A committee looking into the overspend of the National Children’s Hospital has heard the Government’s lack of awareness has reached “Father Ted territory”, with the Minister for Health compared to an “unravelling jumper”.
The Government has come under fire for the spiralling costs of the project in recent weeks.
The estimated cost for the new unit – on the campus of St James’s Hospital in Dublin – has risen from an original estimate of 650 million euro to more than 1.7 billion euro.
Minister Simon Harris told the health committee on Wednesday that an “early warning system” would have helped significantly with costs, but insisted there was “intensive” work going on from when the Department of Health was first made aware of the overspend, and denied misleading parliament in September when he cited a costing of 987 million euro.
NEW: The cost of all independent and internal reports and audits into the National Children's Hospital is an estimated 653,466 euro, according to a document provided to the Public Accounts Committee.
— aoife-grace moore. (@aoifegracemoore) February 4, 2019
Mr Harris said he was “somewhat frustrated at the characterisation that I’ve heard of this, that ‘the minister knew in August and nothing happened until November’, and nothing could be further from the truth.
“The paper trail that you have and testimony that you have from my officials, from members of the National Paediatric Hospital Development board, from the HSE and indeed from my own mouth at this committee last week, show that not to be the case.”
Labour’s Alan Kelly, who has been highly critical of the overspend, said no one believed the Government’s line.
“This is getting even more confused, to be honest,” he said, adding that it was “complete and utter garbage” that an official from the Department of Public Expenditure was not obliged to report to a minister about the cost overruns, as claimed by the Taoiseach.
“In late August you’ve told us before, you were shocked, and looked for someone in the Department of Public Expenditure and couldn’t get a meeting.
“To the public watching, this is Father Ted territory, the idea they would not sit down, that there wasn’t awareness across two departments and you couldn’t have a meeting.
“It’s beggars belief, the idea it took that length of time to have a meeting.”
Fianna Fail’s health spokesman Stephen Donnelly asked the minister why he did not bring up the overspend during budget negotiations.
He asked: “Did you tell him why? Did you tell him part of the reason is there’s a pretty good chance I would need more money for hospital? Did you tell any cabinet colleagues?
“Did you tell anyone that you were looking at a massive overrun and that was the reason?”
Mr Harris said he “neither knew nor could have known” at the time.
“There was an awareness that the process was ongoing to finalise costs, it was not a secret I was retaining, all of Government would’ve known.
“I didn’t negotiate specifically on additional funding for the NCH but it was always apparent that the Government would have to award the contract for Phase B.”
Asked if he would reappoint the same board to the project again, Mr Harris said he would wait for a PwC review, ordered by the Government, to “establish the underlying root causes” for the spiralling costs.
“I’ll wait for the PwC, however if I hadn’t reappointed the board it would’ve left a vacuum,” he said.
“When we know who got what wrong, we are going to act.”
Fianna Fail’s Margaret Murphy O’Mahoney compared him to “an unravelling knitted jumper with the sleeve with the wool coming away”.
Committee chairman Michael Harty says members want to speak to Department of Public Expenditure officials about excessive costs for the hospital.
Speaking during leaders’ questions, Michael McGrath, Fianna Fail’s spokesman on finance, said: “We are told that the minister (Harris) became aware of the significance of the issue, if not the final figure, in late August 2018, yet this information was not passed to the Minister for Finance (Paschal Donohoe) until November 9 2018.
“This is a scenario that I just cannot get my head around.
“We had the Minister for Finance, the person in charge of the purse strings of the State, who, as part of a collective Cabinet decision, signed off in April 2017 on a project at a cost of 983 million euro.
“We are being led to believe that the next he heard of any change was in November 2018, over a year and a half later, when he was given the news that the direct build cost of this hospital had increased by 450 million euro on top of the other costs involved, bringing the overall bill to 1.7 billion euro.”
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