Northern Ireland

Health cuts consultation 'is a sham', say unions

Health union representatives delivered the letter to the Department of Health
Image caption Health union representatives delivered the letter to the Department of Health

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) has said the public consultation on proposed health cuts is a "sham".

In a letter, it says the health department and its permanent secretary are putting patients at "risk".

It also says the department has by-passed the Health and Social Care Board (HSC) and the Public Health Agency.

A Department of Health spokesperson said: "We've just received the letter today. It is an important contribution to the consultation process."

The BBC understands the department and permanent secretary followed department guidelines over the consultation.

Health analysis

Sources have told the BBC that it is extremely likely that health will receive a significant sum, perhaps up to £40m, in the Autumn monitoring round. If that happens, it is my understanding that it will be used to prevent some of the £70m worth of cuts from going ahead.

While that potential move is being applauded, there is also some anger that if this information was widely known among officials at Stormont, why were the consultation process and public meetings allowed to go ahead?

Why did the various staff briefings within hospitals across Northern Ireland go ahead? Only last week in Musgrave Park Hospital, staff were warned that up to two wards would close and more than 2,000 day cases would be postponed.

Staff described the move as "shroud waving" and unnecessary scare mongering.

One nurse told me that they felt like political pawns.

The union body says the consultation is making a mockery of the current health commissioning plan.

The letter has been signed by 11 health unions, including the Royal College of Midwives, UNISON, NIPSA, UNITE and the Hospital Consultant and Specialists' Association.

Image caption Richard Pengelly is running the Department of Health in the absence of a minister

'A sham'

Chartered Society of Physiotherapists spokesperson Claire Ronald, said: "We see these proposed cuts and the consultation process around them as no more than a sham.

"They are unnecessary, and we believe that Richard Pengelly who is the permanent health secretary must be held to account."

While the health unions are critical of the timeline of the consultation, the BBC understands that in an emergency the consultation timeframe can be condensed.

It is also understood the HSC has followed protocols.

The hard-hitting letter is an extremely personal attack on Mr Pengelly who, in the absence of a health minister, is in charge of running the department.

Image caption Public consultation meetings have been held to gauge opinion on the department's spending proposals

It describes the consultation around the proposed cuts as lacking any genuine commitment to find other solutions to the financial problems.

The letter says: "You are taking these decisions at a time when additional funding has been announced for the health service in England which is also likely to have a positive impact on the overall NI allocation.

'Confidence and supply'

"You are aware that a further £1bn has been agreed for the NI allocation as a result of the 'confidence and supply' agreement between the UK Government and the DUP.

"To impose £70m of cuts on health trusts half way through the current financial year… appears to be irresponsible and beyond the functions of either a permanent secretary, or the chief executive of the health and social care system."

Further accusations made in the letter include breaching the department's own equality scheme by issuing instructions to health trusts to breach their own equality schemes.