DUP Health Minister Edwin Poots blasted for poor budget control – by a minister from his own party
Health Minister Edwin Poots has been accused of poor management of his departmental budget – by another minister from his own party.
Finance Minister Simon Hamilton hit out at "poor budget management" in the Department of Health, which he said had been "hugely disappointing".
It is extremely rare at Stormont for one minister to come in for an official rap on the knuckles from a party colleague, never mind another minister.
Nonetheless, Mr Poots has been pledged an increase to his overall departmental budget of £20m from the current spending round.
As in Education, the Health budget will remain ring-fenced from cuts for the foreseeable future – an indication of the severe financial pressures it is under.
Mr Poots was also warned that he may not even get the extra £20m promised unless management of the departmental budget is sharpened up.
And while he remains likely to be given the £20m, the Health Minister had argued he needed an additional £160m in his budget to help deal with the pressures the health service is facing at the moment.
Mr Hamilton's criticism was sparked by a Health Department overspend of £13.1m.
"This was, in my view, due to poor budget management within the department," he said.
"The department had more than three years since the budget for 2013/14 was set to ensure it could live within its budget, and in that context it was hugely disappointing that it then registered such a significant overspend."
He added, however, that "fortunately" the amount which was underspent by other Stormont departments meant that the Executive's spending overall remained within Treasury limits.
Mr Poots' department responded: "While the allocation will go some way to addressing a range of pressures in front line services such as emergency care, very significant financial challenges still remain.
"The minister has highlighted to the Executive the implications of this increasingly challenging financial scenario.
"He now faces difficult decisions and he will give these his full consideration in order to minimise any detrimental impacts on health and social care services."
Mr Poots had already stressed that in the last three years his department and the health and social care budget made savings of £490m, and in the new financial year the estimated level of savings is around £173m.
But he warned the Assembly: "It is increasingly difficult to see, however, how health and social care services can deliver an appropriate level of service to the public within the allocated resources during 2014/15 and 2015/16.
"Indeed, the scale of the financial challenge facing the health and social care system in 2014/15 – even before any budget cuts – would indicate that the Executive will either have to provide significant additional resources to the department or choose to make a number of material changes in policy in respect of health and social care services."
The health service has recently seen a string of crises in hospital A&E departments, with some patients enduring long waits on trolleys. Unions have blamed the problems on understaffing and say people leaving the service are not being replaced to save money.
Mr Poots has continually denied the service is in crisis and has consistently pledged to improve efficiency.
The public spending budget at Stormont has been cut by £78m. The Departments of Justice, Social Development and Employment and Learning were forced to sacrifice the most money, while Health and Education were exempted from the cuts.
A deal on welfare reform was delayed to later this year, with a penalty of £87m due to be imposed by Westminster for failure to implement the changes.