One of the big questions that has to determine whether or not devolution is a worthwhile experiment in how to govern the United Kingdom is whether or not devolved governments are held accountable for devolved failures. The row over Scotland’s abysmal drugs deaths figures may be a chance to find out.
If you missed the story, the latest data has seen Scottish drugs fatalities soar yet again. As the Guardian reported: “Scotland continued to have Europe’s highest per capita rate of drug deaths, at 25.2 fatalities per 100,000 people, more than three-and-a-half times higher than the rest of the UK.”
This is just one of many fronts in which the Scottish National Party’s woeful record of domestic governance has started pushing to the fore since May’s devolved elections, but probably the most tragic.
Nicola Sturgeon has, entirely predictably, tried to shift the blame onto Westminster. The SNP blame Scotland’s figures on the fact that the Misuse of Drugs Act, which is reserved Westminster legislation, prevents them from introducing so-called ‘shooting galleries’ – safe consumption rooms where addicts can be sure of clean needles and so on.
Suffice to say, this doesn’t stack up. The prohibition on shooting galleries applies across the UK, so it cannot explain why Scotland’s drugs deaths are running so far ahead of those in England and Wales. Nor are drugs policy experts convinced that safe consumption rooms are the ‘silver bullet’ it suits the SNP to pretend.
Much more obviously to blame is the Scottish Government, which over the ten years it has been in office has repeatedly cut funding for rehabilitation services. Ruth Davidson, in a long piece for UnHerd, sets out the charges with cold clarity:
“Scotland has some of the best residential rehabilitation facilities in Europe. So good, in fact, that Dutch authorities and insurers pay to place patients in facilities such as the Castle Craig hospital in the Scottish Borders. In 2002, Castle Craig admitted 257 patients funded by the NHS; in 2019, the number dropped to just five. There’s no shortage of demand for services, but they aren’t accessible to the Scots most in need. Currently a quarter of Castle Craig’s places are being filled by Dutch patients, with most of the remainder being funded privately or via health insurance.
“Meanwhile Glasgow’s largest residential rehab centre, Phoenix Futures, was forced to abruptly cut its number of beds from 54 to just 14 in 2019, after a Government tender was revoked. The Mungo Foundation’s Cothrom Eile service — in Nicola Sturgeon’s own Glasgow constituency — was forced to close its doors completely in 2019 due to funding cuts.”
This is entirely in keeping with the SNP’s track record, which compasses the repeatedly-delayed ‘Sick Kids’ hospital in Edinburgh. the appallingly mishandled CalMac ferries contract, and not one but two different scandals over bridges. The Nationalists are just bad at running Scotland.
Yet time and again, they have been able to evade a proper electoral reckoning by hiding behind the constitution. Sturgeon looks set to do so again by picking a fight over shooting galleries, threatening to try and introduce them in spite of the Misuse of Drugs Act. This would force the Government to take her to court, as it did over another ultra vires bit of Holyrood legislation – both carefully chosen by the First Minister to create bad optics for Boris Johnson.
(So too, it goes without saying, is her claim that the Prime Minister has ‘snubbed’ her by refusing to meet as he visits Scotland this week. In fact, the Government is deliberately trying to normalise British ministers’ visits to Scotland, and prevent the SNP casting them in the role of visiting dignitaries.)
If the First Minister does decide to press ahead with illegal policy, Westminster must obviously act to defend the constitution. It should also explore ways of tackling this sort of behaviour before it comes to court, for example by prohibiting Scottish civil servants – who are part of the Home Civil Service – from working on business that lies outwith the competence of the Scottish Parliament.
At the same time, ministers could explore ways in which the Government could provide direct support to Scottish rehabilitation services via the new spending powers authorised in the UK Internal Market Act, and contrast the SNP’s posturing with immediate, practical support from the British state.