The SNP’s beleaguered public health minister has been sacked during crisis talks with Nicola Sturgeon over record figures showing Scotland has by far the highest drug death rate in Europe.
Joe FitzPatrick said the shocking scale of Scotland’s drug death epidemic was “my responsibility” and it was “clear that my presence as a minister will become a distraction.”
However, it became apparent that Ms Sturgeon had sacked him after her chief spin doctor released a statement from him saying they had “agreed” he should go.
He departed only hours after Labour and the Liberal Democrats tabled a motion of no confidence in him at Holyrood, when he initially refused to quit and Ms Sturgeon failed to sack him.
The First Minister last night tried to draw a line under the issue by announcing the appointment of Angela Constance as a dedicated Minister for Drug Policy. A new Public Health Minister will be announced on Monday.
But Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, said Mr FitzPatrick’s departure “changes nothing” following 13 years of SNP “failure” to tackle the issue.
Scottish Government figures published this week found Scotland’s drug deaths had surged to a new record and remained by far the worst in Europe, following swingeing SNP cuts to rehabilitation facilities.
They showed a 6 per cent rise to 1,264 deaths last year, more than double the total a decade ago and a death rate around three-and-a-half times that of the UK as a whole.
Dundee City Council – the area covered by Mr FitzPatrick’s constituency – had the worst drug death rate in Scotland. He then gave a calamitous TV interview in which he admitted he was unsure how many rehabilitation beds Scotland has.
A contrite Ms Sturgeon attempted to allay widespread anger by promising to take charge of the issue after admitting her government’s record was “indefensible.”
Announcing his resignation, Mr FitzPatrick said: “I spoke with the First Minster today and agreed that I should leave government.”
Apologising to the families of those who have died, he added: “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.”
The families of the 1264 people who lost their lives in the last year to drugs will take little comfort in this resignation.
They are more interested in how we have reached this shameful position after more than 13 years of the SNP being in power. https://t.co/pl1Q3iXwDI
— Scottish Conservatives (@ScotTories) December 18, 2020
Ms Sturgeon 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.”
Unveiling the appointment of Ms Constance, a former Education Secretary, she said: “Scotland’s record on drug deaths is simply not good enough and as First Minister I know we have 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.”
But Mr Ross said: ” “After 13 years of failure, no-one can have any confidence in Nicola Sturgeon’s disastrous drugs strategy and 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.”
Willie Rennie, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, said: “This was inevitable but it doesn’t ease the pressure on the Scottish Government to make up for the terrible failures over the last 13 years on drugs policy.”