Thursday, May 16, 2019

The senior civil servant on the board of the National Children’s Hospital has told the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee that he did nothing wrong by not telling cabinet ministers about the cost overruns associated with the project.

Paul Quinn, chief procurement officer with the Department of Public Expenditure, told members of the PAC that he is satisfied that he met his obligations under current legislation.

“I would have been precluded and not only in breach of my obligations as a board member but also in breach of law if I were to report to the secretary-general or the Minister,” he said.

He said that he was satisfied that the board of the National Children’s Hospital was addressing the looming cost overruns.

However, members of the PAC have questioned whether this situation exposes a flaw in the current legislation.

Fianna Fáil’s Marc MacSharry said that Mr Quinn’s role exposed a “flaw in the current legislation”.

“You are privy to this information but you can’t report it,” he said.

“I think it is bad practice. It defies all logic and responsibility that you must keep the omnishambles going off the rails here a secret from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.”

Mr Quinn said that he “disagreed” that it is a flaw and said that the structures are “very clear on accountability.”

Sinn Féin’s Jonathan O’Brien asked whether Mr Quinn would act differently now knowing the full facts.

Mr Quinn replied, “In hindsight, the one thing the board could have done differently was to add more external reviews in terms of design accuracy.

But, should I have gone to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform? No; I was bound by my professional ethics.

PAC members also raised significant concerns about the potential conflict of interest in PwC’s involvement in the project.

Some of the PwC consultants who worked on the April review of the overspend at the hospital had previously advised the HSE about proceeding with the project in 2018.

Both the HSE and the Department of Health have since insisted that there is no conflict of interest arising from this.

Catherine Murphy

Social Democrats’ Catherine Murphy hit out at the claim, saying officials are treating TDs like “eejits”.

“The people were essentially being asked if they agreed with themselves, that is what this is. It’s almost like we are being made eejits of now.

“The same personnel involved, to me it just screams conflict of interest.”

Mr MacSharry said that he was not satisfied with PwC’s role.

“We can’t have the contestants judging the beauty pageant,” he said.

“Despite the great name of PwC globally, can you really say that the perception of conflict of interest doesn’t exist here?”

Jim Breslin, secretary-general of the Department of Health, refuted the suggestion that PwC’s involvement represented a conflict of interest.

“They retained their independence,” he said.

If I believe that a conflict of interest existed, I would say it.

In its review of the process, PwC noted that there was a question over whether the board members and the executive had been “challenged” sufficiently on aspects of the project.

Mr Quinn, a board member, disagreed with this.

“There were considerable challenges going on all the time,” he said.

“We relied heavily on our advisors – you have to – but there was sufficient challenge of the executive.”

Fred Barry, who was appointed the new chairman of the project in February, said he “couldn’t honestly answer” the question as he was not a board member at the time.

The PwC report did not find that existing governance structures contributed to the cost escalation.

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