A NURSING union has expressed disappointment after it emerged that drug and alcohol misuse services in Darlington are to be taken away from the NHS and handed to a third-party provider.

The substance misuse and alcohol service for the town was previously provided by the Tees, Esk, Wear Valley NHS Trust, but will be transferred to North-East charity Neca from April 1.

Neca, which is based in Newcastle, was founded in 1974 and is one of the biggest providers of substance misuse and abuse support in the region.

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Themove has been attacked by the Royal College of Nurses (RCN), which said it fears that budget pressures in the NHS will lead to more services being offered to the third sector, making them unaccountable to the public.

The Darlington Drug and Alcohol Action Team, which commissioned the service, has defended the decision, which it said will bring a service that was previously provided by several partner agencies under one leader.

RCN operations manager Estephanie Dunn said: "While Neca has a lot of experience in providing this sort of service, it is nevertheless disappointing to see that once again we are seeing an NHS service being transferred wholesale into the third sector.

"The fact is that Tees, Esk and Wear Valley NHS Foundation Trust was already providing an excellent service, and it does raise the question of whether one of the drivers for this decision was price.

"The RCN Northern region's fear is that we are going to see a lot more salami-slicing of the NHS as cashstrapped health commissioners look to buy in cheaper alternatives. It is not at all clear how these changes will benefit the patient."

Kate Jeffels, Darlington Drug and Alcohol Action Team manager, said: "The substancemisuse and alcohol service was commissioned on a quality basis, with a pre-determined budget and in no way was it a cost-driven exercise.

"Darlington's drug and alcohol services are separate, with individual elements delivered by multiple providers - it was therefore essential that these became integrated, under a lead provider to remain fit for purpose.

"One of our major providers, the Neca has more than ten years experience of delivering highly successful drug, alcohol and offender services in the borough; service users can look forward to real and improved opportunities for recovery."