collected.
Cllr Jones informed the meeting that in terms of private land work was taking place with North Wales Police after taking legal advice. Anti social behaviour legislation from 2014 is likely to be used via community protection notices to enforce action on private land, adding: “Owners of private land have responsibly to ensure their land does not become a hazard.”
Cllr Jones also outlined £11.2m of funding that is allocated to deal with substance abuse in North Wales, and said it was the only funding available.
He said: “It is important to recognise the work we need to do on prevention, if we are only dealing with consequences, we will keep spending on the sticking plasters, if we fail to spend on prevention, the problems will build up year on year.”
Cllr O’Toole tried to refocus the meeting stressing that the report was ‘groundbreaking and different’ due to it taking a viewpoint from the perspective of a local resident, saying she feels strongly on ‘protecting the rights and health of those who are not addicts’ who are the ‘victims of unintended consequences’ of health programmes that end up with discarded needles.
Cllr I David Bithell asked Cllr O’Toole if anyone had been accidentally injured via needles, and was told it was not encountered in the timeframe of the report.
Cllr Baldwin prefaced his point by saying it would upset some, saying: “The £11.2m spending does not seem to be working as the needle use is growing. The services are not fit for what they are doing.”
Cllr Colin Powell did point out that the increase could be an indicator of success of the services as they are more accessible, and stopping that could have ‘consequences far worse’.
Cllr Baldwin disagreed, saying: “The growing number of drug addicts is a good thing?!” The Chair, Cllr Rob Walsh, moved the meeting on saying he did not believe that was the intention of Cllr Powell’s point.
The outcome of the meeting was a range of recommendations unanimously supported by vote by the committee members that should see further lobbying of Welsh Government regarding the need for Substance Misuse Strategies to address the adverse community consequences of substance misuse services.
Funding will be explored to to address drugs litter in Wrexham, along with requests to associated stakeholders to make them more aware of the issues and all but pressure them into action over the problems.
There will also be a more formal response to the Committee for consideration at its February 2017 meeting which should see how the recommendations are being taken forward and firmed up to actions for the people of Wrexham.
The meeting was notable for being the first ever Scrutiny Committee broadcast via the Council’s webcast service. Due to the subject matter or perhaps as it was ‘on TV’ it did appear more serious, lacking the usual wit and interchanges – although one Councillor’s comment about Rhos prompted reminders it was being filmed.
The Chair Cllr Rob Walsh described the meeting as a ‘landmark’, and welcomed viewers in Wrexham and around the world.