Budget Bill: Second Stage

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 9:00 pm on 9th February 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Jo-Anne Dobson Jo-Anne Dobson UUP 9:00 pm, 9th February 2016

I welcome the opportunity to speak at this stage of the Budget Bill. No one will have missed the fact that our health service has had a very difficult year. Indeed, the last 18 to 24 months have seen a total collapse of even the most routine health waiting targets and key performance indicators. Yesterday, the Assembly approved the Vote on Account and the adjustments through the in-year allocations, and I am glad that the stalemate on welfare reform has at last been resolved. We must not allow some Ministers, however, to fall back on their own propaganda and forget that, while the funding shortfall that ultimately resulted in the disastrous in-year cuts in 2014-15 was £212 million, the welfare penalty accounted for only £87 million of that: the rest came down to the sheer mismanagement of the Executive Budget.

Whilst I welcome the allocation of £40 million emergency funding for elective care for the remainder of this financial year, the Health Minister, not for the first time, got somewhat caught up in his own hysteria by making exaggerated claims about kick-starting the local health service. I have cautioned him before, so I will do it again. His expectation of kick-starting a system that is effectively on its knees needs to be considered with the wider knowledge that, in the 2014-15 financial year, his Department received over £80 million of additional funding but the situation continued to get worse. Indeed, the DUP's first Health Minister of this mandate ended 2013-14 with a deficit of £13·1 million, despite receiving £100 million in monitoring rounds in that year.

The 2011-15 Budget has left a lasting legacy of rushed financial decisions and an abject lack of leadership or strategic planning. It is ironic that the DUP and the current DUP Health Minister were so keen to boast about the Budget deal, even claiming that it was a good deal, with their former leader warning that it was obscene of my colleague Michael McGimpsey to seek additional funds under that agreement. It was stated that no resource expenditure bids in monitoring rounds should have been tabled by the Department of Health at all unless in the event of major and unforeseeable circumstances.

We all know that hundreds of millions of pounds were bid for and received, but it was less a case of unforeseen circumstances and more a case of politicking and stubbornness getting in the way of a fair allocation in the first place. Nevertheless, I accept that the £40 million allocation this year was better than nothing. The fact that official publications from the Health Department confirmed that nearly 400,000 people across Northern Ireland are waiting for treatment, a hospital appointment or a diagnostic test should have been enough to shame the Executive into action. I am sure that I am not alone in the House in writing to the Health Minister daily, on numerous occasions; indeed, I do not envy his mail bag of correspondence on behalf of constituents and their families who have been caught up in the waiting time cycle. I have said in the House before that statistics often mask the pain, fear, hurt and worry that our constituents feel. They have elected us to serve their best interests.

I am sure that none of us needs to be reminded that the longer a patient is forced to wait for a diagnosis or treatment, the more harm they are likely to come to. There is no greater issue facing the Executive or the Assembly right now than the horrendous situation of our hospitals and the inexcusable stress that that puts on patients. That is not even to mention the excellent staff, who are operating in extremely strained circumstances. It is regrettable that it took so long and so many patients to wait in pain for successive Health Ministers to realise that there was a problem and the extent of it. The plain truth is that £40 million will barely make a dent in our current unprecedented waits. However, I hope that it is followed in the next year, hopefully under a new Minister, with a recognition of what needs to be done. I have major concerns in the short term that the savings that the Department is demanding of trusts are putting an already stressed health service under even greater pressure. Those savings put pressure on services, including domiciliary care, that can and will lead to long-term pain and greater long-term financial costs for patient care for our most vulnerable. It is my —