The Stormont Minister accused of breaking pay parity with health service staff has spoken for the first time – and admitted: “I am guilty as charged.”
But former Health Minister Jim Wells also insisted his decision was unanimously endorsed by the full Executive – and backed since by subsequent Ministers.
Breaking his silence, the DUP MLA also stressed his only alternative would have been to close wards, including cancer wards, and stop the delivery of expensive drugs.
“On all of this, on this occasion I am guilty as charged. All the allegations that I did this are entirely true. It’s as simple as that,” he told Sunday Life.
“I make no bones about it. We had to balance the books.”
The decision to ‘decouple’ from pay rates to health staff in Scotland led directly to the current industrial action by nurses and other staff which has caused the cancellation of thousands of operations and procedures – and seems set to escalate.
But Mr Wells also believes pay parity can now be restored, although it would have to be phased in over three to four years, he said.
And he said he thinks the job of Health Minister is now “impossible”.
“In the 2015/16 budget we were in a situation where we did not have the money to keep increasing pay and so we decoupled from Scotland,” he said.
Health workers taking part in industrial action in Northern Ireland
“All staff continued to get a 2.5pc increment per year and those at the top of the scale who did not get that got a 1pc increase. That cost £67m a year.
“But of course the unions will not accept that increments are a pay increase. They are viewed as a reward for performance, although it’s also more money into individuals’ pay packets,” he added.
Mr Wells’ predecessor in the post had the previous year bust his books, going over-budget to make ends meet – which drew unprecedented criticism from the then Finance Minister Simon Hamilton, who was later also Health Minister.
“The total health budget was £5.2bn – half the total expenditure of the Executive – and Simon Hamilton made it clear to me we had to stay within Budget,” he said.
(left to right) MAU nurse Catherine Gallagher, Dermatology and Neurology ward sister Joanne Knight, health care assistant Jenny McBride, and MAU nurse Lynsey Strain support members of the Royal College of Nurse (RCN) and supporters outside the Ulster Hospital begin industrial action on safe and effective care in Northern Ireland. PA Photo. Picture date: Tuesday December 3, 2019.
“As Minister the decision was mine but the Assembly had made clear they did not want to see any reduction in services. The other option was to borrow but we were already in debt millions of pounds a year. We agonised over this for months.”
Mr Wells was speaking exclusively to this newspaper before his party leader Arlene Foster confirmed he was the Minister in place at the time on BBC Northern Ireland’s The View programme on Thursday night.
“With the population rising, and also ageing, the pressures on the Health Budget had been building for a decade. There was also an internal health service inflation on costs of about 6pc,” Mr Wells added.
The decision was endorsed by the Executive, and then by the next Executive Health Minister Mr Hamilton followed by Michelle O’Neill and the Executive itself again.
“It is significant that Sinn Fein took exactly the same action when faced with the situation,” South Down MLA Wells went on.
“I don’t think that we paid nurses particularly badly. We tried to be fair to staff.
“May I also add that even throughout the 10 years of the recession there were no redundancies, we took staff on and all staff were secure and in the NHS pension scheme.
“While it was a difficult time, we were fair in the circumstances. Now I think the new Government after the General Election will loosen the purse strings.
“So the situation is changed and we will hopefully be able to get the nurses back up to parity with Scotland, although I think it will have to be phased in over a number of years.”
The health unions rejected a partial pay increase offer following talks with Secretary of State Julian Smith on Thursday after which Department of Health permanent secretary Richard Pengelly said he did not have the authority to restore full parity.
“I think he is probably right about that – it would be a civil servant overturning the decision not just of a Minister but the entire Executive,” Mr Wells added.
“The job of Health Minister is a poisoned chalice, I believe it is impossible. You have to balance the books while making sure we have a more efficient and more modernised service.”
Mr Wells said he did not believe the political will exists among the parties to implement the root and branch reforms in the Bengoa Report.
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