Cabinet (Meetings)

First Minister's Question Time – in the Scottish Parliament at 12:03 pm on 9th March 2006.

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Photo of Annabel Goldie Annabel Goldie Conservative 12:03 pm, 9th March 2006

To ask the First Minister what issues will be discussed at the next meeting of the Scottish Executive's Cabinet. (S2F-2156)

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

The next meeting of the Cabinet will still, in my absence, discuss issues of importance to Scotland.

Photo of Annabel Goldie Annabel Goldie Conservative

I hope that drug abuse and, in particular, the use of methadone will be high up the agenda. This is not an issue on which I wish to pick a fight. I have no doubt that the First Minister is as saddened as I am at recent tragic events. My desire has only ever been to shift the debate in a more constructive direction. In that spirit, does the First Minister accept that, to deal with the problems that are associated with methadone, we need to establish the extent of those problems and, therefore, need more information? How many people are on methadone, how long have they been on it and how many of them are looking after children at home?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I will come back to Annabel Goldie's central point in a second, because I welcome the fact that she has asked the question and raised an important issue for the Parliament. It should be of great concern to others, as it is to her and me.

The current figures for methadone prescription in Scotland are about 19,200. In my view—and, I believe, in Annabel Goldie's—we do not have enough information about the individuals who are prescribed methadone and the plans that they are on to end up, eventually, with a drugs-free lifestyle, but we are expanding the Scottish drug misuse database precisely to collect that information and to ensure that practice is more consistent throughout Scotland. That information should be available soon and will give us a chance to apply guidelines more consistently and have a more consistent objective in each individual case.

Over recent weeks, Annabel Goldie has made positive contributions on other areas such as the provision of rehabilitation services and the national data that we hold on them. I hope that, in all of that, she is not suggesting that there is no place for methadone prescriptions in the system. Her leader clearly believes that there is, and I agree with him that we need a flexible approach. However, I believe that Annabel Goldie is genuine in her approach and I hope that, in addition to participating in this exchange, she is willing to meet the Minister for Justice and her deputy soon to try to bring some of the parties together on the issue and to provide a way forward that we can all agree and see through to successful implementation.

Photo of Annabel Goldie Annabel Goldie Conservative

I thank the First Minister for his response. We have made singular progress today, which I appreciate, and I make it clear that my party has never said that there is no place for methadone.

Establishing the extent of the problem is only the first step, because it must be crystal clear that everything that we do is geared towards helping people to end their addiction to drugs, which must mean telling them where they can go for help.

That brings me to the First Minister's response on rehabilitation facilities. In England and Wales, there is a central directory of rehabilitation facilities. Will the First Minister give me a commitment to provide such a directory for Scotland?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I certainly want to do that. I now have figures for the number of establishments that offer such services as well as for the number of individual beds that can be made available. Those beds are in the system in Scotland. Sometimes—correctly—they are used for drug rehabilitation, and they are also used for alcohol rehabilitation and other purposes. As I have said in the chamber on many previous occasions, I believe that there are not enough rehabilitation services in Scotland. There are not enough residential places, and there are certainly not enough services directed at people adopting a drug-free lifestyle at the end of their rehabilitation.

We have allocated additional resources and we are expanding the number of places. I hope that we can go forward. I believe that the cross-party approach that I have just suggested might help us to ensure a consistency of approach over several years. In the meantime, I would be happy to secure a level of detail on the matter for Annabel Goldie as part of this continuing discussion. I am sure that, in the weeks ahead, we will be able to outline the plans that are available in some areas of Scotland to expand the number of places.

Photo of Annabel Goldie Annabel Goldie Conservative

I am grateful to the First Minister and, once again, I wish to say that I think that progress is being made. The key point about this issue was made by Professor Neil McKeganey. He said that people with money can afford choice and that having that choice means that they tend not to use methadone to end their addiction. Although I am partially reassured by what the First Minister has said to me in response to my previous question, I point out that, in the absence of clarification on facilities, the capacity within those facilities and unused capacity in Scotland, we have a two-tier system. Is it not about time that we committed ourselves to ending that two-tier system, under which the well-off go to residential rehab while the masses make do with methadone? Is it not time that we began to give everyone the choice of getting effective help to get off drugs?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I am certain that there will be times in the course of this debate when it will be right for us to make debating points on behalf of our different parties and for policy choices to be made in front of the electorate and debated in the Parliament. I am also certain that there are times when, if at all possible—and as was perhaps pioneered by the former Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Forsyth—we should rise above party politics on the issue and try to move forward together.

The number of admissions in Scotland was 3,902 at the latest count, I am told. There are problems with the system, and I entirely agree with Annabel Goldie: it is unacceptable that, while some people can buy their way to a rehabilitation place, other people, despite indicating an interest, do not have the necessary resources available. That is the case for the vast majority of problem drug users in Scotland. In many cases, they have to remain on a waiting list.

Some members will perhaps have heard this story before. Not that long ago, I met a family in the north-east of Scotland who had agreed with their daughter that she would go into rehabilitation. The daughter, having made that brave decision, was told that a rehabilitation place would take a year to become available. I regard that as absolutely unacceptable. The outcome was that the parents had to help her to get drugs so that she could keep her lifestyle stable while she was waiting. That is an entirely unacceptable situation in any part of Scotland, and it is one that I am determined to do something about. I hope that, in building on the changes that we have made over recent years, and if we come together, we can provide more permanent solutions on which all parties can agree.