NICOLA Sturgeon has admitted she and her government "took our eye off the ball" as Scotland racked up the worst drugs death rate in Europe under the SNP.

The First Minister was accused of a series of failures in power, and of recklessly wanting to focus on independence instead of fixing them, in the second TV leaders' debate of the election last night.

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross told her: "You have let down Scotland for the last 14 years."

Ms Sturgeon last year replaced public health minister Joe FitzPatrick after figures revealed another annual record for drug deaths in Scotland in 2019.

The 1,264 fatalities were double the number when she became First Minister in 2014, giving Scotland a death rate three and a half times higher than England and Wales.

In the STV debate, each of the five Holyrood leaders was cross-examined by the other four in turn.

Mr Ross asked why the First Minister had allowed a drug rehabilitation facility in her own Glasgow south-side constituency to close two years ago, despite the surge in deaths.

She said: "I think we took our eye off the ball on drug deaths and I've said as much to the Scottish Parliament.

"I set out at the start of this year a £250 million investment programme to build up rehabilitation services, including residential rehabilitation, to make sure we give more support to community services, to make sure we provide faster access to treatment. We have a task force working on all that."

She added: "I take the view that when politicians get things wrong, and we all get things wrong - it's really important to face up to that.

"That's what I've done on drugs deaths. I've appointed a minister to lead forward that work and we are determined to turn that around."

Mr Ross told her: "You have made promises on the attainment gap, victims' rights, broadband, ferries, income tax and the treatment time guarantee. You have delivered your promises on none of them. You have let down Scotland for the last 14 years. Now, in an economic crisis, you want to wreck Scotland's recovery."

Ms Sturgeon said "progress" had been made in tackling the attainment gap in schools and NHS waiting times had been reducing before Covid-19 hit.

However, Mr Ross also came under sustained attack when he was cross-examined.

Ms Sturgeon accused him of selling out Scotland's fishermen over Brexit.

Mr Ross conceded: "We haven't done enough for the fishing industry, we need to do far more."

He said he would "stand up for Scottish fishermen" but Ms Sturgeon said: "Isn't it the case that whatever the UK Government says, you just do it?

First Ministers need to stand up for Scotland, Douglas, not take orders from Westminster."

Mr Ross said: "First Ministers need to work with governments around the United Kingdom. We will deliver most for the people of Scotland for our recovery if our two governments work together, not always looking to pick fights."

Scottish Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie asked the Moray MP about his past comments on gypsy travellers and his support for tougher action against them.

Mr Harvie said: "You've campaigned against their right to legal traveller sites for a decade.

"Is it your whole party that is prejudiced against gypsy travellers or just you?"

Mr Ross said he had apologised for some past remarks, but defended speaking up for constituents who had needed support over gypsy travellers.

Accused by Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar of fronting a weak opposition, Mr Ross said Tory MSPs had voted against the Hate Crime Bill.

Mr Sarwar said that, given his exchange with Mr Harvie on gypsy travellers, "I'm not sure talking about hate crime is your strongest suit."

Mr Sarwar then told him: "You aren't good for the union, you aren't good for the national recovery, you aren't even good for the Tories. Scotland deserves a better opposition."

The constitution also featured heavily, with Ms Sturgeon saying the SNP manifesto would say that "after the crisis, not during, people should have the right to choose our future."

Mr Ross said Ms Sturgeon wanted to run the campaign for independence in the pandemic recovery, adding: "That is not where the focus should be."

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie told Ms Sturgeon: "We know what happened last time - there was a brutal argument that went on for three years, that divided families and neighbours from each other, and it was poisonous.

"You are determined to open the wounds in the country that we tried to close in the last few years."

Ms Sturgeon said he was entitled to his view, but people had the right to decide their future.

Mr Sarwar said: "The mistake that both Douglas Ross and Nicola Sturgeon are both making is they only want to focus on the half of the country that agrees with them. They forget about the other half of the country."

Mr Harvie responded: "I don't want to open wounds, I want to open possibilities for people in Scotland to determine their own future, and surely they're the only ones with the right to make that choice."