Harris: Hospital probe report can include ways to reduce bill

Health Minister Simon Harris has said revised terms inquiring into the spiralling costs for the National Children’s Hospital will include any recommendations on how to reduce the final bill.

He also confirmed that more heads could roll over the controversy.

The moves come as the Government’s new terms for the probe are also set to include holding individuals to account, a U-turn forced on them after ongoing criticism over who is to blame for the overruns.

Under the changed review, Mr Harris said the PwC team examining the build on the St James’ Hospital site could put forward options to help reduce the bill.

There are differing estimates for the cost of building the children’s hospital. 

It was costed at €983m just two years ago, but now stands at €1.73bn. An Oireachtas committee last week heard that a final bill surpassing €2bn could not be ruled out.

However, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar predicted last weekend that the final cost would instead be in the order of €1.4bn or €1.5bn. He revealed the terms for a probe would be tweaked to assign blame.

Mr Harris, speaking to RTÉ yesterday, confirmed that the inquiry would also look at ways to reduce costs, but that he would not allow the project to be halted.

While refusing to pre-empt any outcome of the PwC report, he said it would look who did “what, where and when” or what was not done, but that PwC could not sanction individuals. Instead, that would be the Government’s job, he said.

Questions have been raised about just how the PwC’s new terms will allow the company to level blame on individuals for a public project, involving members of boards and officials.

One Cabinet member, Environment Minister Richard Bruton, had already flagged on the weekend that individuals blamed could bring lawyers into the probe.

And Mr Harris yesterday seemed to row back from the Taoiseach’s commitments. He said, instead, that the PwC review would look at “weaknesses”, or any problems with design or board decisions. The review would go “as far as it possibly can”, he said.

Speaking later on RTÉ, Mr Harris conceded that he should himself “be held accountable” for the overrun. 

He also insisted he had made every effort between August and November last year to find out why the hospital costs had risen so sharply, with “due diligence” and a number of reports.

But Public Accounts Committee member Jonathan O’Brien has expressed doubt about the Taoiseach’s commitment to blame individuals. 

He suggested the pledge was made “on the hoof” by Mr Varadkar during a weekend radio interview as even Oireachtas committees “struggled” to assign blame.

Meanwhile, chairman of the Oireachtas health committee, Dr Michael Harty, has again called on Department of Public Expenditure officials to appear before his committee over the scandal.

There is confusion about what officials, as well Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe himself, knew around the escalating hospital costs.

Dr Harty said that his department would have had to approve the €450m overrun, so there is a need to find out the level of its involvement.

He said it seemed unbelievable that the department’s representative on the hospital development board did not report what he knew to the minister.

Timeline

A timeline of the history behind the national children’s hospital.

1993: A paediatric hospital in Dublin is proposed by paediatrics at the Royal College of Physicians.

2006: The HSE decides on the Mater campus as the site. That is agreed by the government.

2007: The National Paediatric Hospital Development Board (NPHDB) is set up then health minister Mary Harney to develop the site.

2012: Planning is refused and St James’s Hospital is later announced as the chosen location by then health minister Dr James Reilly.

2013: This is when, according to the Oireachtas health committee, a senior official from the Department of Public Expenditure was sitting on the hospital development board.

2016: Then health minister Leo Varadkar promises the project will be built after planning is granted.

2017: A budget of €983m is agreed and construction begins on the site.

Aug 2017: Hospital oversight board minutes show a cost overrun was first raised.

Aug 21, 2018: This is when Health Minister Simon Harris said he first became aware of concerns around the cost.

Autumn 2018: The Taoiseach tells the Dáil the hospital may cost even more than €1.43bn. This is some €450m more than that projected in April 2017.

Oct 2018: This is when, according to the secretary general of the Department of Health, that the Department of Public Expenditure was informed about problems with costs

Early November: When Mr Harris says he was actually informed of the final figure for the children’s hospital.

Nov 2018: This is when Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe says he became of “the nature” and “seriousness” of the huge costs. However, he also says that “the awareness of the issue began to build a bit before that”.

Dec 2018: Cabinet agrees to second-phase of the project but also approves the independent PwC review.

Jan 2019: Oireachtas committees probe the soaring costs

Feb 2019: NPHDB chairman Tom Costello resigns

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