The DUP Health Minister has refused to implement multi-million pound cuts to his budget, challenging Executive colleagues to wield the axe themselves if they want to reduce his spend.
Edwin Poots insisted the health service would not be able to function properly if a £140 million shortfall he claimed his department was facing was not at least partially met.
In a radical move, the DUP minister warned he will not approve a significant number of potential cuts earmarked by officials, opening up the possibility of an overspend he estimated at “many tens of millions”.
Mr Poots said he would instead outline the proposed cuts to the Stormont Executive as a whole, leaving fellow ministers to vote on whether they should be implemented.
He said if cutbacks were then approved it would be a “Northern Ireland Executive position”, not his.
“They would have decided to implement these cuts,” he said. “I think it is something that is hugely damaging to health, but that is the decision that the Northern Ireland Executive will take, but they are not going to force a decision like this upon me.”
His warning comes despite the health budget (and education budget) being protected from a £78 million round of cuts agreed by the DUP and Sinn Fein-led Executive earlier this month.
An additional £20 million was actually allocated to health in that monitoring round agreement, but Mr Poots, who said he was on holiday when then deal was struck and he did not back it, has insisted his department needs another £140 million.
The minister has expressed concerns that cutbacks could hit things like cancer care, elective surgery waiting times, nursing reforms, potential staff wage increases, out-of-hours GP services and hospice funding.
He blamed Sinn Fein, and its decision to block the introduction of UK Government welfare reforms in Northern Ireland, for the situation facing his department.
Mr Poots claims money that could be spent on the NHS will instead be diverted to cover the multi-million pound Treasury fines imposed for the Executive’s failure to implement the welfare changes.
But Sinn Fein has rejected that analysis, noting that the latest monitoring round did not address the £87 million required to deal with the welfare issue.
Sinn Fein Assembly member Mickey Brady said the “crisis” facing the health department was the result of wider funding cuts imposed since the coalition Government came to power at Westminster.
“The DUP has supported these Tory cuts which have been about stripping out the National Health Service,” he said.
“The current crisis has nothing at all to do with the issue of welfare cuts which Sinn Fein successfully resisted during the monitoring round. Otherwise departments would have faced an additional £87 million of cuts.
“The health budget was protected and an additional £20 million was allocated to health.”
The potential of a major overspend in the health department is unlikely to be welcomed by DUP Finance Minister Simon Hamilton, who has already been critical of a previous overspend of £13 million by Mr Poots’ department.
Political rivals have questioned whether the relationship between Mr Hamilton and Mr Poots had been strained by the former’s recent critical remarks.
While insisting he wanted to avoid being in the another overspend situation, Mr Poots made clear it would be an issue for Mr Hamilton to deal with if that occurred.
“If we go over budget then it’s finance’s problem,” he said.
“If finance have the money, then it can be paid, but if they don’t have the money then it becomes an issue at Westminster level as well.”
But he claimed Sinn Fein could not escape responsibility if services were cut.
“I will be taking a paper to the Executive with the proposed cuts and if the Executive adopt it then that’s very clear that Sinn Fein want to proceed with cuts to the health service,” he said.
“If the Executive don’t adopt it then things carry on and the consequence of that is that it will run over (budget) but that will be the Executive making that decision.”
Asked about Sinn Fein’s seeming determination not to give ground on welfare reform, Mr Poots added: “They might find that others can play the game of not moving and I’ll not being moving on it if that’s their attitude.
“If they want to have cuts in the health service then they can put their hands up and vote for that, if they don’t want to have cuts in the health service then they can put their hands up and find some money for it.
“One way or the other something has to give here.”
Mr Brady suggested that if Mr Poots no longer thought he was the right man to lead his department then he and party leader and Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson should “immediately consider his future”.
The Sinn Fein representative also referred to the critical remarks of Mr Hamilton.
“The Department of Health requires clear leadership in what is a very challenging time for all Executive departments because of the Tory cuts the DUP has supported,” he said.
“It’s much too important to be held hostage to internal unionist bickering.”