Belfast Telegraph

Trust’s U-turn on closure of centre for people with learning disabilities after the Belfast Telegraph intervenes

By Lisa Smyth

A centre for people with learning disabilities has been saved after health bosses agreed to honour an original funding agreement, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

The Bridge Association in Antrim was set to close its doors today after 25 years amid claims the Northern Health & Social Care Trust cut its funding without warning or explanation.

But the trust has made a dramatic U-turn and reversed its decision to slash thousands of pounds of funding that has been blamed for driving the award-winning facility into the red.

It comes after the Belfast Telegraph highlighted the devastation of the people and their families — who rely on the Bridge Association — at the prospect of the centre closing.

They staged a protest outside Antrim Civic Centre yesterday ahead of a meeting of some of the most senior trust figures.

As Oscar Donnelly, director of mental health, arrived there were calls of “shame”, and he was then confronted by angry parents who wanted answers over the crisis.

Mr Donnelly told them he would reinstate monthly payments of £19,416 until the end of June and said he was keen to work with Bridge Association to negotiate a brand new contract.

The financial crisis arose earlier this year during work to draw up a fresh contract between the trust and the Bridge Association.

In February, Mr Donnelly wrote to Bridge Association saying it would be unable to complete the new contract on time.

As a result, he said he would extend the current contract, in which the trust paid Bridge Association £19,416 a month, for the next three months until June.

However, in March he contacted Bridge Association again with a draft contract which he wanted it to sign.

When it failed to agree to the terms of the draft document, Mr Donnelly told the Belfast Telegraph he decided to reduce the payment to Bridge Association to £12,250.

He said he did this because there was no contract with Bridge Association, and he has to ensure public money is spent properly.

“We are spending a considerable amount of money and I have to be able to account for what it will achieve,” he said.

When asked why he did not cut the funding completely, he said: “That would have been playing really hardball.”

Mr Donnelly said he has worked tirelessly to negotiate a new contract with the Bridge Association to ensure the centre can remain open.

However, Jacqueline Barnes — manager of the centre — said ii is unable to sign the current contract for a number of reasons.

“They want us to sign up to a draft agreement and they can negotiate new terms once it is signed,” she said.

“I don’t know anyone who would agree to a draft contract and then decide what work they are going to do afterwards.

“In the contract, they are also negotiating on behalf of a number of clients who get direct payments.

“These are people who get money from the trust so they can decide what services they want and purchase them directly.

“We don’t feel we can sign a contract that includes the people who get a direct payment as it is not for the trust, or us, to decide they will be coming to Bridge.”

The trust is currently embroiled in a legal battle with people who use Bridge Association, who are fighting for the right for everyone to receive direct payments.

Background

Oscar Donnelly has been director of mental health and disability services in the Northern Health & Social Care Trust since April 2007. He joined the Health and Social Services from the Housing Executive in 1991. In his £70,000-a-year role, he is responsible for a range of services including psychiatry, eating disorders and learning disabilities.

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