Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has hit back at criticism that the decision to publish the Department of Health’s annual accounts on the last day before summer recess was an ‘underhand’ attempt to cover up its poor finances.
The DH yesterday said that the finances – which revealed that trusts ended the year with a combined deficit of £2.45bn – were published according to ‘as prompt a timetable as could be expected’ given the political shake-up taking place at the time.
The move comes as the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is poised to take evidence on the DH accounts at a meeting tomorrow (7 September).
Mr Hunt was defending his position after PAC chair Meg Hillier wrote to him on July 21, following the publication of the DH finances, saying that the date chosen for publication was ’underhand’.
In his reply to Ms Hillier, Mr Hunt pointed to the political turmoil at the time of the accounts’ publication, highlighting the change of prime ministers, the Brexit decision, along with the appointment of new Cabinet and Government ministers.
He said: ‘In the light of these events and the associated Government activity, I am sure that you can appreciate that we have had to show extreme flexibility in timetabling important announcements.
‘In fact, our accounts have been laid five months in advance of the statutory deadline.’
Ms Hillier pointed out in her letter that the DH only avoided busting its £118.3bn budget in 2015-16 because it received £417m more than planned in extra national insurance receipts because of an ‘administrative error’.
Mr Hunt argued that the DH had been transparent about the issue and was working with the Treasury to ‘develop a process to ensure that this does not happen again’.
On the NHS’s financial future, Mr Hunt pointed to the £10 billion increase in the budget for NHS England by 2020 which would allow the implementation of the Five Year Forward View.