SCOTTISH Government efforts to cut drug deaths are in “disarray” after the heads of the taskforce set up to tackle the problem quit over a row with the minister in charge.
Professor Catriona Matheson and former senior police officer Neil Richardson resigned as chair and vice chair of the Drug Deaths Task Force (DDTF) just before Christmas.
The Daily Record revealed the pair quit after a dispute with Angela Constance, the SNP minister for drugs policy, over a demand to speed up the group’s work.
Opposition parties said the Government’s response to the drug deaths crisis was heading “back to square one”.
Ms Matheson is professor of Substance Use at the University of Stirling and convenor of the Drugs Research Network Scotland.
Mr Richardson is a former deputy chief constable of Police Scotland and is now chief executive of Turning Point Scotland.
In their resignation letter, Prof Matheson and Mr Richardson said the acceleration was “counterproductive” and driven by factors “such as meeting targets, rather than achieving sustainable change” and stressed the need to use evidence.
They also said they were “dismayed” that a major plank of the taskforce’s programme was being rushed is such a way that “jeopardises its success”.
The taskforce was set up in July 2019 amid spiralling drugs deaths, which then stood at 1187 for the year.
Last year the number rose to 1339, although more recent figures show a slight decline.
The Record said Ms Constance, who was put in charge of drugs policy in December 2020 after Joe FitzPatrick lost his job because of his poor record, ordered the taskforce to produce a blueprint for urgent reform by next summer, months earlier than expected.
It prompted Prof Matheson and Mr Richardson, who saw the taskforce’s work as requiring years of detailed effort, to leave their posts rather than rush its work.
Dated December 23, their resignation letter said they had considered what was in the best interests of the taskforce and its mission of “putting evidence into action to save lives”.
They wrote: “We have always understood the need for urgency in our work but we feel the current demand for speed is counterproductive and driven by other factors such as meeting targets, rather than achieving the sustainable change that evidence shows is more effective.
“We feel ever further and irretrievably distanced from the remit and purpose of the original Terms of Reference, and the spirit of trust, challenge, and collaboration behind it, on which our participation was invited at the outset.
“We remain committed to saving lives being lost to drugs, through the vigorous and urgent synthesis and dissemination of evidenced based best practice – putting evidence into action as soon as we are confident it is safe and effective to do so.”
They went on: “We are dismayed that a major work programme – our frontline delivery innovation initiatives for multiple complex needs – has been omitted in your correspondence.
“Rushing the final stages of this programme, and during a further covid surge, jeopardises its success.
“We will continue to drive initiatives to reduce drug related deaths in our respective roles. However without a shared conviction with Scottish Government of the importance of evidence based priority and progress we can no longer lead the Scottish Drug Deaths Taskforce.”
In response, Ms Constance wrote back: “I note that you feel the remit and purpose of the original Terms of Reference of the DDTF has changed since you became Chair and Vice Chair. Of course there has been significant change since the DDTF was established.
“This includes not only my appointment as dedicated Minister for Drugs Policy in December 2020, but the launch of the National Mission in January and the establishment of the Implementation Group shortly thereafter.”
She added: “I would reiterate – and as I communicated to DDTF members – that the transition following the set of final recommendations from the Taskforce will need to be managed carefully.
“I also understand that the Taskforce has oversight of projects that will not have ended by July or December 2022. This is why my officials are considering the purpose, remit and governance of all the groups that are part of the National Mission and how they dovetail with the Taskforce’s current remit and new timescales.”
Ms Constance also told the Record: “As we come to the end of the first year of our National Mission, it is vital that we accelerate our existing work, and our focus on delivery and implementation.
“Recent quarterly statistics for suspected drug-related deaths showed a slight decrease, but it is clear there is still an urgent need to implement changes that will make a real and tangible difference to people’s lives.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “Scotland has the worst drug mortality in the developed world. It is nearly four times the rate of England and Wales.
“Five years on, we are reaping the consequences of Nicola Sturgeon cutting budgets to drug services by 22%, sending organisations to the wall and severing support.
“It is the failure of the SNP to take this crisis seriously and act earlier that has led to the Minister feeling the need to push the Drugs Deaths Taskforce to go faster. With these resignations, it feels like we are back to square one on this entire effort.
“I have previously suggested that the First Minister should call in international expertise from the World Health Organisation to tackle this particularly Scottish problem.
“Now with the Drugs Deaths response in such disarray it is more necessary than ever that the Scottish Government brings in international expertise from the WHO to get this crisis under control.”
Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said: “Drug deaths are Scotland’s national shame and the SNP Government have taken their eye off the ball on this crisis for far too long.
“The last thing vulnerable people seeking treatment for addiction need to see is the SNP Government at loggerheads with their own taskforce.
“Far too many lives are being lost to drugs in Scotland every single day. It is clear that the drugs death taskforce has not acted with enough urgency to stop these deaths hitting record highs every single year.
“It is time for the SNP to back our Right to Recovery Bill, which is backed by frontline experts and will guarantee treatment to those who are suffering with addiction and who need support, but in far too many cases don’t get it.
“That is the action our communities need to see, rather than the Government losing the two top members of its own taskforce which is meant to be fully focused on tackling the shameful number of lives lost to drugs.”
Labour MSP Claire Baker said: “These resignations reflect a catastrophic breakdown in relationships between the Scottish Government and the taskforce they appointed.
“We do need to act with urgency – but that must be led by the best evidence available.
“We must invest in the services we already know work, while developing robust longer-term solutions.
“There are lives on the line and the stakes are too high for this important work to be compromised.
“The SNP must take on board these serious comments as they secure new leadership to complete the work of the taskforce.”