Devil in the details casts poor light on Simon Harris

Simon Harris: Did not rush to inform the Cabinet of costs.

Everybody was kept in the dark while Mr Harris and officials donned white coats and went into a laboratory to do some crystallising., writes Michael Clifford

Don’t hit me with the children in my arms. So goes one line of defence from the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, about his handling of the cost overruns in the National Children’s Hospital project.

The minister would like everybody to concentrate on the “world class” facility that will emerge from the fiasco of cost overruns and communication breakdown. Don’t look at the detail of how he has handled the matter, but instead feel the breadth of the project.

The detail is perplexing. First — the spiralling cost. In 2012, the estimated cost was €404m. We are now told this was the first part of a two-stage exercise to determine the full cost. Nobody said that at the time.

By April 2017, the Government announced that the budget was now €960m. The previous month, Mr Harris had told the Dáil how the cost had ballooned: “The core construction costs at that time did not include other services we are providing, including commercial spaces, higher education facilities, the Children Research and Innovation Centre and equipment.”

Somebody forgot that a children’s hospital would need equipment? Later in 2017, the cost hit over a billion and by August 2018 it was heading towards €1.4bn.

Who was in charge? To take one single element; were the professional construction fees on a percentage of capital cost? If so, that represents a huge conflict of interest, as the fees increase in line with the overall cost. If there was a fixed fee arrangement, how did the professional fees rise from €43m in 2017 to €71m a year later?

Then there is the politics. Mr Harris knew from early on that the runaway train of costs was heading off the rails. On September 13, 2017, according to documents released by his department, he was told that escalating costs “were not welcome”.

He apparently didn’t ask too many questions after that and it was nearly a year later, on August 28, 2018, when he learned that “the construction budget is trending significantly over budget”. A few days later he was informed the overruns could reach nearly €400m.

For some reason, he didn’t rush to inform the Cabinet. Instead, he attempted to “crystallise” the actual cost (“crystallise” is a top word to throw into the mix in a political crisis). By coincidence, an election was a possibility last September.

Any news of an embarrassing over-run would not have been welcomed by Mssrs Varadkar and Donohoe. By coincidence, in October, Mr Donohoe delivered a nice election budget. An over-run of €400m would have rained on his parade.

So everybody was kept in the dark while Mr Harris and officials donned white coats and went into a laboratory to do some crystallising.

It wouldn’t have taken any crystallising to mention to Pascal that he’d want to make a provision in his budget for the spiralling costs.

Instead, Mr Donohoe did not “officially” have this knowledge when he framed his budget. We are told he did not unofficially have the detail either, which is perplexing. Are ministers human? Would it not be natural for Simon to whisper to Pascal at the fringes of a Cabinet meeting that there might be a problem with the hospital? Apparently not.

Instead, the minister for health kept schtum. Perhaps, for a chap who appears to wear spin like a second suit, being the bearer of bad news was just too unpalatable for him.

So it wasn’t until November 9 last that Mr Harris finally told his colleagues that the crystallisation process was at an end. Except it wasn’t. He told the Cabinet that the cost was now €1.4bn, yet within weeks it emerged that it could be as high as €1.7bn.

Was the crystallisation process as faulty as the bean counting?

That’s how the story goes. It’s a good yarn, but gives rise to two compelling responses. If it is all factually accurate, the level of incompetence is breathtaking. If it isn’t, a politically fatal issue of trust arises. Neither scenario looks good for the talented Mr Harris.

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