I sometimes wonder who is looking after the money at Stormont. Endless amounts appear readily available for hard to justify schemes such as a £7m bail-out for City of Derry Airport which one politician recently described as the `vanity project of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness’ and prompted another, Steven Agnew MLA to muse that it was amazing the amount of money the Executive can find down the back of a sofa.
Then there’s the £84,000 annual salary to go to the newly appointed spin chief for the First and Deputy First Ministers (the fact we have two First Ministers is an extravagance in itself) described by this newspaper’s political correspondent Sam McBride as `another self-inflicted Stormont Castle controversy’. Is this appointment really necessary? The princely sum of £100,000 was dedicated recently to raising a tulip shaped metal construction on a hill above Belfast the significance of which is lost on me and probably thousands of others who have had to pay for it.
Stormont has a mesmerising number of special advisers, over 160 I believe, all earning generous salaries, not to mention having the use of ministerial cars and a subsidised canteen. Undoubtedly the work of Government is expensive but it’s the trimmings we ratepayers would like, well, trimmed, if for no other reason than to pay for the services that really matter and which are struggling to survive.
Take health care. Recent information suggests that it’s the elderly here who are suffering most with many of them having to raid their retirement funds to pay for private operations which should be free on the NHS. The elderly have less time to wait than the younger generation for life saving care. We all know of people suffering for years with painful hips and knees being told it could be three years before they can be treated. The elderly need their retirement funds for future care, yet it is clear the Governments here and at Westminister are determined to bleed them dry while forking out for instant care for the drunks and drug addicts who plague every hospital’s A&E department.
A recent study published by the King’s Fund and Nuffield Trust (KFNT), a leading health think tank, suggests that Prime Minister Theresa May must tackle the crisis in care for the elderly as the result of austerity measures. In England alone the number receiving state-funded care has slumped by a quarter since 2009. Yet the elderly population is rising.
The situation here is becoming critical too. We all know of families struggling to pay the care bills of their elderly relatives. Family homes are having to be sold and pensions raided to provide the care children cannot provide as the Government expects even mothers with young children to work. The benefits bill runs into billions in the UK yet, listening to a local radio show this week, left me in no doubt that the disabled are paying an unfair share of the cuts. As one contributor put it `just because you look normal doesn’t mean you are’.
Caroline Abrahams, director of Age UK describes social care today as being `in serious trouble, putting the health and dignity of today’s older people at risk’. She would like to see `serious reform in the system that is being starved of cash and attention’. Our Health Service will soon be snowed under as it stretches to care for migrants and refugees. This is not the time for Governments, including our own, to be squandering money on vanity schemes, blobs on the landscape masquerading as art, and yet more advisors for those politicians who can dip into public funds by simply changing the rules of their use, when it suits them.