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Department of Health spends £1.25m on PR

By Mark Hookham and Nigel Gould

Ulster's health chiefs have come under fire for spending an " extraordinary" amount of taxpayers money on public relations.

New government figures revealed the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety will spend £1.25m on its information office this year - up from £1.06m in 2005-06.

Additional figures show that £2.2m has been spent on Press, public relations and communications work by the four health boards and 19 health trusts this year. Just over £2m was spent during 2003-04.

Of this year's money, the boards shelled out £347,156 while the trusts spent £1.8m. The Royal Group of Hospitals had the biggest spend, at £390,000. Homefirst Community Trust spent £264,936.

Newry and Mourne Trust was the only trust not to spend anything on Press work.

The figures emerged in a reply by Health Minister Paul Goggins to a parliamentary question from David Lidington, the Tory spokesman on Northern Ireland.

Mr Goggins said: "Most of this money is spent on promoting health. This means helping to keep people out of hospital. This ranges from major campaigns such as suicide and smoking prevention through to helpful leaflets advising people on health matters. Any modern organisation needs a professional PR outfit to deliver its services."

The Department of Health Press office robustly defended the increase, saying extra cash was spent on a suicide prevention ad campaign.

The figures reveal that between 2003-04 and the end of this financial year, £4.6m will have been spent on the department's information office.

Mr Hanson told MPs that this sum includes money for staff salaries, advertising, the department's website and publications, and the monitoring of media outlets.

It includes event management, the production of the department's staff magazine, and provision of photographs relating to government health initiatives to media outlets.

However, the Tories' David Lidington, who received the figures as a parliamentary written answer, said: "It seems an extraordinary sum.

"I think, at a time when there is real concern about waiting lists in hospital, people will ask why is so much money going on Press relations and glossy advertising.

"This is just the DHSSPS spending. On top of that, there is presumably extra spending by the individual health boards and by trusts."

But a departmental spokesman said: "Let's put this in context."

He said around 25% is spent on salaries, 30% on "necessary publications" and 25% is on advertising, including campaign advertising.

"This year, we have substantially increased our campaign advertising budget, solely towards targeting suicide prevention. The number of people taking their own lives in Northern Ireland has substantially increased and this is an attempt to save lives."

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