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Varadkar has 'total confidence' in health minister Harris over children's hospital overrun

Fianna Fáil TD Thomas Byrne has said his party will not call for Harris’ resignation.

Updated Feb 8th 2019, 11:37 AM

HSE 643_90561083 Health Minister Simon Harris Source: RollingNews.ie

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR has “total confidence” in Health Minister Simon Harris after it was revealed that Harris knew about cost overruns at the National Children’s Hospital last August.

Documents released by the Department of Health yesterday evening show that 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.

Varadkar and Finance and Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe were not informed about the potential project overrun until 9 November, one month after Budget 2019. 

Taoiseach Varadkar said in a statement today, however, that had Harris informed him of the project’s cost overruns he would have instructed him to do “exactly what he did – explore all options to reduce the scale of it and to establish a precise and final figure.”

Varadkar described the potential impact on the budget as “a red herring.”

“It would have had no impact on the Budget Day package. Capital infrastructure spending profiles are now multi-annual and were announced in February 2018, not on Budget Day,” Varadkar said. “The increase in the capital budget for 2019 was €1.5 billion. €100m will have to be taken from this for the NCH overrun. It’s manageable.”

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin’s health spokesperson Louise O’Reilly has criticised the “drip feed of information into the public arena” about the project and said that Harris should have advised Finance Department officials on the project’s rising costs.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio One this morning, O’Reilly said that “the Minister had information and for 10 and a half weeks he kept that information. He didn’t share it with his cabinet colleagues.”

‘Very serious revelations’ 

Opposition TDs have also called on Fianna Fáil to clarify its position on the latest development. The party’s Spokesperson on Health Stephen Donnelly last night said that the documents contain “very serious revelations”.

Sinn Féin’s O’Reilly has urged the party to make a statement today. “[Fianna Fáil] have to come out and either express confidence in this Minister or, indeed, let us know what their position is.”

“I really do believe at this stage that Micheál Martin should do the right thing. He should come out and make a statement about what the Fianna Fáil position is.”

Similar calls came from Labour TD Alan Kelly who said this morning that Health Department officials mislead Fianna Fáil in “both budgetary and confidence and supply” matters. 

“Can [Fianna Fáil] tolerate being misled through the budgetary process and the confidence and supply agreement?” Kelly asked. 

Following O’Reilly and Kelly’s comments, Fianna Fáil TD Thomas Byrne said that Harris “clearly” misled both Fianna Fáil and the Dáil but that the party is not calling for the health minister’s resignation.

“We have dealt with these issues over the last number of years in the confidence and supply agreement,” Byrne said, citing the resignations of former Ministers Frances Fitzgerald and Denis Naughten. 

“But actually what was more important in all of those issues, than the ministers going, was actually finding out what was happening.”

Speaking on RTÉ’s Prime Time last night, health minister Harris defended his position saying that he “behaved entirely appropriately” in terms of informing government colleagues there would be a significant overrun in the cost of the project.

The health minister 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 million 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.

With reporting from Órla Ryan.

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