Meeting with Chief Exec of NHS GG&C

I was pleased to sit down with both the Chief Executive and Chairman of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, alongside my colleague Stuart McMillan MSP, to discuss health services in Inverclyde. 

During the discussion, the health board indicated they will be working with elected representatives through stakeholder management as a way of keeping us informed of what’s happening with local health services.  This includes the new mental health unit and Greenock Health Centre which will be welcome additions to local services in Inverclyde.

I believe the health board are keen to undertake more engagement and consultation with the public over the health services they receive and what actions can be taken to improve service delivery.  This can only be a good thing as more constructive discussion with the public and health service users should bring about service delivery which is more responsive to Inverclyde and the west of Scotland.

 

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Drugs Debate [18/07/2017]

 

Ronnie Cowan MP

May I add my congratulations to the hon. Members for Slough (Mr Dhesi), for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy)—which apparently is one constituency—and for Wolverhampton South West (Eleanor Smith) on their maiden speeches? I am sure they are already aware that the next time they speak they will not be listened to with such reverence. [Interruption.] I will do my best.

On drug policy reform, there are two problems we are trying to address: first, the crime surrounding illegal drugs, and, secondly, the harm done by addiction to drugs. The first technically looks quite easy. We could look to decriminalise and legislate for drugs; overnight we would take away all the power from the criminals. The second problem is harder, but would be easier when the victims are not being stigmatised and driven into the arms of criminals.

The Government report launched last Friday failed to address those core issues. Despite the few nods in the direction of healthcare, the UK Government have fundamentally missed the point again. The Home Secretary says she wants a strategy to deliver a drug-free society, and that, in a nutshell, is why it is seriously flawed, because the drugs are not the problem. We should be asking: why do people take drugs and why do some 10% of users develop an addiction? What leads people to abuse drugs? That is the issue. If Ministers think that coming down hard on criminals will remove drugs from society and therefore end the need for them, they are delusional. We have been trying that for years, and the situation has only got worse.

The latest figures show the highest number of fatalities since comparable records began 24 years ago, with 50 a week across the UK and deaths from heroin doubling in three years, yet the Government have brushed aside the testimonies from the Anyone’s Child campaign. Anyone’s Child represents people who have lost relatives to drugs, and they now bravely argue for legalisation and regulation to prevent others from having to share their agony.

I welcome the talk about a renewed focus on the importance of evidence-based drug treatment services, and moves to address underlying factors such as inadequate housing, unemployment and mental health problems, but the Government’s big message is still about tough law enforcement. When are they going to comprehend that drug reform is a health issue, and that the war on drugs that has been waged for the past 100 years has failed? They will never bring it to an end when their primary focus is on stamping down on dealers and users. In continuing to do that, we marginalise the very people we should be seeking to help. It is a cowardly report and an opportunity lost.

We could be learning from certain events in history, but we seem to be ignoring them. We have already mentioned the fact that the USA banned alcohol, but the people there still wanted alcohol. The US Government could have licensed alcohol manufacturers, established a state-enforced quality control system with a recognised distribution network, and licensed premises in which to sell alcohol, all of which would have paid taxes to the Government. Instead, they introduced prohibition. That encouraged criminals to produce substances of dubious integrity that they sold at whatever price they liked in establishments that were unfit for purpose. Those activities were all fiercely protected by unrestrained violence. Crime rates soared, people died from consuming the product, addiction increased and rivals died in violent turf wars. Corruption was rampant and communities lived in fear. Does that sound familiar? Today’s war on drugs mirrors those processes, except that they are now being carried out on a far larger scale because we have encouraged them to grow over a far longer period of time. Stamping down hard on the criminals who control the growth, harvesting and distribution of drugs has only increased the levels of violence, fear and corruption that they use to hold on to and grow their marketplace.

Once we have started a war that we were never going to win, ending it becomes increasingly difficult. The onus is on us to justify the time, the cost in human lives, the misery and the taxpayers’ money involved, and to justify why we started the war in the first place. If we cannot do that, the only option seems to be to plough on, doggedly proclaiming that we were right all along and steadfastly refusing to listen to alternative strategies aimed at resolving the issue. That is where we are now in the war on drugs. Rather like the generals in the first world war ordering tens of thousands of conscripts over the top in a futile show of strength, we cannot see a way out that would justify the losses and sacrifices that have been made. We therefore continue to make the same mistakes over and over again. We should note that when prohibition ended in 1933, the crime rate and the addiction rate plummeted.

Transform has published a report in response to the latest offering from the UK Government in which it points out that, according to the United Nations office on drugs and crime,

“taking a criminal justice-led approach to drugs creates a vast criminal market, siphons resources away from health, shifts drug dealing and trafficking around, switches users between drugs, and stigmatises and drives people who use drugs from seeking help.”

In other words, prohibition is a discredited and deadly way of making drugs stronger and more dangerous while funding organised crime.

The National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse estimates that the combined cost to society of substance abuse is £15.4 billion a year. The cost in human lives and the suffering of addicts, their friends and families can never be quantified. As the war continues, we are seeing more addicts, more cost, more pain and no sign that things will improve. The current approach is not working, and we need a fundamental change of philosophy.

A growing body of well-informed people say that it is time to decriminalise and legalise drugs. These people are not lily-livered do-gooders or hippies left over from the ’60s; they are ex and current law enforcement officers. They have seen the problems up close and personal. They have spent decades locking people up, but they have come to the conclusion that their actions did not make a blind bit of difference. It is a tough call to recognise that they had it wrong, so the people from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition—LEAP—should be listened to.

A week ago, I hosted a dinner in the House of Commons with 24 people around the table from the Royal Society for Public Health, the British Medical Association, The British Medical Journal, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, the Faculty of Public Health, the University of Cambridge, Transform, the Buchanan Institute, the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats and the House of Lords. Most of us self-administered psychoactive substances while we were there. All representatives spoke openly and honestly and the general consensus was that the current drugs policy is not working and that the war on drugs should be led by health, not criminal justice. Why is self-administrating a drug illegal? Technically, the answer is because we made that particular drug illegal and put it on a list. As I said, most of us self-administered psychoactive substances, but alcohol is not on the list. We have created a problem and now we cannot fix it—unless, of course, we decriminalised and controlled the production, quality and distribution of drugs. We could then tax them and use the money to provide better treatment, rehabilitation and harm reduction services—rather like we do with alcohol, but hopefully much more effectively.

We have not always had our current attitudes towards drugs, and we have not always seen the violence and crime that surrounds drugs. A good few years ago, there was a regular annual festival of music and arts, and drug taking was a big part of the festival—it was acknowledged and accepted. The festival was frequented by many people, including a few celebrities. We probably know a few of their names: Sophocles, Aristotle, Plato, and Cicero—those kind of dudes. A hundred years ago, UK pharmacies would sell many products made from derivatives of heroin or cocaine. Cough mixtures contained opiates, and department stores sold heroin tins. In 1971, when the Misuse of Drugs Act was passed, 13,000 people had a problem with drugs. After 46 years of the war on drugs, we now have 380,000, and yet the Government still want to pursue that policy.

If we decriminalised or legalised drugs, the one issue we would be left with is the one that we should be addressing right now: why do some people become addicts? If we can solve that, we will go a long way to winning the war on drugs. So what do we know? Professor Bruce Alexander was used to performing experiments on rats and was familiar with the Skinner box, which was seen as a good place to study drug addiction. Scientists had perfected techniques to allow rats to inject small doses of a drug into themselves by pressing a lever. That required tethering the rat to the ceiling of the box and implanting a needle into their jugular veins. The drug passed through the tube and the needle into the rats’ bloodstreams almost instantaneously when they pushed the lever. Under appropriate conditions, rats would press the lever often enough to consume large amounts of heroin, morphine, amphetamine, cocaine and other drugs. Then, along with his colleagues Robert Coambs, Patricia Hadaway and Barry Beyerstein, he created “Rat Park”. It was heaven for rats, with areas to move freely, dig, socialise and breed. He gave those rats two water bottles, one of which was laced with morphine. None of the rats developed an addiction. The environment that the rats lived in was clearly a factor—not the only factor, but a major one.

The obvious question is whether we have tried this experiment on humans, and the answer, unfortunately, is yes. We gave it a name: the Vietnam war. Hundreds of thousands of young men were shipped thousands of miles from home and dropped into a hell hole. The US military quickly realised that a large percentage of them were smoking pot, so they clamped down. The men turned to heroin, as it was harder for the authorities to find and confiscate. At the end of the Vietnam war, with a large number of heroin addicts about to be repatriated to their home towns and cities, the authorities expected a massive problem, but it did not happen. Once back home among their family and friends, the vast majority kicked their habit within a year. Those who did not were among those living in the poorest conditions or who had other issues that had led to their addiction in the first place.

We see the same behaviour of increased addiction where indigenous people were forced off their land and into reservations and camps by white settlers in the USA, Canada and Australia, so what can we do? As we talked about earlier, some countries have recently pursued alternative policies involving the decriminalisation of drug possession. Argentina, Estonia, Australia and Portugal have all taken a health-centred approach to the issue. Portugal decriminalised drug use, and drug addiction declined when the penalties for personal possession were removed. Rather than being criminalised, people are passed on to a “dissuasion committee”—I am not fond of the term, which sounds a bit Orwellian—consisting of members of the health, social work and law professions. Those considered to be addicts or problematic users are forwarded to treatment and rehabilitation programmes. According to the Royal Society for Public Health, within 10 years of implementing those policies the number of drug addicts in Portugal has halved. If the UK achieved the same success, the Buchanan Institute estimates that the financial saving would be around £7.7 billion a year.

For the record, I do not take illegal drugs—that is my choice—but if I chose to take them within the privacy of my home, I honestly do not see what harm it would do to society at large. How would arresting me improve anything? Yet we regularly prosecute people and, it has to be said, primarily poor people.

We seem to have one approach to law enforcement for rich city slickers sniffing a line of cocaine in their penthouse suite, and quite another for a kid smoking a joint on a council estate. It is no coincidence that the areas of the UK with the highest levels of social deprivation are the areas with the highest numbers of drug-related deaths. According to the Prison Reform Trust, one in 10 people in custody today is there because of a drugs-related offence. Some of our prisons have had serious problems with synthetic drugs, or spice, in recent years. Those with the least access to money and lawyers, those who are less socially mobile, will always be more vulnerable.

Our attitude to drug consumption has to change. Only then can we see that the issue is addiction, and addiction is a health issue, not a criminal one. We must look to decriminalise and legislate. By doing so, we will take the power away from criminals and put the money into education, rehabilitation and reducing drug harm.

Drugs policy debate

When is the UK Government going to comprehend that drug reform is a health issue and the war on drugs, as it has been waged for the last hundred years, has failed.

The current approach isn’t working and we need a fundamental change of philosophy.  There is a growing body of well-informed people that say it’s time to decriminalise and legalise drugs.

Stamping down hard on the criminals that controls the growth, harvesting and distribution of drugs has only increased the levels of violence, fear and corruption which is used to hold onto and grow their marketplace.  Once we started a war that we were never going to win, ending it becomes increasingly difficult.

The Home Secretary says she wants the Government drugs strategy to deliver a ‘drug-free society’ and that in a nutshell is why this strategy is seriously flawed. Because the drugs are not the problem.  When we should be asking why do people take drugs and why do some, ten percent of users, develop an addiction?

I will continue to talk to those in the health industry, such as RSPH, BMA, Transform and LEAP about drugs policy reform and ensure pressure continues to be put on the Government to make this issue, first and foremost, a health issue rather than a criminal justice one.

Link to speech on drugs policy – https://hansard.digiminster.com/Commons/2017-07-18/debates/733C6229-49D0-4559-8F59-5F1244C2DE13/DrugsPolicy#contribution-6194BCB2-762D-436F-A75E-74A58C930E4B

Recent article published on RSA on drugs policy – https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/rsa-comment/2017/07/high-time-for-changing-drug-policy

 

Cancer Research UK

Last week, I attended a parliamentary event, held by Cancer Research UK, in Westminster last week (12 July) to find out how MPs can keep cancer at the top of the new Parliament’s agenda.

Over the course of this Parliament, two million people will be diagnosed with cancer across the UK, so Cancer Research UK needs political support in order to continue to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer.

Cancer survival in the UK is still lagging behind other countries and too many cancers are diagnosed at an advanced stage, when they are harder to treat successfully.

We must not underestimate the devastating impact cancer will have on people in Inverclyde now and in the future, so it gives me hope to hear that Cancer Research UK’s pioneering research is turning the tables on the disease.

The outlook for new and better cancer treatments in the UK is bright. However, it is clear that there is a critical role for politicians to play in helping to prevent and detect cancer earlier and bring innovative new treatments to patients faster.

One life lost to this terrible disease is one too many and that’s why I’m supporting Cancer Research UK in their mission to beat cancer sooner.

For more information please visit cruk.org.

 

Westminster diary w/b 10th July

Monday

Thankfully, I had no early morning flight to London as the parliamentary business was light. Who knew the Government had a razor thin majority which meant very little, if any meaningful debate before summer recess.

This meant I was able to spend the day in the constituency office working on research and casework. I was delighted to welcome Andrew, a work experience pupil, from St Columba’s High School, Gourock into the office. Andrew will be spending a number of days in the constituency office learning about politics and the Westminster system.

I caught the evening flight down to London in preparation for a busy few days.

Tuesday

The Government announced the findings of Matthew Taylor’s review into the so-called gig economy. It’s estimated that 1.1million people work in the gig economy for companies such as Uber and Deliveroo. Unfortuantely, the report did little to appease concerns about zero hour contracts and no mention was made to introducing a universal basic income. I asked the Minister, during the statement, whether the Government would consider looking into a basic income. I believe a basic income, for all, could play an important role in supporting those in the gig economy who are vulnerable to zero hour contracts and irregular shift patterns.

I had a catch-up meeting with the Solar Trade Association to discuss solar deployment in Scotland. The organisation continue to be encouraged by the efforts of the Scottish Government to promote renewable technology.

Tuesday evening was taken up by a discussion I was sponsoring alongside the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) on drugs policy. The event include health practitioners, policy analysts, doctors and professors. It was a discussion regarding the need for pragmatic drug policy reform based on evidence and ethics to prioritise health and human rights, and what role the medical establishment can and should play in driving forward this debate and reform.

I was delighted how the discussion went and look forward to making further progress, with interested parties, on this important health issue.

Wednesday

My first engagement was a Parliamentary CND meeting where we discussed the recent talks at the United Nations on the nuclear weapons ban treaty. The U.K. Government were not present at the UN talks.

The usual PMQs was not the usual PMQs as the Prime Minister was absent due to the visit of the King of Spain. This meant the Punch and Judy show was led by others with the usual back and forward resulting in nothing!

The afternoon I dropped in to two parliamentary events, the first was Cancer Research UK where we discussed measures to prevent cancer in Inverclyde. Obesity is one of the big issues we currently face here in the west of Scotland. Next, I attended a briefing on energy prices and how residents in Inverclyde are being ripped off by £4.73 million on their energy bills. In the evening I attended the Electoral Reform Society summer reception.

Thursday

At 9:30am I attended transport question time in the chamber where the Minister answered, or tried to, a number of questions. My colleague Alan Brown MP has recently taken on the Shadow Transport role for the SNP.

In the afternoon, I spoke in the Westminster Hall debate on organ donation. The Scottish Government announced it intends to introduce legislation for a soft opt out system of organ and tissue donation.

I then caught an evening flight back to Glasgow.

Friday

I met with the recently appointed Head of Inverclyde Health and Social Care Partnership (HSCP) as a way of introduction and to ensure my office has a good working relationship with the organisation.

I then had a meetings with Ardgowan Hospice and finished with a discussion with the health board.

Organ Donation: Opt-Out System Debate [13/07/2017]

 

Ronnie Cowan MP

I am delighted to be having this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing it. He told us the moving stories of Max and Joe, bringing a human aspect to the debate. He underlined that deaths are preventable, but that although 66% of people in England would donate, only 39% are on the donor register. Combined with the knowledge that only a small number of people on the register of donors will be able to donate, that highlights the fact that there is clearly a lot of work to be done.

The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) added a few notes of caution, with the view of aiding an informed debate. There are always at least two sides to a debate, and being informed does us no harm. Unfortunately, she is no longer in her seat to hear me say so; to me, hanging on for an entire debate is important.

The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), speaking in his own inimitable style and even summing up the debate for me at one stage, told the story of Matthew, a 22-year-old man who unfortunately lost his life, and the feeling that had a system been in place back then, an operation could have been available and his life might have been saved. The hon. Gentleman also urged England to follow Wales’s lead by implementing a soft opt-out scheme.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke about his nephew Peter, who required a kidney and fortunately got one, and is alive today due to that donation. Not everyone in Northern Ireland has been as fortunate. He also highlighted that one donor can save multiple lives.

The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) spoke about missed targets, saying that no plan is perfect, which reminded me of the Churchill quote:

“Perfection is the enemy of progress.”

She also spoke passionately about the needs of those with cystic fibrosis.

There were a few false starts, but now that the Welsh Government’s soft opt-out is up and running, the Scottish Government have announced plans to do the same thing. An independent evaluation of the implementation of the Welsh opt-out system is due to be published in December 2017, and we believe that the numbers will be encouraging, but if even one donor has been identified, it must be worth it. The British Medical Association has stated that it believes that over time, an opt-out scheme promotes more positive social attitudes to donations, so it may well be that we will not see the benefits for a few years to come.

I believe that the most important people in this debate are the many waiting for a donor—those whose lives are poorer or even on the line as they wait, and wait. This is not solely about saving lives; it is about improving them. One donation does not simply save or improve one life; it has a knock-on effect. My colleague Iain Fraser would not have been born if his father Sandy had not received a kidney many years ago. I thank Sandy Fraser for his ongoing commitment and work in his capacity as the chairman of the Scottish Kidney Federation.

I ask Members: if they had a loved one, as many of us do, whose life could be transformed by receiving an organ donation, would they not turn over every single stone and investigate every possibility in order to identify a donor? I hope that is what we are about to do. In my view, a soft opt-out scheme is the path to go down, but whatever comes of this debate, it must stimulate discussion. We should all make our wishes known to our friends and family. When my time comes, as it will, please take whatever you want.

Organ donation debate

Recently, the Scottish Government announced it intends to introduce legislation for a soft opt out system of organ and tissue donation.  Public Health Minister Aileen Campbell has confirmed plans to bring forward legislation during this Parliament after 82% of consultation responses supported the move.

I believe that the most important people in this debate are the many waiting for a donor—those whose lives are poorer or even on the line as they wait, and wait.

In my view, a soft opt-out scheme is the path to go down, but whatever comes of this debate, it must stimulate discussion.

We should all make our wishes known to our friends and family. When my time comes, as it will, please take whatever you want.

https://hansard.digiminster.com/commons/2017-07-13/debates/d46608ab-bf07-4072-99ff-11853badaa37/OrganDonationOpt-OutSystem

https://news.gov.scot/news/increasing-organ-and-tissue-donation