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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 05 November 2019

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, UEFA European Championship (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, Decision Time, Loch Lomond


Topical Question Time

Supervised Drug Consumption Facility

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the Scottish Affairs Committee’s report recommendation to introduce legislation to lawfully pilot a supervised drug consumption facility in Scotland. (S5T-01874)

The Scottish Affairs Committee inquiry into problem drug use in Scotland supports our view that what we face in terms of drug deaths is an emergency, and that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 should be amended to allow a range of responses focused on public health. The need for that type of service, and the evidence that supports it, was further reinforced during the inquiry. Such facilities can save lives, so I urge the United Kingdom Government to take the necessary steps either to support a pilot facility or to devolve the powers to Scotland so that this Parliament can take action to save lives.

The minister and other members will know that the report criticises the Tory UK Government, saying that it

“routinely ignores the evidence on what would be the most effective approach to reducing problem drug use”,

as well as blocking proposals to introduce drug consumption rooms in Scotland, despite witnesses saying that

“the case for such a facility in Glasgow is amongst the most compelling in Europe.”

Does the minister agree that that is a shameful approach?

Yes, I strongly agree. I just do not understand how the UK Government, which has acknowledged the benefits of such facilities, can stand in the way of saving lives. There is a strong body of evidence from a number of countries that such facilities prevent fatal overdoses and encourage engagement with services.

Furthermore, a range of health professionals and experts from across the UK gave evidence saying that such facilities are the most important thing that Glasgow could do. The UK Government’s own advisory group, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, supports their introduction, and in recent weeks two UK Parliament committees have strongly recommended that they be introduced.

There are more than 20,000 people in Scotland with hepatitis C, with 10,000, we believe, having not been diagnosed. HIV also remains a public health challenge. We know that drug consumption facilities can help us to tackle those public health challenges and that they can, ultimately—as the minister said—save lives.

Does the minister therefore agree with me that, whatever Government we end up with at Westminster in December, it must either treat the issue with the urgency that it warrants or, better still, devolve the necessary powers to this Parliament?

I absolutely agree. I call on the incoming UK Government to amend the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 or to devolve the powers that will allow this Parliament to take a range of initiatives that are focused on public health, which will save lives.

The proposals could save lives across the United Kingdom. I think that the UK Government should be taking a public health approach to drugs everywhere in the UK, but if it will not do that, I ask it, please, to devolve the powers so that this Parliament can make the decisions.

What research has been done to assess the impact on delivery of alcohol and drug partnerships of the Scottish National Party’s decision four years ago to cut £15 million from those services?

Liam Kerr will be well aware that, in 2018, the Government increased that budget by £20 million and that, just this year, in the programme for government, the First Minister agreed that we will increase it for the next two years by an additional £20 million.

The Scottish Affairs Committee report noted the benefits of de facto decriminalisation programmes that exist elsewhere in the UK. The Lord Advocate has acknowledged that he has the power to extend the scope of Police Scotland’s current de facto decriminalisation policy to drugs other than cannabis. Given that committee’s endorsement of such programmes, is the minister supportive of an extension, and will he commit to working with the Lord Advocate to make it a reality?

That is one of the areas of work that the drug deaths task force is addressing. The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service is part of it, so that we can consider what more we can do within the powers that we have. It is important that we look further afield, too. What more could we do? We should use every possible lever, either within the powers of this Parliament or under the powers of Westminster, to save lives.

I will follow on from Monica Lennon’s question. It was not just the Lord Advocate who made the case: Assistant Chief Constable Steve Johnson said that Police Scotland could consider a diversion scheme that is wider than the system of recorded police warnings. Such schemes are currently applied by Thames Valley Police and Durham Police. Can the minister make a commitment to Parliament to the Government taking specific action to pursue that option?

It is always important to remember the differing responsibilities of the Parliament, the Government and the Crown Office in such matters. As I said to Monica Lennon, it is important that the Crown Office is part of the drug deaths task force so that we can consider how we can make a difference.

There is also a wider question of whether we can examine models of decriminalisation from other parts of the world. It is appropriate that this Parliament can have such discussions, when we consider what has happened in Portugal, for example, when it comes to saving lives. There has been a massive turnaround of the situation there.

I assure Liam McArthur that the Crown Office is part of the drug deaths task force because it wants to help to determine the solutions.

When I last met the minister, with the Rev Brian Casey in Springburn, to discuss the drug deaths crisis, Mr Casey and I expressed our deep concern about the relative ease and affordability of purchasing a pill press to mass produce potentially lethal so-called street Valium. We hope that there can be action in that area. Will the minister update me on action that the Scottish Government can take on that?

We know that criminal gangs in Scotland are using such machines to produce vast quantities of the street benzodiazepines that are having a devastating effect on communities across Scotland. I am fully committed to taking any possible action that might help to save the lives of those who are most at risk through their drug use. I have instructed my officials to explore what options are available under current devolved powers to tackle the sale and regulation of the machines, for which I hope that I have support from across the chamber.

Prison Officers (Stress-related Sickness Absence)

To ask the Scottish Government what urgent action it plans in response to recent reports of a rise in stress-related sickness absences among prison officers. (S5T-01858)

The Scottish Government recognises the importance of providing a safe environment for those living and working in our prisons. Prison officers work in a difficult and intensive environment that can, at times, be dangerous. The Scottish Prison Service provides a range of measures and interventions to those who require them, including occupational health support and access to counselling services.

Absence at the SPS was increasing month on month for more than two years. There are now positive signs that that trend may be reversing, with slight reductions at the end of August and September.

Scotland’s prisons are stable, safe and well run. That is very much to the credit of prison officers and staff across the country, and I am very grateful for their unwavering dedication and commitment. I was pleased that agreement was reached on Scottish Prison Service pay for 2019 to 2022. The agreement reflects the important contribution that is made by all staff in our prisons and rightly sees the lowest-paid staff in our prisons receive a pay increase of up to 6 per cent in the first year and up to 15 per cent over three years. As part of that pay deal, agreement was reached on wider reforms, including the introduction of a new attendance management policy, which should directly help to tackle the very issue that the member has raised.

Overcrowding in prisons, combined with an increase in violence, mental health issues and the use of psychoactive substances have all been raised as key factors in sickness levels. Some staff feel inadequately skilled or trained to deal with some of the issues that they are confronted with. It is obvious that the issue urgently requires to be given priority. Will the cabinet secretary agree to do that?

I thank Alexander Stewart for asking the question. I know that, in his time as a councillor, he took a real interest in prison-related issues. If there was one factor that could be dealt with, and one silver bullet or panacea, we would have found it, but clearly there is not. As Alexander Stewart says, there are a range of factors. The SPS is doing important work to try to tackle the issue, including the provision of telephone and face-to-face counselling to staff. There has also been a pilot of a variety of occupational health interventions, which are being evaluated to see whether they can be rolled out across the prison estate.

As well as the mental health issues, on which the member is right to focus, it is worth mentioning the physical demands of such a job. We know that approximately 15,000 days per annum are lost to musculoskeletal conditions. The SPS has therefore introduced free physiotherapy services for staff in HMP Edinburgh and HM YOI Polmont; that has been very positive, and consideration will be given to rolling it out further.

I agree with Alexander Stewart that there is urgency about this issue, which is why work is already taking place. In the past couple of months, we have seen a more positive trend, but clearly there is still a lot more for us to do collectively.

The fact is that, in the past year alone, stress-related sickness has gone up by nearly one third and prison officers are quitting altogether because, for some of them, the thought of going back to work is too much to bear. Will the cabinet secretary guarantee that staff will get the vital resources, support and training that they need to ensure that they can fulfil their duties?

We have invested when the Prison Service has told us that it needs more financial resource. This year alone, we have invested an additional £24 million in the Prison Service. It told us that it needed that additional funding because of the pressures that it faced as a result of the overcrowding problem.

I can give an absolute assurance to Alexander Stewart and, indeed, to all members that, when the Prison Service tells me that it has an issue that needs to be dealt with urgently, this Government will listen to it. That is demonstrated by the historic pay deal of 15 per cent over three years for prison officers, who do an excellent job and one that—as I am sure that all of us, including those of us in the Government, recognise—is becoming increasingly difficult.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that prison officers do an incredible job and should be recognised for the important work that they do in what are often difficult circumstances? I saw that for myself when I visited Barlinnie this morning with the Justice Committee.

The Scottish Government is committed to reducing the prison population by introducing a presumption against short sentences. What impact would the Conservative Party’s policies on justice have on our prison capacity?

That is a fair point. Alexander Stewart acknowledged that overcrowding is one of the factors that are involved in the staff sickness and absence rate. The Government and I, as justice secretary, are absolutely committed to reducing prisoner numbers. The recent Conservative justice policies of ending automatic early release for prisoners on short sentences and supporting whole-life sentences, along with the Conservatives’ opposition to a presumption against short sentences, would increase the prison population by about 40 per cent to about 11,500. As far as I am aware—Conservative members can tell me otherwise if this is not the case—the Conservatives have never announced a policy of building additional prisons. Therefore, that 40 per cent increase would have to be managed within our current prisons. At least three new Barlinnies would have to be built to cope with that level of demand.

Conservative members might think that staff are being affected by the overcrowding position at the moment, but the problem would not only be exacerbated by their policies; frankly, our prison staff would be at breaking point.

Deaths Abroad (Support for Families)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the report by the all-party parliamentary group on deaths abroad, consular services and assistance, “Why families in the UK deserve better and what can be done”. (S5T-01860)

The Scottish Government recognises the difficulties that are faced by Scottish families who suffer the death of a loved one abroad, and ministers have met a number of families to discuss their experiences.

We are grateful to the all-party parliamentary group for its serious work on a serious and emotive issue. Although it is the role of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to provide consular support, the Scottish Government is committed to exploring the issue further and identifying where support can be improved. We will therefore carefully consider the report’s findings and how we can work alongside United Kingdom Government departments and other key agencies and stakeholders to improve how victims and their families are supported following the death of a relative overseas.

I am sure that I speak for the whole chamber when I say that our thoughts remain with the many families who have lost a loved one in such circumstances.

The all-party parliamentary group’s report is based on the lived experience of 60 families who have suffered the trauma of a loved one dying abroad. As it is crucial that we all move from expressing our condolences to taking action, will the minister commit to fully informing Parliament of his consideration of all the germane recommendations, including the recommendation that the Pearson-Maxwell protocol be adopted to help with the costs of translation, emergency travel and repatriation when those are not covered by travel insurance?

The all-party parliamentary group’s report is detailed and comprehensive and, as Angela Constance said, it sets out the experience of many families. I am sure that she will appreciate that the Government as a whole will want to take time to properly consider the report’s various recommendations.

That said, I make it clear that we are open minded about looking at various ways of supporting families who have lost a loved one abroad. Complications with repatriation and the costs involved are a common issue for many families. The victim surcharge fund might be able to assist with that although, given the fund’s legal focus on supporting families who have been victims of crime, it might be difficult to use it to support families who are involved in cases in which there has been an accidental death.

We will look at the report recommendation that Angela Constance referred to in detail as part of a wider evaluation and consideration of the report’s full recommendations and respond as appropriate.

Both the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and the First Minister were kind enough to meet my constituents, the family of Kirsty Maxwell, so they know how abandoned this family feels. Will the minister therefore agree to extend the families bereaved by crime service to include those who have lost a loved one abroad due to murder, manslaughter, or indeed suspicious circumstances, as that would help to create a more comprehensive and trauma-informed service for families such as Kirsty’s?

The Victim Support Scotland service for families who have been bereaved by crime provides dedicated and continuous support for families who have been bereaved by murder or culpable homicide. At present, cases involving a death abroad are outwith the scope of that service, as the report notes.

The service is in its first year of operation and it has already expanded its scope to ensure the availability of support for families where the death may have occurred some time ago but there is on-going interaction with the justice system—for example, in relation to temporary release or parole.

We are open minded about recommendation 5e. We are keen to ensure that the impact of any further changes to the scope of the fund would be well understood and adequately resourced. We will consider recommendation 5e as part of our serious analysis of the recommendations as a whole.

The justice secretary and the external affairs secretary will meet soon to discuss the report’s recommendations and they will look to engage with the new United Kingdom Government, when it is established, on those issues. Officials here are already engaged with Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials on the report’s recommendations, and the justice secretary has just informed me that he would be happy to meet Angela Constance to discuss the report at an appropriate point in the near future.