Newspaper for Crossmaglen, South Armagh, Newry and Down.

Anger at Southern Trust’s £7m learning disability underspend

Local political representatives have spoken out to condemn a multi-million pound underspend in the Southern Trust’s learning disabilities budget over the last four years.  

There has been public outcry over the revelation – uncovered via a freedom of information request made by the BBC – that the Southern Health and Social Care Trust has underspent on services for adults with learning disabilities by over £7m since 2014.

The Southern Trust covers the five council areas of Newry and Mourne, Armagh, Banbridge, Craigavon and Dungannon and is allocated an annual budget for adults with learning difficulties of over £46m a year.

Sinn Féin MLA Megan Fearon said that people living with learning disabilities and their families have been let down by the Southern Trust due to the high levels of underspend. 

“This under-spend has resulted in a lack of services to support those with learning disabilities and their carers,” she said.

“We now need to listen to the advice of support groups and patients who are telling us about the type of care and support services that are needed. 

“Families also need to know that support is there for them and their loved ones as they get older, and young people who are currently struggling to cope with learning disabilities need to have hope they will have support into the future.”

SDLP MLA Justin McNulty said the revelation was a “devastating blow for those who are constantly seeking services for their loved ones and who are constantly being told there’s no money” and he said he would be meeting with the Chief Executive of the Southern Health and Social Care Trust to discuss the matter.

“Over recent years, I have been working with quite a number of families and support groups in this area. Time and time again we have been told about funding pressures or the lack of service provision. It now appears funding has been available; however, it hasn’t been spent!’, said the Newry and Armagh MLA.

Mr McNulty said providing care for those with the most complex needs requires a regional solution and Ministerial approval before it can move forward.

“So, even when the money is there, the absence of a Minister is stalling progress. Meanwhile those with a disability are being left behind.’

“I know the Southern Trust and third sector providers across the area are doing great work. However, if there is more money to be spent and the demand is there for those services, the money must be released to those who need it most. I will be meeting the Chief Executive Shane Devlin this week and will be pressing for progress on this issue.”

A spokesperson for the Southern Trust told The Examiner that whilst it was not always possible to spend the full amount allocated to adults with learning disabilities within a single financial year, “this money is always ring-fenced and stays within the budget for adults with learning disability and is not used for any other purpose.”

The spokesperson revealed that last year, the adult learning disabilities budget was underspent by around £1.1 million (approximately 2% of the total).

“This underspend does not impact on the quality and range of care and support which people with learning disabilities receive in our Trust,” said the Trust representative.

“There are many reasons for the underspend including the significant time involved in securing specialist accommodation for clients with complex needs and in recruiting specialist learning disability staff. Not all decisions regarding investments are solely within the control of The Trust and spending (associated with the investment) often straddles more than one financial year.

“We are committed to working with carers and others to ensure that we continue to reduce the underspend wherever possible for the benefit of everybody using our Adult Learning Disability services.”