Stormont buried easier health targets in unpublicised document

Health Minister Michelle O'Neill at the NI Cancer Centre yesterday.

Health Minister Michelle O'Neill at the NI Cancer Centre yesterday.

The Executive has been accused of treating the public with “contempt” after it claimed that a decision to downgrade waiting list targets had been announced publicly – when in fact it was buried in a document published on a website.

Yesterday the News Letter revealed that Stormont has quietly shifted the goalposts in how it measures waiting times to make them easier to hit – but not even the new targets are being met.

Steven Agnew MLA Green Party. 
Picture by Brian Little/Presseye

Steven Agnew MLA Green Party. Picture by Brian Little/Presseye

Yesterday the department denied that it had kept the policy change quiet and pointed to a document which was published on its website in April.

It said that the change had first been made public in the Commissioning Plan Direction. That is a legal document written in a similar style to legislation and it does not appear to have been publicised at the time. In previous years, that plan was brought to the Assembly health committee where the targets were debated but that does not appear to have happened this year.

However, the document contains no mention of the past target, nor that the target has been changed. In fact, no one reading the 25-page departmental direction notice would have any idea about the change unless they were aware of the previous target.

It contains just a single sentence delivering the major announcement: “By March 2017, 50% [in 2014 it was 80%] of patients should be waiting no longer than nine weeks for an outpatient appointment and no patient waits longer than 52 weeks [as recently as May it was 18 weeks].”

First Minister Arlene Foster, deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, Health Minister Michelle O'Neill and Professor, Rafael Bengoa pictured at a press conference in Parliament Buildings.

Professor Rafael Bengoa, presented a report to the Executive, 'Systems, Not Structures: Changing Health and Social Care.'

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

First Minister Arlene Foster, deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, Health Minister Michelle O'Neill and Professor, Rafael Bengoa pictured at a press conference in Parliament Buildings. Professor Rafael Bengoa, presented a report to the Executive, 'Systems, Not Structures: Changing Health and Social Care.' Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

Green Party leader Steven Agnew said that the issue should have been brought to the Assembly in the form of a ministerial statement, allowing MLAs to question the decision.

He told the News Letter: “I think there has been an effort to get cross-party consensus on changes that need to be made to the health service.

“The Executive has acted in bad faith here and will find it much harder to get the support of non-Executive parties if it treats them with this sort of contempt”.

The North Down MLA added: “I think that on a matter of such important public policy it is an affront to the public to not be candid about what’s happening.” Mr Agnew said that “yet again we are relying on journalists uncovering what the Executive is trying to hide. We should have an Executive that is more honest and transparent.”

On Thursday, the News Letter asked the department why the minister had downgraded the targets and asked it if it could point to anywhere where health minister Michelle O’Neill had announced that such an important target was being changed.

The department did not respond at all on Thursday. Yesterday it released a lengthy press release about how the minister had toured the Regional Cancer Centre at Belfast City Hospital, noting that Ms O’Neill took the time to “write her own ‘Wish Upon a Star’ message which was hung on the Centre’s Christmas Tree”.

Then, at lunch time yesterday the department did eventually respond to the News Letter’s question. It released a statement which said: “Targets to reduce elective waiting times are reviewed annually to ensure they remain challenging but realistic, and take into account current performance and the resources which are expected to be available to the HSC in that year. “

It said that the 2016/17 targets “were published in the Commissioning Plan Direction on the Department of Health website in April and were also published by the HSCB following their board meeting in June”, as well as being published in quarterly press releases on waiting times (where the News Letter spotted the change, although it did not state that the target had shifted).

It added: “The objectives should reflect the reality of the situation we face. That is why the minister, in her first week in office, acknowledged the challenges and pledged her commitment to transforming health and social care.”

Executive claims it is now being more open

The Executive has released a statement claiming that it is committed to being more open with the public – despite continued delays at several departments in responding to Freedom of Information requests, Assembly questions and media queries.

In the press release, Finance Minister Mairtin Ó Muilleoir said that open government was a “key commitment” and that the Executive “has agreed to a range of open government commitments to strengthen transparency and accountability across Executive departments”.

Former Alliance justice minister David Ford told the News Letter that he believed the Executive was becoming less – not more – open with the public. It appears that the Department of Finance, despite what the minister is saying, is refusing to be open and transparent on issues like budgets and monitoring rounds.

“When I was a minister, the department shared as much as possible with the committee. This is clearly not the Executive policy. It is yet another example of how things are being run to suit those who are in the Executive rather than the people’s representatives in the Assembly”.