POLITICS: Heads of Scotland’s drugs deaths task-force quit their posts

By Lucy Ashton

THE Scottish Government’s effort to tackle the drugs deaths crisis has been dealt a blow after the chair and vice-chair of the specially appointed task-force resigned.

Professor Catriona Matheson, an expert in substance misuse from Stirling University, and former Police Scotland deputy chief constable Neil Richardson have written to the Scottish Government outlining their resignation the day before Christmas Eve.

In their letter, which puts a spoke in the wheel of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s plans to tackle the problem which shames Scotland, the two said that what was being asked of them was focused on speed of action rather than sustainability of change.

They told Drugs Policy Minister Angela Constance, pictured right,  that such an approach was likely to be “counterproductive”.

Constance was installed into the newly created ministerial role at the tail end of 2020, after figures showed 2019 was the worst year on record for drugs deaths, costing 1264 lives.

The Scottish Drug Deaths Task Force (DDTF) was set up by the Scottish Government in July 2019 in a bid to curb a rising toll of drug deaths.

Data released in 2021 showed that 2020 had broken that record again, with drugs deaths being counted at 1339.

The crisis – which has seen Scotland record by far the highest drug death rate of any country in Europe – has led to calls for action from across the Holyrood chamber.

Scottish Labour MSP Monica Lennon, pictured left,  had previously asked why action to combat the crisis was moving at a “snail’s pace”.

Responding to the “current demand for speed”, Matheson and Richardson sent their resignation to Constance on December 23.

In a letter published in full by The Daily Record, the two state: “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.

“It is with sadness and disappointment that we resign our posts of chair and vice-chair of the Drug Deaths Taskforce.

“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 further add: “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.

Another day, another funeral in drugs-ravaged Scotland.

“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 her response, Constance wrote that that had “of course there has been significant change since the DDTF was established”.

She added: “I would reiterate – and as I communicated to DDTF members – that the transition following the set of final recommendations from the task-force will need to be managed carefully.

“I also understand that the task-force 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 task-force’s current remit and new timescales.”

In response to a query from the Daily Record, Constance said: “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.”

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