Tuesday, 12 February 2019
Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment) Bill 2017: Second Stage [Private Members]
The cost overruns of the national children's hospital underline the need for enhanced oversight of public spending in the national development plan. Capital spending must be about more than ribbon-cutting by Ministers and glossy launch brochures. It has to be about more than spin and photo opportunities. After all, this is taxpayers' money we are talking about.
This Bill is a practical measure to avoid future overruns and ensure the taxpayer gets value for money for capital infrastructure, whether it is a motorway, a new hospital, a primary care building or a new school. There must be follow-up on actual delivery and value for money. Fianna Fáil introduced this Bill in 2017 in order to enhance oversight of capital spending. It draws on recommendations in an International Monetary Fund, IMF, assessment of infrastructure spending issues in Ireland. It provides for an automatic Comptroller and Auditor General review of capital projects to be triggered if costs rise by a certain amount or anticipated demand falls. This would place Ireland in line with international best practice and ensure we learn lessons from the children’s hospital overspend scandal.
In 2017 the IMF highlighted serious shortcomings in the planning of major infrastructural projects in Ireland and the lack of a national strategy to deal with the current bottlenecks. The report, normally carried out in developing countries, was requested by the Government of which the Minister of State is a member in a bid to improve the delivery of public infrastructure. It follows a visit by an IMF inspection team earlier this year. However, it has not been acted upon by the Government. The overrun at the national children’s hospital is a testament to the Government's refusal to learn the lessons of the report. With €42 billion due to be spent on capital projects over the next decade we need a rigorous set of performance and value-for-money reviews to ensure it is spent wisely. We must act to ensure that the State gets to grips with the problem at the heart of capital spending - over budget, over time, overspend, over and over again.
This Bill is a positive step to address the persistent problem of overspend. In contrast, the Government’s mishandling of the scandalous overruns in the national children’s hospital undermines its credibility on delivering value.
Will this Bill prevent cost overruns in the national children's hospital? It will not. However, it is timely. While other parties run with motions of no confidence and political posturing, the country still needs a Government at a time when Brexit is only 45 days away.
The overspend on the national children's hospital has to be a lesson to all of us because it is the reprofiling, to use the Taoiseach's phrase, of capital projects that will lose out. Certainty and clarity is required now as a matter of priority as to the projects that will be reprofiled, delayed and deferred. It is the knock-on effect of the cost overrun, the €391 million, that will have to be found. Is it the hospital that needs more beds, the school that needs an extra classrooms or the road that may not be upgraded? The list is endless.
The national development plan sets out almost €116 billion of investment, which will underpin the national planning framework over the next ten years. Some €91 billion in Exchequer funding for public capital investment has been allocated and will be supplemented with substantial investment by commercial State-owned enterprises.
I will use projects in my constituency as examples such as the demand for capital funding to progress the North Quays project, the €4.35 million in capital funding for the second permanent cath lab, of which I know the Minister of State is fully supportive and which, thankfully, has not been reprofiled and capital funding to extend the runway at Waterford Airport.
I believe this Bill reflects best practice internationally to tackle such overruns and apply the lessons learned to future projects.