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Edwin Poots rejects Sinn Fein charges of budget scaremongering

By Noel McAdam and Adrian Rutherford

A fractious meeting of a Stormont committee has exposed the severe shortfall in our health service funding - while government also faces a crisis.

Health Minister Edwin Poots yesterday appeared before the health committee at Parliament Buildings to answer questions over why he has warned his department cannot meet its budgets without seriously compromising patient services and safety.

The defiant DUP minister insisted he was not able to make cuts of £140m he has been told to meet.

But, in a tense two-and-a-half hour meeting before his scrutiny committee, Sinn Fein accused the DUP man of mismanaging his budget.

He was quizzed over why no one had predicted the serious shortfall was looming. With all the main parties involved in the debate, there was little agreement between them.

Meanwhile, it has emerged that despite continuous warnings of a funding crisis in the health service, funding in Northern Ireland is at least £75 higher than England per head of population.

Division over the impact of welfare reform cuts in Northern Ireland lies at the heart of the dispute between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

The two parties have been engaged in a wrangle over reallocation of Executive funds and Mr Poots has said he cannot impose the resulting spending reduction.

Fines are being imposed by the Treasury because of Sinn Fein and the DUP's failure to agree on welfare reform.

Mr Poots' main medical adviser, Dr Michael McBride, said a litany of services could be affected if officials are forced to push through cuts.

At yesterday's meeting, Mr Poots side-stepped demands for increased scrutiny and monitoring of his departmental budget and denied he was "scaremongering".

Committee chairman Maeve McLaughlin said she remained unconvinced that there was "proper, actual oversight, actual management and proper scrutiny of the current budget".

"We have listened carefully and I would request additional levels of scrutiny and monitoring to your budget," the Sinn Fein MLA added.

But Mr Poots countered: "You are the scrutiny committee and I regret that you are condemning your own scrutiny. We are not going to have someone standing in every ward because that would cost us more money than the wastage."

The DUP minister also conceded there was waste within expenditure in the health service but argued it would amount to a very small proportion. More heat was generated than light in the face-to-face session with MLAs, with the minister continually challenged over his dire warnings of the consequences of a £140m shortfall in his budget.

Despite the warnings, figures have shown that at least £75 more is spent on health per person in Northern Ireland than England.

The Department of Health told auditors its annual expenditure worked out at £1,975 per head of population.

That is nearly 4% more than England's figure of £1,900.

We are also top-heavy with managers and administration staff compared to other regions in recent years.

We had more non-clinical staff than elsewhere – proportionally 42% more than England – yet fewer nurses and midwives than Scotland and Wales.

Vital medical services facing severe cutbacks

  • Cancer services helping treat those with blood poisoning could be affected.
  • It will impact on the efficiency and effectiveness of services envisaged to improve under the Transforming Your Care measures.
  • Screening for thousands of people for stroke danger signs may not go ahead.
  • Drugs for chronic conditions like multiple sclerosis are under threat.
  • Overall, more people will be waiting for Nice-approved (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) drugs and will face a waiting list.
  • More people with diseases like diabetes will be waiting for treatment, developing complications and ultimately costing the service more in the long run.

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