Department Of Health Under Fire Over Its Consultancy Bill

The Department of Health was criticised today after figures revealed that cash spent on outside consultants, including public relations experts, has trebled in the past five years – to an estimated £3.1m in a year.

SDLP deputy leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell said he was “astounded” by figures released by Health Minister Michael McGimpsey revealing exactly how much his department has spent on external consultancy since 2002. According to the statistics, published in response to a written Assembly question from the South Belfast MP, a total of £1,009,481 was spent on independent consultancy services in the 2002/03 financial year.

The minister said the final figures for 2006/07 have not yet been finalised but “we estimate that £3.1m will have been spent in external consultancy “. The Department of Health has defended the spending, stressing that it “only uses consultants on work where specialist knowledge or expertise is required or where urgent work cannot otherwise be completed on time”.

Some of the cash has been spent on public relations consultancy over the five years, but a Department spokeswoman said the lion’s share had gone on work such driving down hospital waiting lists which have seen dramatic improvements in the last year. ” Last year, external consultancy expenditure represented approximately 0.08% of the Department’s total budget and over 70% of this was spent on work designed to improve services for patients and clients, for example hospital waiting lists,” she said.

“Before commissioning consultancy, a business case must be developed to demonstrate that the work is both necessary and provides value for money, and that it can only be done through the appointment of consultants. Total expenditure on consultancy is monitored on a regular basis.”

Dr McDonnell, a family doctor, said he feared the rise in spending would divert spending away from frontline health services. “This shocking rise in the money being spent on external consultants will be deeply worrying to those patients who are still awaiting access to health services,” said the MLA.

“Although external expertise is necessary on occasions I find it difficult to believe we need three times the amount of it than in 2002,” he asked. “A sum of £3m could buy a lot of operations or outpatient appointments. When people think of health services budgets they want to know that their taxes are going on frontline services not lining the pockets of various businesses.”

The figures also showed that in 2003/04, £1,590,641 was spent on external consultancy (including £1,435 on public relations), £1,885,458 was spent on external consultancy (£6,197 on public relations) the following year and in 2005/06, a total of £2,669,216 was spent on external consultancy (£6,894 on public relations).