Crack forensic team could crack up trying to unearth truth behind costly overrun

A costly review will tell us mistakes were made, but not necessarily who made them, writes Catherine Shanahan.

Who knew what and when, and who told who, and when they told them, will be scrutinised in a review of what caused the costs of the new national children’s hospital to spiral so far out of control, that it must surely have career-ending consequences.

The site of the new national children’s hospital. How are we heading for €2bn when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, in his former role as health minister, said the project would cost €650m? Picture: Gareth Chaney Collins.

Except that it won’t, according to the last little line in the terms of reference of the PwC review of escalating costs, which says it will “stop short of determining culpability at the individual level”.

It’s how we roll in Ireland, blaming everything and no-one.

Or is it? Right after the terms of reference came out Health Minister Simon Harris said there will be accountability.

“Let me even go further,” he said.

There will be personnel changes of some people involved in the governance structure in relation to this.

So maybe when all is said and done, we can blame people — as opposed to processes and systems’ failures — when it’s politically expedient to do so. Honestly, it’s all very confusing.

There’s so much confusion around this whole €1.7bn-and-growing project, that it almost feels like a deliberate tactic. Despite approximately 17 hours and four Oireachtas committee sittings teasing out the reasons behind how Ireland came to build what may be the most expensive children’s hospital ever, everyone remains inordinately bewildered.

Even the the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board (NPHDB), which has statutory responsibility for building and equipping the hospital, seems unable to clearly explain how we got to this point.

They’ve attempted to do so at both health and public account committee hearings over the past fortnight, but the politicians that have quizzed them seem baffled.

Sinn Féin TD Jonathan O’Brien asked the board at this week’s meeting of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) for “total construction costs, all in”. Board members rifled through papers and no-one answered. They had all the figures, they just needed to piece them together in a way that could answer Mr O’Brien’s question directly.

They had previously presented them in different ways, you see.

“The figures are very complex and are presented in certain ways and the deputies are looking for it to be analysed in different ways,” the weary deputies were told.

The figures have been presented in so many different ways at this stage that it would confuse a nation. It has confused a nation. How are we heading for €2bn when the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, in his former role as health minister, said the project would cost €650m, all in?

There is more monumental confusion about who knew what and when and who is to blame.

A point raised at last week’s health committee by Labour Party health spokesperson Alan Kelly, and this week by Mr O’Brien and Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell at the PAC, relates to Paul Quinn, chief procurement

officer at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER). Mr Quinn is one of Health Minister Simon Harris’ nominees to the NPHDB and is there to represent the public interest.

He is also on the NPHDB finance sub-committee. How was it possible that DPER’s chief procurement officer had not informed the minister of the escalating costs last June, when the board claims it first became aware that the project was in danger of boarding a “runaway train”, as Labour leader Brendan Howlin described it?

PAC was told Mr Quinn was there “in an individual capacity” not as an official of DPER. Ms O’Connell expressed disbelief at the notion of a ‘Chinese Wall’ between DPER and the Department of Health, given the scale of the escalation.

As Mr Howlin pointed out yesterday, DPER’s “raison d’etre” is to “interrogate every aspect of the public purse”.

Coincidentally, a story appeared in the Irish Times yesterday saying DPER raised concerns nearly two years ago about governance arrangements in place to oversee construction of the new hospital. So who knew what and when? The blame game goes on.

Séamus McCarthy, Comptroller and Auditor General, whose role it is to ensure value for money and strengthen public accountability, told the PAC he was of the opinion that the project is one “belonging to the Department of Health”.

The Department of Health’s secretary general and accounting officer, and therefore, the man who signs the cheques, was not happy. The board, Jim Breslin said, had a statutory responsibility to construct the hospital, and could not be absolved of blame.

The PwC review will drill down into what was known, when and by whom, for a fee of, oh, say, around €450,000, a drop in the ocean compared to the €450m cost escalation of the project over a four-month period last year.

It will look at the reporting of relevant information from the project team to the relevant oversight and governance bodies. The oversight bodies include the Children’s Hospital Project and Programme steering group, chaired by Dean Sullivan, HSE deputy director general, and the Children’s Hospital Project and Programme Board, chaired by Mr Breslin.

The steering group reports up to the board who report up to the minister. There are also several sub-committees of the NPHDB who may or may not have known important information before or after possibly more important people, but who may or may not have had the wherewithal to pass that information on.

Nobody knows. Maybe PwC will tell us.

It won’t apportion blame to individuals though.

It will deal “with the role and accountability of the relevant key parties”. Perhaps “parties” will be held culpable? In saying that, accounting firm Mazars has already conducted a review after costs escalated “to see who knew what in terms of reporting”, but who knows what happened to that €100,000 report.

And who knows what happened to the report by DSSR engineering consultants tasked last year to see if the hospital was being “over-designed”. (They found it wasn’t, but we’ll have to take the board’s word for that. The board has also refused to divulge the cost of this report).

And who knows what will happen to the myriad other health capital projects that will suffer as a result of the Government having to “find” more of our money to fund the overruns in the children’s hospital?

The Government has confirmed it will “delay” other projects, but for how long is anyone’s guess. This year alone they have to “find” €50m from the health capital budget as well as €50m from the capital programmes of other departments. They can’t say yet which projects might be affected because they are engaged in a “profiling” and “prioritising” exercise.

This essentially means that projects contractually committed to are safe but anything else is fair game.

Neither Jim Curran, head of HSE estates, nor Jim Breslin was in a position on Thursday to list which projects are safe at this stage. Mr Breslin said if he “answered in relation to one project, I would have to answer in

relation to them all” and he was not about to go “on a tour of Ireland”.

That tour of safe projects will be dictated by local political concerns. Already, the Tánaiste Simon Coveney has promised a second cath lab in Waterford will go ahead, even though the hit list isn’t finalised yet. A promised extension at University Hospital Limerick (UHL) may or may not go ahead.

Despite pressing at the PAC for an answer, Alan Kelly was left none the wiser. Other TDs around the country, anxious to protect their own patch, are equally in the dark as to the fate of local projects.

There are so many unanswered questions around this saga that even a crack forensic team could crack up trying to crack it. No-one’s cracked it so far.

But take heart. Another costly expert review will surely tell us that mistakes were made and how they were made, just not necessarily who made them.

More on this topic

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Review conflict of interest - Children’s hospital cost overrun

Paul Quinn tells PAC he would have been in breach of the law if he told Minister of hospital overspend

HSE accused of 'making eejits' of Public Accounts Committee over children's hospital

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