There are two further serious reports in the news media today on the continuing saga of the national children's hospital. There is one in the Irish Examiner which is headlined "Secret plan to manage hospital fallout [...]" and another in The Irish Times which is headlined "Children's hospital overrun would have happened regardless [...]". The articles reference a confidential report which the HSE prepared having been asked to do so by the Department of Health. The minutes of the meeting of the joint construction and finance sub-committee of the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board on 30 August are particularly revealing because they show that there was significant unease and concern about escalating costs. They also reveal that there were significant efforts to keep the news under wraps, including the signing by approximately 25 members of confidentiality clauses. The meeting took place three days after the Minister for Health ad been told about a potential overspend of €391 million. One wonders whether this overall secrecy fed into the misleading of the Dáil in the answer Deputy Cowen received to his parliamentary question which, as we now know, was not correct.
The articles also describe a meeting that was held with a public relations agency to discuss the communications fall-out from the overspend. They state the meeting with Q4PR examined two scenarios: awarding the phase B contract to BAM or not awarding it to BAM and going with plan B. The minutes show that Mr. John Pollack noted that a paper had been issued and that Anne Butler agreed on some actions that were required. That level of engagement with a public relations company in deciding whether the contract was to be awarded to BAM or whether the project was to be retendered as plan B was quite extraordinary. Two issues emerge, one of which relates to the secrecy. One of the 25 people is the top procurement officer in the Civil Service. There is a code, under which he is obliged to report to the Minister, particularly where there are serious weaknesses in controls that have not been addressed, despite having been drawn to the attention of the board or the chairperson. There is an obligation, particularly in a non-commercial State body, to provide that material for the Minister of the day.
The main message emanating from this seems to be that the Government's focus was on controlling the message, not the cost. Whatever else it did, it would control the message around the overspend. There was no real focus on getting the costs down. It is quite extraordinary. On looking at all the photographs and videos on the national children's hospital, the Government was good on the hard hats and the yellow vests. It was good on the videos, YouTube, you name it; there was no lack of communication around this hospital right from the get-go. It was all about getting the project started. It was even started without the detailed design being worked out. Get boots on the ground, get it working from the public relations perspective. That rendered the Taoiseach very vulnerable when it came to costs and taking a hard line on cost management and control. Is it still the Government's position that the chief procurement officer did not discuss or alert senior officials in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to this overrun until November, notwithstanding what was going on around August? Can the Taoiseach rule out that the confidentiality around this was not a factor in the Minister misleading the Dáil last September? Will he confirm that all documentation and reports pertaining to this issue will be made public once and for all and that this drip feed of information is stopped?