Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Questions (68)

Peadar Tóibín


68. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the details of each State infrastructure project that is in development or is due for completion in 2019 and that is in excess of the budget assigned to the project for its current stage to date. [39522/19]

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Oral answers (10 contributions) (Question to Public)

Ireland has rare form when it comes to overspending on infrastructural projects. There was the motorway network, Luas, the HSE personnel, payroll and related systems, PPARS, Dublin Port and now we have a national children's hospital and the national broadband plan coming in at an extreme cost. In 2016, the Taoiseach stated that, short of an asteroid hitting the planet, the national children's hospital would be finished by 2020. He estimated that it would take €670 million in order to complete the project. The figure is now north of €1.7 billion. The Government estimated that the national broadband plan would cost €500 million and now it aims to deliver broadband to a third fewer houses over a period three times longer at six times the 2012 cost. Why are we spending so much on infrastructural projects and how is the Government going to stop overspending?

Just to reiterate some of the points I made earlier, what we are doing is looking at changes that can be made in the public spending code that build on the experiences we have had in respect of the national children's hospital and the national broadband plan. The cost relating to the national children's hospital was got clearly wrong and the length of time involved in delivering a project of that scale was got wrong too.

I have acknowledged this in many debates in this House. In regard to the national broadband plan, the learnings are different. The national broadband plan went through the kind of appraisal and focus that it should do, and the Government made the decision in regard to going ahead with that project conscious of the risks and of the higher costs. We then shared that with the Oireachtas and I believe we are going to have a heightened debate about that in the coming weeks.

In regard to what we are doing to address issues like this in the future, it is why we are revising the public spending code and why we have a capital tracker that lays out where different projects stand. While the Deputy is correct to point out two big projects in which the cost of delivery went wrong and there was significant public concern, we have many different projects across the country, from primary care, to schools, to higher and further education and to roads, which are on time and on budget, and where different agencies are able to deliver big projects on track and in the way the Government expects.

There are two outstanding points with regard to how the general public sees this. The first is that people are shocked at the sheer scale of the financial damage done to the country and shocked at the scale of financial self-harm being wrought by the Government's actions. People see it in their local areas and their local schools that are being threatened with closures. They see the caps for simple services like home help for elderly people, the shutdown of disability services and the four-hour commutes they are making every day. They see that the pleas they make for extensions to rail lines to their towns are being scoffed at by Ministers, who say it is just not possible as money is not available. They see their own children suffering from the lack of mental health services, the 1 million people who are currently on hospital waiting lists and the 100,000 people who were on trolleys last year. They put that massive need in their own lives sitting beside the Government's financial self-harm and they simply cannot get their head around it. It is impossible for people to understand how they can suffer so hard in their own lives to try to get simple services for their families when the Government can be seen to squander such a level of money, and nothing happens as a result of it.

I have already acknowledged and outlined to the House on many occasions how the costs in regard to the national children's hospital and the national broadband plan will not impact on the kind of issues the Deputy is referring to. Deputy Cowen earlier asked how we are going to pay for these projects and I pointed out that, in the period from 2021 onwards, when the costs of these projects materialise, we have added the cost of these projects to the expenditure plans for Government Departments, so they are not affecting the issues the Deputy is raising. The Deputy referred to the commute times that citizens face. Surely the roll-out of the national broadband plan and ensuring that more homes have connectivity to high-speed broadband access is a way in which we can respond to that. The national children's hospital is not about delivering a building. It is about delivering better care and better services and supports to vulnerable children, the kind of citizens the Deputy has just referred to in his question.

The question asks for details of excessive spend on current infrastructure projects or those to be completed in 2019. There is an opportunity cost. If the Government takes money and puts it into one project, it has to come out of another project - it cannot just be developed out of thin air. There is an opportunity cost to the disasters that have happened under the Minister's watch. The Minister says something has gone wrong. If something has gone wrong, somebody needs to be made accountable for it. This is another issue people cannot get their heads around in this country. They cannot understand how a Minister can squander billions of euro of taxpayers' money and get off scot-free. People see in their own lives, in their work and in their clubs and community organisations that they themselves are held responsible on a daily basis yet, at the top of the decision tree in this State, it is an accountability-free zone. The Minister mentioned the public spending code that he has designed for the future. Is there any accountability in that code? If, for example, the disaster happened with the national children's hospital under the Minister's public spending code in the future, would it be the case that the Ministers who are responsible for the disaster are held to account?

Whatever the Oireachtas was across that period, it certainly was not an accountability-free zone.

The Minister was not held to account.

I do not know where the Deputy was across that period. I spent a lot of time in this Chamber, answering questions about the national children's hospital and the national broadband plan, as I should, given I am accountable to the House. I spent a lot of time in front of various Oireachtas committees, at which my role in regard to these projects and the decisions that I made were amply challenged by many Deputies.

In regard to broader accountability and what happened with the national children's hospital-----

With respect, that is not accountability.

Actually, accountability is putting questions to Members of this House and people who are in positions of influence, like myself, and my being held accountable to the House for them, which is what happened.

In regard to the national children's hospital, the Deputy will be aware there was change in regard to individuals who were in positions of responsibility across the period when the debate on the national children's hospital was at its highest. In terms of accountability beyond that, and in particular in regard to the national broadband plan, for those who think there is a cheaper and quicker way of delivering 100% coverage apart from this plan - perhaps the Deputy is one of them - the time is coming when they will need to spell out how that will happen. I can tell him that I spent the best part of a year trying to establish if that could be done and I reached the conclusion that the plan in front of us was, on balance, the best way of making it happen.