Joe FitzPatrick has resigned as public health minister after facing mounting pressure and a vote of no confidence over drug deaths failings.
The Dundee City West MSP said he “agreed” he should leave government after Scottish Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats formally called for him to be sacked from the post on Friday.
Statistics from National Records of Scotland revealed this week that there were 1,264 drug-related deaths last year, a 6% rise, with Mr FitzPatrick’s home city of Dundee leading the way per head of population.
It means Scotland’s rate is higher than those reported for all other EU countries, and is approximately three-and-a-half times that of the UK as a whole.
Labour’s Monica Lennon was the first to submit a motion of no confidence in Mr FitzPatrick, citing “his inadequate response to tackling drug-related deaths”.
The Scottish Greens said they would consider their position on the motion in the coming days and the Conservatives say they would work with anyone who is “serious” about dealing with the issue.
It meant the government faced the prospect of an embarrassing second vote of no confidence in recent months, after deputy first minister John Swinney narrowly held on to his second job as education secretary over school exam markings.
‘It is clear that my presence as a minister will become a distraction’
But Mr FitzPatrick decided to step down instead and said it had been the “privilege of my life to serve in the Scottish Government” but that the “most heart-breaking and difficult problems” he faced were the harms and deaths caused by drug use.
“I have worked with families who have felt the burden and weight of grief from drug use,” he said. “I want to thank them for their candour and the amazing efforts they make to try and make our country better and safer for all.
“As the minister responsible for this area I, ultimately, take my responsibility. It is clear that my presence as a minister will become a distraction, when we should be focused on achieving the change we need to save lives.
“There is nothing I can express that will ease the loss that so many families have felt due to a death from drugs use.
“I can only say how sorry I am for their loss, and that hearing the experiences of the families and the recovery communities will never leave me.”
Angela Constance appointed
Almond Valley MSP Angela Constance has been appointed as a dedicated minister for drug policy and will report directly to Nicola Sturgeon, leading the Scottish Government’s work on tackling and reducing the harm of drug misuse.
My thanks to @JoeFitzSNP for his service as Public Health Minister. I’ll seek @ScotParl approval for appointment of @AConstanceSNP as Minister for Drugs Policy, reporting directly to me. We’re determined to tackle the drugs crisis. I will confirm new Public Health Minister soon. https://t.co/xSL0Vvfvrk
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) December 18, 2020
The first minister thanked Mr FitzPatrick “for his work as a minister and the service he has given to government over the last eight years”.
She said: “While the time has now come to make a change in the public health brief, no one should doubt Joe’s hard work, dedication and sincerity.
“He will continue to champion the interests of his constituents at Holyrood, and I wish him well in the future.”
Ms Sturgeon is due to report to MSPs again in January, after she meets with the Scottish Government taskforce, which is considering a number of public health interventions.
Scots Tory leader slams ‘disastrous’ drugs strategy
But Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said no one could have confidence in the first minister’s “disastrous” drugs strategy after “13 years of failure” and insisted the resignation of her public health minister “changes nothing”.
“If this was about the shocking number of drug-related deaths this year, he would have gone on the day the numbers were released,” Mr Ross said.
“The families of the 1,264 people who lost their lives in the last year to drugs will take little comfort in his resignation.
“They are more interested in how we have reached this shameful position after more than 13 years of the SNP being in power, with Nicola Sturgeon in charge of health for much of that.
“We urged the first minister to agree to our proposed £20 million funding for rehabilitation but got no commitment.
“All the focus must be on the urgent public health crisis of Scotland’s drugs deaths epidemic so we can finally start to reverse the tragic number of lives being lost from drugs.”
Ms Sturgeon has admitted Scotland’s record on drug deaths “is simply not good enough” and said, as first minister, she knows there is “much more to do”.
“As a first step I have decided to appoint a dedicated minister, working directly alongside me, whose job it will be to work across government to improve outcomes for people whose lives are affected by drugs,” she said.
“We must not accept a situation in which people who use drugs are allowed to fall through the cracks, with so many dying premature and avoidable deaths as a result.
“Behind the statistics are real people whose lives matter, and I am absolutely determined that we take actions to fix this.”
Former social worker ‘to get straight down to business’
Ms Constance previously served as a social worker, including working with people with a history of drug misuse and families living with the consequences of addiction.
She previously held government posts as cabinet secretary for communities, social security and equalities from 2016 to 2018 and cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning from 2014 to 2016.
Ms Constance said: “I intend to get straight down to business, meeting with people who are at risk of dying from drugs, learning from the families of those we have lost and working with those in our communities and public health teams who are providing such valuable support.
“Government can and will do more and I am determined to use the short time before the election to work with the drug death taskforce on the actions necessary to reduce Scotland’s drug deaths and better support those living with addiction.”