Official refuses to attend hearing on cost of children’s hospital

Public expenditure secretary claims health counterpart should answer Oireachtas questions

The site of the proposed National Children’s Hospital, which is currently projected to cost €1.43bn. Photograph: Eric Luke

The site of the proposed National Children’s Hospital, which is currently projected to cost €1.43bn. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

The Oireachtas committee investigating overspending on the National Children’s Hospital is in dispute with one of the State’s most senior civil servants over his refusal to appear before it on the issue.

Robert Watt, the secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, has told the Oireachtas Health Committee he will not give evidence to it next week about the controversial project.

Mr Watt has argued the secretary general of the Department of Health, Jim Breslin, is the person TDs and Senators should direct their queries to.

However, Mr Breslin has already told the committee he cannot appear at a forthcoming session, scheduled to take place next week, due to prior commitments.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said Mr Breslin had advised the committee on December 22nd that he had a “long-standing” commitment to serve on an interview board, and was sending two members of the department’s management board instead.

A committee meeting this week saw members criticise a “catastrophic” and “unprecedented” increase in the cost of building the new hospital, which is now projected to cost €1.43 billion.

In a letter sent this week Mr Watt said: “I refer to your letter of 20 December 2018 inviting me to attend a meeting of the Joint Committee on Health regarding the above issue.

“This is a matter for the Department of Health, and as secretary general Breslin, who is attending, is the accounting officer for this area I don’t believe my attendance would be required.”

Contracts

Dr Michael Harty, the chair of the committee, replied to Mr Watt insisting that he give evidence.

Dr Harty, an Independent TD for Clare, said the Department of Public Expenditure was responsible for the Office of Government Procurement, including “framework agreements and contracts”.

“Further, as part of the explanation of roles within the public service, the Department of Public Expenditure states that one of the responsibilities of the secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure is ensuring proper use of resources and the provision of cost-effective public services,” he wrote.

Dr Harty said Mr Watt was required at the committee to discuss the procurement process for the hospital, as well as the proper use of resources and the provision of cost-effective services.

Meanwhile, GP s have urged Minister for Health Simon Harris to establish an independent commission of investigation into what they described as “the outrageous spiralling cost of the National Children’s Hospital”.

No extra beds

“We are about to build the most expensive children’s hospital on planet Earth and it will not deliver any extra beds for the children of Ireland, ” said Dr Andrew Jordan, chairman of the National Association of General Practitioners.

A spokeswoman for the Minister said the terms of reference of a planned review by external consultants into the cost overrun at the hospital was still being finalised.

The review had been expected to begin on Monday, but the spokeswoman said it is now set to get under way later in the week.