Belfast Telegraph

We can certainly overcome financial challenges ahead

Ed Curran wrote last week about the 'black hole' in the Executive's budget. Here Finance Minister Sammy Wilson responds

In a recent edition of the Belfast Telegraph (October 22) Ed Curran set out his assessment of the funding position facing the health and social care sector, and the Executive more generally.

Unfortunately the article did not reflect the reality of the situation and was distorted, misinformed and simply wrong in many of its assertions.

If he had sought to learn a little more about the facts of the story it may have led to a more informative article. The fact of the matter is that, in spite of the financial challenges the Executive is facing, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) continues to be supported with record levels of funding.

In relation to the fight against swine flu, Mr Curran claimed that health services would suffer as a result of the Executive deciding to "tell" the Health Minister to find money from within his own resources, through making further savings.

The reality is that other departments are contributing more than half of the total cost. In addition, the majority of the residual contribution from DHSSPS represents funding which was already set aside for pandemic flu and, therefore, does not require a reduction to other services. It is also the case that the minister offered the remainder of his contribution as opposed to being told he must find it.

Mr Curran also claims that the Executive should be spending more - not less - on the health service. He seems to miss the obvious point that, by ensuring other departments are contributing funding, that is exactly what we are doing.

It is also the case that the proportion of funding spent on the health service has grown steadily in recent years with the result that it now accounts for 48% of current expenditure. To put this in context, the contribution being provided by DHSSPS towards fighting swine flu represents only 0.3% of the existing budget.

To suggest that this issue is not a priority for the Executive is also misleading. Normally departments are expected to fund emerging pressures from within existing resources. However, in recognition of the significance of the issue the Executive took the decision to provide additional funding from other public services. The implications for these services should not be underestimated and it is disappointing that Mr Curran makes no recognition of the sacrifice made by other departments.

His claim that the move to ensure £64m was available came "much too late" is also puzzling as I am not aware of any other part of the UK which has made the same level of commitment as the Executive.

It was also disappointing to see Mr Curran jumping on the 'black hole' bandwagon regarding the financial position next year. This is in spite of the fact that previous predictions of this kind have been shown to be wildly inaccurate, as highlighted by the experience of 2008-09 when the Executive delivered record levels of investment in public services, in direct contrast to previous suggestions that there was a £1bn shortfall.

In spite of this and many other achievements there are a number of difficult choices that the Executive will face as public spending is increasingly constrained.

These pressures will require us to ensure we make better use of the resources available to us by squeezing inefficiency out of the system.

In response I have proposed that the Executive takes action now so that any adjustments can be implemented more seamlessly rather than waiting to the start of 2010-11. This is sound financial management that should be supported rather than criticised.

One of the benefits of being a commentator is that you can put forward a narrow viewpoint with only casual reference to financial reality.

However, as Finance Minister I need to take the broader perspective based on the actual facts of the matter and taking account of the implications not only for our hospitals, but also our schools and other public services.

I will continue to do so in order to deliver the best possible services for the people of Northern Ireland within the constraints of the limited resources available.

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