Drug Deaths

– in the Scottish Parliament on 17th December 2020.

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Photo of Ruth Davidson Ruth Davidson Conservative

1. There were 1,264 drug deaths in a single year: a record number of deaths; the sixth year in a row of record numbers of deaths; double the loss of life from drug deaths in 2007; and three and a half times worse than in other parts of the United Kingdom. Scotland’s recorded drug death rate is the worst not just in Europe but in large parts of the rest of the world.

However, just an hour from here, there are world-class rehab facilities—at Castle Craig—which help get people off drugs entirely. In 2002, those facilities admitted 257 national health service patients; by 2008, the number had dropped to 145. First Minister, what was the number in 2019?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

This is the first opportunity that I have had to address the issue in the chamber. The figures that were published this week are completely unacceptable and no one will hear political answers from me on the subject today. We have much to do to sort this out—and sorting it out is our responsibility, and it is a serious responsibility.

Behind every one of the statistics is a human being whose life mattered: someone’s son or daughter, mother or father, brother or sister. I say that I am sorry to every family who has suffered grief. Every person who dies an avoidable death because of drug abuse has been let down.

The fact is that the issue is difficult and complex, but that is not an excuse. There is much work under way, which is being led by the public health minister and the drug deaths task force. However, the figures tell us that we need to do more and quicker.

The next meeting of the task force will take place on 12 January. I will attend the meeting to take stock with the task force and to consider what further, immediate steps we need to take. I will make a statement in the chamber before the end of January after I have had that discussion, to set out what further steps we intend to take.

Undoubtedly, part of that will involve rehabilitation facilities. We have been doing mapping work—we asked a working group to do that. Between the private sector, the third sector and the public sector, there are 365 rehabilitation beds across the country. We are not satisfied that that is necessarily sufficient, or that they are being used sufficiently.

That is not the only issue; it is one of the issues that require to be considered properly and fully as we move forward to discharge that responsibility for sorting out something that is completely unacceptable. I think that all of us take that view.

Photo of Ruth Davidson Ruth Davidson Conservative

The First Minister’s apology is welcome, but it does not answer my question about rehab beds. The answer is just five. Castle Craig could be saving more than 250 Scots a year—it has done it before—but instead, the number is five.

Another rehab facility said that 60 per cent of its patients were not from Scotland. We have leading facilities on our doorstep to tackle the exact crisis that we face. Those facilities are full, but they are not full of people from Scotland. They are treating people from Eindhoven and Amsterdam, while people in Possil and Dundee are dying.

Castle Craig and the other rehab facilities want to treat Scottish patients again. It is not their fault—the Government no longer funds places there. From the Scottish National Party’s own report, it seems that universal credit funds more rehab beds than this Government does.

I know that rehab is no panacea, but it can work and it does save lives. Why did her Government stop funding those beds? How many lives has that decision cost?

The First Minister:

Alcohol and drug partnerships across the country fund a number of beds in rehab facilities. However, I agree that there is a question about why that does not happen more.

As members are aware, we have had a working group gathering information on residential rehab beds. That information was published for the first time last week. It sets out the number of rehab beds across the country. Of the 365 total, around 100 are estimated to be taken up by those who are resident outwith Scotland. The majority of the beds are provided by the third sector; relatively few are provided by private or statutory providers.

That is one of the issues that the drug deaths task force is rightly considering, but it is not the only issue. There are a number of issues that it is right and proper that the task force continues to consider, and I will discuss all those issues with it on 12 January. I will come back to the chamber with a statement before the end of January to set out the further action that we intend to take.

Photo of Ruth Davidson Ruth Davidson Conservative

That was a really long way of saying it, but the First Minister is right to say that, today, to get rehab, people need to be really lucky and get charity help, or they need to be wealthy enough to afford it, because the Government provides only 13 per cent of rehab beds in Scotland.

The First Minister’s own report says that people can be on a rehab waiting list for a year. Charities cannot do this on their own. Jericho house does not get a penny and warns that its position is unsustainable. It runs three facilities, including the only residential rehab centre in Dundee, which has now overtaken Glasgow as Europe’s drug death capital. Not that it is much better in Glasgow. A year ago, the Mungo Foundation’s cothrom eile rehab service closed for good. That service was in the First Minister’s constituency.

In 2006, Nicola Sturgeon stood where I am—right on this spot—berating the then Scottish Government for cutting rehab funding. In fact, she went further, claiming that it showed why Scotland needed a new Government. If cuts to rehab funding were to be condemned in 2006, as they should have been, why does the First Minister think that they should be accepted now?

The First Minister:

I said at the outset of our exchange that I am not going to give political answers. Many of the criticisms that are being made of the Government are valid and legitimate, and we have much work to do to ensure that we sort the problem of people dying avoidably from drugs. That is what we are already doing. The drug deaths task force has already undertaken many actions and recently published its forward work programme. It is not true to say that work is not being done, because considerable work is being done. However, as I said in my original answer, I believe that there are hard questions for us to address about whether that work is sufficient and whether it is being done quickly enough. I am not going to shy away from that today. That is why I will meet the task force in January and consider with it the work that is being done and the additional steps that require to be taken. As I have already said, I will come back to the chamber before the end of January and set out the conclusions from that meeting.

Rehabilitation is, undoubtedly, a part of that, which is why work is already under way to look properly at rehabilitation services across the country: what is there just now, what use is being made of those services, what more we need to do in relation to funding and access to rehabilitation services, and what needs to be done in other ways. As everybody recognises, rehabilitation is important, but it is not a panacea. We need to focus on many other things to ensure that people are not dying avoidably from drugs. That responsibility lies with me and with this Government, and it is one that we take extremely seriously.

Photo of Ruth Davidson Ruth Davidson Conservative

I agree about the range of interventions that need to be made, but cutting the number of fully funded rehab beds in Scotland to just 22 is not one of them.

Let me give the context. The rest of the United Kingdom and half of Europe do not have consumption rooms, which I know is a preferred policy of the Government; they also do not have this number of deaths. Drug classifications are the same everywhere in these islands. The “Trainspotting” generation theory has been busted because the number of young people dying has doubled in the past two years. The thing that is different about Scotland, because it is entirely devolved, is drug treatment and rehabilitation, and that is what this Government has cut to the bone.

People on the front line—the charities that are working with drug users—are calling for an immediate extra £20 million in ring-fenced rehab funding, just to make up for the past 13 years of cuts. Will the First Minister commit to that today, so that next year we do not see a repeat of these horrendous figures, or possibly figures that are even worse?

The First Minister:

I will commit to ensuring that the resources are available for the actions that we consider to be necessary. That will include rehabilitation services.

In every year since this Government took office, apart from two years when funding for drug and alcohol services did decline, funding has increased. That is not to say that funding has increased sufficiently or adequately, and I accept that.

However, this is about more than money; it is about the approaches that we take and, at the heart of all this, it is about everybody accepting that none of us should accept a situation in which people who use drugs are allowed to fall through the cracks and we see the deaths that we have seen in recent years. They are real people whose lives matter, and I am absolutely determined that we take actions to fix this.

I do not make comparisons with what happens elsewhere because I think that the problem in Scotland is worse than it is elsewhere. We see that in the figures, and we have to take that seriously.

I am not going to shy away from this; I am not going to deflect the criticism. Instead, working with colleagues in Government, I am going to make sure that we do what we have already started to do through the task force, which is to take the actions that are about sorting this and making sure that we do not let down people who use drugs and instead prevent, intervene early and provide the services that allow people to get the help that they need when they need it. It is also about taking action around overdoses and deaths that are avoidable. Safe consumption rooms are not the only part of this, but they are a part of it, and it is important that we also focus on them as part of the package of measures that we need to take forward.