Budget Bill: Second Stage

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 7:30 pm on 9th February 2016.

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Photo of Maeve McLaughlin Maeve McLaughlin Sinn Féin 7:30 pm, 9th February 2016

I thank the Member for his intervention, and I will develop the points around the real challenge in health: where current spend actually goes. There is no doubt that all of us, collectively, can stand behind the need for a reform agenda which will, I believe, if done properly, address some of the core issues. On the one hand, we have a Department that says it wants to protect front-line services; on the other, it allows trusts to cut the very same services that are required. I will develop that point further.

Of key concern to the Committee is the very point that I refer to. How will the Department allocate this budget for 2016-17 across a range of spending areas? It is an important point. When the officials were in front of us in January, we asked directly for that information. We asked directly for the Minister's priorities. That information is crucial because, obviously, spending decisions should be informed by ministerial priorities. The Member who previously spoke knows that officials were only able to provide us with a very broad-brush picture of the Minister's priorities. I will quote the officials, because they told us that the overall aim and vision is to build a world-class health and social care service, obviously. That should be the collective aim of all of us: to drive up the quality of health and social care for patients. Nobody in this House or beyond would disagree with those high-level objectives, but that does not provide us with the detail of how the £4·88 billion will be spent in 2016-17.

We were further advised that information on the Minister's priorities would be set out in the commissioning plan. I make the point that we were told that a draft of that would be forwarded to the Committee for comment by late January/early February. That document has still not been received for consideration by the Committee. That is disappointing, because the commissioning plan is really the key document setting out the services that the Minister wishes to fund in the coming year. For example, Members are very keen — as I am sure that wider society is — to hear how the Department will tackle the significant waiting times for elective care appointments. Again, officials were not able to advise us how much money would be allocated to that issue. They said that it would depend on what savings could be found in other areas. In the Committee's eyes, the rationale for that approach is really not clear. Surely, if something is a priority, money should be allocated to it. It should not be rocket science, but we need a set of clear priorities in order to do that.

Committee members have also been concerned about the areas where savings would be made. There has been a tendency to look for quick savings rather than take a long-term strategic approach. The Committee was firmly of the view that it does not want trusts to cut back on things like domiciliary care packages as a quick fix to balance the budget for 2016-17.

There are key questions about the spending plans for 2016-17 that remain unanswered, questions that are of vital interest to Members, healthcare professionals and the wider community. I make reference to one such question. When will we find the pay award for nurses? A total of £28 million is required out of the 2016-17 budget to fund the 1% pay increase.

I will make a number of comments as an individual MLA