Cost overruns in children’s hospital damaged faith in Government, says Taoiseach

‘I have every confidence in Mr Harris but am not going to pre-empt what he says in Dáil’

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he has “total confidence” in Minister for Health Simon Harris. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he has “total confidence” in Minister for Health Simon Harris. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

The huge cost-overrun in the national children’s hospital has damaged public “faith and confidence” in the Government, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said.

Speaking in Belfast on Friday afternoon where he held Brexit talks with the North’s five main parties, Mr Varadkar reiterated his confidence in the Minister for Health Simon Harris.

He would not say whether Mr Harris should issue an apology to the Dáil as Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has urged.

Asked how Mr Martin could continue to have confidence in the Government if he was not being told about key issues Mr Varadkar replied: “That is not the case. We have regular engagement with Fianna Fáil, and provide information for them all the time, and as they seek it.”

His comments were made following the release of new documents which show Mr Harris was told two months before last year’s budget that cost overruns in the development of the national children’s hospital could reach €400 million.

The Government has consistently maintained that it only became aware of the major escalation in cost in November of last year.

In Belfast on Friday, the Taoiseach said Mr Harris was a Minister who had delivered on issues such as the repeal of the Eighth Amendment and legislation around the public health alcohol bill.

“So I have every confidence in Mr Harris but obviously I am not going to pre-empt what he is going to say in the Dáil next week. I am sure he will want to write that statement for himself,” he said.

The Taoiseach said he understood that Irish taxpayers were “very annoyed” about the overrun.

“I feel that, I get that, and I understand that. I know that for a lot of people it will have damaged their faith and confidence in the Government that I lead and our ability to manage the finances,” he said.

“But I think that people will judge us in the round. This is the first Government that has balanced the books in ten years.”

Mr Varadkar referred to how three recent major completed or ongoing capital projects costing close to half a million euro – the Wexford motorway, the Luas cross city project and the Gort to Tuam motorway – were or are being completed on time and on budget.

“We can get this project back on track as well,” he said.

“Nobody seems to be arguing that the additional costs were somehow avoidable. Unfortunately they were not, and nobody seems to be arguing that the Government was wrong when we decided to go ahead with the project, notwithstanding the increased costs,” he added.

“All the controversy now is who told what to whom when rather than matters of substance or outcome. They are matters of process,” he said.

“If Simon Harris had told the Government earlier about the emerging overrun I would have told him to do exactly what he did: which was to get to the bottom of it, to minimise the overrun, and to find out what the reasons were and to come back to the Government with options. That is exactly what he did.”

Dáil record

Earlier on Friday, Mr Martin called on Mr Harris to apologise to the Dáil and correct the record of the House over information he provided on spending on the hospital.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has written to Mr Martin to ask him to state whether he has confidence in Mr Harris.

Mr Martin, speaking to Kfm in Kildare, said a motion of no confidence in Mr Harris may make the whole controversy “disappear”.

Fianna Fáil’s confidence-and-supply agreement with Fine Gael means it cannot table such motions in Ministers. Doing so would effectively collapse the Government and cause an election.

Mr Martin said people do not want an election until there is clarity in the Brexit process. However, he said he did not find Mr Harris’s “explanations credible at all”.

“The first issue is the extraordinary overspend in the hospital itself and people across the country are outraged at that,” the Cork South Central TD said.

He said the Government and Fine Gael needed to “be fair to public opinion and it needs to reflect this shambolic affair”.

“Everywhere I go, people are angry at the fact that up to €450 million additional spend.

“I find that extraordinary that the Minister would not have told anybody. The more serious part of it – the Dáil was misled in September because Barry Cowen, our spokesman on public expenditure, asked the question in September about the costs of the hospital and he was told it was €900 plus million, just less than €1 billion.

“The Dáil wasn’t told that. The Minister is trying to say: ‘Oh, for confidentiality’. That’s nonsense.”

One step

When asked if Mr Harris’s position is untenable, Mr Martin said: “First of all the Minister needs to correct the Dáil and he needs to apologise to the Dáil. Just take it one step at a time, I am not going to rush my fences.

“Just take it one step at time here. This is a very serious issue, and there are two issues. One is the actual over-expenditure, which is a scandal. And, in my view, the secrecy around that and the fact that the Minister told no one, if we are to believe what is being said, until November, even though he knew himself in August. That is very serious, it is very serious for the Government.”

He said the “onus in Fine Gael and the Government to reflect very carefully on what has emerged, particularly the drip-drip feed of this”.

“I am calling on all briefings that the Minister got to be made public immediately from August to November. All documentation in the Department of Health should be made public immediately.”

He said he has been “very careful” in his language on the issue, saying Sinn Féin could table a motion of no confidence if it wants.

“I am saying right now – at this particular point in this particular crisis – the Government needs to reflect on the situation.

“It is easy to put down motions of confidence and a minister can resign but what you need to do – there is a fundamental issue that still needs to be resolved. There is a danger the whole issue disappears. A chapter closes. And the chapter can’t close on this prematurely in terms of the truth coming out.

“We have given the Government space on Brexit. I am now saying to the Government. It needs to be fair to the Dáil. It needs to be fair to public opinion and it needs to reflect this shambolic affair.”

Brexit ‘excuse’

Meanwhile, Ms McDonald has written to Mr Martin to say Fianna Fáil should not use Brexit as an “excuse” not to demand accountability.

“The national children’s hospital overrun raises is the most serious questions for Government and for you as their partners in confidence and supply.

“What has been revealed amounts to failures of governance and accountability at all levels of Government.

“The position of the Minister for Health Simon Harris is now untenable.

“He is, as your party states, attempting to avoid accountability. The Government claims it was ignorant of the overspend until November 2018.

“You claim that you were similarly blindsided in the course of budgetary negotiations and in the very lengthy review process of your confidence and supply relationship, a review which included an in-depth review of individual Government departments.”

Ms McDonald adds that the “scale of ignorance of all parties to Government on a budgetary overrun of €450 million is quite extraordinary and demands full explanation and accountability.”

U

nwelcome increases

It has also emerged that officials in the Department of Public Expenditure expressed surprise at not being told of the increased costs during the budgetary process.

Further documents show Mr Harris was repeatedly warned as early as 2017 of unwelcome increases in the capital cost of the project.

A spokeswoman for the Minister said last night he was maintaining his position that he only became aware of the final figures in November.

Speaking on Prime Time Mr Harris last night rejected criticism about why the information had not been revealed in the Dáil or during the negotiations on the budget and renewing the confidence-and-supply agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

He said the Taoiseach and Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure were informed of the situation “at the appropriate moment” in November. He added that his department had been “seeking to engage” with the Department of Public Expenditure in September and October.