Harris denies cost of children’s hospital hidden because of election threat

Minister expresses surprise at resignation of development board chairman on Saturday

A file photograph of Minister for Health Simon Harris. Photograph: Andres Poveda

A file photograph of Minister for Health Simon Harris. Photograph: Andres Poveda

 

Minister for Health Simon Harris has said it is “ridiculous” to suggest the escalating cost of the national children’s hospital was kept under wraps because of the threat of a general election.

“That is the most ridiculous charge,” he told RTÉ’s Today with Sean O’Rourke show.

Mr Harris said it would be a scandal if the hospital did not go ahead.

“This hospital is underway. There are brick on bricks. The James’ site is the right site. We’ve got to get this right, children have been waiting for generations.”

The cost of not proceeding with the hospital “would not be worth it”, he said.

Suggestions that the project should be paused would not happen, he said. “Not on my watch.”

Revelations of an increase in the cost of building the hospital from €987 million last year to €1.4 billion now have sparked a growing political controversy. When other costs are added, the project is expected to cost €1.73 billion and possibly more.

Mr Harris said he had every intention of taking political responsibility for the escalating costs.

Costs would be reined in, without having an impact on children’s safety, he said.

“Yes, it is costing more than we would like, but not doing it would be worse.”

He said a PWC report would quickly determine where the blame lay and the Government could then take action.

PWC’s job was to identify weaknesses rather than sanction individuals. “It is up to us to sanction,” he said.

Mr Harris said he had been surprised on Saturday when the chairman of the hospital development board, Tom Costello, announced he was stepping down from the position.

Mr Harris said he did not have anything to do with Mr Costello’s decision. The pair met on Friday evening. “I wasn’t expecting it on Saturday. Tom made his own decision.”

Under questioning from Sean O’Rourke, Mr Harris said he had first known about “a potential over-run” in August, but it was November before he was informed of the amount.

Members of the Opposition were duty bound to say what they would have done, he said. He remains determined to “get the best possible deal for the Irish taxpayer.”

He rejected the suggestion that details of the escalation in costs had not been revealed sooner because of the threat of a general election. “That is the most ridiculous charge.”

Meanwhile, Labour’s health spokesman Alan Kelly accused Mr Harris of having taken “his eye off the ball”.

Referring to the cost of the project, Mr Kelly said: “In the space of a few months the amount went up €450 million.” He said Government Departments were “were asleep at the wheel on this, the biggest project ever undertaken in the State”.

Mr Kelly said the project had gone too far to change site. “We need the hospital. I desperately want to see that,” he said.

However, earlier on Monday, Fianna Fáil’s health spokesman Stephen Donnelly said the review of escalating costs should be expanded to include the feasibility of moving the project to another site.

Mr Donnelly told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland he still believed the St James hospital site was the wrong location.

Trying to fit a major project on a six-acre site when there were 90 acres available at Connolly hospital was “wrong,” Mr Donnelly added.

Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe said relocation was not possible at this stage because of the amount of progress on the St James site.

“Otherwise we’re facing years of delays. I believe the location is right. It was the subject of many clinical reviews,” Mr Donohoe said.

He said he believed information on the escalating cost of the national children’s hospital should have been made available to the Government earlier.

Mr Donohoe told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland that he first became aware of the scale of the increase last November despite the fact that an official from his department is a member of the hospital development board.

The official’s responsibility was to the board itself, he was a member of a separate governance structure, explained the Minister.

“Yes, things should have been done differently.”

The Minister said that next week he would announce a list of capital projects that may be delayed because of the escalating cost of the children’s hospital.

He said he was gravely concerned at the escalating cost, but warned that as high as the cost is, “what is the price of better health outcomes for children?”