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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 18, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 18 March 2021 [Draft]

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Business Motion, Portfolio Question Time, Local Government Finance (Scotland) Order 2021, Drug Deaths and Harms, Urgent Question, Standing Order Rule Changes (Private and Hybrid Bills), Standing Order Rule Changes (Delegated Powers Memorandums and Emergency Bills), Standing Order Rule Changes (Financial Scrutiny), Code of Conduct Rule Changes (Register of Interests), Decision Time


Contents


Drug Deaths and Harms

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-24396, in the name of Angela Constance, on a national mission to reduce drug deaths and harms.

15:33  

The Minister for Drugs Policy (Angela Constance)

Following the First Minister’s announcement in January of a national mission to save and improve lives, I am pleased that we have secured time for this very important debate before the end of the parliamentary session to update Parliament on the work that is being pursued to address rising drug-related deaths, which is Scotland’s other public health emergency and Scotland’s national shame.

I have spent much of my first few months in post meeting as many people with lived and living experience as possible, hearing first hand what they think my priorities should be. I am now more than ever convinced that we need to be informed in everything we do by those who have the greatest understanding and experience of the current system.

Many of those discussions have stuck with me, such as the one that I had with a group of women who still have a drug dependency but who are managing to engage with treatment services. The message that came through from that group was one of hopelessness; they felt that they had been forgotten about and that their lives did not matter. Although that is difficult to hear, it is vital that we respond in a way that can restore hope to those who most need it, to show that their lives matter and that they are valued as our fellow citizens.

To help with that, I am going to make sure that people are more involved in the decisions that affect them. Learning from what has worked well in other areas, such as the early years collaborative and social security experience panels, I will ensure that local panels of people with lived and living experience are involved in all local decision making, and that a national forum or collaborative is in place to better inform our national mission.

Recovery communities have provided a voice for lived experience and are an effective movement for change, and they can be assured of this Government’s continued support and funding. We need to bring together the voices of living experience—those who are still using substances—to help redesign our services in order to reach out to and support more people into treatment. We know that treatment has a protective factor and that it helps keep people alive.

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

In appointing people to those panels and forums, it is important that we do not just tick a tokenistic box and that we have people who are willing to challenge, have awkward voices and will be very prickly. Ticking the box that says that we have someone with lived experience does not satisfy everyone.

Angela Constance

I appreciate the point that Mr Findlay makes. He might not know it, but I, too, appreciate challenging and prickly voices, and I am determined to hear the widest range of voices and views.

To do that, we will bring together existing organisations to provide that voice of lived and living experience for the first time. I believe that that marks a significant new approach in how we reach those who are in need and deliver for them. Lived and living experience will underpin every action that we take. Alongside that, in the year ahead, we will focus on what we already know works. We know that getting more people into treatment or recovery faster, as well as having a wider range of services available in every part of the country, will save lives.

For some people, the right treatment will be residential rehabilitation. In the past two months, an additional £3 million was allocated to alcohol and drug partnerships, in order to immediately increase and improve access to treatment, particularly residential rehabilitation. Information from alcohol and drug partnerships on how that money was allocated is being published this week, and it will show that it has already led to around 150 additional residential placements being funded, with significant investment in aftercare.

However, there is still more to do to meet people where they are, by providing services that offer treatment, on the same day, that works for—not against—individuals. We need no, or low, barriers to care and treatment.

We know that there are alternatives to methadone, which can help save lives. Long-lasting buprenorphine can offer some people a better quality of life and protect them from overdose; it has been used in prisons for almost a year and has been piloted in some areas in the wider community. We will now work with our partners to make that treatment more widely available.

The Glasgow heroin-assisted treatment service has also shown real success. With additional investment in the next financial year, we will build on that service, to make that life-saving treatment more widely available across the country.

Front-line services deliver vital treatment to save lives and we will increase funding to help them increase their capacity and support their workforce.

Crucially, we know that outreach and community services and grass-roots organisations are often more able to reach people whom statutory services struggle to contact. We will increase funding to community and grass-roots organisations to help get more people into treatment faster.

Going forward, the new medication-assisted treatment—MAT—standards will be the linchpin in how treatment is offered. Following consultation, those standards will be published in May. They will be game changing in the way that individuals can access and receive support, particularly because they will help to ensure that more people receive same-day treatment. They will reinforce a rights-based approach by ensuring that individuals have choice in their treatment and are empowered to access the right support for where they are in their recovery journey. We will ensure that those standards are fully embedded across the country by April 2022 and there will be non-fatal overdose pathways in all areas.

The drug deaths task force has been instrumental in driving several projects. Its focus on the wider distribution of life-saving naloxone kits has led to both the Scottish Ambulance Service and Police Scotland running programmes that allow staff to use and distribute kits. A peer-to-peer supply programme is also under way, ensuring that more kits are in the hands of those who need them. Already, we know that kits distributed by the Ambulance Service have helped to save lives.

Jenny Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

The plan sounds very good, especially for same-day treatment, but it also sounds light years away from where we are today. How will the minister ensure that statutory services actually deliver her plan?

Angela Constance

I will come on to how the Government will lead the plans at a national level in more detail and how funding will be used as a lever for change.

To go back to the naloxone training, only last week a police officer was able to use their kit—just two hours after being trained—on someone who had had an overdose, thus helping to keep them alive until paramedics arrived. It is vital that we continue to scale up and support those initiatives that will make a tangible difference.

We will continue to push for some of the options that are currently unavailable to us. We know that overdose prevention facilities are an effective and evidence-led option in our fight to save lives. I am determined to overcome the legal barriers that currently restrict us from establishing such facilities in Scotland and I have a team of officials working to pull together expertise and options.

The priority for the national mission is to embed our emergency work to save lives in wider work to improve lives. Problem drug use is the symptom of much bigger issues. The complex problems that people face must be recognised and tackled. For instance, we know that at least half of all people with problem drug use are likely to have mental health problems. We need to do more to improve integration between mental health and addiction recovery services.

All the actions and work that I have outlined today will be underpinned by strong leadership and the need to work across Government. It is my job as Minister for Drugs Policy to join the dots and drive delivery to the very highest standards. Nothing less than that will be acceptable. To that end, I will create a new ministerial implementation group, which will bring together relevant ministers from portfolios such as mental health, housing, justice, and children and families, alongside senior representatives from organisations that deliver our strategies and services.

We need to hold one another to account for progress. I am working urgently to establish relevant treatment targets that will show the scale of our ambition. We will engage with front-line staff and those with lived experience on that. I will also continue to work closely with our trusted third sector partners, whose experience of delivering services on the front line is invaluable.

To progress the work to reduce deaths and improve lives, we have committed an additional £50 million per year for the next five years. Today, I am announcing four new funds, totalling £18 million, which will open by May 2021, to improve and accelerate treatment and recovery. The funds will be in place for the next five years, to allow services to plan for the future. They will come with built-in support to help people of all backgrounds and levels of expertise to apply for funding and, for lower funding levels, the application process will be less burdensome.

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

The minister is aware of my passion to ensure that the third sector is properly funded. How will she ensure that the funding gets to the front line and third sector organisations, which will be crucial to the implementation of her plan?

Angela Constance

That is, indeed, of vital importance, which is why specific funds will be available only to third sector and grass-roots organisations.

The first two funds that I will announce build on those that I announced in February. First, the communities fund will be relaunched with easier access criteria. It will be for community-based projects and will be designed to support people to access treatment and to support communities in offering wraparound support for people in need as a result of drug harms. There will be £5 million available in 2021-22.

The service improvement fund, which will provide another £5 million, will be available to improve treatment and recovery services, including aftercare, and to increase outreach activity. The fund will include dedicated support for initiatives that improve services for women and younger people. There are too few services for those particular groups.

I am also setting up a £3 million children and families fund to help families who face problems in supporting a relative through treatment. The funding will help families to provide support to their loved ones who need care for problematic drug use. Support from their families is one of the most important things that people often need. The fund will help services to become more family aware, and it will help to reduce the number of women who have to worry about losing links to their children because they are accessing treatment.

Finally, I will establish a £5 million recovery and rehabilitation fund to provide additional residential rehabilitation capacity and to support people financially through residential rehabilitation. We know that, because of the lack of clarity in housing benefit guidance, some local authorities do not allow people to retain tenancies that are funded by housing benefit while they are in rehabilitation. We cannot ask people to make an impossible choice between their tenancy and their recovery journey, so the fund will ensure that people no longer have to make that choice.

As I said in my previous speech to the chamber, we know that there is not just one solution to the crisis; there are many. Everything that we do and say must lead to a better-informed debate that knocks down stigma, knocks down obstacles to change and knocks down barriers to treatment and support. Within and outwith the Parliament, we need to find better ways of working together to deliver on the national mission to save and improve lives.

I look forward to listening to members’ contributions this afternoon.

I move,

That the Parliament recognises that almost 3,400 people in Scotland have lost their lives to drug misuse in the last three years; believes that this scale of loss of life is not only a tragedy on the friends and families left behind, but is also a mark of shame on the nation; notes the Scottish Government’s proposal to lead a national mission to reduce drug deaths and harms, and to agree that this is a public health emergency requiring partnership working and concerted action at all levels of public life, and welcomes the announcement of significant increased funding to support this national mission to be invested in a range of areas that will have the biggest impact in getting individuals into treatment and keeping them alive.

15:47  

Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I will be happy to move the amendment in the name of Brian Whittle, which I support and have signed.

I am grateful to be opening the debate for the Scottish Conservatives on this very important issue. Again, I welcome Angela Constance to her role as the Minister for Drugs Policy. I welcome her engagement with Opposition parties, and I acknowledge that she has met me individually.

The Scottish Conservatives look forward to working with all stakeholders as we continue to address the crisis. It is particularly poignant that this subject matter marks what will probably be my last contribution of this session of Parliament, given that my first question to the First Minister, back in October 2016, was on drug-related hospitalisations. At that point, the data showed that the number of acute general admissions was increasing and that about half of the patients who were admitted lived in the 20 per cent most deprived areas of Scotland.

Fast forward to 2021 and the latest data shows that the number of patients in hospital with drug-related conditions sits at a 20-year high. To put that into perspective, in 1998-99, the number of people who were hospitalised with a drug-related condition was 79 per 100,000. In 2018-19—the most recent year for which data is available—that number sat at 192 per 100,000. That is a staggering increase. It shows not only that Governments of all political stripes have comprehensively failed to address the high number of drug-related conditions, but that the problem has worsened since devolution.

Today, we are debating the way forward in order to reduce not only the number of drug-related hospitalisations but the number of drug deaths in Scotland. In its motion, the Scottish Government acknowledges that the high number of drug deaths in Scotland is

“a mark of shame on the nation”

and is

“a public health emergency requiring partnership working and concerted action at all levels of public life”.

I could not agree more.

Indeed, the number of drug deaths has increased from 455—recorded in 2007, when the Scottish National Party Government first took office—to 1,264 in 2019. Let me be clear: every death as a result of drugs is a tragedy; every death as a result of drugs is a lost family member; every death as a result of drugs is a loss to society. Although I do not want to make too many political points during the debate, it cannot be overlooked that this is a problem that has occurred mainly under the current Government’s watch.

In the year of the highest number of drug deaths in the devolution era, we saw underresourced rehabilitation services, long waiting lists for such services and a failure of public policy to get to grips with the issue. In 2019-20, the Scottish Government funded only 13 per cent of residential rehab places in Scotland; alcohol and drug partnerships, self-funding insurance and other means supported the rest. The Government’s own report on residential rehabilitation stated that

“the majority of facilities have a waiting list for their services, ranging from a few days to a year.”

It also stated that residential rehabilitation providers found that navigating ADP funding pathways was difficult and took a long time. More than a year after the former public health minister announced the creation of a drug deaths task force, the chief executive of the campaign group Favor said that

“The drug deaths task force insists on pursuing the same failed options that got us into this mess”

and that it needed

“the UK Government to come to the table to discuss sensible solutions, and ... the Scottish Government to start properly funding rehabilitation and recovery programmes.”

The Scottish Conservatives welcome the commitment from the Government to invest £20 million of funding per year for rehab facilities—we had long called for that investment, with the support of groups such as Favor. We equally agree that more funding is required across a range of areas to prevent drug use, provide more effective treatments and save more lives. I welcome that in the Government’s motion, too.

The Home Office has also called for widening the availability of medications such as naloxone, which is used to treat overdoses, and methadone, morphine and fentanyl. I know that the task force has made that call as well. We believe that we need to go further and explore and investigate other forms of treatment, including non-pharmaceutical and abstinence-based treatments, and that we should be open-minded about treatments that have been seen to be effective in other countries but might not be available in Scotland—neuroelectric therapy, for example.

We also need to take a radical approach to talking about drugs with young people and children so that we can tackle early drug use. I recently spoke to one Scottish business to provide interactive drug smell education cards to police forces across England and I have been eager to pilot those in Scotland too. It is clear that we need to be more broad-minded in our approach, given that current initiatives are simply not having the desired outcome. It is also evident that, where possible, we need a UK-wide approach to tackling the supply of drugs that come into the country. More needs to be invested in policing so that we can properly tackle the source of drug consumption.

I welcome the fact that, last year at the UK-wide drugs deaths summit in Glasgow, the UK Government brought together drug recovery experts, health professionals, Government ministers and senior police officers from across the UK, with the intention of boosting collaboration between all levels of Government. We need more, not less, of that cross-Government collaboration. I hope that the Scottish Government reconsiders whether it will sign up to project ADDER—which stands for addiction, diversion, disruption, enforcement and recovery—the UK-wide initiative to find extra resources to dismantle organised criminal gangs and tackle the supply of drugs, while investing money into drug treatment and recovery programmes. I hope that the Scottish Government will join the scheme as part of its wider domestic measures to tackle the drugs crisis.

To further reduce drug deaths in Scotland, we also need to consider how we reduce drug-related harms, too. According to the Hepatitis C Trust, 21,000 Scots are estimated to be chronically infected with hepatitis C, and around 90 per cent of new hepatitis C infections occur through sharing contaminated drug-injecting equipment, which is also partly responsible for the transmission of other blood-borne viruses. Again, we believe that early intervention can reduce transmission, and it is important that the Scottish Government works closely with charities such as the Hepatitis C Trust when developing effective policy.

This is a vital debate, and it is one that must continue into the next session of Parliament. As Neil Findlay said, we need robust and challenging voices when it comes to lived experience, rather than voices that just tick boxes. We need voices such as Neil Findlay’s—he is someone who has always challenged orthodoxy and whose voice will be much missed in the chamber. There are no short-term solutions to the drugs crisis that is gripping Scotland, and we must work collectively as one Parliament to tackle the problem head-on and save lives. It is clear that we need greater investment in prevention and treatment and braver and bolder policy that tackles the core causes of drug use.

Politicians from across the spectrum have failed to meet that challenge, as the figures starkly show. We have an opportunity to take Scotland in a new direction. Let us grasp that opportunity so that, in another 20 years’ time, we can look back and say that we all started a conversation, took action and led Scotland out of this crisis.

I move amendment S5M-24396.1, to insert at end:

“; welcomes the Scottish Government’s acknowledgement that more should have been done sooner to tackle Scotland’s tragic rate of drug deaths; notes the Scottish Government’s change in stance towards funding for residential rehabilitation and welcomes the additional £20 million of funding per year for facilities, which the Scottish Conservatives have repeatedly requested; believes that there needs to be more focus on long-term recovery programmes, including non-pharmaceutical and abstinence-based treatments, and calls for easier access to services and cross-portfolio working towards future prevention measures.”

15:54  

James Kelly (Glasgow) (Lab)

There can be no doubt about the devastating scale of the crisis when there were 1,264 drug deaths in the last reported year. The Government is right to acknowledge in its motion that that is a mark of shame. It is a national disgrace and a failure of the devolution era that comes from a number of Administrations, not only the current one.

Victims’ families, and those who are affected by the drugs crisis, do not want warm words and platitudes from politicians; they are looking for frank speaking and practical solutions.

I acknowledge that, as justice spokesperson for Scottish Labour in 2009, I endorsed and supported the road to recovery strategy that was introduced by the Government and supported across the Parliament. Sadly, that approach failed. Since then, we have moved to a greater focus on treating drug abuse as a health issue.

In our amendment, Scottish Labour has tried to outline the practical steps that could be taken to address the crisis and to help vulnerable drug users. I note what the minister said about safe consumption rooms, which may offer a positive way forward. Without safe consumption rooms, vulnerable drug users take to the streets, where they use unsafe equipment and are at risk of overdose. That is a dangerous situation when contrasted with a safe facility that is clean and monitored and where people can receive appropriate counselling.

Some of our recent debate about this has become bogged down in constitutional issues. There must be a will on all sides to find solutions so that we can move forward and provide facilities that ultimately save lives.

It is right that we have developed a health approach to the problem in recent years. However, we must also acknowledge the issues with how the criminal justice system treats vulnerable drug users. The focus is all wrong. A vulnerable drug user does not need to appear in court before a sheriff; they need help from dedicated NHS professionals. The resources and policies of our prosecution service should be examined to ensure that people are not being taken through the criminal justice system if that will adversely affect their lives and their potential outcomes.

However, that approach should not exempt drug dealers from prosecution. Dealers heap misery on communities and cause many of the problems that we have seen. The police and prosecutors should continue to rigorously pursue dealers.

I welcome the minister’s announcement of funding for rehabilitation and treatment. That is essential. We should extend the use of drug treatment and testing orders and there should be appropriate support for rehabilitation and aftercare services.

It is important to give proper financial and practical support for same-day prescribing of medication-assisted therapies, so that those in need of them can get them immediately and start to try to benefit from them. As the minister said, more than half of drug users suffer from mental health problems, so there need to be stronger ties between mental health services and support for those who suffer from substance abuse.

The other important point that I would make is about how all this moves forward in relation to not just the development of policy but its implementation. The minister said that there will now be a cross-cutting approach that involves different portfolios. It is absolutely essential, as Neil Findlay acknowledged, that those with proper experience and those who will ask tough questions are involved. There is a lot of expertise there.

There are issues around the timescale. One of the issues in recent years has been that the Government has been too slow to react. There is a lot of good in the minister’s announcement, but we need to take these issues forward at pace.

On the Labour side of the chamber, both Neil Findlay and Jenny Marra will make their final contributions today, after 10 years as MSPs. They have contributed significantly to the Parliament on a range of issues, and they have both been powerful voices in the drugs debate. Although this is their final debate, I am sure that they will continue to contribute on this issue. The Government would do well to draw on their expertise.

It is essential that we have practical solutions and funding—we have heard about some of that today—but we also need timelines for how the issue will be taken forward. The scale of the crisis means that it has affected so many people, and the Government and the Parliament have let so many people down. We need urgent action, and I welcome the fact that there is support for that from all parties.

I move amendment S5M-24396.3, to insert at end:

“; acknowledges that additional resources are necessary after years of funding cuts to services; supports the use of public health interventions such as safe consumption facilities to prevent overdoses and save lives; considers that the resources of the police and criminal justice system should be focused on preventing supply of harmful drugs in Scotland’s communities and ensuring that vulnerable drug users are not exposed to unnecessary court action; notes that the scale of drugs deaths in Scotland is the highest in the UK, and believes that, as well as preventing deaths, there is a need to deliver improvements in treatment options and the availability of same-day treatment for those who seek help with substance misuse.”

16:02  

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

I will start where James Kelly concluded and acknowledge the contribution that Jenny Marra and Neil Findlay have made to the debate. I very much look forward to hearing their speeches in due course.

As James Kelly’s amendment reminds us, we entered this parliamentary session with a 22 per cent cut to drug and alcohol partnership budgets. Services and expertise that people relied on were surrendered.

The narrative and perspective at the outset of the session were damaging, too. There was a fatalism. It was often said that these were not well people; that deaths were the legacy of aging drug users, as though there was nothing that could be done; and that this was the so-called “Trainspotting” generation, proving hard to reach. The cruel reality is that many of those dying were not even born when “Trainspotting” came out.

Now, in the last days of the session, there is an opportunity to reflect and try to set the Parliament on a better course in the next session. The motion is candid, but there can be no other conclusion. The past five years has been a collective failure. The official records tell of 4,253 lives lost since 2016—the final toll is likely to be greater still. The pain that will be felt by families and friends will remain very raw, and I add my condolences to those expressed by colleagues. People are dying preventable deaths three, four, five and sometimes even six decades before their time. We owe it to all of them to drop any lingering excuses—there are none—and to do everything possible to turn the situation around. “Everything possible” will need to include some things that we are still told are impossible.

I think that Peter Krykant has helped to prove that—one man, going out, day after day, determined to save lives. He did not care about the consequences that he might face by doing that; he cared about the consequences for others if he did not.

If my amendment sounds familiar to members, it is because it is virtually word for word the one that Alex Cole-Hamilton lodged 14 months ago. On that day, it gathered the support of only the Liberal Democrats and Labour colleagues. I am returning to Parliament hopeful of a different outcome this time round.

We have asked the new Minister for Drugs Policy to look afresh at all our proposals, and I hope that she will see their merits. Indeed, in January, the First Minister announced that additional funding would be made immediately available to make heroin-assisted treatment services more widely accessible across the country. The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh is calling for such services to be made available in all major centres. There are people across Scotland who cannot afford to wait.

Turning to the second part of my amendment, I am asking for Parliament to agree to what I believe is an important principle: that people in possession of drugs for personal use should be diverted into treatment and that prison is not the place for vulnerable people whose crime is to be gripped by addiction. We could not secure agreement for that on 30 January 2020. From what we could tell, the Government was nervous about the precise wording, keen not to step on the Lord Advocate’s toes. Please forgive us for being slightly surprised when, only five days later, the Government was arguably doing just that in the Daily Record.

Scottish Liberal Democrats have been highlighting the pilots in Durham and Thames Valley for some time—schemes that have been badged as “de facto decriminalisation”. However, in the article, the minister was quoted as saying:

“I think the Lord Advocate will be influenced by the evidence”.

I welcome the work of the Daily Record. It has campaigned hard for changes to our drug policies, to target the dealers and get people into treatment. Putting aside disagreements over how it is done, Parliament could at least agree to that decriminalisation principle today.

The police are asking for change. Assistant Chief Constable Steve Johnson gave devastating evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee in July 2019. He told MPs:

“It is just a matter of time: they come through the custody door, they get processed through the criminal justice process, they go in through the Sheriff Court, they go into prison. Of those people that come out of prison, 11% of them will die within the first month of having been released ... the police officers get used to this carousel, this sense of hopelessness and helplessness. The first duty of every police officer is to preserve life and when people do not come back through the doors with that alarming frequency, it is probably because the person is dead. It is not because there has been a successful intervention through the criminal justice process. That is a sense of foreboding within law enforcement.”

Members can understand why the assistant chief constable was urging “courage”.

During this debate, we are all looking at what can be salvaged from, frankly, five terrible years. It will always be for the incoming Government to progress its agenda, but such a statement in favour of decriminalisation from the outgoing Parliament would be difficult to ignore.

I move amendment S5M-24396.2, to insert at end

“; calls on the next Scottish administration to coordinate a plan for a Scotland-wide network of heroin-assisted treatment facilities, and agrees to work towards diverting people caught in possession of drugs for personal use into treatment and ceasing imprisonment in these cases, helping save lives.”

16:08  

Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

I confirm the Scottish Greens’ support for the Government motion, with its frank admission of failure with regard to drug deaths. That is, indeed, “a mark of shame” on our nation. It is vital that we build consensus around a national commitment to deal with drug deaths. We are in an emergency. In that spirit, we will support the Labour and Lib Dem amendments, too.

However, I must underline clearly the views of the Scottish Green Party. In 2016, we stood on a manifesto that said:

“We believe that the criminalisation of drug use creates more harm than having managed and regulated supplies. It ties up much police time”

and it is clear that

“decades of effort have failed to eradicate drug use from society.”

Although I, too, welcome increased investment in rehabilitation, we cannot support the Conservative amendment, which may even unintentionally stigmatise important pharmaceutical interventions.

As colleagues have noted, 1,264 people lost their lives to a preventable fatal drug overdose in 2019. I express my condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one to drug use.

The Scottish Greens have always been clear that this is a public health emergency. We cannot arrest our way out of the drug deaths crisis; we need to help people to manage their drug use rather than punish them for it. The punitive approach has led to stigma. People who use drugs may be subject to multiple stigmas, including those associated with HIV status, homelessness and mental health conditions. We have a long way to go before public services and wider society are inclusive of people who use drugs, especially while the trauma of criminalisation is still being inflicted on them. I have previously spoken in the chamber about the pejorative language that too often—and flippantly—is used to describe people who are still marginalised and neglected by wider society. Language matters. Drug users are members of our society and part of our communities, so we must value them as such.

Locally, great work is being done to reduce stigma, including around the illnesses that are frequently associated with drug use. I again highlight the excellent work of the Edinburgh access practice, which provides care for people who experience difficulty in accessing primary healthcare, including drug users. It is estimated that around 21,000 people in Scotland are chronically infected with hepatitis C and that around 90 per cent of new infections occur through sharing contaminated drug-injecting equipment. We have the opportunity to eliminate hepatitis C in a matter of years. However, despite a dramatic increase in the numbers of those completing treatment for such an infection, one in five people in Scotland who inject drugs has hepatitis C. We therefore need a focus on evidence-based harm reduction services such as needle and syringe programmes if we are to achieve elimination.

Other countries have shifted their focus to harm reduction. In Portugal, authorities have adopted a social inclusion model. Those who are referred to the programme are offered integrated out-patient treatment that addresses the individual’s physical, psychological and social needs. People who are dependent on drugs are encouraged to seek treatment, but they are rarely sanctioned if they choose not to. In Portugal, decriminalisation is not promoted as the sole response; it is complemented by the allocation of greater resources across the drugs field, and the expansion and improvement of prevention treatment, harm reduction and social reintegration programmes. The introduction of such measures coincided with an expansion of the Portuguese welfare state, including the establishment of a guaranteed minimum income. Although anyone can be affected by drug use, there is a clear link between it and deprivation. In 2019, more than half the deaths of homeless people in Scotland were drug related. We must address that if we are to take a preventative approach.

My colleagues Patrick Harvie and John Finnie have previously written to the Lord Advocate to urge him to use his authority to exempt from prosecution life-saving services such as safe drug consumption rooms. In the past, Lord Advocates have used their discretion to ensure that prosecutions are not brought on issues when doing so would clearly be at odds with the public interest. Such discretion was used in the recent past when homosexual sex was still criminalised. The current Lord Advocate has published prosecuting guidelines in relation to the use of naloxone. However, in his reply to my colleagues he said that that

“is quite different from providing a statement of prosecution policy of general application”.

That is disappointing, as establishing safe consumption facilities could play a significant role in reducing drug-related deaths and other serious harms such as the transmission of disease. The Lord Advocate has the power to act now, and I urge him to use his public interest discretion to ensure that no health professional would face prosecution for providing life-saving health interventions.

I appreciate what colleagues have said on this issue, too, and I look forward to working with them to push it forward. Access to treatment must be improved. Scotland has a low rate of people in treatment: only 35 to 45 per cent of people who could be protected from death and other harms by being in treatment are actually in it, compared with a figure of 60 per cent in England. We are also poor at keeping people in treatment.

Presiding Officer, I appreciate that I am over my time. I, too, am very much looking forward to the contributions of Jenny Marra and Neil Findlay on this issue. As others have noted, these will be their final contributions, so it is fitting that they, too, are taking part in the debate.

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

Thank you, Ms Johnstone. Yes, that is fitting. I am conscious that this might be Maureen Watt’s final speech, too. I call her now.

16:14  

Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

Thank you, Presiding Officer. When I put my name forward to speak in the debate, I did not think that this might be my last speech in the chamber. As a member of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, I have been fully involved in helping my friend Emma Harper to get her bill on worrying of livestock through, and I thought that I might speak in the stage 3 debate on it next week, but we will see. I will have some valedictory remarks to make at the end of my speech.

The Presiding Officer

Ms Watt, will you lift your microphone up, please? I think that it is bent down.

Maureen Watt

Yes. I beg your pardon, Presiding Officer. I hope that you heard that first bit.

It struck me, when I was preparing for this debate, that my first speech in Parliament, which I gave in committee room 2 because a beam had come down in the chamber, was on drug harm. It is a real coincidence that I am finishing by speaking on the same subject.

We have made some significant changes and progress since then, not least in that drug harm was still a justice issue back then. Now, it is a health issue. It is really important that we have made that change, because all the other devolved Administrations and the Republic of Ireland have done so, too. At meetings of the British-Irish Council that I have attended, it has struck me that the UK Government at Westminster is the only one that is living in the past and still regards the subject as a justice issue.

As other members have said, the number of drug-related deaths in Scotland is totally unacceptable, and it brings an equivalent unacceptable level of sadness and pain to families and friends. However, if the solutions that will reduce the toll were easy, they would have been introduced by now. The issue is so wrapped up with people’s living conditions, their poverty, their lack of ambition and their inability to see any way out of the conditions that they are in. In order to find the solutions, we need to understand the situation of every drug addict and know what has led to every drug death that occurs. Nevertheless, I have been heartened by reading the briefing from the Scottish drug deaths task force, because it is clear that it recognises that. It focuses on emergency responses.

I am pleased to have worked with families in the north-east who have seen the benefits of naloxone use and have been vocal in spreading the message about its worth. Every addict and their family and friends should have naloxone to hand and should know how to use it.

On the subject of reducing risks, I cannot for the life of me understand why the UK Government prevents us from introducing safe injecting centres. The opposition to them is ideologically driven and shows how we can and must do better with our own powers. The existence of such centres has been proved to work in other countries, so, with our having such a problem here, we need that tool, too.

In that first debate that I spoke in, as now, everyone recognised that residential facilities can provide a way off drugs, but that they must be shown to work in the longer term by enabling people to develop the resilience and resistance that they need in order to cope when they are back in their communities.

Early intervention and prevention are also key, as is education from an early age on the dangers of substance misuse. It is important that children who live in households where there is substance misuse are identified early and given the necessary support.

There are third sector organisations that do excellent work in the area, and they need financial stability to continue their work. Organisations such as Alcohol & Drugs Action in Aberdeen play a key role in being available to provide immediate pathways when addicts need and feel that they are ready to ask for help.

As James Kelly and others have said, many people who suffer with drug addiction also have mental health problems, and their issues must be tackled in tandem at all levels, including in primary care.

In my speech in that earlier debate, I drew on my experience as a prison visitor. As a former criminal justice social worker, the minister also knows how vital it is that people who enter prison with an addiction are not released without on-going support in which accommodation and training opportunities are mapped out. The cases of prisoners being released and finding the doors of temporary accommodation shut are just not acceptable.

I have the utmost respect for workers in drug action. Their expertise and importance needs better recognition by all, including local health and social care partnerships. Not least among those workers are peer support workers who, having experience of addiction, have the respect and confidence of those who are now trying to escape that scourge. I hope that some of the extra funds might be channelled in their direction.

It has been the privilege and joy of my life to be able to represent, first, the people of the whole north-east and, latterly, from 2011, the wonderful folk of Aberdeen South and North Kincardine. It is a very diverse constituency that includes many people who are involved in the oil and gas industry, as I was previously. I am delighted to have been a co-convener of the cross-party group on oil and gas and to have promoted the contribution of that vital industry. People in the industry can lead Scotland past peak oil and into the new era of alternative energy. The workforce have the skills and ingenuity to transition to green energy and to make Aberdeen the all-energy capital of Europe.

It was beyond my wildest imagination that five of my 15 years in the Parliament would involve serving in a ministerial capacity. Having raised the profile of Doric on my first day, I was able to embed in curriculum for excellence the use of all Scotland’s languages in the school curriculum. As Minister for Public Health, I set up Food Standards Scotland, with its headquarters in Aberdeen, introduced the duty of candour into the health service and launched the out-of-hospital cardiac arrest strategy, which has resulted in more than half a million of our population being trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and able to save so many lives.

Finally, I was the first-ever dedicated Minister for Mental Health, which was so novel that the World Health Organization’s mental health forum held one of its few meetings outside the US here, in Scotland, to see what we were doing in the field of mental health. The approach involved prioritising parity of esteem between physical and mental health and the need to look at the whole person, which is as important in relation to reducing drugs harm as it is anywhere else.

None of that work would have been possible without my teams of staff over the years, five of whom—well, four plus a son—have gone on to elected office, either in the Scottish Parliament or at Westminster. Unfortunately, they are all men, but that is changing. I helped to encourage Gillian Martin to stand to become a member, and she and I are mentoring women who, I hope, will be here in the next session of Parliament.

I thank the ministerial office staff and other civil servants, who display the utmost dedication to their ministers and to their work. I also thank the clerking teams and all the other Parliament staff who make the work here run smoothly and effectively.

I thank my totally supportive but long-suffering family, and I look forward to seeing them in London and Paris with my husband, when I am able to do so. I do not like the word, but I have lots to do in retirement, although I will miss the camaraderie of colleagues from across the chamber.

During the past session more than ever, I have been struck by how fragile democracy is here, in the United Kingdom, and not just in other countries throughout the world. It ill behoves people who come and sit as members in this place to be prepared, at the same time, to rubbish devolution and to diminish and demean the Parliament by their behaviour. It is important that, as well as new members learning from the induction that is given by the Parliament, political parties induct and mentor their new members on policies and procedure, and on the behaviour that is expected in this place. That is what our electors expect, and they deserve no less.

I am totally hopeful that the Parliament and the Government will continue to lead in so many ways and that they will soon soar in an independent Scotland. [Applause.]

The Presiding Officer

Thank you very much indeed, Ms Watt.

16:24  

Annie Wells (Glasgow) (Con)

I, too, wish Maureen Watt, Jenny Marra and Neil Findlay all the best for the future.

As this parliamentary session draws to a close, I am reminded that one of my first speeches as an MSP was on drug use in Scotland. Looking out of my window from my home in Springburn, I saw at first hand the impact that the drug deaths crisis had on the victims, their families and the wider community.

Back then, the scale of the emergency was clear, and it demanded immediate action if we were to stem the flow of drug deaths. However, such action was not forthcoming, and the emergency has been allowed to emerge as a full-scale crisis.

It is clear that a comprehensive plan is required to tackle a crisis that, to our country’s shame, has robbed people of their lives well before their time. We owe it to the victims of drug deaths to do better. Therefore, although a national plan is necessary, it is long overdue and, in many victims’ cases, it has come far too late.

We cannot ignore the fact that the drug deaths crisis has significantly worsened in recent years, nor can we ignore who bears the responsibility for that. The Government has admitted that much more could have been done to prevent Scots from losing their lives to drugs; I welcome that acknowledgement.

The statistics do not lie. They paint a stark picture: the drug deaths rate across Scotland has more than doubled since the SNP came to power in 2007. Let us take the example of my home city of Glasgow. In 2007, 147 drug deaths were recorded in the Greater Glasgow and Clyde NHS Board area, but if we fast forward to 2019, we find that a staggering 404 such deaths were recorded in that year alone.

Glaswegians always pride ourselves on our city’s famous motto, “People make Glasgow”. However, the reality is that those words ring hollow for people who are addicted to drugs in Scotland’s largest city, because those men and women are being badly let down by the Government’s handling of the crisis.

The same story is being repeated time and again across Scotland, as the crisis deepens. How on earth have we arrived at a point at which the drug deaths rate in Scotland is now three and a half times the rate in the rest of the UK, which is not to mention its being the worst in Europe?

I have always said on drug deaths that actions speak louder than words. My main frustration has been that, even though it has identified problems, the Government has been far too slow to act on them. Residential rehab is a case in point. Conservative members, alongside community groups such as FAVOR—Faces and Voices of Recovery—Scotland, have repeatedly urged the Government to fund rehabilitation and recovery programmes to the hilt. That can hardly be said to have been the case in recent years as, in 2019-20, the SNP Government funded a mere 13 per cent of residential rehab places.

I say to members that rehabilitation services save lives. That is why, last year, the Scottish Conservatives called on the SNP to properly fund residential rehab to the tune of £20 million per year in order to guarantee that those services would be equipped to support users when they most need professional help. Although I was delighted that the First Minister finally listened to our calls by pledging £20 million in January, the announcement was well overdue.

The minister has said that no part of Scotland can be left behind in tackling the drug deaths crisis. As someone who comes from a city where drug deaths have historically been higher than in other areas of Scotland, I agree with her, but I return to my original point: we need action, not promises. As with many other policy areas, I remain concerned that, for members of the SNP Government, their heads and focus remain elsewhere.

With fatalities as high as they are in Scotland, it can be easy to let the people who are at the heart of the crisis become statistics, figures or something to be analysed. We must not forget that each person who tragically loses their life to drugs is someone’s parent, child or close friend.

One day it will, we hope, as with the pandemic, be possible for us to look back on the drug deaths crisis as a thing of the past, but if we are to get there, we need a Government that is bold and willing enough to confront the challenge head-on.

16:29  

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

I offer warm thanks to Maureen Watt. She has been very supportive and helpful to me during this session, including on my Dogs (Protection of Livestock) (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill, which she mentioned. I wish her well in the future.

I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate. Each and every drug-related death is a tragedy, and I offer my condolences to the family, friends and loved ones of those who have lost their lives.

I have been working on drug policy and drug deaths in Scotland since my election. As deputy convener of the Health and Sport Committee, I had the opportunity to participate in the Scottish Affairs Committee’s 2019 inquiry into drug-related deaths in Scotland. The inquiry heard directly from support agencies, health services, academics, those with lived experience and families. In her opening remarks, the Minister for Drugs Policy highlighted the need to listen to those with lived and living experience.

All the witnesses before the select committee agreed that urgent reform is needed to reduce drug deaths in Scotland and across the UK. The inquiry heard from experts from Portugal, Germany and Canada in order to examine the evidence on taking a progressive public health approach, not a punitive criminal approach, to tackling problem drug use. Maureen Watt spoke about that, too. Drug deaths and addiction in those countries have reduced significantly, including by as much as 40 per cent in Canada.

The inquiry recommended that possession of personal amounts of drugs should be decriminalised and said that the UK Government must urgently introduce legislation to devolve powers in this area to the Scottish Parliament, allowing Scotland to take its own approach to drug addiction, including through the establishment of safe consumption rooms, for which I and others have been campaigning. Safe consumption rooms save lives, yet the UK Government continues to oppose giving Scotland the power to establish them.

Such reforms would prevent people such as Peter Krykant—whom I met outside Parliament before the Christmas recess with my colleague Stuart McMillan—from potentially taking criminal action. Peter wants to support people by giving them a safe environment in which to use substances, so that they cannot be judged when doing so. That could be a first step for addicts in asking for help.

Reform of reserved Westminster legislation is one tool in the toolbox that could be employed to tackle harmful drug use, and I am keen to hear what the minister thinks about that.

Back in 2018, with the organisation’s chief executive, Colin Crosbie, I helped to plant a tree to mark the opening of River Garden Auchincruive near Ayr. It is a third sector residential training and development centre for people recovering from drug or alcohol addiction and harmful use. The River Garden team do amazing work, and the organisation is a great example of what is possible.

However, to defeat drug addiction, we need more than residential rehabilitation. Tackling drug and alcohol addiction requires multimodal work and a toolbox with many different tools designed to meet different needs. The minister has spoken about that today and previously.

I welcome our First Minister’s announcement of additional funding of £250 million for drug services, with £5 million available now to support immediate and urgent action.

I also welcome the publication of the drug deaths task force’s plan, which builds on six strategies and includes a 2020 to 2022 timeline across three focus areas: emergency response, such as preventing fatal overdose by targeting distribution of naloxone, reducing risk and reducing vulnerability.

When I spoke recently to Grahame Clarke, who is the lead for the alcohol and drug service in Dumfries and Galloway, he described the in-depth work that he and his team are already engaging in. That includes assertive outreach and exploring how they can disrupt street benzodiazepines, which is one of the challenges for our rural area. The team is really keen to see how it can tackle that. I look forward to meeting Grahame and the minister next Tuesday, and I thank the minister for finding time ahead of recess to meet me to consider the challenges for rural parts of Scotland.

Both Colin Crosbie and Grahame Clarke have said that tackling stigma is a huge part of the action that needs to be taken, and I welcome anything that we can do on that.

I welcome the swift action that the First Minister and the Minister for Drugs Policy have taken so far. I ask for a commitment from the minister that the new policy approach will ensure that rural parts of Scotland are absolutely included, considered and listened to.

The Presiding Officer

I call Neil Findlay, to be followed by Bob Doris. As members have noted, this may be Neil Findlay’s last substantive contribution.

16:34  

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

He was in Polmont twice: for 10 days at the age of 16, and then for seven months at the age of 17. He got more drugs in prison than he did in the community. He took an allergic reaction in prison—his mouth swelled up, but he was left that way. His lawyer had to write to the governor to ask for better care. He had brittle asthma. At times, due to staff shortages, he was locked up for 23 hours at a time, with little outside time for fresh air. He needed rehab and treatment instead of being locked up. He died on Tuesday, aged 20, at Carmondean in Livingston, in my and the minister’s constituency, having used heroin and benzodiazepine. He was one of the three people to die a preventable death in Scotland that day.

We have the worst drugs death rate in the developed world—worse than that of the US. That is a shameful, damning indictment of 20 years of this institution being in control of justice and health policy. The Government cut the drugs budget and then wondered why the number of deaths rose. Peter Krykant is forced to go out each day in an auld van that he had to buy at his own expense to save lives, while ministers pretend that they are powerless to provide the same services and engage in constitutional games.

The simple fact is that people cannot access the services that they need. The waiting time for an appointment to see a psychologist in Lothian is between 18 and 24 months just now; it is supposed to be 18 weeks. Are we not all ashamed of what is happening on the streets, yards from us, in every one of our constituencies? We bloody well should be.

It was watching Thatcher’s class war against communities like mine that sparked my political interest and awakening. Today, in those very same communities, working-class lives are ending unnecessarily because of a failed drugs policy. Think of all the families who have lost a child or a partner, lying in a manky alleyway with a needle in their arm or a fake benzo in their belly—and then think of the footballer, the nurse or the tradesperson that they could have been. Think of that waste of talent—of the deaths of people like me, my family, my pals and my community. That is what drives my campaigning on this. I have said it many times, but if this carnage was happening in the leafy suburbs or commuter villages, it would have been sorted a long time ago.

There will be no political leaders canvassing homeless drug users, and they will not be in here getting canapés and warm wine. But we will walk past them on the way to the train tonight—I will—and the minister and her colleagues will drive past them on their way home in their ministerial cars. We need a revolution in drugs policy: decriminalisation, massive investment in care and treatment, and an all-out attack on the inequalities that feed despair and hopelessness. If we do not have that revolution, the bodies will pile higher and higher and higher.

With your indulgence, Presiding Officer, I will say a wee bit about my time in Parliament. I have to say that no-one was more surprised than me when I made it through the Labour Party vetting process, never mind got elected. People from the left were not particularly welcome then; I am not sure that they are particularly welcome now. I had been in this building only twice before becoming an MSP, and the only MSP I knew was my pal Elaine Smith, but I made a pledge to have a go, and others can decide whether I succeeded.

I thank my parliamentary team of Caitlin, Mary Theresa, Jordan, Mhari and Tommy—they are wonderful colleagues and friends. I also thank my family and pals, who have kept my feet firmly on the ground, and my wife, Fiona, and daughter, Chloe.

I do not think that it is a surprise to anybody that I have enjoyed myself most when on the back benches, working with, for example, the magnificent Scottish mesh survivors. Together, we secured a suspension and a fund to support injured women.

I also worked with the Scottish miners and secured the independent review and a commitment to a pardon after almost 40 years. I worked with the families of the children who will continue to use the children’s ward at St John’s because we prevented its downgrading. I worked with the communities that successfully stopped the expansion of Edinburgh airport’s flight path. I worked with the blacklisted construction workers—this week, we mourn the loss of Francie Graham, who was a stalwart of the campaign.

I worked with the then political editor of the Daily Record, David Clegg, to convince the newspaper to take up the cause of drugs, and to go a step further and call for decriminalisation. I am so pleased that it did so, as it has been very influential.

I have enjoyed every day that I called for well-funded, publicly owned services and an end to the madness of privatisation; every day that I worked with the families of care home residents, exposing the human rights abuse of our older people; every day that I worked with the trade unions; and every day that I represented my constituents on a huge range of issues.

I even enjoyed the 60-odd public meetings at which I spoke during the independence referendum, arguing for devo max. I will continue to argue that that is the best option for Scotland’s future.

I enjoyed chairing my friend Jeremy Corbyn’s two leadership campaigns in Scotland—by God, how I wish we had won the 2017 election and radically changed our country for the better.

I even enjoyed standing for Labour leader—well, we have all had a go at some point—on a socialist platform. I enjoyed the times that I screwed up by sending my entire budget speech to Derek Mackay minutes before the budget or sending everybody in the Parliament a reply to a confidential email from Mike Russell. Information technology was never my strong point.

I have a saying that a person cannot be a socialist and a pessimist. I remember using that line in a debate and David McLetchie intervening to ask, “Well, if that is the case, why do you all look so bloody miserable?” I liked debating with McLetchie. However, I am not miserable and I am not pessimistic. More than ever, I believe that socialism is the answer to the biggest questions that we have to deal with: poverty, climate change, hunger, conflict and exploitation. It is because of free-market capitalism that we are here, on the precipice of a disaster for our planet. Those questions can be addressed only by a planned economy, public ownership and international solidarity. Irrespective of our political views, we are all brothers and sisters, and we have as much of a duty to feed and educate a child in war-torn Yemen as we do a child in the school next door, but those principles are alien to anyone who believes in capitalism.

I make a plea to those who follow me: speak up, challenge others and your own party, be awkward, do not accept the line that that is how it has always been done, take up issues, do not be afraid to be rebuffed, and come back again with the same issue until you win. Finally, I say to them, “Enjoy yourself”—I certainly have. [Applause.]

The Presiding Officer

Thank you, Mr Findlay. I am glad that I did not pick you up on your bad language in the earlier part of your speech.

16:43  

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

Neil Findlay has just demonstrated why he will be a major loss to this place. I hope that we can welcome him back. I hope that he does not mind me saying so, but, despite our different constitutional views, I hope that we can welcome him back to an independent Scottish Parliament. He would be an asset in an independent Parliament, for sure. I wish him good luck in the future.

My friend and colleague Maureen Watt made a wonderful and emotional speech, and she will be a great loss to this place. I thank her for her years of service. I will be in the chamber for Jenny Marra’s final speech, which I look forward to. I thank them all for their contributions to our national endeavour.

I want to contribute to the debate because I see it as an opportunity to move the political debate on our drugs death crisis to a place where it will become a national endeavour for us all. The debate is on a national mission to reduce drug deaths and harms. I do not suggest that, in doing so, we should somehow ease up the scrutiny of the Scottish Government—quite the reverse. It has been acknowledged, rightly, by the First Minister that we should have done more to tackle the drugs death crisis. It is right that we acknowledge that as a mark of shame on the nation, and the way forward for us all would be to plot that way together.

There is now consensus that there needs to be significant additional access to residential rehabilitation across Scotland. I acknowledge that there will be a significant expansion of such beds. I had called for that for some time, as had Opposition parties. It will now happen, and can happen at speed—we heard the minister say that, in just two months, with a £3 million investment, 150 more people have benefited from residential rehabilitation. That is a remarkable achievement in such a small period of time, albeit that it is not anywhere near enough. I am interested in knowing more about the timeline for progress in expanding it further, and about how we will monitor outcomes. By that, I mean the impacts on how we can save lives and improve the quality of life not just of those who are living with addiction, but of their families, given the scarring effects on those families.

I think that the minister said that MAT standards would be embedded around April 2021; I must find out more about them. National standards for accessing a range of supports and treatments—including, of course, residential rehabilitation—would be incredibly welcome.

Some who have been designing and delivering services for some time have not always seen residential rehabilitation as a priority. That is self-evident; why else would ADPs have reduced the commissioning and delivery of such beds so dramatically? However, we have to come together, irrespective of our previous positions, and make things work. ADPs can rise to that challenge. They can embrace a rejuvenated investment in such beds; they can also embrace grass-roots organisations, which have authenticity and lived experience, and help to fund and empower them to do their great work in communities. For example, Sisco—Sustainable Interventions Supporting Change Outside—which the minister has met with me, is a strategic partner of Glasgow’s ADP, and I hope that it will secure funding via the Corra Foundation for its excellent work in prisons. Following other funding initiatives that were announced today, I very much hope that it will get additional funds in the future for its work in the community. It advocates for those who are living with or have been scarred by addiction.

Those who are striving for recovery often feel that their treatment choices are simply denied to them. I am thinking of a constituent who came to me just a few weeks ago with mental health issues. They had been trying to get themselves off methadone by reducing their dose themselves. They were really struggling and wanted prescription benzodiazepines—diazepam—to support and stabilise them. They were refused a prescription for that, so their only option was to increase their dosage. That was not what they wanted. Where were the treatment choice, options and empowerment for that person? We have to empower people along the way in their treatment.

In the brief time that I have left, I will mention a good friend of mine, the Rev Brian Casey, minister of Springburn parish church, who talks about truth and reconciliation and about helping communities. I will very briefly quote him. He talks about South Africa; that is why I mentioned truth and reconciliation. One of the things that helped the healing process to begin there was the truth and reconciliation commission headed by Archbishop Tutu. The families of the murdered and the brutalised came face to face with those in the security forces who had committed the crime.

Testimony, documented evidence and hearing their story repeated can be just as powerful for those who have their lives scarred and destroyed by drug addiction in our communities. Mr Casey thinks that we should be documenting that narrative and capturing those stories. I agree with him. We have to find a way not just for getting those who are living with addiction into recovery, but for the recovery of communities who have been so scarred by addiction.

I know that the minister’s diary will not let her meet Mr Casey during this session of Parliament. However, it will not surprise you, Presiding Officer, that I hope that Angela Constance will be in the same post in just a few weeks, and I look forward with hope to meeting her with Mr Casey to talk about his ideas about that national reconciliation—the truth and reconciliation that can help our communities to recover.

16:49  

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

I congratulate Maureen Watt on her final speech and on her service to the north-east over many years. She comes from an outstanding political family, which includes her father, Hamish. I wish her well in her retirement and thank her for the kindness that she has shown to members of all parties. It is amazing that, as members stand down, we find nice things to say about each other. I also—he will hate this—praise Neil Findlay. The work that he undertook during his time on the Health and Sport Committee has driven us to this debate. No member of that committee can accept that a single drug death should happen in Scotland.

I pay tribute to Maureen Watt and Neil Findlay for their service to the Parliament, and we will hear Jenny Marra’s comments soon. I am sure that they are leaving Parliament to go into politics, and I wish them well.

I add my thoughts and sympathies for all those who have lost their lives to drug addiction in Scotland over many years. In my time today, I want to touch on a number of issues that I believe will be important if the Parliament is genuinely going to take action to reduce drug deaths as a national mission.

Access to new treatments is critical to achieving that. Members across the chamber will have received a documentary called “The Final Fix” by documentary maker Norman Stone. I thank him and pay tribute to him for his relentless work on engaging with decision makers and drawing attention to neuro-electric therapy. I welcome the constructive meetings that I have had with the new minister and I welcome the open mind that she says she has on considering new treatments. I also welcome the signal over the weekend from the minister that funding could be made available for a pilot study in Scotland. That would be a welcome step forward in considering NET.

During my time as a Lothian MSP over the past five years, and while serving on the Health and Sport Committee and as shadow health secretary, I have visited addiction services across Scotland and met service users. In that time, I have had many an open and frank discussion with people living with addictions. I have learned a lot and it has opened my eyes to the many people who live with addictions and the issues that they face, and to what was verging on a breakdown in local services for addicts and their families across Scotland.

One of the most difficult issues that our society must understand and address is that childhood trauma is often the underlying reason that many people abuse drugs. It is often a coping strategy or an escape. I have met and assisted an individual in Edinburgh who was homeless and sleeping in a city graveyard for his safety. He had run away from home at a young age, had suffered severe mental health trauma throughout his life, was a care-experienced individual and could not read or write. I think that it is widely understood that people who are living with addictions across Scotland are the same individuals who often desperately try to access services in a chaotic way that sees them too often slip through the gaps in our public services.

I welcome the ministerial implementation group that was outlined, but it cannot be a talking shop; we need all our public services to actively look at the issue.

The housing first model is incredibly important. I know that the minister has been reaching out to a number of rehab and housing providers across Scotland, including the hugely impressive model, safe as houses, which is run by Alternatives West Dunbartonshire Community Drug Services. If there is one lesson that we need to learn, it is that services should be resourced to be able to respond and should expect drug addicts to fail and relapse but to keep them in services. That is one of the things that has too often failed people.

I strongly believe that a commitment to fund a housing first model could deliver the engagement and support that vulnerable people who are living with addictions need, along with the peer-support programmes that can stop overdose deaths and getting people into long-term sustainable recovery, whatever that looks like for each individual.

We know that for a significant number of addicts the root problem of addiction is sexual abuse as a child. That is a part of the drug deaths scandal that many will not want to directly consider and perhaps as a country is one of the darkest issues that we face. Child abuse is a subject that for too long has not been given the priority that it needs, but we must understand it in the context of addiction and the critical need to improve access to mental health services at the start of treatment. I hope that the health minister, who was here earlier, will take that point on board when looking at the redesign of services and the important role that the third sector has to play in that.

I want to put on record concerns that have been raised with me by family members of people living with addictions. Many families whom I have assisted over the past five years have the same story to tell of being seen as part of the problem and of not being given the support that they need to help a loved one. It is often families and friends who live 24 hours a day, seven days a week with someone with addictions. That relationship can and often does break down over time, but we need investment to support families who are desperately trying to look after a loved one or friend with addictions. I very much welcome the £3 million that the minister outlined today; I have been campaigning for that for a number of years.

If we are genuinely going to see a shift towards making a reduction in drug deaths and harm a national mission, it has to be embedded in all key outcomes and focused on access to treatment and rehab services. The minister spoke about treatment targets. I hope that she can give us more information on them and when they will be published; that will be critical. If person-centred care is going to be at the heart of the mission, co-decision making with the people who access services must also be embedded. Today must be just the start of that national mission to help save lives.

The Presiding Officer

For understandable reasons, we are substantially behind our schedule, although it is not just the members who are making valedictory remarks who are going over time. Therefore, decision time will be quite late today, and we are adding an urgent question at the end of the day.

16:56  

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

The number of drug-related deaths in Scotland is unacceptable, and every one of those lives lost is a tragedy. Important lives—of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters and friends who were loved—have been cut short too soon. The family and friends of those who have lost their lives are in my thoughts as I speak this afternoon.

I commend the Scottish Government for acknowledging and accepting that it should have done more and done it earlier. In moving forward and working to improve the lives of those with problematic drug and alcohol use and prevent those avoidable deaths, I hope that that acknowledgement illustrates, not only to me but, more importantly, to those who are working hard on the ground in the midst of that crisis, that change will happen.

As the minister outlined in her opening speech, the Scottish Government has announced that it will focus on five areas as a priority: fast and appropriate treatment; residential rehabilitation; a more holistic approach; front-line, third sector organisations; and overdose prevention facilities.

I hope that the fast and appropriate access to treatment will include drop-in access and same-day prescribing. The window of someone being ready for treatment can be small, so we need to make sure that the right support is available in our communities at the right time, and that it is tailored towards the needs of each individual and their families.

As the minister said, our services have to catch people where they are and when they are ready and, of course, hang on to them and hold them tight, so barriers to access should be identified and removed. That will be done by centring the needs of the individuals who need help, not the organisations that deliver treatment. I particularly welcome the minister’s comments about including lived experience through experience panels.

I welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to ensure that, in every part of the country, residential rehabilitation is available to everyone who wants it—and, importantly, for whom it is deemed clinically appropriate—at the time when they ask for it. We need to see residential rehab in the context of wider community services and rehabilitation; we also need to consider what happens to people when they return to their community.

Problem drug and alcohol use is a symptom of wider difficulties for an individual. The creation of a more joined-up approach that supports people who are living with drug addiction to address all the underlying challenges that they face—of which, as I said, drug addiction is often just the symptom—and which ensures better support after non-fatal overdoses, is essential.

People do not need just freedom from the physical addiction to survive and thrive; they need somewhere warm and safe to live, access to healthcare, human contact, connection and purpose in their lives. People need hope.

I know that the Government understands the vital role of front-line—often third sector—organisations in our communities. In that regard, we need to make sure that we put our money where our mouths are—actual money. In the past, policy makers and Government have, too often, been fine with praising the work of smaller organisations in our community and holding them up as great examples but, when it comes to funding, they fall through the cracks. That has to end. In particular, where such organisations are taking referrals from statutory services and providing support and where we have confidence in their ability to do the support work that is required, it is not acceptable not to provide funding. With that in mind, I welcome the funding that was announced by the minister this afternoon.

I have focused on the areas that would have greatest impact on the communities that I represent. Overdose prevention facilities are perhaps more urgently required in our cities. Although I appreciate the limits of our current constitutional set-up, I simply urge the Government to be bold and brave—it is about saving lives.

If we meet people where they are, with accessible, people-centred services, and acknowledge and act upon what we know about the needs of those who find themselves vulnerable to harm because of problem drug and alcohol use, while funding good-quality, front-line services in our communities, we can save lives—more than that, we can give people the best chance of living fulfilling lives.

17:01  

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

First, I want to pay tribute to Neil Findlay and Jenny Marra, who are also making their final speeches today. I have not always agreed with Mr Findlay and Ms Marra—that is probably obvious, given that they are in a different party—but, in general, I have respected that they have a different position on a wide variety of issues. They have made a valuable contribution to the Scottish Parliament and to Scotland and I wish them well when they leave the Parliament. I also pay tribute to Bill Bowman, with whom I sat on the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee this session; I wish Bill well when he leaves. Finally, Maureen Watt was one of the people, along with Brian Adam, who took me under their wing when I was first elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2007. They treated me as if I were an equal and not just a newbie who had just been elected to the Parliament. I thank Maureen Watt for that, for her friendship and for her sage advice over the years. I wish her well.

I remind members that I am a board member of Moving On Inverclyde, which is a local addiction service. I welcome the opportunity to speak in today’s important debate. I also welcome the appointment of the Minister for Drugs Policy. I wrote to the First Minister asking for a dedicated minister in the field. I asked that that could happen in the next session, and I am pleased that Angela Constance has taken on that role for the remainder of the current session and—I hope—beyond.

Almost 3,400 people in Scotland have lost their lives due to drug misuse in the last three years, including 80 who lived in Inverclyde. Each death is a tragedy and I offer my condolences to the families, friends and loved ones of those who have lost their lives. The number of drug-related deaths in Scotland is simply unacceptable, which is why I welcome the First Minister’s declaration of a national mission to tackle the crisis that is blighting our communities—some more than others.

The original funding of £250 million over the next parliamentary session is very welcome and the additional £5 million that has been made available immediately to ensure that priority work gets under way as quickly as possible shows that the new minister and the Scottish Government are committed to providing the national mission with the leadership, focus and resources that it needs to turn the situation around and to save lives.

As a board member of Moving On Inverclyde, I know the vital role that third sector organisations play in supporting people living with drug addiction. We heard Ruth Maguire’s comments a moment ago and I, too, welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to work across the health and care sector to ensure that no door is the wrong door to help and support. Tackling the crisis also means putting our efforts into improving mental health support, reducing homelessness and ensuring that we have a humane and responsive justice system.

The statutory services have a hugely important role in keeping people alive, but they can be limited in what they can provide to meet people’s wider needs. The third sector can assist in meeting the other needs of service users and helping them to progress through their recovery. Direct funding to third sector organisations would be the most welcome thing that the Scottish Government could provide to allow organisations to focus on planning and delivering the services that people need. I have spoken about the third sector in previous debates about drugs, and Mr Whittle was certainly involved in those debates. I am pleased about today’s announcement of the four new funds, which will help in that regard.

I welcome some of the immediate action that the Scottish Government is taking, including the work to make heroin-assisted treatment services more widely accessible across the country, the work to increase the numbers in treatment, the rapid implementation of recently developed treatment standards, the opening of additional residential rehabilitation placements and the extension of outreach initiatives that identify those who are at risk, address immediate health concerns and connect people with other community or clinical services.

There are three key aspects to moving forward. The first is partnership working, the second is evidence-based solutions and the third is listening to people with lived experience and then acting. Every politician, and everyone in the Parliament, needs to ensure that we push and challenge ourselves and society to make the changes that are required to save lives. If we do not do that, we will fail many more people, many more families and many more communities.

17:06  

Liam McArthur

I start by acknowledging the contributions of the three colleagues who will be leaving Parliament after this session. Maureen Watt and I share a love of Malawi, and I have very much enjoyed working with her in developing the relationship that the Parliament and Scotland as a whole have with the warm heart of Africa. I recall that she and I were part of the same delegation, headed up by our former colleague Karen Gillon, that was sent to Malawi. We spent some time instructing classes in Minga school, just outside Lilongwe, although I am reassured that educational attainment in those classes has gone up since we departed the scene. I wish Maureen Watt all the very best.

Neil Findlay gave a characteristically uncompromising valedictory speech, but it was shot through with insight and was deeply emotional. As he did, I acknowledge the contribution that the Daily Record has made, particularly in pushing the case for decriminalisation. We should not underestimate the significance of that contribution.

Neil Findlay may be leaving this building, but he has certainly left a lasting impression on me. I still bear the scars from his football boots in my knee, after a typically uncompromising take-man-and-ball effort as the goalkeeper of the Scottish Parliament team, as we defeated the MPs at Parkhead. I wish that, at that stage, he had kept his feet on the bloody ground—apologies for that unparliamentary language, Presiding Officer.

I am looking forward to hearing Jenny Marra’s speech—I had rather hoped that I would have heard it before now. She has spoken with authority on pretty much any issue, but particularly on drugs and the drug deaths scandal. Through her passion, insight and tenacity, she has done as much as anybody to push this agenda forward, and I very much thank her for that. In fact, I even forgive her for beating me hollow to the community MSP of the year award, which she rightly walked off with at the awards a few years ago. I wish her well in whatever comes next for her.

This has been a very different debate. I know that we usually sum up such debates by saying that the debate has been very interesting, helpful and constructive, but I think that today’s debate genuinely has been. The tone and tenor of the debate has been very different from that of some debates that we have had in the past. Part of that is to do with the candour. There has been candour from the Government, whose motion does not pull any punches and is expressed in a way that we would not have seen a few years ago. The fact that the motion is expressed as such is very welcome.

The minister opened the debate by talking about Scotland’s national shame, James Kelly talked about the failure of devolution and Donald Cameron talked about a collective shame. That speaks to the significance of the issues that are under discussion today, and we find ourselves in a much better place than we have been in previous debates.

Donald Cameron was also right in acknowledging Angela Constance’s approach. When I worked with her on the education brief, we might not have always agreed, but I always found her approachable and willing to collaborate and explore the ideas that I brought to her. That is absolutely the approach that needs to be taken in relation to our drug deaths crisis. She talked about building on the lived and living experience in the panels that will instruct policy, and that is welcome, although Neil Findlay made the telling point again that those voices need to challenge as well. I am sure that that will be the case.

We should not mistake accepting that what has been done today is not good enough for saying that nothing that has been done until now is of value. As we look ahead to what we need to do more radically, we need to identify the stuff that works and needs to be preserved. As Donald Cameron suggested, we need to be more broad minded. In that sense, Peter Krykant’s brave work has shown what is really possible when we move beyond rigid assumptions of what we can and cannot do. James Kelly and—to her credit—Ruth Maguire made the essential point that we absolutely need to move beyond the debate about the constitution.

I welcomed Angela Constance’s reference to ensuring that there are no barriers, or low barriers, to treatment and that what is needed will be provided where it is needed. I commend Jenny Marra for making the point that, although we can all welcome the plan that has been set out, because it takes us far beyond where we have been—“light years away” from where we are now, she suggested—we need to ensure that we are able to deliver that plan, not just through statutory services but across the third sector. I also welcome the self-evident acknowledgement of the need to integrate mental health in addiction services.

I welcome the additional funding—over and above the £20 million for rehab—for addressing the problem that The Ferret deserves credit for its perseverance in profiling and highlighting, which is the impossible choice that some face between retaining their tenancy and accessing the treatment that they need. That situation was wholly unacceptable and I welcome the Government’s acknowledgment of it and the funding that it provided for it. I also acknowledge Miles Briggs’s reference to the work of Norman Stone. Neuroelectric therapy is one of those ideas that I hope will now be given proper consideration as part of the strategy.

As I said in my opening remarks, it is for the incoming Government to identify and agree its agenda, but a statement in favour of decriminalisation from the outgoing Parliament will be difficult to ignore, particularly if it is adopted unanimously. Neil Findlay is right—Scotland’s drug deaths scandal is the shame of the Parliament since its inception in 1999, but the past five years has been particularly horrendous. I hope that today’s debate and vote can help ensure that the next Parliament does so much better.

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Lewis Macdonald)

Jenny Marra will close the debate for Labour and make her final speech in the Parliament.

17:13  

Jenny Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

The debate on drugs is long overdue. The reluctance of the SNP to debate drugs in its own parliamentary time tells its own story over the course of the Parliament. It is not a story of malice or bad intent, but more of a lack of ideas and analysis that might help the desperate situation that we have in Scotland, with the worst drug deaths rate in the world.

It pains me to say it, because I have attempted to speak on behalf of people in Dundee, where the crisis is at its worst, for the past ten years. People with whom I went to school are caught up in that cycle of despair, as are classmates of the former Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing, Joe Fitzpatrick. We are the age of that aging cohort of which the Government speaks.

I spoke from these benches back in 2012, in a debate on the Government’s drugs strategy “The road to recovery: a new approach to tackling Scotland’s drug problem”, which was anything but. Eight years later, drug deaths have more than doubled and recovery beds have almost gone. Our drug deaths task force is painfully slow. The Dundee drugs commission did its work in good faith and its report now seems to be gathering dust on the shelf.

The frustrating thing is that those who did the work are clear that there is no silver bullet. All the analysis points towards the need for an investment in community drug workers on the ground to support families and to do the hard yards of walking alongside people who use drugs and supporting their recovery. That is yet to happen.

The path to drugs is wide and open, while so many other paths are closed to young people in Dundee and across Scotland. There are precious few jobs to go to, with few of any standing or earning potential. The dream of having their own house is a distant one for young people. Holidays are for other people. We call it “economic insecurity” and today we are seeing only the dangerous surface of that iceberg, because Covid has created a catastrophe in the economy that we will see over the next few years.

Do we brace ourselves and start trying policies that will stem that tide economically, creating more hope for young people and giving them paths that are an alternative to drugs? Whoever forms the Government in May, I sincerely hope that they will take the shame of our drug deaths far more seriously than it has been taken over my 10 years in this place.

This is my final speech in Holyrood. People try to give such speeches on a positive note. I will do the same when I invoke the incredible people I have met on this journey: the women, men and children that I have had the honour to represent as I have stood alongside them in their struggles. I will never forget the male lawyer who accused the women carers that I represented of “avarice” in an equal pay negotiation, nor their dignity in the face of such entitlement and arrogance. I have listened to, talked with and sometimes cried with people in my surgery. Some of their struggles have been individual, some have become campaigns. It has been a privilege to walk alongside every person.

Neither can I forget the frustration of the past 10 years, when vast swathes of our time was taken up with the brutal debate of the independence referendum, while the drugs crisis wrapped its fingers around the throats of people in my community.

I will never forget the intimidation as Anas Sarwar and I stood shoulder to shoulder in Dundee city square, facing up Reform street as an army of kilts, drums and painted blue faces marched and shouted their way towards us. I felt that I had been transported back to a battle in the 15th century and was not in a modern democracy. The silencing accusation that we were talking down Dundee or talking Scotland down was a phrase cleverly designed to shut down debate and undermine democracy. I was screamed and yelled at by activists carrying “Yes” placards as I went door to door, doing the democratic work of campaigning in my city.

I realise that there is a mirror image to that, but that hard line of division, disruption and rancour prevents a better politics. I am allowed to be honest today: I think that the hard edge of nationalism has worn some of us down, for now. I am glad that our party is presenting new energy and vitality for the next Parliament.

I hope that the next Parliament will realise the power of devolution. There is so much that we can do now. I have learned during my ten years here that the debate about powers and where they lie is often an empty one and often a distraction on purpose. Change comes about by harnessing collective will, leadership, teamwork and drive to make things happen.

I started campaigning for a mental health crisis centre for Dundee more than three years ago. Since then, 100 people in Dundee have lost their lives to suicide. The city has stalled and delayed. This week, we discovered that, rather than using Covid as an excuse as Dundee has done, Perth opened the doors of a mental health crisis centre last June, during the pandemic. That shows that progress can be made.

So much of what is recommended by the Dundee drugs commission could be actioned tomorrow. When we begin to show change, power wielders in other places comply and progress can be swift: Peter Krykant is a powerful example of that. Have the argument about transfer of powers, and we get nowhere fast.

The Scottish Labour amendment reiterates our belief that police resources must continue to prevent supply—James Kelly spoke to that in his opening remarks. Our communities are awash with drugs. I have recently heard of dealers baiting women with free samples of heroin through their letterboxes—women who are in recovery until they succumb to the dealers. In the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee last month, I asked the chief constable about the supply of drugs, and I felt that he was maybe too willing to concede when he said:

“Where the demand exists, the supply will operate.”—[Official Report, Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee, 11 February 2021; c 36.]

This is a day-to-day challenge for policing—that I do not deny—but, for parents trying to keep their children away from drugs, the ready availability and cheap prices that saturation supply creates, and police acceptance of that, do not help at all.

At the end of the day, it is so often women who pick up the pieces of the drugs crisis: supporting their sons and daughters to make it to the next stage; taking grandchildren into their own homes to raise when parents die or are simply too caught up in the drugs cycle to look after them. Grandparents are raising children who have had heroin in their bloodstream in the womb and are dealing the resulting effects of that on the children and on their own wellbeing. Women are resorting to prostitution to buy drugs and feed their children. I often feel—and I have said this to many of them—that, if the women of Dundee with lived experience of drugs in their families were asked to run our drugs services, we might be looking at a completely different picture. That is one reason why I have been proud to stand up for women, especially over the past couple of years.

I come from a city with one of the highest rates of domestic violence. Women know that their lives are not gender neutral, and neither should be the laws that protect us. I would like to say the names of Bennylyn Burke and her two-year-old daughter, Jellica. Police have recovered two bodies in Dundee this afternoon.

I am a great-granddaughter of women who worked in the jute mills, who bore the indignity of having flaps in the back of their overalls so that they could go to the toilet. Women know that their lives are different from men’s.

I would like to thank my lovely husband for his support. I would like to thank my staff, especially Roy O’Kane, for all their work over the years. I would like to thank my dad for giving me my politics, which were passed down to him from his grandfather, who founded the Dundee and District Union of Jute and Flax Workers. I hope that I have been able to give fair Labour representation to the descendants of his members and the people of North East Scotland.

I thank the Labour Party for giving me the opportunity to serve. [Applause.]

17:22  

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

It is an honour to follow Jenny Marra’s speech. I want to add my best wishes to Maureen Watt, Neil Findlay and Jenny Marra as they depart this place. They have been a credit to the chamber. I do not think that the general public quite understands the personal sacrifice that is required to be an elected member here. You will all be missed by colleagues across the chamber.

I wonder whether Neil Findlay remembers one of the first conversations that he and I ever had. It was at the start of the Parliament v media golf match. He said to me, “C’mere big man. Let me give you a wee bit of advice. See in the chamber? See if I give you a wee bit of gyp and I shout across at you? Don’t worry about it. We can be pals outside the chamber.” I said to him, “I’ve had 30 years of after-dinner speaking, Mr Findlay. If you give me any gyp you’re going to get it smack right back in the face.” Of course, I then went out and gave him a lesson on the golf course. No, you cannot intervene on that, Mr Findlay—it is not a point of order.

I wish the three of you all the best.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to close the debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives. Although we do not necessarily agree with every point in the motion and the amendments, we need to move the debate on, so at decision time we will support all the amendments and the motion. I have a tinge of regret that the Greens have found a way to not support my amendment. I do not think that there is anything in it that, in any way, stigmatises anyone who is addicted to drugs.

I have listened to the contributions of members of all parties, which have mostly been from the same people who have been speaking on the issue for the past five years. They have consistently called for the Scottish Government to take on a crisis that has been growing over decades. We have heard how drug deaths have doubled in the past decade, to the point at which Scotland has the worst rate of drug deaths per head of population in the developed world—it is more than three times that in the rest of the United Kingdom.

In every debate that we have rehearsed repeatedly in the chamber, the Scottish Government has never managed to answer one really important question: why is Scotland so much worse than everywhere else? Linked to that is the question why Scotland has a higher death rate among the homeless community. We need to know the answers to that. We need to explore those issues to develop an effective strategy.

During the past five years, I have listened to SNP MSPs saying that they need more powers. That is a complete cop-out. The Scottish Government has a huge range of powers that it could deploy, but it has consistently refused to do so. Those members have been hiding behind constitutional nonsense, preferring to use their time and energy to cast blame elsewhere, instead of taking responsibility. I do not think that they can hide from that fact just because the Government has decided to take action.

Stuart McMillan

I think that, certainly in this debate and also in the previous debate on drugs, the vast majority of contributions did not play on the constitutional issue. The focus was on what we need to do, irrespective of that aspect. I would have hoped that Mr Whittle would have picked up on that from the vast majority of the contributions from SNP back benchers today.

Brian Whittle

Stuart McMillan is, of course, right to say that about this debate, but he cannot sweep it under the table that, in the past five years, the Government has refused to do it. That is just a fact.

The minister said in evidence to the Health and Sport Committee that it will require the deployment of resource from both the health and education portfolios to effectively tackle the crisis, not just the extra £20 million of funding. She is absolutely correct. Both of those portfolios are totally devolved to the Scottish Government.

One of my main concerns is that Scotland remains the unhealthiest country in Europe, as it was at the start of this parliamentary session. Scotland gave the world the modern education system, but Scottish education, once the envy of the world, has been mismanaged by the Government and we have slipped down the international tables, letting down pupils and teachers, without closing the attainment gap and increasing inequality. Yet education will be one of the main drivers in tackling the crisis.

What we should have been doing is what is now coming forward. The Scottish Conservatives have called for the reintroduction of rehabilitation beds for years, after their numbers were decimated by the Government. Why is it only now that the Scottish Government wants to reverse its cuts, after all these years?

Another of my concerns is the use of drugs in our jails. Given that, how about changing the daft process of releasing prisoners on a Friday afternoon when they cannot access services until a Monday, often placing them in areas where drug use is rife? While we are at it, the Government should introduce a step-down programme from prisons into society. It costs £40,000 to keep a prisoner in jail each year. Getting reoffending down is so important—it is the ultimate spend to save.

What about increasing the needle exchange programmes to tackle HIV and hepatitis C, reversing the upward trend after those programmes were cut? What about ensuring that the third sector, which will be absolutely crucial in tackling the drug death crisis, is properly funded. I was glad to hear the minister talking about a fund specifically for the third sector. There also needs to be family support for those grieving, having lost someone to addiction.

As I have said before in the chamber, a police officer used the term “a hierarchy of death” to describe to me that how those grieving for a lost one are viewed depends on what is on the death certificate. That is stigma.

I am particularly interested in the link between deprivation and addiction and, along with other colleagues from the Health and Sport Committee, I joined the Westminster Scottish Affairs Committee investigation into Scotland’s drug problem. Its report said that deprivation itself does not directly cause addiction. The links between poverty and drug misuse are complex. The main mechanisms that are described as credible links between deprivation and problem drug use are weak family bonds; physiological discomfort and personal distress, including ACEs, which have been mentioned today, and long-term distress; low employment opportunities; and few community resources.

Once someone has a drug problem they also have more limited means of escaping poverty. Their chances of obtaining paid employment are also much reduced. Having a criminal record, a lack of employment history and the stigma of having, or having had, a substance problem all play a part in that.

Therefore, it stands to reason that resources should be allocated prior to addiction. That has to be the most cost-effective investment. To put it simply, if there are fewer community resources in such areas, those resources should be developed to fit the communities. Long-term policy on prevention is required. That should be about access to opportunities to participate in our communities—the chance to be passionate about something in a group who have the same passion. One thing is for sure: if we do not give our children a gang to belong to, they will find their own gang.

I have the greatest respect for Angela Constance and her knowledge of the issue, not to mention her unremitting commitment to tackling this crisis. However, I have to ask: why has it taken the Scottish Government this length of time to act? Why now—at the end of a parliamentary session, just before an election? Why not five years ago, at the start of the session, when the Scottish Parliament could have delivered the real change that the sector has been pleading for? In a few weeks’ time a new parliamentary session will begin, with many new members—because some of us will not be here—and the reset button will be hit once again. The next session of Parliament, with its new cohort of members, will have to start the process of dealing with the crisis all over again.

Unfortunately, it is obvious that the constitution will once again dominate the election. All the while, there are those in our society who are the most marginalised, whose voices are seldom heard and who desperately need our help, but who are continually overlooked and let down by this place. Quite frankly, that is the Parliament’s shame. More specifically, it is the shame of the SNP Government, whose actions are too little and come far too late. Next year’s post-pandemic drug deaths figures will make very grim reading indeed.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Please move to a conclusion.

Brian Whittle

I am concluding, Presiding Officer.

In case this happens to be the last time that I speak in this place I say that it has undoubtedly been the privilege of my life to serve. I have never forgotten why we are here and the responsibility that we carry. However, it has also been the most frustrating place to be because, as I look back over the past five years, I think of what could have been achieved. The Scottish Government’s investment in the drug deaths crisis is welcome—of course it is. However, it comes way too late for the Parliament to work with it in this session. The cynic in me also has to wonder why it has come now, just before an election.

Quite frankly, Scotland deserves better. Too many of our most vulnerable people have been failed. I hope that the next Government will be prepared to take responsibility for the inactions of this Government and finally give a voice to those who are most desperately in need.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Angela Constance to close the debate.

17:32  

Angela Constance

I have very much appreciated the contributions of all members who have spoken in the debate—in particular, those of members who are planning to leave Parliament and who have just made their final speeches.

Of course, Jenny Marra is an old sparring partner of mine from our days in the youth employment portfolio. She has often spoken of the tension and stresses involved in fulfilling our obligations both to our families and as elected politicians. That has always resonated with me, because it was only months after being elected to this place in 2007 that my own son was born. I have never let Bruce Crawford, who was then Minister for Parliamentary Business, forget about the lack of pairing arrangements. It was perhaps a reflection of the time that, across the political parties, no such arrangements existed, so I had to come in here and vote in the week after my son was born. I appreciate Jenny Marra’s campaign and her particular remarks with respect to women in politics and, indeed, those on how the lives and views of women should shape our public services.

Moving from one woman to another, I would also like to pay tribute to my friend and colleague Maureen Watt. Maureen has been a member of the Scottish Parliament since 2006. Over her 15 years here, she has served as Minister for Schools and Skills, Minister for Public Health and Minister for Mental Health. I have always appreciated Maureen’s down-to-earth, north-east, matter-of-fact approach to life, and she has always been a go-to source of good, practical but also very honest advice. I am glad that Miles Briggs recognised that Maureen comes from a long line of nationalists. It is not just the Ewings who have good lineage, you know.

I move from my old friend Maureen Watt to my old foe Neil Findlay. What can I say? To be frank, he has sometimes really ripped ma knitting. [Laughter.] But also, if I am honest, he has sometimes given an absolute belter of a speech, and I think that today was an example of that. I genuinely wish him well. I wish his brave wife Fiona well, and of course his dear mother, who is a constituent of mine.

In his approach to things, Neil will often try to characterise ministers in a particular way, but he knows that I grew up in a village not that far away from the village that he grew up in. I grew up in a tin hoose in Addiebrownhill. One thing that shapes me and that I carry with me day in, day out is my time as a prison social worker, and I know that, while prison is at times absolutely necessary, it rarely works. I, too, have seen the impact on front-line staff, including prison staff, of what happens when people take their own lives, either in the community or in institutions.

The first person I detained under the Mental Health Act, as a newly qualified mental health officer working at the state hospital at Carstairs, was a young woman with severe mental health issues and a huge drug-taking history who had lost her child. She went on, despite all my interventions, to commit suicide. It is those experiences that shape me and will shape my approach as I go forward in this position.

I am political to my core. I am that blue-faced nat, but it is real life that will always shape me. Of course, we will debate the connections between our political aspirations and views and the impact that they do and do not have in real life.

I am pleased to say that we will accept the Liberal Democrat amendment because it recognises the importance of heroin-assisted treatment and the need to roll that out further, and it takes on board what more we need to do in terms of diversion.

In the spirit of consensus, I will also accept the Labour amendment. We support overdose prevention facilities. However, I would add two things to the amendment. It is the role of the police and all of us to work to reduce not just the supply of drugs but the demand for drugs. It is really important that, in our justice system, we have services including peer navigators—such as Kevin Neary from Aid & Abet, who I have met—who can support people the first time they come into contact with the justice service, and perhaps help people on the road out of the justice service and into treatment and support.

I also want to make a point about funding. I would never demur from the importance of funding—I have, after all, secured an additional £5 million for the current financial year and an additional £250 over the next five years. However, we should reflect on the fact that, since 2008, this Government has invested over £1 billion in drug and alcohol services, and that is before we include housing first, mental health services and specific projects that are funded by the justice portfolio.

The bigger point that I want to make is that inputs do not always equal outputs and that tackling drug-related deaths is not a two-dimensional issue. There are fundamental questions about who we fund, how we fund people, and for what. Going forward, we need to reshape services and rebalance both support and accountability. We absolutely need to listen to the warning signs when people are admitted to hospitals and get them into treatment fast. I want to ensure that there is more parity and more genuine partnership between statutory services and the third sector.

Neil Findlay

Will the minister take an intervention?

Angela Constance

Yes.

Neil Findlay

I want to take the opportunity to rip her knitting again for a wee while.

Can the minister tell us in what other area of social policy what is described as an “ageing cohort” would be people who are over 35 years of age?

Angela Constance

I cannot think of any other such area. There are, absolutely, issues for people who are 35 or 45 and who have a long history of taking drugs. That has an enormous impact on their physical and mental health, which means that they might not be as healthy or as fit as people who are over 50, like Neil Findlay and me. However, with drug-related deaths, over the past two years, we have seen a rise in the number of young people who are dying, and we need to nip that in the bud. We have also seen a disproportionate increase in the number of women who are dying. Therefore, as I used to say to Jenny Marra in my youth employment days, we can look at the headlines, but we always need to scratch beneath them, and beneath the statistics, to really understand what is happening.

I am determined to have better-embedded mental health and addiction services. I want NHS prescribers to be out there in the community, in outreach services and the third sector. I am determined that we will listen to lived and living experience, that they will be absolutely plugged into the national mission and that the national collaborative will work in partnership with the national mission. I want to deliver residential services that are located in and connected with community services and with families.

Crucially, we need a balanced ticket between harm reduction and recovery, and not one or t’other. With regret, I will not support the Conservative amendment, because, particularly having listened to some of the speeches from Conservative members, I think that that balanced ticket is absent from their approach. If members, like me, really believe in person-centred care, they would not say that we should predetermine what treatment someone should or should not have, or indeed for how long they should get treatment. Every person deserves the right treatment for them at the right time, whether that is abstinence-based recovery in residential rehab or immediate access to an opioid substitute therapy treatment.

Brian Whittle

That is exactly the essence of our amendment—it is about ensuring that we do not pre-prescribe treatments. We need to open up the options that are available, which is exactly what our amendment is about.

Angela Constance

I could probably have just about accepted the Conservative amendment. However, if the Government can listen to campaigners, lived experience, recovery organisations and the Parliament to make a long-term commitment to residential rehab of £100 million over the next five years, surely that should not be without an expectation that the Conservatives will be bold and say clearly that they support heroin-assisted treatment and overdose prevention facilities, and that they will work with us to persuade the UK Government to introduce drug-checking facilities and on the regulation of pill presses. [Interruption.] I will not take an intervention, as that would really stretch the Presiding Officer’s patience.

Brian Whittle asked what is so different about Scotland. There are three or four things that are different, and number 1 is that we do not have enough folk in treatment. We have proportionately more people in our population who use drugs, and we have a different concentration of poverty in parts of the country.

We also have a more acute problem with benzodiazepines. In Scotland, in comparison with 2009, there has been a 450 per cent increase in drug-related deaths in which benzodiazepines are implicated whereas, south of the border, there has been a 50 per cent increase. It is therefore not unreasonable for us to expect our colleagues across the chamber to stand side by side with us and demand regulation on pill presses, bearing in mind that people with those presses can produce 0.5 million tablets in little over an hour and then pollute our streets with drugs that cost pennies.

Jenny Marra

Will the minister take an intervention?

Angela Constance

No, because I am conscious of time. My apologies to Jenny Marra.

Our core aim is to get more people into treatment to save lives. We must ensure that our emergency work is absolutely embedded in our work to improve lives. Our services need to stick with people, and there should be no running out of chances.

Today’s debate is not unconnected to the debate that we had a few days ago about children’s rights or the debate that we had last week when we passed the Redress for Survivors (Historical Child Abuse in Care) (Scotland) Bill. I want to ensure that the work that we do on drugs policy is joined at the hip with the work that we do on mental health, housing, homelessness, adverse childhood experiences, justice and, of course, poverty and inequality. None of us should forget the impact of poverty and inequality.

I am determined to build a consensus. We will, of course, have robust debate. We do not all need to agree all the time. It is good that we see the mountain from different perspectives and different sides, but we need to march forward together.