Autism fund underspend ‘ludicrous’

Foyle SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan has questioned why the funding has been handed back.
Foyle SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan has questioned why the funding has been handed back.

Confirmation that the Western Trust handed back half the funding it was allocated for a key support service for autistic children here has been branded “ludicrous”.

The Department of Health has confirmed to SDLP Foyle MLA Mark H Durkan that the local health authority was the only one of the five Trusts in Northern Ireland not to use its full allocation of funding for the Autism Reform Pathway Project for 2018/19.

Instead the Western Health and Social Care Trust handed back £28,192 of the £56,000 it was awarded.

The revelation comes as the Trust confirmed to the Journal that the number of children and adults waiting on autism diagnosis has risen considerably over the past year.

Mr Durkan said: “We are all too aware of the unacceptable delays surrounding autism diagnoses and the difficulty for families and individuals to access services.

“The exponential increase in demand needs to be matched by an increase in resources - both service providers and families have been crying out for funding and transformation of the autism pathway for some time now.

“Yet here we have an instance where crucial resources have been made available and for whatever reason, and we wait to hear that reason from the Western Trust, that opportunity has been squandered.

“It seems ludicrous to me that the Trust would let such vital investment slip through their hands given the immense pressures the ASD unit here is currently under.”

The Western Trust said it was “unable to fully utilise” the nonrecurring funding within the period specified, but said that it has recently appointed a band six social worker “to address the extensive waiting list for children and young people for intervention following a diagnosis of ASD”.

In relation to Autism Services the Trust confirmed that by the end of July 2019 there were over 800 children waiting to be assessed and 235 on the treatment waiting list.

In a letter responding to Mr Durkan, Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health Richard Pengelly confirmed that the 2018/19 Transformation Fund money was allocated by the Department of Health to the five Trusts for them to appoint Early Intervention Practitioners.

Each Trust received the same funding, amounting to £56,200.

The total expenditure for the project was £252,808.

When asked to explain the underspend locally, a Trust spokesperson said: “The Western Trust was allocated Transformation Funding in 2018/19 to facilitate the development and implementation of a new regional framework for the delivery of children and young people’s emotional wellbeing, Autism and ADHD Services.

“The investment was allocated to appoint Early Intervention Practitioners and Support Workers within the Trust to deliver a range of interventions to support young people and their families, and improve their outcomes.

“Due to the non-recurrent nature of Transformation Funding allocations were made on a one year only basis with projects closely monitored throughout 2018/19.

“The Western Trust were unable to fully utilise the funding during the period specified.

“However, it has recently appointed one band 6 social worker to address the extensive waiting list for children and young people for intervention following a diagnosis of ASD.”

The spokesperson confirmed: “In relation to Children’s Autism Services there are 827 on the assessment waiting list and 235 on the treatment waiting list as at end of July 2019.

“The Trust apologises for the length of time waiting for both assessment and intervention and is committed in its efforts to reduce waiting times and enhance service provision for children with a diagnosis of Autism and their families across the Western Trust area.”

Last summer the Trust said there were 600 children and adults waiting to be assessed for Autism locally, with a further 449 going through the process at that stage.

The Western Trust confirmed at the time that the numbers referred for assessment and intervention had risen, with Trust representatives relaying concerns to both the Health and Social Care Board and Department of Health.

At the time a spokesperson for the Trust warned that “current resource does not meet the level of demand within the Trust and this has been highlighted”.