THE last First Minister’s Questions before Christmas recess is usually a lively affair. MSPs and opposition leaders are on fine form and in good cheer as they rattle through their questions, all while keeping one eye on the time as they count down to festive drinks o’clock.
On occasion, somebody will sneak a Christmassy pun into their exchange with Nicola Sturgeon. And by somebody I, of course, mean Willie Rennie.
Sometimes eagle-eyed viewers will be able to spot the odd snowman tie or jingle-jangle bauble earrings. For all its corporate beige-ness, it’s Christmas, Holyrood-style. Unsurprisingly, that end of term vibe was missing from today’s session. It’s been a torrid year and moments of light-hearted fun in the chamber have been few and far between, as they have in the country at large.
It’s easy to sneer at politicians. At times, they make it really, really easy. But the weight of responsibility they have shouldered this year isn’t something I envy.
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That weight falls most heavily on Nicola Sturgeon and her government, as it should. But you can see they’re all a bit scunnered with it. And so, we had a sobering FMQs that was entirely in keeping with this most bleak of years.
The drugs deaths crisis dominated the questions, after the latest figures were published earlier in the week. The figures showed that more than 1200 people in Scotland died of drug misuse last year, a 6% increase on 2018 and more than double the total in 2014.
Our rate is the worst recorded in Europe and three-and-a-half times higher than the figures for England and Wales.
Ruth Davidson raised the issue of funding for rehab services and called for the Scottish Government to commit to £20 million of ring-fenced money. In response, the First Minister said she would commit to doing what was necessary in terms of rehab services, action to avoid overdoses, and prevention.
“The figures published this week are completely unacceptable and therefore nobody will hear political answers from me today on this subject,” she said. “We have much to do to sort this out. Behind every one of these statistics is a human being whose life mattered. I am sorry for every family who has suffered grief. Every person who dies an avoidable death from drug use has been let down.”
In his first question, Richard Leonard quoted drugs policy activist Peter Krykant who said, “Since Scotland’s drug death day of shame just two days ago, another six people will have died in Scotland.
“Three will die today. We will not have a daily briefing about these three people, or any news coverage. Don’t let them be forgotten about until they come out as a statistic.”
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Leonard asked: “First Minister, what are you going to do to stop Scotland’s other pandemic taking more lives?”
In her answer, Nicola Sturgeon said she accepts that more needs to be done and takes responsibility for it.
She said: “I’ve spent almost every day this year dealing with a pandemic and trying to work out how we stop people dying from that pandemic. The people who are dying through use of drugs, their lives matter every bit as much.”
The SNP leader said the Drugs Deaths Taskforce already has work under way but added: “We do have a serious question to ask about whether that work is enough and whether it is going quickly enough. I am not going to stand here and try and defend the indefensible …
“We owe it to those who have lost their lives – and those whose lives can still be saved – to ensure that people like me do not engage in the usual political defensiveness, but accept where criticisms are due and valid.”