Thursday 20 June 2019

Richard Bruton defends controversial National Broadband Plan roll-out

Minister Richard Bruton. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
Minister Richard Bruton. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

Cormac McQuinn Political Correspondent

Minister Richard Bruton has defended controversial National Broadband Plan (NBP) roll-out insisting the decision on awarding the contract will be taken in the interests of delivering a “robust” service.

It came as the Dáil debated a Social Democrats motion demanding an immediate update on the status of the project which has been beset with difficulties.

Two bidders dropped out and there are fears the costs could spiral into the billions.

Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy raised concerns about the plan and recalled how she and others considered it “fatally flawed” due to the controversy that led to the resignation of former communications minister Denis Naughten.

Ms Murphy said the current phase of the plan – while government officials are evaluating the last remaining tender – is important.

She said: “If we don't get things right now we absolutely will pay the price later on”.

Ms Murphy said there was the potential for it to end up like the National Children's Hospital with costs soaring beyond what was expected.

Her party's motion sought an assurance that communications minister Mr Bruton and his Department have been satisfied as to the competitiveness of a process with only one bidder.

It also raised questions about the “completeness” of a report by the NBP's independent auditor Peter Smyth who examined meetings and dinners that took place between Mr Naughten and David McCourt, the US businessman leading the last remaining bid. It later emerged that Mr Smyth did not seek written statements from those involved.

The controversy over the meetings led to Mr Naughten resigning as minister.

Mr Bruton insisted that Mr Smyth approach his review with “great rigour” and his conclusions are “robust”.

He said that while Mr Smyth said it was a cause for concern that the meetings took place he said that he believed that the decision of the former minister to resign – thereby removing himself from the process - insulated the process from any apparent bias created by his engagements with Mr McCourt

“So I think that was a very strong finding from Peter Smyth,” Mr Bruton added.

The minister is to report to Cabinet in the coming weeks on the awarding of the NBP contract.

Mr Bruton said: “Whatever decision is taken will be taken on the grounds that this is in the best interests of delivering the sort of service and technology that's robust at an appropriate cost.

“That is why the time is being taken to evaluate what has been submitted... that we have the checks and balances within the contract that protects the taxpayer and the user”.

He added: “Whatever way this decision goes we will make the decision with the best information available to us.”

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