Taoiseach defends Watt’s refusal to attend health committee

No capital projects stopped because of overruns but some may be ‘deferred’ - Varadkar

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald pictured arriving for the centenary commemorations in the Mansion House on Monday to mark the anniversary of the inaugural public meeting of Dáil Éireann in 1919. Photograph: Tom Honan

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has defended the refusal of a senior civil servant to attend the Oireachtas Health Committee to deal with cost overruns for the national children's hospital.

He also insisted that no other capital projects would be stopped because of the spiralling costs of the children’s hospital.

He was responding to Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald who claimed the department had “gone into hiding” over the rise in the projected costsof the hospital from its initial price tag of €650 million and €1.7 billion.

She demanded that Department of Public Expenditure and Reform secretary-general Robert Watt should attend the committee or otherwise his position is unsustainable.


“What about the commitment for an MRI scanner at the Midlands Regional hospital in Mullingar, the second cath lab in Waterford, or Drimnagh primary care centre?” she asked. “I could go on.”

She said the rising hospital costs were “set to blow a hole in capital budget for years to come. but nobody is willing to take responsibility for it” . She also accused Mr Varadkar of “dancing on the head of a pin” by suggesting projects would be deferred.

“What projects will be cut because of the scandalous cost overrun?” she asked.

The Taoiseach told her that no project will be stopped but some projects may have to be deferred.

He said it required a “reprofiling” of about €100 million worth of capital budget out of a total expenditure of €7 billion, which he said was about 1 per cent to 2 per cent and the Government would provide a list of affected projects when it was available.

Procurement process

On the issue of accountability for rising osts, Mr Varadkar noted the secretary general of the Department of Health was the accounting officer for health expenditure.

He said Mr Watt “regularly attends committees, the Finance Committee and the Public Accounts Committee and he will do that on any aspect of expenditure.

"However, the accounting officer for the department of health is Jim Breslin and Jim Breslin will make himself available to account for any health expenditure to the health committee and I understand a date has been set for that."

Ms McDonald said she was questioning the efficacy of the procurement procedures of the State and that Mr Watt should be answerable to the health committee on the issue of procurement.

She said the Government had made “something of a virtue that you had overhauled the procurement procedure to avoid precisely this type of cost inflation and potential waste of expenditure”.

She also said a review of costs by consultant PARS was “all very well and good but they’re not in Government and they’re not running Government departments.

“And where we need accountability for this cock-up is from people in Government and from the senior civil servants who advise and guide Government decisions.”

The Taoiseach told the Dublin Central TD that while PwC may not be in Government, they were also not in opposition and would be "objective".

He was reluctant to give a timeline for the report because projects usually took longer than expected but he said the consultants’ report would be published.

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times