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MLA's civil servant hubby rapped for not being on top of his brief

By Victoria O'Hara

Published 08/10/2015

The permanent secretary of the Department of Health, Richard Pengelly, has faced scathing criticism after insisting the absence of Health Minister Simon Hamilton from his post was not affecting day-to-day services.

During a meeting arranged by the Stormont health committee to discuss the impact of having no permanent minister, Mr Pengelly faced a barrage of questions from MLAs about who was running the health service.

Describing it as "not a perfect situation", he refused to be drawn when asked whether the situation was frustrating his job, and said it was not his role to "critique ministers".

During the meeting, which involved heated exchanges, he insisted that there had not been a situation where he had to "absolutely slam the brakes on" within the system because something needed a ministerial decision.

He also told how he met Mr Hamilton once a week and said: "In terms of operational issues, it is absolutely business as usual."

The meeting was called amid growing calls for Mr Hamilton to return to work as waiting lists escalate, with around 400,000 people currently waiting for a medical appointment or treatment in Northern Ireland.

The SDLP's Fearghal McKinney put it to Mr Pengelly that the situation was "a merry-go-round that is making us all dizzy".

Mr McKinney added that the absence of the minister had led to a delay in implementing plans to restructure the health system, including the Donaldson Report that was published in November last year.

But disagreeing, Mr Pengelly said: "I don't feel it has been delayed - we were surprised by the sheer volume of evidence and analysis

"The original timescale was for the end of August. We were not in a position at the end of August to put a set of decisions to a minister to conclude on that."

But quizzed on the escalating waiting times, he admitted that there was the "potential for a deteriorating situation", adding that the key problem in addressing the situation was a lack of money.

But Mr Pengelly also said that staffing issues at the Belfast Trust had been addressed and urgent referrals for breast cancer within two weeks would improve.

He was accused by the committee, including chairwoman Maeve McLauglin, of not having full details about care provision and two health motions debated in the Assembly this week involving cancer waiting times and autism.

Mr Pengelly described the criticism as "unfair", but Ms McLaughlin shot back that the civil servant did not have "an overview" of his department.

"I'm certainly not assured today by what I've heard," she said. "It doesn't highlight what we have been saying collectively - that there is a gap and particular gap in strategic leadership and decision making."

The UUP's Jo-Anne Dobson also said his responses were "devoid of any detail".

Ms Dobson added: "It wasn't unreasonable to expect that as the minister didn't answer any of the points raised in these debates, Mr Pengelly would come to the committee prepared to address the concerns which we as elected representatives are raising on behalf of local people, many left in agonising pain for months on end on waiting lists."

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