Northern Ireland’s health minister was last night urged to carry out an immediate investigation into the way taxpayers’ money is being spent by his department.
The call was made by Kieran McCarthy after it emerged that health trusts across Northern Ireland racked up a bill of over £91m over three years on travel expenses for employees and a further £21m over a two year period paying for phone calls and postage.
The figures have been released as hundreds of nurses throughout Northern Ireland face uncertainty over their jobs and numerous residential homes face closure as the Government continues with its plan to restructure the health service in a cost efficiency drive.
While Mr McGimpsey has said he has already asked trusts to examine expenditure on travel expenses, Mr McCarthy — the health spokesman for the Alliance Party — said the minister must carry out an immediate review into all areas of spending by the trusts.
DUP Assemblyman Alex Easton submitted a range of questions to Mr McGimpsey asking for an outline of the travel claim expenses of health workers, as well as the cost of energy bills, postage and telephone calls.
Mr McGimpsey revealed that between 2005 and 2007, the combined energy costs of all the health trusts, including the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service, came to over £51.5m. Health workers claimed over £91m between 2005 and 2008 for travel expenses, he said.
The minister also revealed that the health trusts spent just under £5.5m on mail and over £15.6m paying for phone bills between 2005 and 2007.
“There is only one word to describe these figures and that is staggering,” Mr McCarthy said.
“I just can’t believe it and this is certainly something I will be expecting the minister to look at more carefully. I will be calling on him in the Assembly to provide a breakdown of the bill for expenses and how the figures are made up.”
And Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: “There are some legitimate travel costs, but given that the availability of home visits seems to be falling, it is shocking that the bill could be over £90m.”
Mr McGimpsey said health and social care organisations are obliged to reimburse staff for the cost of mileage and other travel expenses and that such expenses are only incurred where essential and are subject to strict financial controls.
He continued: “Travel and subsistence costs are highest in rural areas. The geographical spread of the community means that large areas are covered by staff who visit clients and patients, such as social workers, health visitors, midwives, domiciliary care workers, community nurses and allied health professionals.
“These highly skilled, dedicated and professional staff provide vital services and support to people in their own homes and communities.
“However, expenditure on travel expenses is one of the areas that I have asked trusts to examine under the efficiency proposals.”