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Unions hit out at election guidance on 'political impartiality' for health service workers

BELIEFS: Unions have hit out at election guidance for health service workers
Seanín Graham

ELECTION guidance sent to NHS chiefs by the Department of Health has been branded an attempt to "stifle" the political views of tens of thousands of health service workers.

The Irish News has seen correspondence which was issued to the chief executives of the north's six health trusts and chairs of quangos, informing them of their responsibilities in relation to "political impartiality" in the run-up to an election.

Part of the letter, which was sent on May 9, references the use of social media.

Trade unions have reacted angrily, saying the guidance was drawn up by the civil service and should not apply to more than 60,000 people employed across the health and social services sector - as "they are not civil servants".

A Department of Health spokesman said last night that "central guidance for Northern Ireland civil servants is issued by all departments to associated bodies during every election period as a matter of routine".

However, trade union Nipsa insisted it was the first time such a direction has been released to the health service.

It comes a week after it emerged that the biggest doctors' union had sought legal advice over a controversial warning issued by the Department of Health permanent secretary Richard Pengelly, telling medics not to tweet about politics prior to the last assembly election.

Nipsa assistant secretary Kevin McCabe claimed they were at "no point" consulted about the letter.

"This guidance was clearly agreed and negotiated to apply to the Northern Ireland Civil Service. If they wanted to replicate this for the health service there is a mechanism to do this between the department, the trusts and the unions - but this didn't happen," he said.

"People in the health service should be allowed to express their political beliefs as long as it is in keeping with the terms of their employment contract."

The May 9 letter has a cover sheet which is signed by La'Verne Montgomery, the director of corporate management at the Department of Health.

It states: "The guidance should... be drawn upon with immediate effect in relation to any circumstances which may arise... which may have the potential to compromise the key principles relating to political impartiality and the proper use of public resources. You will wish to bring this guidance to the attention of your Board members as well as your staff. "

Tom Sullivan of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy union also hit out at the letters.

"My position is so long as you're not breaching any guidelines issued by your employer or regulator, we have no problem in members expressing political opinions."

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