Northern Ireland

Robin Swann votes against Stormont budget and says health services could collapse

Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly said the funds Mr Swann had requested would have subsumed the entire budget available

Minister for Health Robin Swann has pledged to leave no stone unturned in tackling hospital waiting lists
Minister for Health Robin Swann and his party voted against the Stormont budget (Liam McBurney/PA)

A budget agreed by the Stormont executive risks pushing health services to the point of collapse, the health minister has warned.

Robin Swann voted against the budget for the current financial year which was agreed by his Executive colleagues following a lengthy meeting on Thursday.

Following a lengthy meeting of the Stormont executive, First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the agreed budget was “very challenging”.

Mr Swann warned the budget would cause “serious and potentially irreparable damage” to health services.

In a letter sent to health committee members, Mr Swann said it would lead to an “unprecedented cash terms budget reduction”.

He continued: “I believe it would result in serious and potentially irreparable damage to health and care services.

“Patients who rely on these services would be placed at significantly greater risk of coming to actual harm and the already intolerable pressures on staff would be multiplied.”

His letter added: “I could not stand over the implementation of cuts of this scale.

“I have a real fear that a service that is currently struggling in many areas could be pushed to the point of collapse in at least some areas.”

He concluded: “This budget, if passed by the Assembly, will drive unplanned and potentially chaotic change from which we will struggle to recover.”

Ms O’Neill said the new budget would provide funding for a childcare strategy.

She said: “Despite the severity of the financial challenges that are facing us we have all collectively tried to work together to make the tough choices and to demonstrate the leadership that the public rightly deserve.

“The budget itself underlines our commitment to health, in terms of prioritising health, it also invests significantly in our education services and provides funding for the childcare strategy.

“There is no doubt - and there is no escaping the fact - this was a very difficult call, a very difficult budget for us to discuss.”

Justice Minister Naomi Long warned her department’s budget allocation will place “significant limitations” on the delivery of services.

Addressing the assembly’s justice committee, Ms Long said she cannot overstate the impact the budget will have on her department, which has responsibility for policing, courts and prisons.

She described “inadequate funding from the Northern Ireland block grant” and said the Executive must continue to press the Treasury for more funding.

She outlined challenges to her department including a high prison population, low police officer numbers and forecasts of a 30% increase in legal aid payments.

“Realistically, we will struggle not to breach our budget limit next year,” she said.

“I think at times the understanding of what cuts to the Department of Justice budget, the impact on the community, is misunderstood, and I would say underestimated.

“We are not talking here simply here about cases taking slightly longer to go through court, we are talking about potentially catastrophic failures that could lead to life-changing experiences for people, life-ending experiences for some people.

“Keeping people safe, protecting life, preservation of public order - those are all key things that we have to be able to do and we can’t really dictate the demand in the system.

“We remain committed to innovation, we remain committed to collaborative working and to transformation, and we have some creative ideas about things we can do even within a difficult budget settlement, but ultimately the limitations that budgets will place on delivery and frontline services will be significant.”

Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly said it was disappointing that the health minister had not supported the budget.

Speaking at a press conference, she said the funds Mr Swann had requested would have subsumed the entire budget available.

She said 50% of the available budget had been given to health.

Last week, Finance Minister Caoimhe Archibald said she received resource bids from ministers for public services that are more than three times the available budget.

Ms Archibald has been having discussions with all the ministers as she prepares a budget with approximately £1 billion in extra money available in the 2024/25 financial year, with a total budget of just over £15bn for resource, or day-to-day spending.

In those discussions and in papers, ministers have asked for a total of an extra £3.2bn, a senior Department of Finance official told an assembly committee last week.