Thursday, 17 December 2020
Appropriation Bill 2020: Second and Subsequent Stages
I apologise for not being hear earlier but I expected the Government speakers who are listed to be here and I did not realise they were not.
I am happy to support the Appropriations Bill 2020. Given the year that is in it, any kind of comparisons are fairly meaningless. It has been an exceptional year. Many decisions were taken about spending, most of them correct but some of them questionable. It is important that as we approach the end of the year consideration is given to how those decisions were taken.
As I said, most of the decisions were correct. We had to provide income support for people and supports for businesses in a situation which was completely unprecedented and catastrophic for many individuals and companies. We also had an enormous spend in the health area, which needs attention at this point. Earlier this morning, I said here that I completely appreciate the fact that people were under enormous pressure and we did not know what was coming at us from down the tracks as we followed the experience in Italy. There was a mad scramble to get equipment, personal protective equipment, PPE, and medications and to procure beds and so on. Initially, there was a scramble and mad rush. Decisions were taken during that period that I think were questionable. Whatever about that point in March, there should have been lessons learned. While at that point there may have been some justification for bypassing the usual financial controls, we needed to get back on track sooner than we did. There still is no assurance that we are back on track in terms of proper procurement and adherence to existing financial controls.
This morning, I raised with the Tánaiste the awarding of a €14 million contract for ventilators to a company that had no expertise in the area. The company's only experience is in festival organisation in the Middle East. It is an events management company whose only employee is the owner and its address is a residential apartment in Dublin city centre. I queried how it came about that a contract was awarded to this individual. The Tánaiste undertook to check records and come back to me with information in that regard. It is important that we have that information. It beggars belief that a decision like that could have been taken. In terms of those ventilators, we do not know where they are now. We know that there were serious issues with quality control and that they have not been used in a clinical setting, as told to us by Paul Reid. Other than that, we have no idea how many of them arrived in this country, where they are and what action is being taken to get back some of that money for the Irish taxpayer. There a many outstanding questions like that. We have that information, thanks to the investigative journalism, principally, of Cianan Brennan of theIrish Examinerand, also, because the issue was raised in an RTÉ programme last week, but we do not have answers to those questions.
Whatever about taking short cuts earlier in the year, I am concerned that that practice continued. There is a report in today's, or, perhaps, yesterday's, The New York Timeson some of the very questionable practices in the UK and political involvement in the awarding of contracts, with no proper procurement procedures followed and no controls in place. It was a jamboree for many politicians whose business contacts, family or friends, ended up being awarded very valuable contracts without any of the normal procedures being followed. We do not want that situation to arise here. We do not know whether there has been element of it here, or not. There should have been much greater control from an earlier stage. By mid-summer, we should have been in a situation where all of the normal controls kicked back in. We have no assurance as to whether that happened or not.
From the point of view of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and its oversight role, in the health area in particular, what is the view at this point in regard to the expenditure of such a vast amount of money? Is the Minister confident that the proper controls were in place over recent months and are in place now? Irrespective of emergency situations, we must adhere to proper financial controls. I am interested in hearing the Minister's response from the point of view of his Department and the oversight group in regard to health expenditure.
Apart from that example, I also raised questions about the whole issue of personal protective equipment, PPE. From a very early stage, the State had to acquire vast quantities of PPE. I remember that Paul Reid, CEO of the HSE, gave an estimate at the time that PPE expenditure would be in the region of €1 billion this year. I understand it has not quite got to that yet. There will also be a very substantial investment in it next year. Rather than heading off all around the world trying to locate this equipment, we should be doing things differently. I recognise that this was a very difficult task in the early days. I remember proposing at the time, and Paul Reid said it was being done, that given the level of expenditure expected this year, next year and possibly in future years on the whole area of PPE, why were we not manufacturing it ourselves. That expenditure of €1 billion could create a massive industry and provide jobs for people who have lost out in other areas. It makes absolute sense that we would bring into use the manufacturing facilities that we have around the country, many of which are lying idle, to train people to produce PPE. I was given an assurance at the time, last April or May, that arrangements would be made for the manufacture of PPE here. Has that happened? Has a new industry been developed and are we producing our own PPE? When we consider the massive amount of money involved, there should be a spin-off for Irish jobs. I am interested in hearing the Minister's response in this regard.
As we look to move forward, we undoubtedly have serious issues around procurement in a general sense. There were serious problems even before the Covid crisis. The Office of Government Procurement was set up with the intention of dealing with those issues, yet we see all of the same mistakes being repeated in respect of the national paediatric hospital, for example, and broadband provision. There is a weariness and a lack of confidence that we are capable, as a State, of delivering major infrastructural projects on budget and on time. While I recognise that this has been achieved in respect of roads projects, for instance, and some transport projects, in the case of other major infrastructural projects, we are not there yet or anywhere close to it. I am concerned that the expertise does not exist currently within the public sector. The Minister really needs to review the procurement procedures, the level of expertise that is available and the number of personnel. A very specialised expertise is required, which very few people have. We really need to bring it into service in this country because we have not been well served in this regard in the past.
In terms of moving forward with major capital projects, I urge the Minister to take on board the points other speakers have made in regard to housing. The provision of housing is central to the cost of living and that, in turn, is central to demands for wage increases and general affordability of living. We have to bring down the cost of housing and we must stop subsidising overpriced housing. We have to bring to an end long-term leases, the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme and public private partnerships, PPPs, because they just do not work. We should be building housing at the cost of building, which is approximately €250,000 per three-bedroom house. It has been done by the co-operative in Ballymun. If we provide the land, and there is plenty of public land, we can deliver housing at that affordable price. I urge the Minister to take on board the points raised on that issue and also in regard to health facilities. Building community healthcare facilities is part and parcel of Sláintecare and they will, in turn, result in a lower-cost model of care. We desperately need to move to a lower-cost, more effective public model of care. I urge the Minister to give priority to those key areas.