Belfast Telegraph

Unions: health cuts a stick to beat MLAs into doing a deal

By Eamon Sweeney

The health service in Northern Ireland is being used as a political pawn with cutbacks being wielded to put pressure on politicians to restore Stormont, unions have claimed.

A group of up to 150 union members working in the health sector gathered at the steps of Parliament Buildings yesterday to vent their anger over the proposed £70 million in cuts to the health budget.

Members of the NI Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (NIC-ICTU), representing 11 health unions, marched through the grounds of Stormont to deliver a letter of protest to the Department of Health's permanent secretary Richard Pengelly in Castle Buildings.

The letter signed by Anne Speed, chairwoman of the NIC-ICTU health policy committee, stated that the cutbacks "will, as publicly stated by clinicians, put patients and clients at risk".

Ms Speed claimed that the current public consultation about the proposed cuts "is nothing more than a face-saving exercise".

The letter to Mr Pengelly accused him of making spending decisions when it was known that additional funding may be available soon, including money from the DUP-Tory £1 billion 'confidence and supply' deal.

"Consequently, to impose £70m of cuts on health trusts halfway through the current financial year, when there will most likely be flexibility in the future health allocation, appears to be irresponsible and beyond the functions of either a permanent secretary or the CEO of the health and social care system," the letter stated.

It continued that union representatives believe the process is a sham. It stated: "Nothing in this timescale indicates any genuine commitment to consider and respond to the deep concerns of the public, staff and the health service unions."

Ms Speed said she believed the spending cuts in health were politically motivated and an attempt to force a resolution to the political impasse at Stormont.

She said: "I think it is political expediency, to be honest. Cuts are going to be introduced on the basis of an inadequate public consultation and these cuts that are being passed off as temporary measures until the books are balanced may become something more permanent.

"It's frightening. Someone, somewhere is pulling the strings. The Health Service and the people who use it are being used as political pawns."

The Department of Health said: "We've just received the letter today. It is an important contribution to the consultation process."

There is nothing to suggest the department and permanent secretary did not follow department guidelines over the consultation.

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