Drug Deaths

– in the Scottish Parliament on 7th October 2021.

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Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

1. Every day in Scotland, four people lose their lives as a result of drug misuse. That is four lives every day cut needlessly short and families mourning the loss of loved ones every single day in Scotland. That is a crisis and a national shame. The longer we wait and the longer we fail to act, the more lives will be lost. People are looking to the Parliament to deliver solutions to halt that crisis and save lives.

Today, I published the Scottish Conservatives’ right to recovery (Scotland) bill to guarantee that everyone who needs treatment for addiction can get it. I shared that with the First Minister earlier this morning.

In June, the First Minister said that she would

“look with an open mind at any proposals” that are brought forward,

“including proposals for legislation.”—[

Official Report

, 17 June 2021; c 5.]

Will she commit to her Government fully supporting our proposal to tackle Scotland’s drug deaths crisis?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I will certainly repeat what I said before. We will look at any bill very carefully. I received the consultation this morning, and I have an open mind on it. As a point of fact, unless I am mistaken, I understand that Douglas Ross did not publish a bill this morning; indeed, the consultation that was sent to my office stated that, at this stage, there is no bill but only a draft proposal. I am not criticising that; it is important that legislation is properly consulted on. We will consider the proposals in the consultation and, as and when that develops into actual proposed legislation, we will consider that in detail.

I think—perhaps this is a point of agreement—that speed of action now is essential. We all know that legislation takes time to go through the proper processes. I looked briefly at the document that was sent to me this morning and, on the face of it, it does not appear to suggest anything that goes beyond what we are already doing, although it suggests that those things should be enshrined in legislation. I will take funding as an example. Part of the consultation is in regard to the establishment of a new national funding scheme that is separate from alcohol and drug partnerships, but it does not appear to suggest additional funding. For example, it says that what is proposed is

“well within £50 million annual spending” that is already being delivered.

We will continue with the action that we have set out. I do not think that it is right to wait for legislation, but I repeat that we remain open minded to looking at the details of legislation when it comes from the consultation that has been published today.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

The First Minister will be aware that I am going through the non-Government bills unit’s detailed process and that I am following the advice of parliamentary officials. I am very grateful that they have provided that advice to me and the Conservative Party.

On the issue of funding, we know that the money that is currently being spent on the issue to try to save people’s lives is not getting to those who need it most. That is why we are saying that there are alternative ways to do it. I hope that the First Minister will continue to be positive in her response to the consultation and the legislation that comes forward.

Earlier this week, the First Minister proposed that we go on a joint visit. She knows that I immediately agreed to that offer. A key author of the bill and his colleague, the manager of Bluevale community club in Haghill, have suggested that the First Minister and I visit them to see the need for a right to recovery. Volunteers at that club pointed out that it is in the second most deprived area in Scotland. People in places such as Haghill are 18 times more likely to die from drugs than people in the most affluent areas are. Bluevale is trying to build a whole community and a whole-systems response to the drugs crisis, and the bill would help it to get even more lives back on track. Will the First Minister agree to a joint visit with me to Bluevale so that we can find some common ground and get around the table with those on the front line to hear why the bill is so desperately needed?

The First Minister:

I will come to that point in a moment, but I want to complete the point that I addressed in my first answer.

I think that I said explicitly that I was not criticising the process that Douglas Ross is going through, but in his initial question to me he said—I think—that he had published a bill this morning, and I was simply making the point that that is not the case.

We will consider the consultation fully and with an open mind, and when that is translated into an actual bill, as I expect that it will be in the fullness of time, we will consider that in the normal parliamentary processes that all legislation goes through. I do have an open mind and I hope that we can find maximum common ground. I suspect that there will continue to be issues that divide us on the correct responses to the drugs crisis, but I hope that none of us in this chamber allow those issues to get in the way of the areas where we can build agreement and consensus.

On the issue of a visit, I am glad that Douglas Ross accepted my suggestion earlier in the week that we go together to a working-class community. My office will be in touch to take that forward shortly. I am certainly willing to meet organisations and, indeed, individuals affected by drugs misuse, as I have previously.

This is an equally important point and I hope that it is one that will be accepted by Douglas Ross: the issues faced by working-class communities go beyond drugs. Indeed, drug misuse can, in some cases, be a symptom of deeper issues—poverty, for example—so I am sure that Douglas Ross will agree that, if we are to undertake such a joint endeavour, it will also be important to meet, for example, those who have just had their universal credit withdrawn, driving them deeper into the poverty conditions that then sometimes lead to the other issues that we are talking about. So, I look forward to finalising the details of that and to meeting people who will, no doubt, have things to say about Scottish Government policy, what we are doing and what more we should do, but also people who are being deeply affected each and every day right now by United Kingdom Government policy that is doing a lot of damage in working-class communities the length and breadth of the country.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

I am grateful to the First Minister for that answer, and I give an unconditional acceptance to an invitation to meet any community anywhere at any time, because this is an issue of national importance. I am raising the issue of drugs deaths today because of the consultation that I have brought forward. I know that the First Minister has said this a couple of times, but if I could just introduce a bill right now—[

Interruption

.]—no, it is important that everyone understands this. If I could introduce a bill right now, I would, but the non-Government bills unit, which the Parliament supports, sets out a very specific process for those not in Government to go forward with.

We heard from the drugs minister and others in the Government that they were waiting to see our proposals, and our proposals are in the consultation document that was launched today. This bill has been built by front-line experts like FAVOR Scotland and has the backing of recovery groups across the country. One of those is—[

Interruption

.]—I am sorry, but this is—

The Presiding Officer:

Continue, Mr Ross.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

This is a serious issue, because I was saying that what we are putting forward has been backed by recovery groups across the country. One of those is Recovery Enterprises Scotland in Kilmarnock, whose founder, Mark Gallagher, says that people have given up trying to access treatment because they see the system as broken.

That is why he believes that we need to take forward the proposal that I have launched today. Will the First Minister listen to those experts and, instead of delaying any longer, commit her Government to backing our bill at stage 1 so that Parliament can properly scrutinise it? The First Minister’s concern seems to be the lack of scrutiny. Her saying right now that she would approve our proposals at stage 1 would give Parliament the opportunity to look at them in detail.

The First Minister:

I am genuinely trying to be helpful and to build some agreement here. I have said twice that I understand the process that Douglas Ross is going through. My comments are not meant to be a criticism. I would simply ask him, in return, to understand the proper and due process that any responsible Government has to go through in considering legislation. I cannot engage with a bill that does not yet exist, for the reasons that we have heard. We will engage with the proposals in the consultation. There is one that, having looked at it briefly already this morning, I would immediately welcome. For example, when it comes to treatment, the consultation document seems to recognise that we need a range of different interventions and services and that there cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach.

That is a welcome step forward from the Conservatives, who previously have appeared to suggest that the only solution was residential rehabilitation. Already, I see the emergence of some common ground and I genuinely want to treat the consultation with the respect that it deserves. However, equally, Douglas Ross must know that I cannot stand here and say that I will vote for a bill—giving it carte blanche—when, by his own admission and for understandable reasons, that bill does not yet exist. Therefore, let us try and move forward with a genuine determination to build consensus where we can.

My final point is one that I made earlier: there is a real need to move forward at pace with this work. With the best will in the world—as we are demonstrating today—legislation takes time and it does so for good reason. I do not want to wait for legislation, however merited or otherwise it might turn out to be. We have set out a very detailed plan of action, which is backed by significant additional resources and has, at its heart, guaranteed standards of treatment, including access to same-day treatment. We will get on with that plan and if, as a Parliament, we think that legislation can help to underpin it in the future, I am open minded about that, as I have said many times. However, if we want to build consensus, let us both understand the processes that we have to go through, in order that—hopefully, in the interests of people across the country—we can get there.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

That is a fair comment, but stage 1 of a bill is about agreeing its general principles, and the First Minister has already looked at some of the principles that we are putting forward. [

Interruption

.] She has already looked at the issues around funding and the areas where there is agreement.

Although there seems to be opposition from her back benchers, I am more encouraged by her response than that of those behind her. Our proposal is also supported by grieving families and, if Scottish National Party members want to talk over grieving families, shame on them. I will speak about the case of Vicky, who has lost two brothers to drugs and lost Stewart just last year. A father of twins, he was only 43 and he came from a loving family. Vicky said that Stewart tried to get treatment, but that

“He was moved from pillar to post. He was passed about by the system. He was treated like he didn’t matter.”

Vicky is backing the proposals. She cannot know for sure that the bill would have saved Stewart, but she told us:

“If we had this bill, I wonder how many people would still be here?”

The First Minister was absolutely right to say that we have to move forward at pace, so will she listen to the experts and the grieving families and ensure that urgent parliamentary time is given to consider our proposals on such an urgent issue?

The First Minister:

I think that Douglas Ross has accepted that I am genuinely trying not to make this exchange politically divisive, because, although we do not agree on all the detail or the background, we all agree that this Parliament and Government have much work to do.

I will try and make some progress here. I cannot agree to vote for a bill that does not yet exist, because I do not know what the bill will say in detail. I received the consultation only this morning and I will study it in more detail later, but I have had a chance to have a brief look at it and, if its broad proposals translate into the general principles of a bill, it is likely that we will want to give that bill a fair wind through Parliament, in order to see whether we can reach consensus on the detail. Given that we are talking about a bill that is not yet in existence, any reasonable person would think that that is a reasonable response from a First Minister who has a duty to make sure that we go through all the right processes. I hope that we can agree that that is a reasonable starting point.

With regard to the fact that we have a duty—which I feel very strongly—to make sure that what has not worked well in our drug treatment services in the past is rectified for the future, we also have an obligation to make sure that we listen to lived experience and use it to drive proposals. My condolences and sympathies are with Vicky on the loss of Stewart and with every other family who has lost someone to drugs. They are the ones we must keep in mind, but part of keeping them in mind and living up to our responsibility to them is making sure that we think seriously about what has to be done. We are demonstrating today the time that it takes, understandably, even to get a draft bill before Parliament so, while we consider that legislation, we are moving on with various measures now. That is the commitment that the Government has given and will continue to take forward.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I seek clarification. The objections that I made from a sedentary position when Douglas Ross was speaking were because he seemed to be trying to bypass the normal governmental rules and processes for a bill, which we all have to go through, whereby there is a proposal and a consultation and then a bill is introduced. I seek clarification about those exchanges. Is Mr Ross trying to bypass the process that other members have to go through?

The Presiding Officer:

I thank Ms Grahame for her point of order. The member and other members will be well aware of the processes that a bill has to go through, and that will apply in this case as it would for any other bill.