Sunday 18 August 2019

Top civil servant attended meeting about soaring hospital costs

€1.7BN bill: How the new National Children’s Hospital will look
€1.7BN bill: How the new National Children’s Hospital will look
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

The senior civil servant who sat on the board of the National Children's Hospital was called to discuss the project at a meeting in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform - but only after costs escalated.

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe has insisted the Government's head of procurement, Paul Quinn, was not obliged to alert him to the massive overrun in the cost of the controversial project.

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However, new documents reveal Mr Quinn was called to a high-level meeting at the Department of Public Expenditure days before the Cabinet was presented with a memo detailing how costs had surged to almost €1.4bn. It would later emerge costs would hit at least €1.7bn.

Correspondence released under the Freedom of Information Act shows that Mr Quinn was contacted on November 21, 2018, by Department of Public Expenditure senior official Barry O'Brien.

In an email with the subject line 'National Children's Hospital', Mr O'Brien wrote: "Health have suggested that they intend to bring a memo to Govt in the coming days on the NCH [National Children's Hospital]. As there are a number of strands to this across the Dept, it would be appreciated if you, or one of your team, could make themselves available for a short meeting at 4pm tomorrow."

A number of other senior civil servants were included in the correspondence.

In a follow-up email, the department's head of policy and reporting, Ronnie Downes, said the meeting would relate to "price inflation/supply constraints".

Yesterday, a Department of Public Expenditure spokesperson confirmed that Mr Quinn attended the meeting. However, she said Mr Quinn was invited "in his capacity" as a member of the National Children's Hospital board to discuss a report which had been submitted by the board.

Soon after the meeting, a report was submitted to the Cabinet detailing the massive cost overrun which led to months of controversy for the Government.

Mr Donohoe continually insisted that Mr Quinn, who reports directly to him, was not required to alert him about the project's rising costs which were known months before being brought to the Finance Minister's attention.

"He judged, and I support him on this, that he was following his responsibilities in that area," Mr Donohoe previously said of Mr Quinn's decision not to raise the project's cost with him.

Labour Party health spokesperson Alan Kelly insisted civil service protocol required Mr Quinn to alert his line minister to significant issues such as major inflation of capital project costs.

The Comptroller and Auditor General, Seamus McCarthy, also said the civil servant was obliged to raise the issue.

In a letter to the Public Accounts Committee, Mr Quinn said he did not highlight the costs to Mr Donohoe because he believed the Children's Hospital Board reported adequately to Government.

The controversy resulted in the chair of the NCH Board, Tom Costello, stepping down from the position.

NCH overspend was caused by a failure to ask questions. Read Eilis O'Hanlon, page 33

Sunday Independent

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