Tories call for inquiry into NHS cash overpayments to Ireland

The Conservatives yesterday called for a parliamentary inquiry into alleged mistakes made by the government when it siphoned hundreds of millions of pounds from the NHS budget to make compensation payments to Ireland.Andrew Lansley, the shadow health secretary, said the government gave Ireland €2bn (Ł1.8bn) over the last five years to cover the healthcare costs of 50,000 pensioners who retired to the country after working in Britain and paying national insurance contributions to the British exchequer.
Under a deal struck in 1971, Britain agreed it was unfair to keep the workers' contributions without providing them with benefits. It offered to recompense the Irish government for providing the pensioners with health treatment.

Lansley said: "A transcript of evidence given by the Irish health minister, Mary Harney, to the Irish parliament reveals that the UK has been vastly overpaying Ireland."
Harney told the Irish select committee on health: "The error was not on our side. The UK authorities paid us €450m [in 2007]. They then reckoned they had paid us €150m more than they should have. To claw the money back Britain reduced the payment to €100m in 2008 and was planning to pay €250m this year."

Lansley said the Department of Health in England refused to disclose information about past and future payments to Ireland on the grounds that bilateral discussions were ongoing. He estimated that the overpayments could have been as much as €750m over five years.
Lansley said: "NHS funds are always precious and it's completely unacceptable for the government to be carelessly diverting Ł180m a year out of our NHS. There are so many different ways that money could be spent to provide better care for NHS patients. The government needs to take responsibility for the painful impact the confusion is having on the already overstretched Irish health system."

He called for an inquiry and said: "It's time for the government to get a grip on NHS finances. Patients need to know exactly how much has been overpaid and why. And we need an assurance ... that this won't happen again."
The Department of Health said recent demographic information showed fewer Irish people worked in Britain and more stayed in Ireland, building up an entitlement to an Irish pension and healthcare, for which Ireland is financially responsible.

A spokesman said: "Calculating payments in this bilateral agreement relies on estimated numbers of patients and costs. At the point the UK made a payment of €450m in 2007, it was agreed with the Irish government that as soon as updated evidence became available about actual numbers the UK government would reduce future payments to reflect the actual figure. This is what we have done."