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Secretary General Robert Watt accused of 'playing games' with Oireachtas committees

Calls have been made by a number of committees for Watt to appear before them to outline DEPR’s role in the children’s hospital project.

Secretary General at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform Robert Watt.
Secretary General at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform Robert Watt.
Image: samboal

THE SECRETARY GENERAL OF Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DEPR), Robert Watt, has been accused of “playing games” with Oireachtas committees. 

The Oireachtas Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform Committee has called on Watt to appear before them to explain the department’s role in the management of large-scale capital projects, such as new National Children’s Hospital. 

Calls have been made by a number of committees for Watt and Paul Quinn, Chief Procurement Officer at the department to appear before them to outline DEPR’s role and oversight of the children’s hospital project. 

Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty said the secretary general has refused to appear before them on any of the six dates put forward.

He said dates have been given to the secretary general over the three weeks and “we haven’t got an acceptable response from the secretary general”. 

Minister Paschal Donohoe told the committee today that he wanted to make it crystal clear that Watt has agreed to come before the finance committee. 

Multiple requests from committees

Correspondence read aloud states that while Watt has said he is “happy” to appear before the finance committee, he has been called to appear before a number of committees on the same issue.

Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath said the secretary general appears to place an onus on the chairperson of the finance committee, John McGuinness, to discuss with the chairs of the other committees as to what one would be best for Watt to appear before. 

McGrath said Watt, as secretary general and accounting officer for the department, is accountable to the finance committee before any other. 

He added that there is an element of “competition” that has emerged between Oireachtas Committees. “There is no doubt about that,” he said, adding that there should be better coordination. 

A disagreement was sparked between Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty and Fine Gael’s John Deasy when it was suggested the meeting on the revised estimates should not proceed until a date for Watt’s appearance was locked in. 

McGuinness agreed with Doherty on the matter, however, Deasy accused the pair of “playing games”. 

He said no attempt had been made to deal with the other committees about their requests to ensure there is no duplication, stating that he had been “around long enough” to know what was being orchestrated.

Deasy said government business should continue and the meeting on the revised estimates should proceed.

‘Playing games’ 

McGuinness said: “I am not playing games with this, nor am I playing politics. Let me be absolutely clear about that.”

He added that he wanted to set out clearly to Deasy that behind the meeting being held today, the clerk of the finance committee had on numerous occasions tried to contact Watt by email and telephone to try and reach some arrangement about when he would appear. 

McGuinness said correspondence to the committee put an onus on him to sort it out with other chairpersons of the committees, while other chairs received similar letters.

“He is accountable to this committee… this is not a game, he is playing games, that is how I view it and I won’t let him play games with an Oireachtas committee,” he said. 

Doherty refuted the accusation that games were being played, stating that Watt, as the secretary general of the department is accountable to the Oireachtas Finance Committee, stating that he should have no sense of entitlement that he can refuse to appear before them.  

Chief Procurement Officer 

Separately, today the Public Accounts Committee called on Paul Quinn, Chief Procurement Officer at Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to appear before them to deal with issues arising from the National Children’s Hospital. 

Quinn sat on the board of the hospital, however, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar have both said he did so on personal capacity and was not obliged to inform the line minister about the spiralling costs. 

Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane said Quinn served on both the Development and both the Finance and Procurement Sub-committees of the hospital, and as such would have been intimately aware of the overruns at the National Children’s hospital, the escalations, and when and where they happened.

The committee also agreed to recall Department of Health officials before the committee to answer questions on the children’s hospital, in light of new memos and documents that have come to light in recent weeks.

“Accountability is a slow and frustrating process in this State, but eventually we will get there,” he said. 

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