Tuesday, 12 February 2019
Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment) Bill 2017: Second Stage [Private Members]
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment) Bill 2017 introduced by my colleagues, Deputies Barry Cowen and Dara Calleary. Essentially, this Bill, if passed will ensure an automatic Comptroller and Auditor General review of capital projects is triggered where costs rise above a set amount, which amount will be determined during later Stages of the passage of the legislation. This would ensure enhanced oversight of public spending. This is the lesson we need to learn before we embark on the major spending of the national capital plan. It also will ensure greater accountability for the taxpayer in the spend of public funds.
Where does this come from? It comes, in part, from the view within the Fianna Fáil Party but it is backed up by the IMF report on Ireland's capital investment management, which found the Comptroller and Auditor General's office is focused on financial rather than performance auditing and active monitoring by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is underdeveloped. These are the two key issues this Bill sets out to address. The Comptroller and Auditor General carries out a good financial audit at the end of a process. This Bill seeks to enhance the powers of the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General to allow it to carry out performance auditing during the course of a project, many of which span several years. It is only right that the Comptroller and Auditor General would be able to review projects when costs increase above a particular level.
Among the risks faced by the taxpayer is the political risk of a Government simply wanting to get diggers on a site to show progress. This is probably where most public projects go wrong. It is what happened with the national children's hospital. The Government wanted the diggers on site before the hospital was designed and that is what happened. The Government made the political decision to allow the project to get under way and to work out the cost as it progressed. Once one lets a contractor on site, one has lost total control. The external reviews currently being commissioned will delve into the entrails of what went wrong but the project went wrong because the Government made that decision.
The Government also made a second wrong decision in regard to the national children's hospital. When the detailed design was completed, it could have gone to tender for the detailed construction of the hospital but that would have required the contractor on site who had completed the ground works to withdraw from the site and re-tender along with everybody else and this would have delayed the process for six or eight months. Government public relations considerations won the day. The Government did not want to face a situation whereby the contractor would have to move off-site lest it would be accused of collapsing the project and the PR for the Government superseded any interests of the taxpayer in getting the job properly tendered when the design was completed. This was a mistake. Under this Bill, the Comptroller and Auditor General would be able to flag such issues.
The public service is complicit as well. As the public service does not have a commercial mandate it may, owing to a lack of independence, want to follow the Minister's wish and so it will produce memos low-balling the estimated cost of a project to get it up and running. The contractor also knows that the Government wants the project up and running and so it submits a low tender. All of this is done in the knowledge that once a project is up and running, there will be a point of no return at which costs will go out the window. They all want to get projects to the point of no return because the view is that in ten years' time, people will forget about the cost. People will not forget the cost because it will form part of the national debt on which we will be paying interest. It is important that we have control and management of these issues at all stages. The Comptroller and Auditor General should have the authority, through enhanced powers, to carry out this function. The Comptroller and Auditor General has financial expertise and he or she would be well able to oversee capital projects.
This is not just about the children's hospital. The sum of €3 billion is being thrown around in regard to the national broadband plan. Nobody knows what that is about. I can guarantee the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, and his Department do not know what it is about but that figure is in the ether. If €3 billion is being mentioned before the project is even commenced, God knows where this will end up. The same happened in regard to the light rail extension projects. All of these are great ideas, in respect of which there is great PR and many ribbons cut on the commencement of projects, but there is no consideration for who will be left to pick up the cost. The Minister who turns the sod is never the Minister who picks up the bill four, five, six or seven years later. It is left to his or her successor to worry about because he or she will have moved on to another portfolio.
We want good projects to proceed. The children's hospital is needed but we must ensure that we get value for money and value for the taxpayer, with projects completed at realistic prices that the taxpayer can afford. We need a central unit for cost control and value for money auditing as projects progress. The Comptroller and Auditor General's office is the best office in the State to do this as it is independent of Government and the Oireachtas. Also, the Comptroller and Auditor General has a constitutional role and as nobody can challenge him or her, we should proceed and give him or her the additional powers to perform this function.