Harris position 'untenable' after memo revelation on €391m overrun on NCH

Health Minister Simon Harris was plunged into further crisis last night after a series of memos showed he was informed last August there was a potential cost overrun of €391m for the National Children’s Hospital (NCH).

In one of the official memos sent to the minister on August 27, he was advised the building firm constructing the new hospital was demanding €200m. The same memo warned this would come on top of the overrun of around €191m in the cost of the project.

This meant the memo signalled a potential overrun of €391m to Mr Harris – some two-and-a-half months before he claims he first became aware of the revised project costs for the NCH.

This new revelation, which was previously not made public by Mr Harris, is in the memos which were released last night. They revealed Department of Health officials sought a meeting with the Department of Public Expenditure (DPER) in October about the huge hospital cost but this meeting did not take place until November.

Mr Harris had previously confirmed he was told of a potential overrun of nearly €200m in August, but that he did not know what the final price was until negotiations with builders BAM were  completed in November.

He said he was finally informed on November 9 that the total construction cost would be €1.4bn, which was €450m over the original price.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar learned of the overrun on the same day as he happened to be visiting the Department of Health when news of the revised figures came in.

The August 27 memo showed Mr Harris was told the hospital would cost an additional €191m.

The memo also showed that an extra €200m was sought by the builders. However, it shows the national paediatric development board assessed this €200m as being “a late submittal which was an attempt to deliberately frustrate the process”.

It wrote to BAM on August 29 saying this figure was not acceptable to the board and the final cost relating to this was significantly reduced.

Around €60m of this €200m was later included in the final price. The board sought a three-month window to conclude the negotiations and said it would be premature to provide a revised project cost update beyond that already briefed in August.

  • Read more: Harris was informed that children’s hospital would cost an additional €191m last August, official memo reveals

A spokeswoman for the minister said last night: “From then on, the minister was being briefed on detailed efforts to establish the extent of the cost increase, to consider options for reducing it and to work through all contingencies.

“On August 27, 2018, the minister was advised the construction budget was trending over budget – estimated to be €191m. It remains the position he did not know about the final figures until November.

“The work undertaken from August on was essential to enabling the minister to bring to Cabinet a thorough assessment and a clear recommendation.”

Reaction from Opposition parties has been hugely critical. Labour Party health spokesperson Alan Kelly said the new documents raised serious questions for Fianna Fáil and the future of the ‘Confidence and Supply’ agreement.

“This massive overspend was known while this Government was in budgetary negotiations with Fianna Fáil,” he said.

Sinn Féin’s health spokesperson Louise O’Reilly said Mr Harris’s position was “no longer tenable” and he should sacked by the Taoiseach.

“Minster Harris’s story is unravelling before our very eyes. The memo published clearly shows he was aware of a €391m overrun at the hospital as far back as August yet he did not inform his cabinet colleagues until November 9,” Ms O’Reilly said.

“This means he was aware of a massive cost overrun at the hospital while he and his Government were putting together the Budget for this year yet he never mentioned it till after the Budget was announced.

“Minister Harris’s position is completely untenable. The Taoiseach must remove him from his position.”

Sinn Féin and Labour’s comments will continue to ramp up pressure on Fianna Fáil. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were in discussions regarding October’s Budget in September, as part of their Confidence and Supply agreement, and Mr Harris would have been aware of an overrun at the NCH.

Fianna Fáil says it was not made aware of any cost overrun during these discussions.

The party’s health spokesperson, Stephen Donnelly, issued a damning statement last night, accusing Mr Harris of “withholding” information and branding the affair an “omnishambles”.

“It is hard to see any serious attempt made to curtail the escalating costs. It would seem that instead of tackling them, the minister withheld this information from both the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance, despite being in regular contact in the lead-up to, and throughout, Budget talks,” Mr Donnelly said.

“Fianna Fáil was not informed of any details related to this cost overrun during Budget discussions or indeed during the review talks which took place regarding the Confidence and Supply arrangement.

“This omnishambles falls completely and utterly at the Government’s door.”

Last night, Mr Harris insisted he acted properly at all times. He told last night’s ‘Prime Time’ programme he informed the Taoiseach of the children’s hospital cost overrun at the “appropriate” time despite knowing of figures more than two months beforehand.

He said the “job of a minister is not to be a messenger boy, getting a little bit of information and running and telling everyone” before he got the full information.

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