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FactCheck: Did Sinn Féin really propose spending €500m less on health than the Government?

The claim was made by Taoiseach Simon Harris last week in the Dáil.

For general Factchecks not about Covid

LAST WEEK DURING his first appearance at Leaders’ Questions, Taoiseach Simon Harris accused Sinn Féin of proposing to spend €500m less on health than the Government did in the Budget.

It was an allegation that caused uproar and quick denials from the Sinn Féin benches.

“That is blatantly not true,” Sinn Féin’s health spokesperson David Cullinane said.

“That is nonsense,” Deputy Louise O’Reilly interjected.

It was an accusation that the Taoiseach double-downed on the following day, when he brought a printed copy of Sinn Féin’s Alternative Health Budget to the floor of the Dáil.

For its part, Sinn Féin claims it proposed €1 billion more than the Government did in the Budget for health.

So whose claim is correct?

The Claim 

Taoiseach Simon Harris claimed that Sinn Féin proposed to spend half a billion less on health in its alternative budget than the Government did in Budget 2024.

He made the remark during a heated exchange on scoliosis treatment for children in the Dáil last week with Mary Lou McDonald.

“I hope that when Sinn Féin meets and engages with these families and positions itself as having all the solutions to all of the issues, it has the good grace to tell them that when it had an opportunity to put an alternative health budget to this House, it provided €500 million less to the health service than this Government provided,” the Taoiseach said. 

Fine Gael later doubled-down on this claim with a tweet on X, formerly Twitter.

In response, David Cullinane took to X and said Sinn Féin actually proposed to spend €1 billion more than what the Government provided.

The Evidence

To get to the bottom of the claims, The Journal asked both Simon Harris and Sinn Féin for clarity.

The Taoiseach’s team directed us to the Fine Gael press office for a response.

A party spokesperson gave a detailed reply about how the figures for Sinn Féin were derived.

“The Alternative Budget published by Sinn Féin on 4 October covers Health spending on page 36. It states it will recommend €698.4m in core funding and €457.4m with reprofiling from the National Development Plan allocations,” a spokesperson said. 

“We can assume their Budget allocation is in the region of €1.1 billion, despite Mary Lou telling RTÉ their allocation was €1.5 billion.” 

Fine Gael did correctly cite page 36 of Sinn Féin’s alternative budget, but appears to have glossed over another section on page 27.

That section outlines allocations “for new measures over and above pre-committed expenditure, including €3.7 billion of funding provided to maintain Existing Levels of Service (e.g. carry over, demographics, the existing public sector pay agreement and non-pay inflation)”.   

“This figure is higher than the Summer Economic Statement because we have allocated an additional €500 million to health,” Sinn Féin states under this section.

In its response, Sinn Féin said that the Taoiseach only compared figures from one of its budget related documents (its alternative health budget) rather than taking the figures in full from its main alternative budget document.

“They’re not looking at our ELS allocation or any other allocation. And that’s where they’re misrepresenting the position. But in no world did we provide less than them, we provided substantially more,” Cullinane told The Journal.

“That’s all that Simon Harris took, he left everything else out.”

Sinn Féin said its alternative health budget, which was published ahead of Budget 2024 last September, outlines only the additional expenditure allocated for health.

The party said that the document does not include spending for existing levels of service (ELS) and one-off measures.

The Existing Level of Service (ELS) is a commonly used term in governmental budgets, it is basically the cost of providing services ‘as is’ and does not include the cost of new measures. 

This is what Sinn Féin has said was not included in its alternative health budget document which the Taoiseach and Fine Gael had used to compare committed spends. 

In a post on X last week supporting the Taoiseach’s claims, Fine Gael shared a six-second clip of Mary Lou McDonald speaking on RTÉ Radio 1 last November: 

“We proposed in our pre-budget submission an additional 1.5 billion euro of a spend.”

Fine Gael’s post alongside the video reads: “Sinn Féin’s Alternative Health Budget provided at least half a billion euro less than the Government.”

The post is also accompanied by a screenshot that Fine Gael claim shows Sinn Féin planned to give €1.15 billion to the Department of Health and 0.15 billion to the Department of Children – a total of €1.3 billion.

The screenshot is from Sinn Féin’s own Alternative Health Budget. 

If Sinn Féin allocated about €1.3 billion, how much funding did the Government allocate? 

“The overall 2024 allocation for Health is €22.5 billion,” the Government’s Budget 2024 expenditure report reads.

“The budget includes an €808 million increase in core current funding to address demographic and service pressures. 

“Non-core resources of just over €1 billion are also being provided for further Covid-19 responses, including facilitating continued investment in public health measures such as vaccinations and testing in hospitals.”

From this, it can be seen that the Government pledged an additional €808 million, and another €1 billion on top of that – all increasing the figure that was paid the previous year.

That’s a total of €1.808 billion to health, around half a billion more than Sinn Féin’s allocation of €1.3 billion.

But does this six-second audio clip and three lines from an Alternative Budget prove Fine Gael’s case?

The answer is no. 

Both figures describe an  “increase” or “additional measures”, so the question is: compared to what? In both cases, the answer is different.

Sinn Féin’s alternative budget

Fine Gael’s screenshot was taken from Sinn Fein’s Alternative Budget for Health 2024 (which they later said had been taken offline – more on this later). 

This 36-page document outlines in some detail Sinn Féin’s proposed additional measures, in some cases costed down to the euro (though often rounded to the million or ten million).

As the Fine Gael screenshot indicated, Sinn Féin allocated about €1.15 billion to the Department of Health.

Another €0.15 billion was allocated to the Department of Children, seemingly for disability service measures, such as home care packages and personal assistance hours – services that arguably should not be included as an addition to the health budget. 

However, Sinn Féin’s alternative budget for 2024 makes it clear that these additional  measures do not make up the whole of their proposed extra health spending.

In fact, the document states clearly that the party proposed spending another half a billion Euro on top of that €1.3 billion.

“In Budget 2024 we propose to put €500 million into the base before new measures,” it says, after separately describing the €1.3 billion investment in new measures.

“€250 million of [this] would be re-profiled from the oversized Temporary Covid pre-commitment of €750 million into health’s core base budget and €250 million of [this would be] additional monies,” it says.

But although this €500 million of proposed additional investment in health could be seen as countering Fine Gael’s claim, it is not that straightforward.

The party’s document states that half of this – €250 million – would be taken from money already committed to Covid measures; in other words, Sinn Féin proposed taking from one part of the health budget (Covid measures) and putting it into a different, broader one (what it called “the base”).

However, Sinn Féin’s additional measures were not the entire extent of their extra spending, with the other €250 million (ie non-Covid money) also featuring in its Alternative Budget.

There is also potential for more money to be allocated to health.

The alternative Budget also allocated €3.7 billion to an unhelpfully titled item called “Budgetary Decisions”, which the document says is intended to “maintain existing levels of service with respect to demographic change, capital expenditure and public sector pay commitments”.

It is not stated explicitly how much of this €3.7 billion would be directed to the Department of Health.  

The government’s Budget expenditure report breaks down their €808 million additional expenditure into an Increase for Existing Levels of Service (ELS) – €708 million – and an Allocation for New Measures – €100 million. 

However, Sinn Féin told The Journal that it believes the Government’s estimated figure for maintaining services should have been higher and that of the €3.7 billion proposed by Sinn Féin, it would have allocated €1.108 billion of these increases to the Department of Health – about €400 million more than the €708 million the Government allocated.

The party also told The Journal that this figure does not overlap with the €500 million that they allocated to the “base”.

Fine Gael had claimed that its increases to the Health budget added at least €500 million more than Sinn Féin’s proposal.

But that would only be the case if the Government’s increase in payments to maintain the existing levels of service were counted, while ignoring Sinn Féin’s allocation of money for the same purpose (a low estimate would be €708m, other readings are significantly higher).

The exact difference of spending between the actual and the alternative budget is difficult to calculate, as there is some ambiguity about measures and line items that could risk double counting or other inaccuracies.

There are also some items, such as allocations in the National Development Plan that are not accounted for, as these were announced long before the budget; Sinn Féin has said that they would not alter this allocation, and there is no reason to believe they would be different in government and alternative budgets.

However, while the figures are inexact, it is clear that Fine Gael undercounted Sinn Féin’s total increases to the health budget by more than the half billion they claim Sinn Féin had underspent.

Replaced budgets

It should be noted that there has been some controversy over whether Sinn Féin may have misled the public by deleting or replacing healthcare budgets from their website. 

The Sunday Times previously reported that the alternative budget currently available on Sinn Féin’s website has some amendments compared to what was originally proposed.

An archive of the old version of the alternative health budget is still available online and shows that some of the costings vary between that version and the newer one.

There are differences in the totals allocated to health in the different versions of the documents – the earlier version allocated €1 million less, apparently due to an adding error.

However, while €1 million is a significant amount of money, it would not come close to affecting whether Fine Gael’s claim to have allocated half a billion more than Sinn Féin on health.

It is also worth noting at this point that Sinn Féin’s proposals are simply proposals.

There isn’t anything stopping the party from claiming it could spend significantly more on the health service than the Government, and an evaluation of the feasibility of its proposals fall outside the scope of this article.

However, it should be said that the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure & Reform (DPER) earlier this year found a gap of at least €250m in Sinn Féin’s alternative budget in terms of costings (this was not specific to its health costings).

For the purpose of this article, the Taoiseach and Fine Gael made a specific claim about the figures that Sinn Féin proposed and this article has looked at the veracity of that specific claim.

The verdict

Fine Gael claimed that Sinn Féin would allocate an additional €1.3 billion to health, which they said was about €500 million short of what the government had allocated.

However, Sinn Féin’s alternative budget says that the new measures that they announced (including €1.15 billion directly to the Department of Health) would be supplemented by another €500 million into the “base” funding, of which at least €250 million was stated to be new funding.

Further, a large chunk of the Government’s additional funding (€708 million) was allocated to continue with existing levels of service in health.

Sinn Féin also allocated funding toward this – though the figure is not given explicitly in their alternative budget. Nevertheless, it is separate to the €1.3 billion on new measures and the €250m in new funding that was part of the €500m supplement to “base” funding.

We therefore rate Fine Gael’s claim as FALSE. As per our verdict guide, this means the claim is inaccurate.

The Journal’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here.

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Jane Matthews and Shane Raymond