Union leaders today reacted angrily to the news that the NHS has underspent by £500m as a result of aggressive cuts imposed by Patricia Hewitt, the health secretary.
Faced with projected deficits for the second year running, NHS trusts were put under pressure to economise by closing wards, laying off staff and delaying patients' operations until the start of the new financial year. A Guardian analysis of health authority figures has revealed the huge surplus.
Karen Jennings, the head of health at public sector union Unison, said the financial upheaval of the past year had led to "so much pain inflicted on patients and so much insecurity for staff".
"It doesn't inspire confidence in anything the health department has been doing. It gets it wrong time after time. It blames trusts for not getting their finances right and threatens punitive action," she added.
"The surplus will make staff really angry - particularly in the light of how they have been treated over the pay review. There is clearly enough money available to meet the review body award, which would have helped, given all that staff went through.
"Ministers have pushed policies on the health service, but they themselves have not been able to get their house in order."
Cuts included the loss of 23,000 jobs, mainly through recruitment freezes, but there were some compulsory redundancies. Sam Everington, the acting chairman of the British Medical Association, blamed the government's obsession with targets.
"If these figures are right, we know that some trusts must have unnecessarily cut back on services to patients such as reducing operating lists and clinics, closing wards, cutting education and training budgets, and making staff redundant," he said.
Janet Davies, the executive director of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), said that the last financial year was painful and difficult for nurses and other health workers, as trusts slashed posts, cut training budgets and reduced patient services in order to reach government targets on deficits.
"If the underspend is confirmed at half a billion, the RCN expects to see that money reinvested in the NHS. At the very least the government should deliver the £60m needed to honour this year's pay award in full, and reinstate lost nursing posts to employ all the newly qualified nurses without jobs," she said.
But Gill Morgan, the chief executive of employers' organization the NHS Confederation, said a half billion pound surplus amounted to less than 1% of the health service's £75bn turnover. It was unreasonable to expect the service to end the year breaking even exactly.
"This shows how hard everyone worked for the collective good of the NHS. The government asks us to balance the books precisely every year. We need a debate about whether the service should be allowed a variation of plus or minus 1% as long as we achieve balance over three years," she said.
Taken from The Guardian