Children’s social care can be fixed - but only if new health minister Mike Nesbitt gets to grip with the problems - The Irish News view

Review of children’s services can’t be allowed to gather dust

Nipsa members on strike at the Shankill Wellbeing and Treatment Centre block the road for a short period. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
Social workers in the Belfast Trust area staged strike action last month to draw attention to the pressures on family and childcare services (Mal McCann)

As we have repeatedly highlighted, the continuing absence of a programme for government at Stormont is inexplicable and simply not good enough.

After all, this executive, with its 100 meetings between the parties and the civil service before power-sharing was rebooted in February, was supposed to hit the ground running.

Stumbling backwards, or bumbling around in circles, might be a better description of what has happened in the months since for anyone who was hoping to see a concrete plan and shared vision.

The vagueness of the timeline around when the programme for government will eventually emerge from the executive’s bunker was deeply unsatisfactory even before the announcement of the general election offered another excuse to foot-drag.

This lack of urgency is worrying. Two years have been lost to the DUP’s pointless and entirely self-serving Irish Sea border boycott; the executive really needs to be getting on with it.

The same can be said of individual departments. The Department of Health, for example, seems to prefer complaining about a lack of funding - despite accounting for a little over half of the entire Stormont budget - to implementing transformation.

Three separate alarm bells have sounded in health and social care over the past 24 hours alone.

First, pharmacists say they are dispensing prescriptions at a loss because the amount the department pays them is less than what it costs to buy and stock medicine. This funding gap has led to some pharmacies closing, just when we are being encouraged to lean on their services to ease some pressure on GPs.

Second, health and social care trust chairs have warned that implementing the cuts being forced upon them by the department will have “high and catastrophic impacts”. These include bed closures, reductions in outpatient care, domiciliary care and nursing care packages.

A third area that deserves special attention is children’s services. As our reporting has made clear, more children will end up in care if the department does not take action.

Professor Ray Jones with the Northern Ireland review of children's social care services report at Stormont last June. PICTURE: LIAM MCBURNEY/PA WIRE
Professor Ray Jones authored a review into children's social care services (Liam McBurney/Liam McBurney/PA Wire)

Frustratingly, a plan of action - commissioned by the department itself in 2021 - already exists to begin to tackle the problems. These include a record 4,000 children on social care waiting lists, staffing pressures - especially on social workers - and shortages of foster and residential care.

Professor Ray Jones, who led the review into children’s services, fears the report is gathering dust. But he also argues that the children’s social care challenges could be addressed relatively quickly and affordably if new health minister Mike Nesbitt decided to get to grips with them.

Stormont departments are coming down with similar reports and reviews into how to improve our public services. But when will this executive and its ministers deliver?