Friday 18 October 2019

Varadkar to put an end to ‘low-balling’ by bidding firms

Harris makes 'sincere apology' in Dáil for not being upfront as political crisis over hospital rumbles on

Under fire: Sinn Féin wants Simon Harris to go despite his Dáil apology. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Under fire: Sinn Féin wants Simon Harris to go despite his Dáil apology. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Kevin Doyle, Wayne O'Connor and Laura Larkin

There are contractors who "quite frankly" should never be hired for another major project, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said.

Amid a series of apologies for the rising cost of the National Children's Hospital, the Taoiseach has alleged that some companies are "low-balling" when they bid for State work.

"We will also examine the issue of low-price tenders and whether we should look at median price instead," he said while promising an overhaul of how tenders are awarded.

The practice of committing to major projects before there is clarity on the final costs is to be ended.

Budgets for further projects like the Children's Hospital will also include "a significant premium for risks", such as building changes.

Health Minister Simon Harris will face a motion of no confidence next week despite offering a "sincere apology" for not being more upfront about the cost issues in a reply to a Dáil question last September.

Micheál Martin: Fianna Fáil’s leader says his party is leading the charge. Photo: Damien Eagers
Micheál Martin: Fianna Fáil’s leader says his party is leading the charge. Photo: Damien Eagers

He said: "I should have added further detail to inform that a process was ongoing to finalise costs and that updated costs would be known when that process concluded. I apologise for not doing this."

A new round of documents released yesterday shed further light on how the costs escalation came to light.

However Mr Harris, who also faces a cross-party grilling on the controversy today, will survive the vote after Fianna Fáil agreed to honour its Confidence and Supply arrangement with Fine Gael.

However, the insistence from Micheál Martin that it cannot risk causing an election is sparking serious tensions within his party.

Carlow-Kilkenny TD John McGuinness had a heated clash with public expenditure spokesman Barry Cowen at a private meeting last night.

It is understood Mr Cowen raised the issue of Mr McGuinness and other TDs publicly expressing unhappiness with the party position.

But Mr McGuinness said he would not be "bullied" into toeing the line when party members are telling him they are not happy with the arrangement.

"I said I wasn't going to be bullied, intimidated or embarrassed," Mr McGuinness told the Irish Independent.

Mr Martin insisted at the meeting that the party is leading the charge in holding the Government to account over the hospital, which is now estimated to cost €450m more than originally projected.

One source said the party leader delivered a "rallying call" in relation to the NCH and Fianna Fáil's response to the controversy.

The Government is desperately trying to draw a line under the controversy by identifying €100m to keep the hospital on target.

Mr Varadkar also signalled major changes to the way tenders are issued for future projects, such as the planned metro in Dublin.

He said EU procurement law does not allow companies to be prevented from tendering but "perhaps we can work public service reference or a past form clause looking at previous projects into the scoring system".

Mr Varadkar made no specific reference to the main contractor involved in the hospital project, Bam. The company did not respond to requests for comment.

The Taoiseach said some State agencies had become very efficient at getting projects across the line on budget and in time.

"We can learn from past mistakes and past successes," he said.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald continued to call on the Taoiseach to sack Mr Harris "rather than facilitating this fiasco any further".

However, Mr Varadkar put up a defence of his minister, saying: "Accountability is about accepting responsibility for one's decisions, actions and perhaps in some cases inaction.

"The minister, the Government and I, as head of Government, accept responsibility for underestimating the cost of this project.

"Accountability is not about giving in to the baying mob, witch hunts and the almost weekly demand for a head, any head, somebody's head, who's next.

"That is not accountability in my view."

Meanwhile, new documents seen by the Irish Independent show part of the initial response to the spiralling overrun was to send members of the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board (NPHDB) on a two-day workshop run by a London-based firm who specialise in "mega projects".

The company, called Blackrock, would provide instruction on how to "control change" and "maintain appropriate record keeping".

The suggestion was discussed at a December 5 meeting of the board but a spokeswoman last night said it has not taken place, but did not clarify if it is still scheduled to go ahead.

So-called "change management gatekeepers" were also to be appointed as part of changes made to avoid a further escalation.

Irish Independent

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