Hamilton seeks annual £200m health budget boost (4.25%). Funded by cuts or new taxes? #dup15

IMG_4657The DUP conference opened this afternoon with around a hundred delegates attending sessions that focussed on health, regional development and a private question time with ministers. Compared with the SDLP in Armagh last weekend, members seemed upbeat and enthusiastic despite the upcoming leadership transition.

Both ministerial speeches took time to express thanks to our glorious leader the outgoing First Minister and party leader, a trend expected to continue on Saturday.

The election campaign has begun and Michelle McIlveen waved a DUP wand over DRD investments which Danny Kennedy might have claimed in his party conference speech four weeks ago) branding one “an outstanding contribution to infrastructure by this Executive – steered by this party”. Presumably tomorrow I’ll listen to pronouncements that “as a result of DUP leadership doing what is right for Northern Ireland” post-primary selection ended, arts budgets were cut, super councils were created, legal aid was slashed, and the regime of brucellosis testing was lifted?

[Ed – don’t knock collective government!]

Away from the hall, exhibitors were talking about the imminent leadership changes at the top of the party. Which DUP MLA would be drafted in to fill the expected vacancy in the Executive? Might the next First Minister be challenged for the position of deputy leader (assuming Nigel Dodds becomes leader) and how would the MLAs, MPs and MEP vote? And would the wifi hold up on Saturday …

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Simon Hamilton Health ministerHealth Minister Simon Hamilton opened his conference speech saying that while it sounded “ridiculous” and “outlandish”:

The National Health Service in Northern Ireland is a world leader.

The “trailblazing” service has “the best breast cancer survival rates in the UK … cutting edge cardiac care which is so pioneering that it’s being showcased to international audiences [and] a kidney transplant unit who have recently equalled the UK record for the most transplants in one day”.

Hamilton said the DUP “took over a Department where difficult decisions had been dodged” and “where the need for reform was ignored”. Later in the speech, he added:

Our NHS has been bedevilled by bureaucracy created by Michael McGimpsey.

The minister stated that “reform is required” and he reminded delegates of his intention to abolish the Health and Social Care Board and to appoint a Panel of independent experts to advise us on how we should best shape our Health Service in the years ahead.

A lack of money “has been at the heart of our more recent problems with waiting lists”.

Every single month this year, the Executive has had to hand back nearly £10 million to George Osborne. A selfish and shameful inability to live up to commitments on welfare reform has heaped heartache on already vulnerable people. But I am glad that this week, we’ve made progress.

I want to pay tribute to Peter for the unbelievable work he personally put into reaching an agreement. [Cue long applause for Peter Robinson, sitting in the front row beside Nigel Dodds.] I saw the hours and hours he put in to getting a deal which represents a fresh start for devolution and also created the opportunity to release much needed resources for public services. This Party and – more importantly – Northern Ireland has so many reasons to be thankful for the incredible leadership he given us all over the years.

On Wednesday, Arlene was able to give the Department of Health almost £50 million more to spend this year. Most of that money is going immediately into tackling waiting lists.

The big announcement in the speech was about the proposal for a big increase in health spending.

My Department spends a lot of public money. £4.7 billion this year to be precise. Almost half of the Executive’s entire budget. It could spend more. In fact, it could spend every pound of public money in Northern Ireland …

So, I want to make it clear what additional investment the DUP will be seeking for Health over the course of the next Assembly term. The DUP is today committing to seek to increase spending on Health by at least £1 billion by the end of the next Assembly term.

A billion more for Health is a big but necessary boost in funding for my Department.

If we are to deal with waiting lists. Fund new drugs and treatments. And reform the Health Service. Then Health needs more resources. We are saying loudly and clearly that Health needs more money to address current pressures and to prepare for the challenges ahead. We are spelling out our belief that Health will need at least £1 billion extra.

Will the other parties join with us? Will they support a significant spending increase for Health? And will they do more than just talk and back our bid for more for Health?

£1 billion over the next Assembly term is an extra £200 million per year. A 4.25% increase in departmental spending.

That kind of aspirational increase would surely either require enormous slashes to the new nine departments’ budgets or signal a beginning to phase in water charges, increase rates, or sell off portions of the Belfast Harbour estate?

Michelle McIlveen DRD ministerMinister for Regional Development Michelle McIlveen described being “given the task of turning around a department that was facing almost daily criticism for how it was not delivering its services”. She found “an enthusiastic and hardworking team of staff … who just wanted to do their jobs and who were just as frustrated as the general public”. [Ed – sounds like how Danny Kennedy described the DED staff too!]

My first job was to secure the necessary budget to allow them [to do their jobs].

Later in the speech, the minister explained:

Since taking office at Regional Development, the DUP has been able to start to get our potholes fixed, repair our street lights, clear our road gullies, strim roadside branches and cut road side grass. I am delighted that this week we secured an extra £16.5 million to get this work rolled out immediately.

McIlveen has “travelled the length of the proposed routes of the A5 and the A6”, visited waste treatment works and even been up a cherry picker to see street lighting repairs that had been brought to her attention by DUP councillors in Mid Ulster.

As we approach another election to the NI Assembly, it is well worth taking time to review what has been delivered by devolution for the benefit of all the people of Northern Ireland … With Peter at the helm we were at the forefront in developing the Programme for Government and the subsequent budget … As a result, my department of [sic] Regional Development has benefited enormously.

The number of public transport passengers has increased over the last ten years [Ed – during the ministries of Conor Murphy and Danny Kennedy] from 7.4 million to 14 million. Since 2011 259 buses have been purchased and over 2000 Park and Ride spaces were developed. [Ed – the tail end of Murphy and mostly Kennedy? And the minister forgot to mention that the waiting rooms at the Park and Ride sites had opened and then been closed in that time.]

The Belfast Rapid Transit system – envisaged by a Regional Development Minister back in 2004 who went by the name of Peter Robinson – is now scheduled for operation in 2018.

The minister added:

A total of £104 million has been invested in local road improvements right across NI since 2011. An outstanding contribution to infrastructure by this Executive – steered by this party.

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After opening devotions, Saturday morning’s programme will include speeches from Nigel Dodds, Arlene Foster and Peter Robinson.

Ian Paisley is chairing a panel discussion on the party’s influence with MEP Diane Dodds, Councillor Carla Lockhart (NILGA president) and Belfast East MP Gavin Robinson.

Party chairman Lord Morrow welcomes delegates at the beginning, and vice chair William McCrea will close the conference.

Follow hashtag #dup15 and the Slugger live blog for all the action.

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