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Drug-related Deaths

– in the Scottish Parliament on 7th January 2020.

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Photo of Monica Lennon Monica Lennon Labour

1. To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that drug-related deaths are continuing to increase. (S5T-01931)

Photo of Joe FitzPatrick Joe FitzPatrick Scottish National Party

Each and every death is a tragedy, and tackling this issue is a priority for me and the Government. We set up the drug deaths task force specifically to advise on measures to reduce deaths, and it will meet for the third time next week. We are also working with local services to implement our action plan to deliver our strategy to reduce alcohol and drug harm in Scotland.

That is supported by investment of £800 million, including an additional £10 million in 2020-21.

We will continue to pursue the options that are available to us within current devolved powers to reduce deaths, but we also want to work constructively with the United Kingdom Government on aspects that remain reserved. I have written again to the Home Secretary to invite her to attend a drug summit in Glasgow to discuss this vital issue.

Photo of Monica Lennon Monica Lennon Labour

I completely agree that each life that is lost to substance misuse is a tragedy. It is to the collective shame of this Parliament and the UK Parliament that more and more lives are being lost. We need co-operation between all parts of Government and our public services to respond to this humanitarian crisis. Tens of thousands of Scots are living in the shadow of addiction, and it is the poorest and most vulnerable who are dying in increasing numbers.

Does the minister accept that there is a desperate need for additional residential rehab beds in Scotland? Despite charities and people in recovery making that clear to him, beds are closing and people are stuck on waiting lists for years. What action is he taking to increase the number of rehab beds?

Photo of Joe FitzPatrick Joe FitzPatrick Scottish National Party

Decisions on the configuration of local services, including residential rehabilitation, are made locally across Scotland, and I am sure that the member is not asking me to centralise those services. We are committed to reviewing the demand for residential services and to support the development of more effective services across Scotland.

It is important that there is a range of services available where and when people need them, and they should be focused on person-centred care. In the past number of months, I have spent a fair amount of my time visiting a range of local rehabilitation services, some residential and some community based. There is some really good practice in various places across Scotland.

I am keen that we look at that evidence, see how it fits in and ensure that people genuinely have access to the services that will work for them as individuals. We have to remember that this is about individual people and saving those lives.

Photo of Monica Lennon Monica Lennon Labour

I appreciate that the minister has undertaken many visits, but he must see that the problem is that there are simply not enough services. He must take this seriously and properly fund the third sector and the front-line workers who are the difference between life and death for people who are trying to get off drugs.

Does the minister accept the recommendations that were presented to him by Faces and Voices of Recovery Scotland when he got the FAVOR UK report last year?

Aside from residential rehab, we know that supervised injecting facilities will help to preserve lives, and I urge the Tories to accept the evidence on that. The Lord Advocate has acknowledged that he has powers to extend the scope of Police Scotland’s current de facto decriminalisation policy to drugs other than cannabis. That surely can be extended to safe and supervised injecting facilities. Does the minister agree with me and the Scottish Drugs Forum that the Lord Advocate can grant immunity from prosecution to anyone working in a safe injecting facility? Is that an approach that the minister would support?

Photo of Joe FitzPatrick Joe FitzPatrick Scottish National Party

The member made a number of points there. The FAVOR UK report came out at a similar time to reports from the UK Parliament’s Health and Social Care Committee and Scottish Affairs Committee. I have made it clear that all three of those reports contain important information that the drug deaths task force will continue to consider as part of its wider work.

On safer injecting facilities, the member is absolutely right that there is good international evidence that safe consumption facilities will save lives. They have become standard health practice around the world. Most recently, advances have been made in Dublin, which has gone to the next stage of having a safer injecting facility.

Clearly, it is one of the bizarre aspects of devolution that, although we all agree that this is a public health issue and public health is devolved, the levers that allow us to take these public health approaches remain reserved to Westminster. I do not want to have a constitutional battle about this; we should be able to work together to take this forward and make a difference.

The member will be well aware that there is a line between the Government’s powers and the Lord Advocate’s powers, and it would not be appropriate or within my remit for me to direct the Lord Advocate to take action on this. The Lord Advocate has made clear that the law in this area is clear and, if he were to make such a direction, he would be going directly against the law as it stands in the reserved powers and against the wishes of the UK Government and Parliament. He has been clear that, if we want to make such a change, it should be a policy change. The evidence is becoming increasingly strong for a public health approach. Now that the UK election is out the road and the dust has settled to some extent, I hope that this will become a priority for the UK Government and it will realise that, not just here in Scotland but across the UK, this is a public health issue and it should be seen as such. We should be taking the public health measures that are evidenced not just in Europe but across the globe.

The Presiding Officer:

There is a lot of interest in this subject. There are five members who wish to ask further questions, so I ask all members, and the minister, to keep questions and answers relatively concise.

Photo of Annie Wells Annie Wells Conservative

This week, I wrote to the Prime Minister, asking him to make drug deaths his top priority in Scotland, ahead of everything else. Will the minister agree with me, by sending a cross-party political message, that drug deaths should be every politician’s main focus in 2020 and should come ahead of a section 30 order, Brexit and all the other distractions that have stopped us from saving lives?

Photo of Joe FitzPatrick Joe FitzPatrick Scottish National Party

I would certainly welcome the Prime Minister parking Brexit in order for us to focus on that matter, but we live in the real world, so I do not expect the Prime Minister to do that.

However, that does not prevent the relevant UK ministers from working with us—it does not need to be a constitutional issue. That is why I have written to the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, asking her to work with us on taking the matter forward and on jointly doing everything that we can to save lives in Scotland and elsewhere across the UK.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

Given the seriousness and urgency of the issue, will the minister join me in welcoming the emerging cross-party consensus that is calling for transfer of the necessary powers to tackle this critical issue effectively? Given the high number of drug-related deaths in Dundee, will the minister give serious consideration to ensuring that Dundee is at the forefront of the roll-out of new and innovative approaches?

Photo of Joe FitzPatrick Joe FitzPatrick Scottish National Party

I very much welcome the growing cross-party support that has emerged, calling on the UK Government to devolve the powers that are necessary to tackle drug deaths in Scotland effectively. It is a public health issue. When the Scottish Affairs Committee discussed it, there was cross-party support for taking a public health approach and for decisions on the matter to be made in the Scottish Parliament by members from across the chamber.

We absolutely have to tackle the matter as a public health issue across Scotland, including in Dundee. Of course, I am aware of the particular efforts that are being made in Dundee and the challenges that are faced there. That is an area where we would hope to make significant improvements with the powers to take further action. Dundee will be at the forefront, given the particular circumstances there.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

The minister referred to the Scottish Affairs Committee’s report. That committee made it clear that the Scottish Government has the power to do more than it is doing at present. Scottish Liberal Democrats have consistently said that people who are caught in possession of drugs for personal use need treatment, not prison sentences—especially given that 50 per cent of people leaving HMP Addiewell have tested po sitive for illegal drugs. Has the minister examined the pilots in the Thames valley and in north Wales, where the police have focused on signing people up for treatment, and will the Scottish Government now end the destructive response of imprisoning people for misusing drugs?

Photo of Joe FitzPatrick Joe FitzPatrick Scottish National Party

That is one of the areas of focus of the drug deaths task force’s work. We are working with Police Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. It is crucial that we have all the partners round the table, in order that we can take that forward. Liam McArthur is well aware of my views on the issue.

There are good examples in other parts of the world of a move away from a justice-based approach to a public health approach having made a difference.

Clearly, we need to be able to do that in practice. I can say that we want to take that approach, but we need to see how it works in practice, which is why one of the drug death task force’s streams of work is looking specifically at that area. We are on the same page: clearly, we all want to move faster.

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

The FAVOR—Faces & Voices of Recovery—UK report highlighted the fact that there is a crisis in relation to rehabilitation beds across Scotland: their numbers have been cut dramatically in many alcohol and drug partnerships. The relevant powers lie with Scottish Government ministers. Therefore, I will ask two key questions. First, has the minister looked across Scotland at how many requests have been made to access those beds? Secondly, given that we have seen such dramatic cuts, will he consider establishing a fund to increase dramatically the number of drug and alcohol rehab beds?

Photo of Joe FitzPatrick Joe FitzPatrick Scottish National Party

As I said earlier, one of our areas of work is looking at the need and demand for residential rehabilitation services across Scotland, and at a range of different methods. The Government is looking at those things outwith the task force.

In our action plan on rehabilitation, there is a commitment to ensure that people have access to appropriate treatment. In many cases, rehabilitation is different from what it was 20 years ago, and there are, around Scotland, some fantastic models that are making a difference. We need to allow areas to consider what works for them. However, we need to ensure that, wherever the person lives, if they decide in discussion with their clinician that a particular route would work for them, there is appropriate access to that route. I am not dismissing Miles Briggs’s suggestion, but I need to look at it within the context of funding across Scotland for ADPs and third sector organisations.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

Bereaved families who are watching this meeting will be appalled that the minister and the Tory front bench are making this a proxy for a debate on the constitution. This is about people’s lives—people are dying.

Safe injecting facilities are a small but important part of the big picture. I come to every meeting at which we discuss this serious issue. I am sick and tired of hearing the minister say lots of words that, accumulated, say almost nothing. There is an immediate crisis and people are losing faith in the minister’s ability to lead on it. When will we see action that starts to reduce the number of people who are dying on the streets, only yards from Parliament?

Photo of Joe FitzPatrick Joe FitzPatrick Scottish National Party

I am not sure how much time we have, but I can go through a range of actions that the task force has started to take, which will start to turn things around.

One big area of focus is naloxone. Over the winter months, we have done considerable work to make sure that crucial life-saving injections of naloxone are available at the point of need—in particular, for the most vulnerable members of society, such as people who use homelessness shelters. We are working with the Scottish Ambulance Service to get to the point at which its staff are able not only to administer naloxone—thereby saving a life in an overdose situation, as they currently do—but also to issue the person who has had the non-fatal overdose with naloxone to take home, because a person who has had a non-fatal overdose remains at high risk of having another overdose. We are also in discussions with Police Scotland about police carriage of naloxone. I also hope that availability of naloxone in a nasal spray will help us to move in a positive direction.

We are tight for time, but I note that the Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans will bring forward proposals for a debate in the coming weeks. That will be a good chance for us to examine more fully the issues and the work of the task force. Mr Findlay can be sure that, while he bangs on, accusing others of playing games, that work is a priority for me. Although we might have differences of opinion on particular aspects, I do not doubt the sincerity of the other members who have asked questions today.

The Presiding Officer:

Thank you, minister, for cutting your remarks short.