A meeting will be held in Glasgow to bring together all areas of the UK to work out how to tackle the drugs death crisis.
Home Office minister Kit Malthouse pledged to hold the meeting before the end of the year as he gave evidence today before the Commons Scottish Affairs Committee, which included a warning the drugs death toll in Scotland could be even worse next year.
He told MPs: “I do recognise that Scotland, in particular, has a problem we need to get together and sort out.
“My suggestion is, I would like to hold a proper summit in Glasgow where we invite all four nations – and in particular areas of England and Wales…that have particular problems, to come and talk about how we are going to collectively address some of these issues.”
He added: “I think it would be a good idea for us to sit down and talk about these issues, understand what the obstacles may be and where we need to go.”
Earlier this year, figures showed Scotland recorded 1,187 drugs-related deaths in 2018 – the highest since records began, and the highest in Europe.
Mr Malthouse had previously been criticised for failing to attend a summit in Glasgow to tackle drugs deaths organised by the Scottish Government.
When asked to explain why by the committee, he replied: “It was early days and I was just reading into the programme. I didn’t decline, I just couldn’t confirm a date at the time.
“But I would now propose to hold an all-UK summit in Glasgow before Christmas so we can thrash out some of these issues.”
His appearance before MPs came as a report from the Commons Health and Social Care Committee warned today that UK drugs policy is “clearly failing” and called for radical change.
The Westminster committee is recommending a pilot of drug consumption rooms in areas of high need, with changes to legislation to be made at the “earlier opportunity” to allow this to happen if necessary.
There has been increasing pressure for this type of facility to be set up in Glasgow, but it will be reliant on a change in the laws around drugs that are reserved to the UK Government.
However Mr Malthouse argued there were “significant legal hurdles” towards implementing drug consumption rooms, as well as “some philosophical ones”.
He told MPs: “Even if there was an acceptance of drug consumption rooms it would take some time to sort out the legislation and my urgent suggestion to Scotland is that there are other things which could be done much more quickly to suppress these numbers which look, I understand possibly to be worse next year.
“There are urgent things which can be done around treatment and quick investment in treatment which will have a much faster impact and possibly a much bigger impact.”
SNP MP Tommy Sheppard challenged this saying the Home Office had the powers to introduce legal exemption to allow the introduction of these facilities “at the stroke of a pen.”
Mr Malthouse admitted he was “not sure of the legal position” but said he would write to the committee outlining the UK Government’s legal advice and what the potential hurdles might be.
SNP MP Pete Wishart, who chairs the Scottish Affairs Select Committee, urged the minister to give a commitment that the UK Government would support drug consumption rooms if the changes in law could be made.
Mr Malthouse said he had an “open mind” but raised concerns they save only a relatively small number of lives.
He argued the common theme in countries which have had success in tackling the issue was investment in treatment:
“The question from my mind is, though, where do you get more bang for your buck? I saw somewhere the estimated cost of operating one of these things is $1.5m dollars in Vancouver.
“The question in my mind is, if I invested that $1.5m dollars in treatment, would I save more than 12 people? These are the awful challenges the government has to face.
“My worry is we become fixated on one particular solution, as a sort of political flag we can wave to say we are doing something.”
Meanwhile, the new report from the Health and Social Care Committee says the scale of drug-related deaths – particularly in Scotland – has risen to the scale of a public health emergency.
MPs on the Committee have called for a radical change in UK drugs policy, including urging the UK Government to consult on decriminalisation of drug possession for personal use, from a criminal offence to a civil matter.
But their report says this will not be effective without investing in support and treatment services, adding “doing so would save lives and provide better protection for communities.”
Dr Sarah Wollaston, chair of the health and social care committee, highlighted Scotland as “particularly hard hit” with the highest drugs death rate in Europe.
She said: “Every drug death should be regarded as preventable and yet across the UK, the number of drugs related deaths continue to rise to the scale of a public health emergency. UK drugs policy is clearly failing.
“Recommendations put forward in this report propose changes to drugs policy that are desperately needed to prevent thousands of deaths.”