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Huge NHS quango facing axe to stay in place for another two years

The main offices of the Health and Social Care Board in Linenhall Street, Belfast. Picture by Mark Marlow
Seanín Graham

A two-year delay in abolishing a costly NHS quango is “sadly typical” of health service reforms, a former member of a Stormont scrutiny committee has said.

The Irish News has learned that it could be at least 2019 before the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB), which employs almost 600 staff, is dismantled.

In November 2015 former DUP health minister Simon Hamilton made the shock announcement that he was to close down the body, saying it was too bureaucratic and a “barrier to innovation”.

He set an 18-month target – which he described as “realistic” – to wind up the board.

As the organisation responsible for spending the bulk of the health service budget or “commissioning” services, many of the HSCB's powers were to be transferred to the Department of Health while more autonomy was also to be given to the north’s six health trusts.

Anaysis from Seanín Graham

Mr Hamilton’s comments followed a scathing review by former English chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson, who said the board should be done away as soon as possible and questioned who was “leading” the health service.

"The last thing you want is an organisation which is dying in management terms running the show for years," he said at the time.

While many of the HSCB’s staff were to be transferred to the department by now, the Donaldson report also pointed to the need for a reduction in unnecessary management costs, with money redirected into frontline services.

A total of £28.1m was spent on wages of its 586 staff in 2015/16, according to latest accounts.

A Department of Health spokeswoman told The Irish News: "Detailed design work in relation to future structures and arrangements for the planning and management of health and social care services, including the closure of the HSCB, is ongoing.

"Final decisions on the new structures require the approval of the incoming minister. Subject to the minister's approval it is expected that implementation, including legislative change, and the process of transition will be taken forward during 2017/18 and 2018/19."

SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan, who sat on the assembly health committee, criticised the department’s failure to implement change at a time of spiralling hospital waiting lists and frontline pressures.

"The delay in abolishing the Board is sadly typical of the efforts of the Department of Health to get anything done in a timely manner, whether it comes to reform or delivery of services," he said.

"Staff have contacted me concerned about their job stability... meanwhile, vast amounts are being spent on senior administrators' salaries."

A spokeswoman for the HSCB said it "continues with its work of commissioning health services for the population of Northern Ireland and performance management of the five health and social care trusts".

"Work is currently underway to redesign the structure of the health and social care organisations and as part of this, some responsibilities traditionally managed by the HSCB will transition to the Department of Health, the trusts and to a new organisation encompassing the PHA (Public Health Agency) and some functions of the HSCB.

"This work is now in process and is expected to take some months to complete."

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