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'Omnishambles': Call for Harris to be fired over children's hospital overrun but he says he 'behaved appropriately'

Documents show Harris was informed in August that the budget for the hospital could overrun by €391 million.

Updated Feb 7th 2019, 10:45 PM

24/5/2017. New National Childrens Hospitals Simon Harris at the National Children's Hospital site in 2017. Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

HEALTH MINISTER SIMON Harris has said he believes he “behaved entirely appropriately” in terms of informing government colleagues there would be a significant overrun in the cost of the National Children’s Hospital.

Documents released by the Department of Health this evening show Harris was informed on 27 August 2018 the construction budget for the hospital was likely to overrun by €191 million.

On the same day, he was also informed that the construction company working on the project might seek an additional €200 million.

The Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee last week heard the total cost of the project is “highly unlikely” to come in under €2 billion. A figure of €983 million for the development was approved by the government in 2017.

Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin have criticised the fact that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Finance and Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe were not informed about the potential overrun until 9 November.

health A section of the files released today. Source: Department of Health

Harris has defended the timeline, saying officials at his department were working to clarify the figures, which he said were “very much an estimate”.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Prime Time tonight, Harris said there was a “high degree of uncertainty” and “volatility” surrounding the figures, adding that it was his job to “get to the bottom” of the situation before informing his government colleagues. He noted that the €200 figure “didn’t materialise”. 

Harris said officials at the Department of Health were “engaging with” officials at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER) in September and October in relation to the issue.

The documents released this evening show that DPER officials complained on 20 November that they were only then receiving details of the “very significant budgetary overrun”. 

The memos show that officials at the Department of Health said they tried to raise the issue orally on 27 September, then left voicemails and sent emails seeking meetings on 17 and 24 October and 15 November in a bid to discuss it. 

27 aug bam A section of the files released today. Source: Department of Health

Earlier today, the timeline of who knew about the figures was reported by the Irish Times.

Speaking on Prime Time, Harris said Varadkar and Donohoe are “very much aware of the timeline” and agree that he acted appropriately.

Citing comments Donohoe made at an Oireachtas Finance Committee hearing this week, he noted that his Fine Gael colleague said even if Harris had informed him of the potential overspend in August, he would have asked him to quantify the figures.

Harris said he does not accept a claim by opposition parties that he withheld information from the Dáil, adding: “It’s very clear that I have the confidence of the Taoiseach.”

‘Untenable’  

Responding to the publication of the documents, Sinn Féin’s health spokesperson Louise O’Reilly said Harris’ position is “untenable” and called on Varadkar to “remove him”. 

“The memo published this evening clearly shows that [Harris] was aware of a €391 million overrun at the hospital as far back as August yet he did not inform the his cabinet colleagues until November 9th.

“This means that he was aware of a massive cost overrun at the hospital while he and his government were putting together the budget for this year yet he never mentioned it until after the budget was announced.”

Harris said the potential overrun would not have had an impact on Budget 2019 as the capital budget was already agreed in February 2018.

‘Very serious revelations’

In a statement, Fianna Fáil’s Spokesperson on Health Stephen Donnelly said the documents contain “very serious revelations”.

It is hard to see any serious attempt made to curtail the escalating costs. It would seem that instead of tackling them, the Minister withheld this information from both the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance, despite being in regular contact in the lead up to, and throughout, Budget talks.

Donnelly said he is aware through parliamentary questions that Harris was briefed in September 2017 on “the likelihood of the cost of the hospital exceeding expectation and then updated on August 27th the following year”.

“After this, there were further briefing – on the 7th of September 2018, the 1st of October and again on November 9th. The Board’s report was finalised three days later on the 12th November. I have sought the relevant documents associated with each of these update briefings.

“Fianna Fáil were not informed of any details related to this cost overrun during budget discussions or indeed during the review talks which took place regarding the Confidence and Supply arrangement.

This omnishambles falls completely and utterly at the government’s door.

“The drip-feeding of important documents that we have seen up to this point is not good enough. In the best interest of the public and this vital project, all documents related to this National Children’s Hospital overspend must be immediately published,” he said. 

With reporting by Christina Finn 

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