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09.13 6 Feb 2019


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Updated 13:30

The Minister for Health has said he continues to believe that the new National Children's Hospital represents good value for money.

Simon Harris said the decision to go ahead with the project despite massive overruns was the best choice for the taxpayer.

He has faced more than four hours of questions at an Oireachtas committee this morning on why the projected cost of the new national children's hospital has risen to over €1.7bn.

It comes after reports suggested senior officials in the Department of Health and the HSE knew there would be overruns on the project way back in 2017.

Fianna Fáil's Stephen Donnelly pressed Simon Harris on the issue of costs.

"Do you believe that - at the €1.4bn - do you believe that represents a reasonable price for the children's hospital?" he asked.

"I do," replied Minister Harris. "I wish it could be cheaper but I do."

"Because if I didn't, the Government would not have pressed go to proceed with the construction costs.

"We can't have a situation where I am a member of a Government and we go and we make a collective decision to go with a hospital we didn't think was good decision to make."

Spiralling costs

He said he couldn't possibly have known about the scale of the overrun at the National Children's Hospital until November last year.

He said that, in 2017, the extra expense was estimated at €61m and the board was told the project had to come in on budget.

Further overruns were raised in August of last year - but Minister Harris said he couldn't have known about the scale of them until later in the year.

"I didn't know accurate figures until the 9th of November," he said.

"I would reject - without being too pedantic - the assertion that I knew of figures of several hundred billion Euro.

"I don't think that was the case and I have learned as Minister for Health - I have learned the hard way at times - the importance of actually establishing accurate and factual information before throwing it out into the public domain under the record of the Dáil."

"Frustrated"

He said he is "frustrated" at some of the coverage of the National Children's Hospital scandal.

Reports have shown the increasing cost of the hospital was talked about at meetings in 2017, almost a year before Minister Harris found out.

However, he told the Oireachtas Health Committee those overruns were a different situation that did not require Government action or extra funds.

Minister Harris also said this was made clear to Oireachtas committees last week.

He also hit back at some of the coverage of the story.

"I'm somewhat frustrated at the characterisation that I've heard of this - because I've heard a characterisation that 'the Minister heard in August and nothing happened till November' - nothing could be further from the truth.

"The paper trail that you have and the testimony that you from my officials, from the members of the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board, from the HSE and indeed from my own mouth at this committee last week show that not to be the case."

National Children's Hospital

Fianna Fáil leader Michael Martin has said a rush to have a children's hospital has "probably" led to where we are.

It comes as new terms of reference for an investigation have said the review of the spiralling costs should be completed by March 29th.

It will also aim to find accountability from key parties involved in managing the finances of the project, after the initial investigation was told not to find individuals culpable.

The chair of the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board, responsible for overseeing the building of the new hospital, stepped down from his position at the weekend.

Tom Costello said it was due to concerns about "reputational damage" that the ongoing commentary about the increased cost of the national children's hospital was causing.

Michael Martin | File photo

Fianna Fáil's finance spokesperson Michael McGrath has said minister Harris has "serious questions" to answer before an Oireachtas committee.

"I find it absolutely extraordinary and not believable that senior officials from the Department of Health would be sitting on a steering committee, managing the largest capital project in the history of that department, that they would be aware for up to a year that the cost of the children's hospital was spiralling - and they did not bring that to the attention of the minister?", he said.

While party leader Michael Martin told Pat Kenny earlier there has been a rush to make decisions.

"My understanding is over 200 million has gone into this - the contracts were signed by the Government is December.

"And again, they did it with great haste - I don't understand that part of it.

"Simon Harris announced yesterday... 'I had three choices: I had to either pause, re-tender or go ahead.'

"Nobody knew that in December that he had three choices, he didn't share that with anybody.

"What we're reading in the Irish Times now (is) he was told in August, why didn't he share it then with the general public and with the Government, and say 'we have an issue here'?

"And then we now knew a year earlier the steering group... were asking serious questions about overruns.

"I think the Government need to come clean with the people, we're learning about this again in a drip-drip way".

"No one's against a children's hospital - in fact, in some respects, the rush to have a children's hospital probably has led to where we are in the sense that people were despairing that we've never get it after the planning application was refused".

With reporting from Jack Quann, Michael Staines and Sean Defoe


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