Drug-related Deaths

– in the Scottish Parliament on 15th December 2020.

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Photo of Monica Lennon Monica Lennon Labour

2. To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking in response to the National Records of Scotland publication, “Drug-related deaths in Scotland in 2019”, in order to prevent further drug-related deaths. (S5T-02588)

Photo of Joe FitzPatrick Joe FitzPatrick Scottish National Party

First, I convey my condolences to the families, friends and loved ones of the 1,264 people who have lost their lives. Each death is an untimely tragedy.

The drug deaths situation that we face is a public health emergency, and tackling it remains a priority for me and for the Government. The drug deaths task force recently published its forward plan, which sets out the longer-term interventions that we are putting in place to tackle the problem. I will provide a further update to the Parliament in my statement this afternoon.

Photo of Monica Lennon Monica Lennon Labour

On behalf of Scottish Labour, I express sorrow for all the lives that have been lost and send our condolences to the bereaved. Today, we remember the people behind the statistics. They died because they were failed by decision makers and failed by the system.

The minister’s response was far from good enough. Time and time again, the Scottish Government was warned—by dozens of organisations—that it must properly fund treatment and recovery services, but it delivered real-terms cuts. Calls for bold and urgent action have not been acted on.

How can the minister say in his press release today that the Scottish Government is doing everything in its power, when residential rehab beds are lying empty? How can he say that he is doing all he can, when he has snubbed volunteers running an overdose prevention centre in Glasgow? Last year’s figures revealed that Scotland’s drug death rate was the highest in the world; even more people have died since then. Does he accept responsibility for that devastating increase?

Photo of Joe FitzPatrick Joe FitzPatrick Scottish National Party

I am the minister with responsibility, so yes, I accept responsibility for the actions that I am taking. In the past two years, we have taken considerable action to improve the service. The suggestion that I am not listening to wider stakeholders is not based on fact. Since being appointed to my post, I have taken great care to listen to people across Scotland with lived and living experience and to those who are on the front line in this public health emergency.

The member implied a cut in funding, but the fact is that, since 2015-16, there has been a 27 per cent increase in funding, up to £95.3 million now. Every year since I have been in post, I have been pleased that the Government has announced an increase in the budget for this area of work. Last year, there was an additional increase to support the work of the task force.

As the member says, every single one of those deaths is a tragedy, and we need to continue to look at how we can work differently to turn the numbers around and avoid such unnecessary deaths.

Photo of Monica Lennon Monica Lennon Labour

I know from family experience that the first step towards recovery from addiction is to recognise and admit that there is a problem. However, what we are hearing from the public health minister still sounds to me like denial. The figures today reveal a dreadful record of what has occurred on Joe FitzPatrick’s watch. There is still no radical plan, no urgency, no humility and no ambition for reversing the trend any time soon. The public needs to have confidence in the public health minister to lead us out of this human rights tragedy. The shocking statistics and his woeful response give us none.

The minister may have tried his best , but it is not good enough. I am sorry to say it, but I believe that his time is up. Will he please do the decent thing, resign, and make way for fresh leadership?

Photo of Joe FitzPatrick Joe FitzPatrick Scottish National Party

I thank the member for her comments. I have heard her views. Fortunately, I have great confidence that, across Scotland, many of the people who work at the front end of this public health emergency take a different view and continue to work really hard to turn this around. It is easy to call names and personalise; I am disappointed that it has come from Monica Lennon. While I expect it from others on the Labour benches, I do not generally expect it from her.

The figures are a tragedy. I will leave it there.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

My thoughts are with the families and loved ones affected—this will be a really tough day for them in particular.

In Dundee, 56 of the 72 recorded deaths have been attributed to the use of street Valium—that is almost four out of five drug-related deaths in the city. Clearly, the increasing use of benzodiazepines is one of the primary causes of drug deaths in Dundee. Can the minister say what action has been taken to tackle the manufacture and distribution of benzodiazepines, alongside the general issue of stopping the increased use of street Valium?

Photo of Joe FitzPatrick Joe FitzPatrick Scottish National Party

We think that a key reason behind the numbers is the availability of those drugs and their extremely low price, coupled with the unknown content and potency of the substances used to make the tablets. I will shortly make a statement to the chamber in which I will set out a bit more detail on the specific actions that we are taking on that matter.

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

Today is another sad day for Scotland, but the facts speak for themselves. Over the past 13 years, £47 million has been cut from drug and alcohol partnerships and more than 300 rehab beds across Scotland have been lost. We are asking ourselves how we have got to this point.

The Parliament is increasingly losing confidence in the Government’s drug deaths task force. Will the minister agree to an urgent cross-party summit on the issue? We have to do something about it, because another year with another 6 per cent rise is totally unacceptable.

Photo of Joe FitzPatrick Joe FitzPatrick Scottish National Party

I regularly meet members from all parties who want to engage on the matter. The truth is that some of the figures that Mr Briggs mentions do not stand up to proper analysis. In relation to rehab beds, I urge members to look at the work of the rehab working group led by Dr David McCartney, which is a robust piece of work that is helping us to consider, as we said in our strategy, how to improve access to rehabilitation.

The Presiding Officer:

A number of members have indicated that they wish to ask a question now, but they are all due to ask a question on the drugs deaths ministerial statement later, so they will get their chance then.