The Eastern health and social services board is at present consulting on a wide range of possible options to allow it to live within its budget for 1988–89. The board will not be considering these until 14 April, and in these circumstances I cannot at the moment comment further.
Is the Minister aware that the board is considering cuts in gynaecological and surgical services at Lagan Valley hospital, the closure of the accident and emergency service at Ards hospital, the reduction of accident and emergency services at Mater hospital and the closure of Throne hospital with an overall loss of 100 surgical beds? Is he further aware that the board has demanded that all hospitals reduce their demand for blood products? Will he join Opposition Members in demanding that the money necessary to prevent cuts is made available as a matter of urgency?
Some 99 per cent. of the proposals put forward by the Eastern board—they are only proposals — to be considered and determined fall within the strategic plan that the board has accepted. I agree that, because of the levels of funding available this year, many of the proposals have been brought forward. Nevertheless, in addition to the rationalisation referred to by the hon. Gentleman, the Eastern board is bringing forward proposals for new development costing in excess of £2 million.
As a result of Government cuts in health and social services, the North Down and Ards areas are threatened with a reduction in the number of doctors and nurses and the possible closure of a number of wards and hospitals, including Cultra house and Crawfordsburn hospital. Will the Minister therefore reconsider the cuts and provide sufficient money to ensure that the standards that applied before he took office are maintained?
Given that the level of provision in the Northern Ireland Health Service is 23 per cent. higher than that in England and Wales, that we spend £539 per person in Northern Ireland compared with £438 here and that we have 50 per cent. more beds and double the number of home helps, I would hope that we shall continue to give a high level of service in health care in Northern Ireland. One of the hospitals to which the hon. Gentleman referred is an old hospital in poor condition, and we hope to replace the beds by much more professional and better provision than exists at the moment.
Does the Minister agree that his additional allocation of £5 million from the housing budget will not go any way towards alleviating the financial distress of the Eastern health board and the other boards in providing a reasonable level of medical care in Northern Ireland? Does he further agree that by his own Treasury's raid of the housing department he has put into total disarray the housing strategy that he and his Department agreed for Northern Ireland, and that the disrepair will now outstrip the ability of the Housing Executive to carry out its work? Furthermore, does he agree that the transfer of finances from the health and housing budgets to the security budget is an imposition on the ordinary sick and innocent in Northern Ireland and is totally unjustified?
It would be foolish not to admit that the pressures on the law and order budget in Northern Ireland have some effect on the remaining funds available in the Northern Ireland block. That inevitably affects the amount that we can spend on health. Furthermore, the results of violence mean that services in the Northern Ireland Health Service have to be devoted to neurosurgery and aftercare for those who have been injured and therefore cannot be used for dealing with the ordinary sick. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, we spend twice as much money in Northern Ireland on the housing budget. In the circumstances I thought it right, because of the restraints on capital on the health side, to transfer £5 million to the health budget. I think that that will be welcomed by the boards. Although it will not go the whole way, it will go some way towards improving the services.
I should like to thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for the Antrim hospital. The Northern board has a coherent strategy for acute care. It has a large number of acute cottage hospitals at the moment that cannot remain viable in terms of equipment or staff. The Antrim hospital is a crucial and important new development in the Northern board, which will improve services for the people there. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall be starting the building of the hospital at the end of this year and that it will be completed on time.
Does the Minister agree that throughout the House there are many people who believe that there is an urgent need for extra funding for the whole Health Service, particularly in Northern Ireland? Does he agree also that there is anger in the Province at the moment at the removal of money from the Housing Executive budget so that it can be handed over to the health budget —in other words, robbing Peter to pay Paul?
There would have been just as much anger had I not done so. I repeat to the House that the amount of money that has been made available to the Health Service in Northern Ireland is over 20 per cent. more than that made available in the rest of the country. If we look at the levels suggested in the report of the Select Committee on Social Services, we can see that we are achieving those levels in Northern Ireland.
Does the Minister recognise that his words today will bring little comfort to all the people in the Province, across the political divide, who are concerned about the level of health provision in Northern Ireland? Why does he not take this opportunity to swallow his pride, and respond to those wishes from all the people in Northern Ireland and make the simple announcement that more resources will be available?
Swallowing my pride is unlikely to make the resources available. I am sure that the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall), who is speaking from the Opposition Front Bench, realises the problems within the Northern Ireland block and knows that we spend 40 per cent. more through public expenditure per head in Northern Ireland than the rest of the country. A total of 70 per cent. of the gross domestic product of Northern Ireland is in the public sector. We have an unrivalled example of good services in health. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will also accept that the present priority of law and order inevitably means that there are other pressures, so that we are not always able to do everything that we would want.