‘I’m a new politician so this feels a bit like Daniel in the lion’s den’

Robbie Butler MLA.
Robbie Butler MLA.

Lagan Valley MLA Robbie Butler has accused the Health Minister of putting forward proposals that are “vague and lack proper detail.”

The UUP man made the claim after he appeared on BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show on Wednesday morning, during which he struggled to articulate his party’s central health policy during a car crash ten-minute interview.

The Ulster Unionist Party’s mental health spokesman, who was appearing on the programme to represent the UUP in a debate on the future of the NHS in Northern Ireland, repeatedly evaded answering a question about the party’s policy on closing or downgrading smaller hospitals.

The former firefighter, who is one of the UUP’s two MLAs on the Assembly’s health scrutiny committee, complained that the Bengoa Report into the future of the NHS in Northern Ireland, which the health minister published on Tuesday, was “light on detail”.

However, when pressed for even basic detail of the UUP policy, Mr Butler quickly floundered.

Mr Nolan asked the Lagan Valley MLA whether he supported a reduction in the number of acute hospitals, with services centralised in larger hospitals - the key ideological debate among politicians and health experts in Northern Ireland for several years.

Initially, Mr Butler avoided answering the question, saying: “I think the centralisation of acute hospitals is something that has been mooted for many, many years and I think it’s interesting that the minister has thrown the onus on to medical professionals...”

After being reminded that the question was whether the UUP supported centralisation of hospital services, Mr Butler said: “Again, people need to understand the difference between acute hospitals and those for more complex cases. In Lagan Valley, for instance, we lost the 24-hour emergency A&E which was very hard to handle at the time and very hard actually for the people who have that need.”

When asked if he was going to answer the question, the former firefighter said: “Yes, yes, absolutely. Absolutely.”

Then, asked the question for a fourth time, Mr Butler said: “I think the answer to that Stephen is that we are in a complex society now where people’s needs are different, so it needs to be looked at on a case by case basis.”

Mr Nolan interjected to say that a decision to centralise services could not be taken on an individual basis.

Asked the question for a fifth time, he said: “The detail for that is down to [sic] the minister to provide...”

Mr Nolan continued to ask the former Lisburn councillor to set out the UUP’s position on centralising hospital services, asking him the same question several more times.

Mr Butler, who was elected as an MLA in May, went on to say: “I’m a new politician so this feels a bit like Daniel in the lion’s den...”

Speaking after the show, Mr Butler commented: “Regarding my interview on Nolan, I would readily support a cost-effective amalgamation of specific services, such as Mental Health and Stroke services, however it would be foolish of me to support a blanket statement proposing a consolidation of acute services with no costing and no detail, especially given that the UUP had only had sight of the Bengoa report for fewer than 24 hours at the time of the interview.

“I believe there are many positive aspects to the Bengoa Report and would welcome their implementation. The difficulty is that the proposals from the Health Minister are vague, lack proper detail and, most importantly, have not been costed in any way.”