Belfast Telegraph

Health crisis: Unions slam Julian Smith's claim his hands are tied over NHS cash for Northern Ireland

Health service staff take part in industrial action outside the Ulster Hospital
Health service staff take part in industrial action outside the Ulster Hospital
Health service staff take part in industrial action outside the Ulster Hospital
Department of Finance permanent secretary Sue Gray
Unison’s Patricia McKeown
Lisa Smyth

By Lisa Smyth

The Secretary of State has refused to go to Westminster to bring an end to the suffering of hundreds of thousands of patients here.

Julian Smith, who is paid £67,500 every year for working as Northern Ireland, on top of his annual £75,500 MP's salary, insisted the NHS crisis was a matter that only local politicians could handle.

Mr Smith would not say how he expects the Assembly to be restored, or how many times he has met with political parties to urge the resumption of talks.

It can also be revealed that Mr Smith has not responded to a letter sent by health unions six weeks ago about the industrial action that is now threatening to bring the local health service to its knees.

It emerged last night, however, that he has requested meetings with Unison and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) today.

Patricia McKeown, regional secretary of Unison, said the organisation rejected any suggestion that Mr Smith could not intervene to break the deadlock between unions and health bosses.

"Health is a devolved matter, but the funding for public services in Northern Ireland is not," she insisted. "Unison will be putting this point directly to the Secretary of State.

"We will also be asking him to direct senior civil servants to examine the current budget to determine if the money is there to resolve the dispute."

The RCN is understood to be looking forward to hearing what Mr Smith has to say.

Ahead of the meeting, this newspaper today publishes 15 questions it put to him about the political impasse and what action he plans to take to address patient safety.

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Health service staff take part in industrial action outside the Ulster Hospital

The Secretary of State refused to answer any of the questions.

However, a spokesman for the Government said: "Health is a devolved matter. Only a restored Executive has the powers to take decisions on the health service.

"The Secretary of State is very concerned about the current situation in the health service in Northern Ireland and has had further discussions with the Northern Ireland Civil Service today, but he has no powers to direct them or take decisions on health matters.

"We cannot comment on the possible actions of a future government."

Mr Smith's refusal to answer the questions came after senior civil servants said the Secretary of State was the only person who could appeal to the Treasury for additional funding for the health service in the absence of a Stormont minister.

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Department of Finance permanent secretary Sue Gray

It can also be revealed that a request by the Department of Health for additional funding to help it meet unions' demands was turned down by the Department of Finance.

Departmental permanent secretary Sue Gray said: "Unfortunately, at this point in the financial year, all available funding has been allocated to departments."

As the Department of Finance has said it has no available money to allocate to the Department of Health, civil servants have said the money must be provided by the Treasury.

However, there is no mechanism in place to allow civil servants at the Department of Health to approach the Treasury on the matter.

It is understood this can only be done by a health minister or by Mr Smith in his role as Secretary of State.

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Unison’s Patricia McKeown

The local health service is approaching the end of the second week of devastating industrial action by staff fighting for pay parity with colleagues in the rest of the United Kingdom. They are also campaigning for officials to address severe lapses in patient safety.

More than 300,000 patients are currently on the waiting list for a first outpatient appointment.

The Royal College of Emergency Medicine has repeatedly warned that patients are being put at risk because of the conditions in emergency departments across Northern Ireland.

A chronic shortage of nurses has been blamed for playing a significant role in risks to patient safety.

Mr Smith has faced mounting calls to act to find a resolution to the industrial action.

Unison began action on November 25 while the RCN started industrial action involving a work to rule policy on Tuesday. If an agreement is not in place by December 18, RCN members will begin strike action.

Earlier this week, the chief executives of the local health trusts incurred the wrath of unions and staff after suggesting that patient safety was being compromised as a result of the industrial action.

The Belfast Trust faced particular criticism after it cancelled 10,000 outpatient appointments and elective surgeries this week late on Friday.

Trust chief executive Martin Dillon said cancer services had been affected as a result of the industrial action, but it later emerged doctors and nurses were seeing patients as normal.

As the relationship between the Department of Health and the unions appeared to deteriorate even further, the director of the RCN in Northern Ireland, Pat Cullen, implored officials to act to address the hospital waiting list crisis and lack of nursing staff across the service.

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