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Saturday 23 February 2019

Hit-list of cuts to pay for Harris hospital overrun

Work under way at the site. Photo: Tony Gavin
Work under way at the site. Photo: Tony Gavin
Artist’s impressions of the new hospital
Artist’s impressions of the new hospital

Philip Ryan, Kevin Doyle and Laura Larkin

Ministers have been ordered to draw up lists of projects that can be scaled back or delayed to divert €100m to the National Children’s Hospital this year.

Health Minister Simon Harris remains in the firing line, but Fine Gael has decided to stand by him in the hope the controversy abates.

Government departments are scrambling to find savings so the hospital can proceed as planned.

The black hole has been described as “manageable” by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, but is likely to cause a frantic battle among ministers to protect their own resources.

The Irish Independent has learned a memo will be brought before the Cabinet by the Department of Finance next week to make significant changes to capital budget allocations due to the hospital’s rising cost

Mr Harris is facing calls to resign over his handling of the landmark construction. However, due to Brexit it appears he will likely be saved from losing his position at Cabinet if he makes a public apology.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has called for the embattled minister to make an apology to the Dáil, claiming he misled it.

The accusation was rejected by a spokesperson for Mr Harris. However, Mr Varadkar appeared to leave the option of an apology on the table during his defence of the situation yesterday.

At the same time, he told reporters: “I have total confidence in him.”

With Brexit looming, Fianna Fáil remains of the opinion that it trumps domestic issues, although some in the party have broken ranks to call for Mr Harris's resignation.

Seán Fleming, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, called on the minister to step aside.

Sinn Féin has indicated it will place a no-confidence motion before the Dáil if it believes a number of Fianna Fáil TDs would vote with it. At present this seems unlikely.

Dublin Fingal TD Darragh O'Brien dismissed Sinn Féin's move as a political stunt but said questions remain over the controversy. Among them is whether the European Investment Bank (EIB), which has loaned Ireland €490m for the project, has been informed about the overspend.

A spokesperson for the minister said the department provides "regular updates" to the EIB but did not clarify if the overrun was communicated. The Government has begun a 'damage-limitation' exercise, with both the Taoiseach and Tánaiste rushing to Mr Harris's defence yesterday.

Sources say the situation is hugely damaging to Fine Gael's self-styled image as the 'party of prudence', but Mr Varadkar cannot afford to lose a third minister under his watch.

While colleagues are privately furious at the situation they will publicly support him.

High-profile CervicalCheck campaigners Stephen Teap and Vicky Phelan, who have been critical of the minister in the past, said his resignation would serve no purpose.

"What's the point in changing the singer if the song remains the same," Mr Teap said, adding that a ministerial resignation would allow "the incompetent system" to win again.

Mr Varadkar left scope for his minister to offer a public apology over the debacle if that is what it takes to prevent Fianna Fáil calling for his head. He said Mr Harris would address the Dáil on the issue next week: "I don't want to pre-empt what he will say, that's up to him."

The Taoiseach acknowledged taxpayers are rightly annoyed that the project is costing €450m more than planned.

"I feel that. I get that. And I understand that," he said.

But he asked that people "judge us in the round" when it comes to management of the national finances.

The Taoiseach described his under-fire Cabinet colleague as somebody "who has delivered" in the Department of Health, saying: "I have total confidence in him."

Political focus in the coming days is likely to shift to the hit-list of projects that will be curtailed in order to save €100m this year. This will be spread across most departments but it is, as of yet, unclear what areas will be most affected.

The Office of Public Works (OPW) wrote to the Oireachtas Finance Committee to cancel a scheduled budget meeting next week after the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform insisted on the agency's budget being revised. It is understood the OPW has been asked to find savings totalling €3m this year.

The political fallout comes against a backdrop of tension between civil servants that was laid bare in documents released by the Health Minister this week.

It shows the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER) appearing to criticise their counterparts in Health for the timing of the disclosure of the overrun and a lack of additional information.

But health officials hit back saying that they had first discussed the need for a meeting in September and had followed up with several emails requesting meetings, insisting that the issue needed to be verbally briefed on.

The full scale of the issue was made clear on November 9 and was verbally outlined to senior civil servants in the Dper who requested a written briefing which was sent on November 19.

The following day David Moloney, a senior official in the Dper, replied and wrote: "Jim Breslin signalled that some work was being undertaken on this during the Budget negotiations in early October, this is the first material we have received in relation to a very significant budgetary overrun."

The fact Mr Breslin - the secretary general of the Department of Health - alerted the Dper to work being done on the cost issue appears to contradict the suggestion that the issue was not discussed at all during budget discussions.

While the scale of the problem was not clear the fact there was a problem was known by Mr Breslin and the minister with work under way to tease out the extent of it.

Irish Independent

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