Social workers and care staff across Northern Ireland are set to take part in strikes over fears that budget cuts will lead to widespread job losses.
The Northern Ireland Assembly has tightened health and social services budgets in an attempt to save at least £800m by 2015.
But Unison has claimed the savings will be closer to £2.3bn, which could equate to 6,000 job losses. The union announced today that it would ballot its health and social care members on whether to take strike action.
The total health and social services budget is set to increase by only 1.9% this year, far below the rate of inflation, which is currently running at 4.4% and expected to reach 5% by the end of the year. Further year-on-year increases until 2015 will all be below 3%.
All government departments in Northern Ireland are having to save money because of a cut of £4bn in real terms from the UK government’s grant to the country over the next four years and slow economic growth.
Patricia McKeown, regional secretary for Unison, said the cuts would result in job losses at a time when staff were already experiencing redundancies, pay freezes, outsourcing, vacant posts left unfilled and the increasing use of temporary contracts.
“People responsible for delivering programmes of care are really in crisis,” she said. “I’ve had social services managers on the phone in tears because they cannot figure out how they are going to deliver savings.”
McKeown said staff in social services were “repulsed” by measures being taken by some care trusts to raise the threshold for eligibility for care, leaving very vulnerable people without help.
Elderly care received 33% less funding per person compared with the rest of the UK and children’s services, which received 20% less funding, according to Unison.
The situation in Northern Ireland follows more localised disputes in England. Council social workers and social care staff in Southampton have already staged walk-outs over pay cuts and staff at Shropshire Councilare set for the same action.
McKeown said the current cuts to health and social care budgets in Northern Ireland were coming on top of years of cuts to budgets since 2007, which had left services struggling to cope with the demands of an ageing population.
She said she wanted the government to reopen negotiations with the UK government about budget reduction and reassess the budget allocations for the next four years.
“That would take the foot off our members’ necks,” she said.
The Unison ballot will run from 22 August to 20 September and any subsequent strikes are likely to take place in early October.
Unison is the biggest union in the health and social care sector in Northern Ireland and hopes that other public service unions will also ballot members on striking, increasing the effect of any action.
A spokesperson for the Department for Health Social Services and Public Safety said: “The department respects the democratic rights of trade unions to ballot their members. It is expected that discussion on the issues raised by Unison will take place at both local and regional level over the coming weeks.”
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