Tuesday, 12 February 2019
Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment) Bill 2017: Second Stage [Private Members]
We published this legislation in January 2018, immediately ahead of the publication of the so-called Project Ireland 2040 wish list. The first flagship project referred to in Project Ireland 2040, the national children's hospital, has been marked by incompetence and avoidance of responsibility. We have seen nothing in terms of concrete achievements or straight answers on what is a major overspend. This Bill will empower the Comptroller and Auditor General to do that. It gives responsibility to that office for parliamentary oversight of major infrastructure projects so that we do not have the kind of pass the parcel, dodge the bullet action that we have seen on the part of the Departments of Health, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Finance and the Department of the Taoiseach since the news of the overrun broke.
I am disappointed that the Government is abstaining rather than supporting this Bill. Support for this legislation would send a signal that the Government is interested in working with us on strengthening the Bill and addressing its weaknesses. We do not claim complete wisdom on this and had hoped that the Government would support the Bill and bring it to Committee Stage. I hope that we will have the support of other parties in the House and in that context, I acknowledge the support of Deputy Jonathan O'Brien. I hope we can bring the Bill to Committee Stage in order to strengthen it and to give taxpayers some assurance that this House has learned from the fiasco of the last number of weeks, is doing everything it can to prevent that kind of overspend from happening again and that it takes its responsibility, as the guardian and custodian of taxpayers' money, seriously. I want to assure the public that we can learn lessons, that events do not just happen and then we run away from them. We must learn lessons and change things.
Deputy Cowen has spoken about changes that need to be made in procurement. We cannot continue to award contracts to contractors who fail to deliver on projects or on budgets. We must look at the two-stage system and ask why we are still doing that kind of thing. We must examine our procurement more generally and ask why we are preventing small businesses and SMEs from engaging in the procurement process. We must ask why we are going with the cheapest bid every time because going after the cheapest bid on this occasion has landed us with an overspend of €400 million. The cheapest bid is not necessarily always the winner for the taxpayer, as we know to our cost.
The Comptroller and Auditor General's office is fantastically expert in this area. Its staff are highly skilled and have a reputation for independence. The office is answerable to the Committee of Public Accounts and this Bill seeks to give the office extra powers to conduct this kind of analysis. We must stop farming this kind of operation out to private consultancy companies which have many different clients and many skins in many different games.
In the case of the Comptroller and Auditor General's office, the only skin it has in the game is the taxpayer, representing taxpayers' interests and standing up for them. That is what this Bill is about.
One of the key shortcomings also outlined in the 2017 IMF review of capital planning was our focus on sectoral planning. Different Departments and different agencies undertake major infrastructural projects differently. They operate different policies and different procurement and tendering processes and this leads to projects hitting the bleachers in the way that the national children's hospital has done. We have consistently reiterated, and do so again, the need for a national infrastructural commission that will take responsibility for lining out all infrastructure projects, such that all of the expertise required to deliver big projects is in one body. This body would have the expertise, experience and financial clout and, most important, the responsibility to the taxpayer to deliver projects on budget and on time.
It is disappointing that the Government is taking an abstentionist role in regard to this Bill. It is disappointing that it continues to shrug the shoulders and to say "Oh well look that happened, but we will still get our hospital". Where is the party of fiscal responsibility? It is running in the opposite direction.