Simon Harris questioned in Dáil over children’s hospital costs

‘Where we got extremely badly let down is the elasticity of the cost”

Minister for Health Simon Harris pictured in the Dail earlier this week, on televisions in Arnotts in Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Minister for Health Simon Harris pictured in the Dail earlier this week, on televisions in Arnotts in Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

 

Minister for Health Simon Harris has said estimates of the amount of materials which were needed to build the national children’s hospital were “not realistic” as he was questioned in the Dáil over significant cost escalations in the project.

The Government has commissioned consultants PwC to examine how the price of the hospital has grown to €1.7 billion.

“I don’t mind saying in advance of the PwC report where we got extremely badly let down is the elasticity of the cost” for the second phase of the project, he said.

“It is the quantities of materials required that were clearly not realistic. This is what PwC need to grapple with in terms of where that actually went wrong.”

The cost of the project has risen from an estimated €800 million in 2014, to €983 million in 2017, and €1.43 billion now. Equipping the building and providing IT pushes this bill up to €1.73 billion; this does not include the cost of family accommodation, a research centre, excess construction inflation and any other changes to clinical standards.

Mr Harris pledged that the Government will “act swiftly” on the recommendations of the PwC report which has been commissioned to examine the increase in costs.

“We will not be found wanting when it comes to acting against any entity or any company if errors were made.

“If the report finds the requirement for governance or personnel changes, I have stated clearly that I will act upon those.”

Social Democrats Co-leader Róisín Shortall described the controversy as “a most shocking failure of governance” as she criticised the “inability” of both the Department of Health and the Department of Public Expenditure to “protect the public purse”.

She pointed out that Mr Harris became aware of significant budgetary increases in August of 2018 but the Government was not given the final figure until November.

“It is simply not credible that you did not tell your colleagues for two months that there was this looming problem. If you didn’t, you certainly should have. You didn’t do the right thing and that is quite clear,” she said.

Labour TD Alan Kelly said it was “bizarre beyond belief that in all of this time nobody in the whole of this department ever said in a budgetary process, listen, we have an issue here”.

Sinn Féin TD Louise O’Reilly asked why Mr Harris re-appointed the board of the hospital in the summer of 2018, at a time when the board was becoming aware of potentially significant over-runs.

“You reappointed the entire board. When you gave them that massive seal of approval, did you seek any advice about the performance of that board and its members.

“The trajectory of the overspend was only going in one direction, and yet in the middle of this they get a massive endorsement from you as a Minister.”

Mr Harris said he informed the board in his letter approving the re-appointment that he would soon have new powers to change the board.

The Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe said that it is his “genuine view” that the best course of action is to move ahead with this project. Mr Donohoe said that the Government has acknowledged “again and again what needs to be done differently for projects like this.”

Mr Harris said “I know and will always know the right decision was to proceed with that project.”