Belfast Telegraph

Arlene Foster: Let's get the Assembly up and running to find a solution to these problems

Arlene Foster
Arlene Foster

By Arlene Foster

The DUP understands and shares the frustrations of the public that we have not been able to get things done locally. Strike action by nurses and other hard-working staff could be avoided and the pay rise can be delivered. All it needs is a working Assembly and Executive.

The DUP stands ready, willing and able to do just that, and to deliver for nurses and other health staff. In the first year of confidence and supply transformation funding, £6.4m was invested in enhancing the nursing and midwifery workforce. Partly as a result of this DUP funding, Northern Ireland now has an all-time high number of nursing training places: 1,025 compared with 901 just two years ago.

We are proud during our time holding the Health Ministry to have increased the number of health and social care staff by 3,270. We invested in 1,200 more nurses and midwives (8% increase) and 181 more nursing support staff (5% increase).

We want to do so much more.

We stand by our commitment to increase health spending by £1bn by the end of the Assembly term. The way to resolve the health pay issue is by having a Northern Ireland Health Minister and Executive.

We want to work with other parties to get Northern Ireland moving again and have outlined our blueprint for health, and mental health, the economy and education as well as a range of other priorities.

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To get Northern Ireland moving again we will form an All-Party Executive today: no excuses, no boycotts, no more delays but action to clear the backlog of decisions.

No sector has suffered more than health from a lack of decisions and minister. We want action on waiting lists, Bengoa reforms delivered and mental health services transformed.

We will appoint ministers immediately, clear the backlog of decisions and get down to implementing our 12-point plan for Northern Ireland.

The DUP is the only party seriously making the case for Stormont coming back. What do we have instead of government? The minister who abandoned her office taking selfies on a picket line and calling on a Permanent Secretary or the Secretary of State to act, knowing full well it's not their responsibility.

There is a lot in Michelle O'Neill's article (in yesterday's Belfast Telegraph) which needs addressed. I realise it's election time, but Michelle tries to blame the DUP for a public sector pay cap which DUP votes in the House of Commons actually forced the government to remove.

In relation to health service pay, I've heard it claimed many times that Jim Wells is to blame for a breach in parity. That is very unfair.

In fact, Jim was actually attacked in the Belfast Telegraph (October 30, 2015) by Janice Smyth, then Director of the Royal College of Nursing, for maintaining parity: "Nurses are angry and disillusioned that the Health Minister has now - seven months into the financial year - chosen to ignore the recommendation of the independent PRB (pay review body) and instead has opted to impose what appears to be the same unacceptable award that has been imposed upon nurses in England."

As everyone knows, government in Northern Ireland works on the basis of agreement between parties across the Executive, and even if it had been the case that Jim had acted inappropriately, Sinn Fein could have addressed it around the Executive table.

I could easily seek to blame Michelle for not providing pay parity during her time in health, but that would be no better and ignore that there was an Executive in place - an Executive, incidentally, abiding by the Executive-wide pay policy of Sinn Fein Finance Minister Mairtin O'Muilleoir.

People see through attempts to demonise individual ministers of a cross-party Executive in this way, and the Agenda for Change settlement across the UK has now been significantly refreshed since that period anyway.

Where Sinn Fein have more to answer is on their abandonment of partnership government. Michelle O'Neill walked out of the Department of Health, leaving all the problems we hear about daily sitting in her in-tray.

Where would healthcare be without the billions of pounds the DUP has secured for everyone in Northern Ireland - more than two-and-a-half billion. £400m for health transformation, £50m to mental health, £100m for in-year pressures, £400 million under the Spending Review for our hospitals, schools and police, and so much more.

Let's hope when December 12 is out of the way Sinn Fein is able to tone down the rhetoric and get back into the business of looking to govern for the people of Northern Ireland.

The public want local ministers back to take the decisions that matter to them.

Michelle concluded: "Sinn Fein is committed to health and social care services now and in the future."

Let's hope that is the case and we can get back to having a functioning Assembly and Executive delivering for everyone in Northern Ireland.

Arlene Foster MLA is leader of the DUP

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