Tuesday 15 October 2019

Harris makes apology to Dáil over hospital

Health Minister Simon Harris
Health Minister Simon Harris

Mary Fogarty

Minister for health Simon Harris has apologised to the Dáil after it emerged that the building of the new National Children's Hospital will cost €450 million more than originally planned.

'At the time of answering I was not in a position to give commercially sensitive figures… but I should have answered it more fully, as it would never be my intent to mislead Dáil Éireann,' he said yesterday (Tuesday) afternoon.

'I should have added further detail to inform that a process was ongoing to finalise costs, and that updated costs would be known what that process concluded.

'I sincerely apologise to the House for not doing this, and to Deputy Cowen who tabled the question.

'I've always tried to approach my work in this house, and especially as Health Minister, in a collaborative way. I want to acknowledge the ongoing constructive contribution of many on the opposition benches on this issue.

'I take the need for accountability very seriously,' he said. 'I account for my actions and decisions, and I will ensure others are held to account for theirs. But I hope we can find a way to unite around our common goal to complete this vital project.'

Opposition health spokesman and the minister's fellow Greystones native, Fianna Fáil's Stephen Donnelly, has called the affair an 'omni-shambles', but that the party will not bring down the government over this issue.

While it is understood that the minister was told on August 27 that the cost overrun had risen to €191 million, on September 18 he told Fianna Fáil's Barry Cowen that expenditure was 'in line with the expected profile'.

The issue was again raised with the minister in a memo in October, where officials said they needed more time to review costs.

The final memo he received was on November 9 which shows the overrun costs had soared to €450m.

It was then that he informed Taoiseach Leo Varadkar about the escalating cost of the project.

Deputy Stephen Donnelly said last week that the memos outline a series of contacts with Minister Harris updating him on what was becoming an ever-increasingly costly project. 'These are very serious revelations,' he said.

'It is hard to see any serious attempt made to curtail the escalating costs. It would seem that instead of tackling them, the Minister withheld this information from both the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance, despite being in regular contact in the lead up to, and throughout, Budget talks.

'We now know that Minister Harris was aware last August that costs were potentially going to increase substantially, up to €391m at least, but consciously chose to withhold that crucial information when asked in the Dáil back in September. Furthermore, he only decided to inform his colleague, Minister Donohue in November.

'I am aware from details supplied through Parliamentary Questions submitted by our party last month that Minister Harris was briefed in September, 2017 on the likelihood of the cost of the hospital exceeding expectation and then updated on August 27 the following year.

'After this, there were further briefings - on September 7, 2018, October 1, and again on November 9. The Board's report was finalised three days later on November 12. I have sought the relevant documents associated with each of these update briefings.

'Fianna Fáil were not informed of any details related to this cost overrun during budget discussions or indeed during the review talks which took place regarding the Confidence and Supply arrangement.

'This omni-shambles falls completely and utterly at the Government's door,' said Deputy Donnolly.

'The drip-feeding of important documents that we have seen up to this point is not good enough.

'In the best interest of the public and this vital project, all documents related to this National Children's Hospital overspend must be immediately published,' he said.

Wicklow People