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19 November 2009 Edition

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OPINION: Defending our health system and public services

Sinn Féin ministers – Standing up for services


RECENT weeks have seen people across Ireland uniting to demand action on unemployment, in opposition to cuts to public services and to defend the declining income of people on low wages and social welfare.
Sinn Féin commends the trade union movement for these mobilisations and we applaud the tens of thousands who took to the streets throughout the country.
In the North, the focus of the ICTU-called demonstrations was on the so-called “efficiency savings” of more than £700 million being demanded by the British Treasury of the health service over the next three years.
There is growing anger among health and social care professionals, trade unions and the broader community as the cuts threaten to seriously erode the quality of care in the North’s healthcare system and attack the rights of health workers.

The proposed cuts may lead to the loss of up to 3,000 jobs, including more than 700 nursing posts, and a drastic reduction in the ambulance service as well as the closure of hospital beds.
There is also a push to have patients stay in hospital for the shortest time possible, including those who have undergone surgery. Women’s health professionals have expressed dismay at the Belfast Trust’s plans that new mothers be released from hospital just six to 12 hours after they give birth.
And while these so-called efficiency savings are supposed to free up resources to be reinvested in frontline services, there is no guarantee or mechanism to ensure this is the case. You cannot get more frontline than the ambulance service, one of the targets of the cuts, or the backbone of the health service – its nurses.
Additionally, the Belfast Trust’s plans to stop recruiting new staff, ban agency workers and overtime would impact on the most vulnerable and lowest-paid health workers.

There are undoubtedly real efficiency improvements that could be made in the health service, such as addressing high levels of bureaucracy, top-heavy management and outside consultancy fees.
Ending duplication and maximising the scale of economies through greater all-Ireland workings could release millions back into service delivery. Sinn Féin has called for the comprehensive ‘Investing in Health’ strategy proposed by Bairbre de Brún when she was Health Minister to be implemented as a way to strengthen the health service and integrate it with other departments and social agencies, such as housing and education bodies for example.
This strategy has the potential to save millions of pounds in the health budget by taking a holistic approach to preventative health care.

The proposals are being driven by the British Government’s agenda of privatising and attacking the public health service and other public services. We believe a strong campaign by the community and trade unions will play an important role in defending our public services from such attacks.
Sinn Féin ministers in the Executive have taken steps to ensure that key public services such as water and public transport remain under public control. Our ministers have been pursuing a strategy of investment to protect public services and jobs, and tackling persisting inequalities, poverty and discrimination while advancing all-Ireland co-operation and integration.
Minister for Regional Development Conor Murphy has announced the investment of hundreds of millions of pounds into developing efficient, high-quality, affordable and accessible public transport that aims to make the bus or train a more attractive option than private car use. This includes funding for 290 new buses, 20 new trains and a rapid transit network in Belfast. Last October, Conor also introduced free travel on public transport for all citizens in the North aged 60 and over. More than 57,000 older people have now taken up this entitlement.

As well as developing sustainable transport, Sinn Féin has used its role in the Department of Regional Development to ensure that water remains in public hands.
Despite the obvious eagerness from London to have the Government water company in the North sold off, the Minister has firmly ruled out any moves towards privatisation of the water and sewerage services and voiced his commitment to ensure “it will remain in full public ownership now and in the future”.
We have campaigned since 2001 against the plans made under direct rule ministers to force citizens in the Six Counties to pay a new charge for water when they already pay for this vital service through rates.
In 2007, Conor Murphy commissioned a two-part ‘Independent Review into Water and Sewerage Services’ that recognised the contribution households already make through regional rates and ruled out double charging and private profits being made from the service.
Responding to the increased financial pressures households have come under in the context of the recession, Sinn Féin recently brought forward a successful motion to defer any decision on the funding arrangements for the water service until beyond 2012, when the North’s economic situation would be reassessed by the Executive. The Executive agreed to cover the cost of domestic water use until that time.

Last December, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness helped secure a £15 million financial hardship package to provide assistance in housing, fuel and debt costs for those most vulnerable to the effects of the economic downturn.
Sinn Féin Minster for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development Michelle Gildernew has also organised the investment of £10 million to tackle rural poverty through fuel support, rural transport and rural childcare initiatives. Over the next five years, she will be investing £530 million into rural areas in the North.
The most significant change taking place in an Executive department is the radical, progressive reform of the education system being led by Sinn Féin Education Minister Caitríona Ruane. She is advancing a programme of modernising education, based on replacing the failed academic selection system with area-based planning to facilitate the development of post-primary education provision.
The minister has launched a £700 million Schools Modernisation Programme of investment in the schools estate over the next three years.

Sinn Féin ministers in government are demonstrating their commitment to defending public services, to advancing the all-Ireland agenda and overcoming poverty and inequality.
But the Executive is facing serious challenges in meeting the efficiency targets demanded by the British Treasury across all departments. The framework of the British Government’s pro-privatisation economic policies, and its refusal to address the legacy of its historic under-funding of vital services in the North, lie at the root of the problem.
The unfolding crisis in health care provision clearly shows that more must be done to defend the public sector.
Our immediate priority is the defence of frontline public services and to tackle health inequalities, and ensure that vulnerable people, people living with disadvantage and poverty, and those most at risk are protected.
These proposed cuts demonstrate sharply the need for decision-making powers about the economy to be in the hands of locally-elected and accountable politicians that will make decisions based on the interests of local citizens. Sinn Féin reiterates our call to the other parties to support the acquisition of greater fiscal powers for the Assembly on this basis.
We support the community and trade union campaigns across Ireland in defence of jobs, public services and social welfare and believe a strong and organised movement will play a vital role in protecting and advancing our rights, living standards and services for the future.

 ‘Investing in Health’ strategy was proposed by Bairbre de Brún when she was Health Minister 


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