Minister ‘only responsible for giving €1.7bn NCH go-ahead’

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Minister ‘only responsible for giving €1.7bn NCH go-ahead’

Under-fire Harris insists ‘real scandal’ would have been to reject hospital plan


Cornerstone: Then Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Health Minister Simon Harris cast the foundation stone in 2017. Photo: Julien Behal
Cornerstone: Then Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Health Minister Simon Harris cast the foundation stone in 2017. Photo: Julien Behal
Calls: Robert Watt, of the Department of Public Expenditure. Picture: Steve Humphreys

There is massive pressure on Health Minister Simon Harris over his handling of the escalating costs of the controversial €1.7bn National Children’s Hospital (NCH) project.

Amid intense scrutiny of who knew what and when about the escalating costs, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe has also been subject to criticism.

And the top civil servant in the Department of Public Expenditure (DPER), Robert Watt, is facing renewed calls to appear before the Dáil’s spending watchdog to be grilled on the issue.

There is growing Opposition criticism over the €450m increase in construction costs from €983m to €1.4bn. Another €300m is to be spent equipping the hospital.

Fianna Fáil TD Stephen Donnelly said Mr Harris faces a series of questions including a claim he withheld information from the Dáil last September after he got his first indications there were concerns that costs were rising.

Department of Health officials previously argued costs incurred at that point were “on profile” and the scale of the cost increases weren’t known until November. Mr Donnelly said: “That is not a satisfactory explanation.”

He also demanded to know what actions Mr Harris took to seek to reduce the costs after he learned they were rising in August.

Labour TD Alan Kelly accused Mr Harris and Mr Donohoe of a “hands-off approach” to the NCH project.

He claimed: “The handling of dealing with these overruns has been absolutely shambolic.”

Mr Harris last night defended his actions and rejected suggestions he had taken his eye off the ball.

He said he should be held accountable for the decision he took when he advised the Government to proceed with the project.

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“I think the real scandal here would have been if the Minister for Health recommended not proceeding with the hospital that has been promised in this country for decades and has not been delivered,” he said.

He told RTÉ News his department constantly sought updates once concerns over costs were raised with them last August and “did due diligence” with experts commissioned to determine the full scale of the costs.

Earlier he dismissed as “ridiculous” suggestions that the growing cost of the NCH was not revealed last autumn due to the threat of a general election.

Separately, Public Accounts Committee (PAC) chairman Seán Fleming said he wants to see DPER secretary general Mr Watt come before the committee. He said Mr Watt should be quizzed on the “control and governance of costs in relation to all major capital projects”, including the NCH.

Another PAC member, Catherine Murphy, also said Mr Watt should attend. “We’re still trying to get to grips with where the responsibility is. It’s very difficult to see how DPER doesn’t have an involvement,” she said.

She pointed out that a DPER official is on the board of the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board.

The official, Paul Quinn, is the head of the Office of Government Procurement and questions have been raised about when he first became aware of the rising costs and if he informed DPER.

Mr Donohoe said he wasn’t made aware of the scale of the cost issue until last November but yesterday moved to defend Mr Quinn, saying he is “bound by the responsibilities he has to the board”. A DPER statement said Mr Quinn serves on the board in a “personal capacity” and is “bound by the confidentiality terms of his tenure on this board”.

It said Mr Watt has yet to receive a formal invitation to attend the PAC.

Mr Donohoe said he is awaiting the outcome of the PwC review of the situation.

But he also said he believes “things should have been done differently” and the “flow of information in relation to the escalating cost of the hospital should have been made available earlier to Government in its entirety”.

Capital projects which may be delayed due to the NCH overrun will be announced next week.

Irish Independent


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