Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Why our MLAs' Cuban health trip is just a sick joke

You're Havana a laugh, aren't you? The decision of the Assembly's Health Committee to send chair and vice chair Sue Ramsey and Jim Wells to a conference in the land of rum, cigars, tail-finned Fifties automobiles and socialist dictatorship has produced a lot of criticism from the voters.

You know, the ones who pick up the tab.

At a time when FG Wilson announces the loss of hundreds of jobs, when our high streets are coming down with To Let signs and pound shops seem to be the only growth business, the decision seems at best bizarre, at worst downright insulting to local people here.

True, health is an important issue and it's vital that our elected representatves are up to date with different systems around the world.

But we live in an internet society - a researcher armed with little more than a laptop and giant jar of coffee will glean as much information as Ramsey and Wells will in a few days of shaking hands and carefully arranged propaganda displays.

On the face of it Cuba does have better "health outcomes" than Northern Ireland - seven months longer in terms of life expectancy (seven years when compared to our areas of greatest deprivation). And it does seem to generate "more bang for its buck".

But the better life expectancy could be down to the warm climate and the greater efficiency could be down to the fact doctors' wages are a fraction of what they are here.

So will a sunkissed Ramsey and Wells get off the plane at Belfast International advocating we all move abroad and slash the wages of doctors and nurses? Don't bet on it.

Of course, many will say that that is a gross simplification of the pros and cons of the Cuban system, but the point is simply for MLAs to say "Hey, let's go a-fact-finding" is not an efficient way to govern this place.

Are we really being asked to believe that the other hundred odd MLAs are going to be one whit interested in what R-amp;W have to report?

No, any health reform is going to be dependent upon more mundane issues: if we increase health spending, what is going to be cut? If we are looking for greater efficiencies who's going to lose their jobs? How do we hold down wages? How can we restructure the NHS? Can we afford new, revolutionary - but expensive - treatments?

Those are real political questions, not "What can we learn from Cuba?"

Fact-finding in Cuba, the US and Sweden is placebo politics.

The five or six thousand it will cost to send our representatives to Cuba is, of course, a drop in the ocean but that is not the point. Our, ahem, leaders should be suffering the privations that we are currently undergoing. Money - to quote Mick Hucknall - is too tight to mention.

But not up in Stormont where the daydreaming seems to be going on undiminished while most of us have to live in cold, grey reality. Cuba, Silicon Valley, trips to Washington every few months to lap up the praise of various Americans and go through the 'How the world can learn from the Northern Ireland Peace Process' routine - these are the symptoms of politicians out of touch with the people they claim to govern.

More, it seems like a running away from the realities of governing. Better to gather a snap-shot for the photo album - "Here's me being a real politician" - than to do any actual governing. Then again, that would involve saying unpleasant things, making unpleasant choices, making yourself unpopular.

No, easier by far to bury your head in the sand and dream of this place as a healthcare Cuba, a technological Silicon Valley, an ecologically concerned Denmark. Forget the contradictions. Forget the impracticalities. Do anything to avoid doing your job.

The truth is that politics - like charity - begins at home.

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