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Top civil servant who warned against broadband plan questioned behind closed doors

Robert Watt warned ‘strongly recommended against’ the decision to proceed with the NBP.

SECRETARY GENERAL of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Robert Watt, has said he will not attend a scheduled Oireachtas committee, instead opting to appear before another committee which is being held behind closed doors today.

Watt was due to face questioning at the Oireachtas Finance Committee today over the government’s decision to press ahead with the National Broadband Plan.

Watt advised Minister Paschal Donohoe that there were five grounds under which department officials could not justify the government sanctioning the €2.97bn for the NBP and “strongly recommended against” the decision.

The warnings were made public in 20 pieces of departmental correspondence released by government last month, the day after it announced that it plans to proceed with the final and only remaining bidder for the NBP.

The documents released showed that Cabinet was also warned that a number of projects could be delayed as a result of extra capital money being spent on broadband. 

These include the delivery of over 2,000 social housing units, as well as 18 primary schools and nine to 10 primary health care centres.

In a letter to the Oireachtas Finance Committee, Watt outlined that the Minister  Donohoe and his department officials have already been before the Budget Oversight Committee to discuss broadband.

He added that he will be attending the Oireachtas Communications Committee today.

That meeting is taking place this afternoon in private session.

The Oireachtas Finance Committee meeting has now been cancelled.

People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith, who is a member of the Communications committee, told TheJournal.ie today that she was “shocked” to hear that Watt was to appear at a committee meeting that is being held behind closed doors.

“It is highly unusual, and I don’t know the reason for it,” she said, adding that it is “very undemocratic”.

She said a huge amount of money is going towards the NBP, with Smith stating that questioning of a department official, who disagrees with government policy, should happen in the open.

Watt has previously hit the headlines over his appearance at committee meetings, most recently when he referred to the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee (PAC) as a “mob”.

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