Chairman of national children’s hospital ‘gobsmacked’ by PAC questions

‘I’m not really here to interview for the job,’ Fred Barry tells Sinn Féin Deputy Imelda Munster

The chairman of the new national children’s hospital Fred Barry clashes with Sinn Féin TD Imelda Munster over the final cost of the project. Video: Oireachtas TV

 

The chairman of the new national children’s hospital told the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) he was “gobsmacked” by questions put to him during an appearance before it on Thursday.

When asked about the final cost of the project, Fred Barry said he did not know what it would be. He confirmed the project would cost an extra €50 million as a result of inflation alone if rates remained at their current 7 per cent level.

Mr Barry and colleagues from the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board appeared before the committee to update TDs on cost controls around the project following significant escalations in recent years.

The cost of the project has risen from an estimated €800 million in 2014 to €983 million in 2017, and was stated as being up to €1.43 billion earlier this year.

Equipping the building and providing IT pushes the bill up to €1.73 billion, which does not include the cost of family accommodation, a research centre, excess construction inflation and any other changes to clinical standards.

Sinn Féin TD Imelda Munster asked Mr Barry if it was the case “we have no idea whatsoever the final costs will be”.

Mr Barry said that “it’s not a yes or a no” question. “The contractor will make claims, we will resist them. It would be a surprise if some of those claims don’t stick before the job is over. It’s true we can’t say exactly where it is going to end up.”

Ms Munster replied: “I think from that response it is fair to say that the €1.7 billion is aspirational rather than a reality.”

She queried the board on why minutes of recent meetings were redacted when the discussion was in relation to construction inflation.

The board was also questioned on its experience in building hospitals. “I have built no hospital on a greenfield basis,” Mr Barry said.

Ms Munster said her point was that “the lack of experience will allow contractors to play you for fools”.

Mr Barry said he was “gobsmacked” by the questions. “I accept that there may be others much better than me at the job. But I was asked to do it, so I’m not really here to interview for the job.”

Irritated

Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane said he was concerned the board was “taking a casual approach” to the committee and “getting irritated”.

Labour TD Alan Kelly questioned the officials on the resignation of Paul Quinn, the Government’s chief procurement officer, from the development board.

Mr Barry said he did not want to comment on whether the board was strengthened or weakened by his departure. “I don’t want to say anything in the context of offering a critique, good or bad, of an individual who has left.”

Independent TD Catherine Connolly said the board’s spend on public relations (PR) services was “extraordinary”. Up to October of this year €285,000 had been spent on such services.

“On a PR company, I think it is totally unacceptable, I think it is an absolute waste of taxpayers’ money. There is something seriously wrong if you are resorting to a PR company,” Ms Connolly said.