Tuesday, 12 February 2019
Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment) Bill 2017: Second Stage [Private Members]
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I introduce this Bill in Private Members' time, further to it having been published in December 2018 by my colleague, Deputy Calleary, who had responsibility for this issue in our party. The developments of recent weeks regarding the national children's hospital overrun and the mismanagement of that project by the Government only serve to highlight the need for many improvements to be made in the way in which capital development projects are administered and delivered in this State. It is against that background that Fianna Fáil saw fit to use its time to reintroduce this Bill and to ask the Government to take on board the recommendations contained therein.
The Bill acknowledges the Comptroller and Auditor General's role, as currently constituted, to investigate, analyse and scrutinise capital development programmes once they are completed, to make recommendations thereafter and to be available for questioning to various all-party committees of this House. It is an independent office which has done great work in that regard. It has contributed in no small way to legislation that has ensued as a result of its intricate scrutiny of various programmes.
However, the Government is now employing the offices of a company in the private sector to carry out an investigation of the processes that brought us to a situation where a very poor and porous contract contributed to the State carrying the can for such overruns as became apparent last August and on which the Government only acted in December. Had this legislation already been enacted, it would have allowed the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the expertise therein the opportunity to intervene at a much earlier period, if and when expenditure ceilings associated with national development programmes and capital projects were breached. In the case of the children's hospital project, for example, that would have saved the State up to €500,000 in consultancy fees.
Notwithstanding the lessons that we can learn immediately, the Government sought to pre-empt the report's findings when it made various suggestions, following today's Cabinet meeting, about how contracts should not be divided into two stages, as they were in this instance. The Government also made reference to some weight being attached to the previous performance of low-ball bidders and so forth. However, all of this is coming after the event. The legislation that was put before the House previously by my colleague would have catered for the analysis that is now costing the State €500,000.
It is incumbent on the Government and all parties to accept the recommendations contained within the legislation. I am joined this evening by the Chairmen of the joint committee on finance and the Committee of Public Accounts who, in their capacity as members of my party, will support the recommendations. They will also add their voice of reason and experience in the context of recent analyses, investigations and scrutiny by their respective committees and the assistance they received from the intricate and inquisitive work of the Comptroller and Auditor General's office. They will add their voices, on behalf of their respective committees, to those calling for the alteration of the primary legislation to allow the Comptroller and Auditor General to act on our behalf and provide independent assistance and oversight, funded by the taxpayer. The value of that office is acknowledged by the taxpayer and is evidenced by the office's great track record.
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.
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.
I am not surprised that Fine Gael is taking this attitude to the Bill because previous Administrations led by Fine Gael took the same attitude. It does not seem to want to progress an oversight authority in regard to the expenditure of taxpayers' money on major projects, to achieve value for money or to accept some of the very valuable recommendations put by the Committee of Public Accounts to various Departments. There is a history of Departments stalling replies to the Committee of Public Accounts and not implementing the recommendations it makes in terms of achieving value for money. This is continued by way of the response of the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, this week at the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach. When I suggested that he should involve the Comptroller and Auditor General he responded that he could not do so but he can. The Comptroller and Auditor General has been already involved. He carried out some audits and reports on various aspects of the children's hospital, which, I think, cost in the region of €38,000. Why would the Government not reach to an internal arm of the State to ensure that it gets value for money, rather than giving money to a company like PwC?
We are now faced with the biggest scandal the country has seen for a long time, in that the estimated cost of the construction of the children's hospital has moved from €600 million to €1.7 billion, and no one can guarantee that that figure will be the final cost. It may increase to €2 billion. In regard to the works being undertaken on this house, we were told today at the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach by the Chairman of and the Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, OPW, that the cost of this work is estimated to be €15 million, that there is likely to be an overrun but that they could not tell us by how much it would overrun. The OPW has to claw back €3 million in the context of the money that has to be recouped due to the overrun on the national children's hospital. They have to deal with an overspend in regard to the work on Leinster House but they could not tell us what schemes or projects would be affected by the clawback, except to say generally that the €3 million would be taken out of the flood relief schemes. That is shocking. The Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, often appears before the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach. We have often questioned the methodology behind the procurement process. As stated by Deputy Calleary, we have flagged the fact that this process is working against the SMEs in this country. It is not giving them a fair shake. Have we not learned from Carillion? Have we not learned from all of the other issues that have dogged Government over a long number of years in regard to overspend and poor value for money? When what can be done for the future is articulated here, the single thing the Government will not do for some reason is increase the powers of the Comptroller and Auditor General.
Those powers should be increased to cover what is in this Bill, for example, the works and expenditure of Irish Water, which was promised. The Comptroller and Auditor General should be considered in the context of local government expenditure, which none of us in this House can get to grips with because responsibility for it is one step removed from us in the Local Government Audit Service. I have not seen a public debate on a report from the Local Government Audit Service. The Government still resists the suggestion that it be included in the remit of the Comptroller and Auditor General. If the Government has confidence in that office, it should accept this Bill and the other suggestions that have been made. It should include local government and send a clear signal to the taxpayer that we will no longer accept overruns and poor value for money and that our business will mean that what gets counted gets done. If the Government were to live by that rule, as a normal business would, we might see far less of the carry-on we are experiencing with the national children's hospital, the Leinster House project and many other projects that go unscrutinised in this State.
I ask the Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, Deputy Fleming, to resist entirely the negative commentary from those on the ditch outside this House who question the role of the committee. It is the foremost committee in this House and should be defended to the last by all parties. The Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General should be skilled to the last and we should be foursquare behind that office, the public and value for money. Let us put our foot down and stop it now. Despite, the Minister of State and his Government ignore the genuine attempts being made to improve what is necessary to get value for money.
I must say to the four Deputies of experience that their cynicism is staggering. They seem to have collective amnesia. Projects such as the Jack Lynch tunnel, Dublin Port tunnel, Luas and terminal 2 at Dublin Airport were examples of cost overruns. Another example was the PPARS project. All of these projects occurred under Fianna Fáil Governments.
I did not interrupt once. I sat here and took it. On radio last week, Philip Boucher Hayes featured ten projects in the history of the State that involved overruns. I am not sure whether they were all on Fianna Fáil's watch but I believe nine out of ten were.
I listened to the Deputies and took their criticism, some of which was fair and some of which was not, and I am throwing some of it back to them. I am sure they will have an opportunity to respond.
Responsibility for the implementation of Government policy and the delivery of public services takes place at multiple levels across the public sector. In recognition of this, there is a well established framework of accountability, responsibility and control in operation at each level. This framework encompasses the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General, as reflected in the Constitution; public financial procedures, as reflected in other legislative provisions; structures and requirements for governance, administration and control; and the institutional and financial relationships between Parliament and the Government that have developed over the years.
Article 33 of the Constitution provides for the office of Comptroller and Auditor General to audit all accounts administered by or under the authority of the Oireachtas. It states that the Comptroller and Auditor General shall report to Dáil Eireann at stated periods as determined by law. The Comptroller and Auditor General's role is to provide independent assurance that public funds and resources are used in accordance with the law, managed to good effect and properly accounted for and to contribute to improvement in public administration. The Comptroller and Auditor General is required by law to issue opinions on the accounts of Government Departments and public bodies that are audited by him, to publish reports on important matters selected at his discretion relating to value for money and the administration of public funds and to authorise under the comptroller function the release of public money from the Exchequer for purposes specified by law
The principal legislative provisions governing the powers and duties of the Comptroller and Auditor General are set out in the Comptroller and Auditor General Act 1923 and the Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment) Act 1993. Under section 9 of the Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment) Act 1993, the Comptroller and Auditor General can examine the economy and efficiency in use of resources and effectiveness of certain management systems - a value for money audit - of certain persons. All Departments and bodies audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General will be subject, at his discretion, to examination by him regarding value for money, that is, of the economy and efficiency of their operations and the adequacy of the management systems they have in place to appraise the effectiveness of their own operations. Under section 9 of the 1993 Act, the Comptroller and Auditor General can carry out such examinations as he considers appropriate for the purpose of ascertaining whether and to what extent the resources of the Department, person or fund have been used and, if acquired or disposed of by the Department, person or fund, whether they have been so acquired or disposed of economically and efficiently or whether any such disposal has been effected upon the most favourable terms reasonably obtainable.
All reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General are presented to Dáil Eireann and are examined on behalf of the Dáil by the Committee of Public Accounts. While there are close working relations between the Committee of Public Accounts and the Comptroller and Auditor General, the two are independent both in law and in practice. I was previously a member of the Committee of Public Accounts.
There is no doubt that the role and levels of accountability required in Government have evolved significantly in recent years. There are increased demands for greater oversight, transparency, financial disclosure and the management of risk and change. The Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment Act) 1993 was developed with a particular focus and has so far stood the test of time. The Department is open to new ideas to reform how we manage large-scale public investment projects and to increase accountability and transparency across Government. The investment projects and programmes office, IPPO, was established within my Department in 2018. This was on foot of the recommendations contained in the public investment management assessment, PIMA, report and a commitment set out in the National Development Plan 2018-2027. The IPPO is redesigning the requirements relating to the different stages involved in the process of selection, appraisal, approval and delivery of capital investment projects. It is intended that the updated capital appraisal guidance will be included in a revised public spending code during the course of 2019. More generally, the public spending code is reviewed on an ongoing basis to ensure that it takes account of the changing environment and to ensure best value for public funds.
I now turn to the content of the Bill. The Bill proposes to amend section 9 of the Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment) Act 1993 by inserting a new section 9A. Section 9A(1) states:
The Comptroller and Auditor General may utilise the powers granted under this Act, and in particular the powers contained in section 9 of this Act to examine the financing and expenditure required in the construction and completion of any strategic infrastructure development where that development is in part or fully funded from voted expenditure of the Oireachtas.
Section 9A(2) states:
Where any such development as described in this section requires additional expenditure not foreseen at the granting of planning permission for that development the Comptroller and Auditor General shall conduct an examination as outlined under section 9. The Minister may proscribe by regulations the conditions which shall require such an examination to be carried out.
While I appreciate that the Bill is well intentioned, I am concerned that what is proposed in section 9A appears to be already provided for under the current Comptroller and Auditor General Acts. Therefore, it would appear that this Bill does not provide any additional powers for the Comptroller and Auditor General. However, I look forward to hearing the views of Members on this issue and I will take the opportunity to reflect on those views.
I have some concerns relating to section 9A(2). This seems to potentially create a significant change to the independence of the Comptroller and Auditor General. It appears to give the Minister the ability, on a discretionary basis, to direct the deployment of the resources of the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General. In this regard, it should be noted that the Mexico Declaration on Supreme Audit Institutions Independence states that supreme audit institutions, SAIs, should have full discretion in the discharge of their responsibilities and should co-operate with governments or public entities that strive to improve the use and management of public funds. As a principle, what is proposed in section 9A(2) of the Bill may be problematic, particularly given the Mexico Declaration on Supreme Audit Institutions Independence. One of the eight core principles in this document, principle 3, states that an SAI should have "a sufficiently broad mandate and full discretion, in the discharge of SAI functions".
In addition, principle 6 states an SAI should have the freedom to decide the content and timing of audit reports. This concern is heightened further by the proposed scope of the section. In practice, it would have a significant impact, given the limited resources the office has for its value for money work and the proposed scale of the required work at the direction of the Minister. One possible outcome would be that the Comptroller and Auditor General would, in effect, be severely constrained in the value for money examinations he could carry out at his own discretion. These would be serious, even fundamental, changes to the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General and very serious consideration would need to be given to the impact of such changes. I ask Members to reflect on that section.
On a brief initial consideration, there might be a cost to the Exchequer if the Bill was enacted as it would have resource implications for the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General. At this point it is not possible to quantify the estimated costs, but the Bill has the potential to result in additional costs to the Exchequer. Therefore, it appears that a money message would be required in respect of the Bill. The Government will consider this issue further in advance of any Committee Stage hearings. The Government will abstain in the vote on the Bill on Second Stage. We will, of course, reflect on all of the issues raised by Members in the House during this debate and reflect on the views expressed before the next stage of consideration of the Bill.
Criticism is fair and valid in regard to the overrun of €450 million on the children's hospital project and the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, has accepted responsibility on behalf of the Government. Nobody is pleased with the overrun. However, the figures being quoted are not the actual ones associated with the project. It was to be a €943 million project and some €450 million was to be added to the the cost of the initial project. It is not €2 billion or €1.7 billion but €943 million plus €450 million. They are the actual figures. There is an additional amount of almost €300 million to be added to the cost of the overall project, which is to merge three hospitals on one site and put in place ICT and electronic systems in order that the hospital will be a digital, electronic hospital. They are the facts and if people want to dispute them, they are wrong to do so.
I am a little confused on the Government's position on the Bill, given the controversy we have just gone through about overruns and the potential impact an overrun of €450 million will have on the Exchequer. I do not want to get into a blame game because I want to concentrate on the Bill. However, I agree with my Fianna Fáil colleagues that by abstaining on the Bill, the Government is sending completely the wrong message. Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil have huge differences on how we should approach the issue, but I am more than willing to work with it when it brings forward a proposal to try to address some of the concerns expressed and rectify them. I hope it will do the same if we bring forward proposals. However, I would have thought the Government would be falling over itself to work with Opposition parties to try to restore some confidence in the procurement process employed by the State. Abstaining on this legislation sends completely the wrong message.
We will be supporting the Bill, but I have one small concern about an issue the Minister of State referenced in regard to section 9A(2). He said the Bill would confer no new powers on the Comptroller and Auditor General. I disagree. Section 9A(2) will confer an implicit new power on the Comptroller and Auditor General because it will compel him or her - in this case, him - to examine any cost overrun on a project. It is my understanding that currently the Comptroller and Auditor General has no implicit power to examine cost overruns, whereas the Bill states that if there are cost overruns, the Comptroller and Auditor General should carry out an audit and lay a report before the Houses. For me, that is a new power.
I have a slight concern about the final part of this section which concerns the power to be given to the Minister to prescribe the regulations and conditions by which such an examination would be carried out. The role of the Comptroller and Auditor General is a constitutional one. I am not 100% certain and would like further legal advice on whether this provision will impinge on his powers in giving powers to a Minister to direct him on how he should carry out particular audits. Without doubt, a new power is being bestowed on the Comptroller and Auditor General in what is being proposed in the Bill which we will support. We will deal with that aspect on Committee Stage. However, to suggest, as the Government does, that it does not even want it to get to Committee Stage beggars belief, given everything that has happened in recent weeks. We should all be working together on whatever proposals are brought forward, from whatever side of the House, to try to improve the procurement process.
One of the things that has been highlighted in recent weeks is the deficiency in the procurement process which is not up to standard. We are in a situation where the Government is almost compelled to accept the lowest bid, regardless of how low it is, for fear of ending up on the steps of the Four Courts. That is not a good way to deal with procurement and the issue has to be addressed. I raised it last week at the health committee when I questioned the Secretary General and the Minister about what are known in EU regulations as abnormally low tenders and how they are dealt with by a number of European counterparts. Other countries define in legislation what an abnormally low tender is, which gives them the power to disqualify the lowest bidder without fear of recourse to legal challenge because it is dealt with in statutory law.
The other issue which baffles me is that when a contract is put out to tender and bids come in, the State cannot look at the past performance of any contractor who is bidding or take into account its reputation. I had this confirmed today at the finance committee. The State is prohibited from assessing it in assessing the tender before it. That is wrong and the issue needs to be addressed and, of course, it can be. There are EU procurement guidelines which deal with all of these issues, but we have chosen to ignore them. That is the reality. We deal with procurement under a number of statutory instruments which transpose the regulations by way of secondary legislation. We need to have a complete review of the regulations to see if we can place them on a statutory footing. We have published a Bill tonight to help the Government to do this. Our Bill defines what an abnormally low tender is and the process which should be undertaken if one is received. There would be an onus on the contracting authority to examine the tender and bring in the contractor to go through all of the figures. If there was a genuine belief the tenderer could not fulfil the contract, the State would have the scope and powers to exclude the tender without fear of recourse to a legal challenge.
The Bill also touched on past performance and reputation. I refer to the regulation of tenders Bill 2019, which I will move on First Stage next week. I hope to get the support of Fianna Fáil and I remain optimistic in that regard. It is a genuine attempt by us, as tonight's Bill is by Fianna Fáil, to try to address some of the genuine concerns that exist.
While the Bill gives powers to the Comptroller and Auditor General to examine cost overruns, we must get to a situation where we do not have cost overruns because we can nip them in the bud at the tendering and procurement stage. That is what our Bill aims to do.
I will not name any contractor or project but we cannot have a situation where a contractor consistently underbids for some of the major State contracts and ends up costing more in some cases than the highest bidder. That cannot continue because it is costing us hundreds of millions. In this case, it has cost us €450 million. That needs to stop. The Fianna Fáil Bill that is proposed is a genuine attempt to try to address some of the concerns. We will support it in good faith.
I am disgusted at the lack of support for the Bill from the Government. I do not understand why it is not lending its support to it. Even if the Government has concerns about the Bill, it should support it. We should be united in our voices in saying that we want to address the issue once and for all, regardless of who is in government. Given the circumstances, it was childish of the Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, to hurl accusations at Fianna Fáil about the overruns it presided over while in government. We must get away from that. The public does not care whether Fine Gael is in government, we are in government or Fianna Fáil is in government. An overrun is an overrun and the public ends up paying for it in the long run, and that needs to stop because people are losing faith in the process. We need to fix it now. We have a very small window of opportunity.
I urge the Minister of State to be more open to suggestions from other Opposition parties than he is tonight on the Fianna Fáil Bill. I ask him to consider supporting the Bill on Thursday during the voting bloc and allow it to go to Committee Stage. We can address on Committee Stage all the concerns he has raised. I share one of the concerns he outlined, but opposing the Bill is sending out the wrong message if the House cannot even bloody agree to send to Committee Stage the very first legislation that is introduced to try to address properly the issues we have been discussing in recent weeks.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. As my colleague, Deputy Jonathan O'Brien said, we support the thrust of the Bill but it needs some tweaking and a bit of work. However, it is a positive move with a solution, and not an idea that has been dreamt up. Much has been said about accountability and responsibility as well as value for money. What has happened seems to be systemic across many Departments over the years. The Bill strengthens the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General, and while it will not allow the office to foretell the future, through experience, it could possibly predict the future to the extent that sometimes overruns can be flagged in the system before they happen. That would be a positive step, show prudence in dealing with taxpayers' money, and ensure they get value for money. I do not understand why the Government would oppose the Bill. I recently read an article in a medical journal, which I will quote from to show how bad the system is even across the health sector. This goes back to accountability and responsibility.
The Health Service Executive’s ability to effectively manage a budget remains a concern. Despite the introduction of Activity Based Funding and Performance and Accountability Frameworks, according to a review of spending in the "challenging" acute hospital sector by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. This is a clear indication of the lack of financial management within the sector, and highlights the need for enhanced reform initiatives to drive efficiencies and productivity, according to the review.
Let us take that in the context of the Bill we are dealing with tonight in terms of giving the Comptroller and Auditor General the power to flag issues and the authority and strength to challenge issues as they arise. Like many of us, the office would learn by experience, and nobody sells that. Those involved in the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General have been dealing repeatedly with such issues. We have heard in many debates in recent weeks that certain overruns were flagged but the advice was ignored. Now we do not know whether we are starting with the original €600 million or if we are going to €1.7 billion. Are we getting value for money? Certainly not, but it is an opportunity to do the right thing, as Deputy O'Brien said. We are supposed to be here to legislate and drive things forward. As the Minister of State said in his contribution, the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General "is to provide independent assurance that public funds and resources are used in accordance with the law, managed to good effect and properly accounted for and to contribute to improvement in public administration". That is very welcome. He went on to refer to the obligation on the Comptroller and Auditor General "to publish reports on important matters selected at his [and her, to be politically correct] discretion relating to value for money and the administration of public funds".
Deputy O'Brien referred to the new section 9A(2) to be inserted, which encourages the Comptroller and Auditor General to signal if he thinks something is wrong and has concerns about a minor or major overrun being imminent on a given project. The measure could be strengthened on Committee Stage. This has to stop, which means reverting to giving value for money for taxpayers. People want and need value for money. Capital projects cost a lot of money. Irrespective of the accusations hurled across the floor by the two main parties, 99% of projects come to fruition. Being prudent and giving the Comptroller and Auditor General a bit more control and additional powers could only be a forward step. I commend the Bill and ask the Government to withdraw its objection to it to allow it to move to Committee Stage. Let us progress the Bill and do things right.
The people of this country are in fury with the overrun in the children's hospital. It is nothing short of a national scandal, above any other in this country. Time and again the same mistakes are being made by this Government and the previous Government, and there is little evidence that the Government has learnt any lessons from previous projects that have run over budget. I refer, for example, to the Luas, the early days of the roads programme, the maternity and children's hospitals and the likely final cost of the national broadband plan, which all resulted in overruns. I have to question whether the Government values the hard-earned money taxpayers hand over to the State.
We are heading into a major period of investment under the Government's Rebuilding Ireland plan, and I am worried that the Government will be reckless with the taxpayers' money. It is vital that taxpayers receive value for money. There is no question that the children's hospital is needed, but I must question how the hospital is now being costed at €1.7 billion, and there are fears that the final bill could reach €2 billion or more.
To top it off, the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, is still insisting that the hospital remains value for money. That is not value for money. That is how the people in rural Ireland feel. They fear they will be robbed millions of euro of rural development funds that are there for rural Ireland to make up the cost overruns of the children's hospital. I, along with my Rural Independent Group colleagues, call on the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, to clarify what rural projects will be scaled back or delayed when his Department is asked to slash its budget for the Government to make up the massive shortfall in funding that has emerged following the enormous cost overruns at the national children's hospital. The Government is talking about making a saving of €50 million from the Department of Health to make up the €100 million gap. I cannot imagine how it will be able to reduce spending in the health sector by €50 million because, as it is, we have very long waiting lists across all departments within the HSE, including terribly long waiting lists for children and adolescents.
Deputy Danny Healy-Rae and I have chartered 24 buses across the Border to Belfast for cataract procedures. If these people had been left on the Government's HSE waiting list they would have gone blind. What will happen when this Government cuts another €50 million from the health budget? I shudder to think. Here we stand with a huge hole in the ground and a Government that is refusing to admit it was wrong. It is digging its heels in on this project and refusing to listen to the people. Coming from west Cork myself, I am horrified for rural families. It is difficult to travel hundreds of miles with a sick child and then have to face the challenge of accessing a site at St. James's Hospital. These families have been betrayed by the State.
The Rural Independent Group is the only group of Deputies that can take the moral high ground here. Two and a half years ago we said this would go over budget, and it did. We said helicopters would not be able to land there, and they are not. We said that it would be difficult to get cars in and out of that site, and it will be difficult or nearly impossible. I look sadly at the Cork event centre, another major mess with evident overspend. There is no control here. This is the worst political disaster this country has ever seen.
Like everyone else in the country I am very disappointed with what has happened with the children's hospital. As Deputy Collins said, we had a motion here before anyone else, back in 2017. The people that are now jumping up and down about the projected cost of the hospital did not support us. Only 18 Deputies voted for our motion. We told everyone that it would go over budget because we understood what was going on and what was going to happen. It has done so more than we imagined in our wildest dreams.
Now the Minister of State is saying it will be good value anyway because we will have a hospital. He does not care. He does not care because he is not paying for it. He did not have his eye on the ball and neither did the Minister for Finance. All last year the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, was watching the abortion issue and making sure it would be available by 1 January. He did not give a tuppenny damn about the hospital or anything else in the health sector, like the waiting lists or the people we take up to the North. They would go blind if we did not take them up and we are glad to be able to do so to ensure that in the last days of their lives they are able to look around and see the world. If they were depending on this Government they would all be blind. Some 25 buses have gone up and we are taking three more next month.
There is a whole lot wrong with the tendering process, whether it is for public or private procurement. There is no law and order in this country. As far as I understand it, five companies qualified through the pre-qualification process which required them to have a certain turnover. Out of the five, only two were interested. They were able to talk among themselves and decide what price to quote. That is what happened here and that is what happens with a lot of the bigger projects around the country. Then we have small companies. I am talking about the small companies around the country that are out every morning working for the bigger companies. They do not get paid the money they are owed and they go wallop. So many contractors around the country were caught, especially in Kerry. One contractor went down for €20 million. He caught hundreds of small contractors that did their work honestly, provided the men and machines and did the work. Lo and behold, the contractor went into receivership, examinership or whatever it is. That contractor is working again, but the small fellows never got their money. That is not law and order.
I can go back to 2009. It could be construed that I have a conflict of interest because I got caught as well. We looked to the Director of Corporate Enforcement. What did he do for the people? He did nothing. He did nothing for the small fellows who lost their money. It was everything to some of them. Some of them went down and never came up again. I struggled in 2009, 2010 and 2011 because I got caught for a massive sum of money by these fellows as well. We told the Director of Corporate Enforcement what assets the principal contractor had. The Director of Corporate Enforcement did nothing at all. He left the people stranded. He is supposed to be a pillar of law enforcement in our country. The Director of Corporate Enforcement did nothing for the people of Kerry and elsewhere who were caught at that time. There is an awful lot of work to be done to ensure proper and fair procurement processes in our country. They are not in evidence at present.
Some State bodies now look for tenders on a five-year timeline. In all fairness, how can any small contractor look into a magic ball and decide what it will be able to work for in five years? Everything changes, whether it is prices, fuel or insurance. No care or consideration is given to people who work hard, go out in the morning and do an honest day's work. They are forgotten about and are not treated fairly in our country. Shame on the Government for allowing what has happened to the taxpayers of Ireland. It is the taxpayer who will have to foot the bill. I can tell the Minister of State one thing, those taxpayers are angry and they are waiting for the Government. They will meet its members when they come to the door and they will tell them where to get off. The Government has let the whole country down with this debacle and it will be remembered in 50 years for what has happened. The Government took its eyes off the ball. It was interested in abortion and all the other tomfoolery it was going on with. This is where we are now. The Government is letting the taxpayer pay for its mistakes.
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.
Capital projects such as the ones we are mentioning here are vitally important to the country and to all its citizens and residents, not least the many who are coming to my county of Kildare. Of equal importance, however, is the surety to the taxpayers who fund those that there is transparency in terms of the funding and that they are getting the best value for money while the projects are being carried out.
As for this Bill, the key message from our party is that infrastructural investment has to be about much more than just ribbon cutting by Ministers in hard hats. That is something we see on an ongoing basis. As recently as last Thursday, four Ministers were in Kildare basically to put a spade in the ground for a new innovation and research centre, which is very welcome. I do not think a spade went into the ground, however, because the ground was not ready.
There has to be a follow-on in actual delivery of projects and value for money. My colleague, Deputy Calleary, introduced this particular Bill in 2017 to enhance oversight of capital spending. As it draws on recommendations in an IMF assessment of infrastructural spending issues in Ireland, it comes from a good basis and good research. The Bill ensures that an automatic review of capital projects by the Comptroller and Auditor General is triggered if costs rise by a certain amount or anticipated demand falls. The key point is that this measure will kick in if costs rise by a certain amount or percentage. This would place Ireland in line with international best practice and ensure we learn lessons from the national children's hospital overspend scandal.
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 that money is spent wisely because by way of contrast, the Government's mishandling of the scandalous overrun in the national children's hospital costs undermines its credibility, and that of the Ministers of State opposite, on delivering value.
My colleague, Deputy Cowen, put it very well earlier when he spoke about the amount of money that will be spent in terms of the overrun in the national children's hospital project. If the same percentage of overspending was to take place on all the capital projects in line to be undertaken over the coming years, it would amount to €10 billion, which is frightening. That shows the vital need for a Bill like this one to be put in place. I am disappointed the Government is not supporting it but it is heartening to see support for it from across the rest of the House.
I welcome Deputy Calleary's Bill and I support it. I agree with giving more powers. The only thing I worry about is that we are mighty at looking back at the mistakes that have been made in this country but we do not know how to do a contract and stay in budget. That is a major problem. Every excuse has been given for that by Governments over the years. Be it renovating this building or whatever the project, there is always an excuse; it is the cost of labour. The cost of labour has not gone up that much because if we talk to workers in Ireland, they will say their pockets are not any fuller than they were three or four years ago.
The biggest problem is that there are people handling contracts who do not have a bull's iota about them. There is only one way. If they do not know how to do it, the best way they can go forward is to design and build it and put it out for a fixed price contract. That is the only way they will know they will not spend any more money. It is a pretty simple methodology providing they make sure they put every item they want into the room and multiply that by 650 rooms. It is a very simple system. We decided that we would look at this when we proposed the primary care centres. We decided we would give the builder a 25-year contract, which would then be renegotiated, instead of telling them that after 25 years, we would own the building for €100, €1,000 or whatever. However, we do not seem to know how to do that.
We need to put in place a system to make sure that when we are designing a project, we know what we are designing and that we get the right people to do it. There are many people scratching their heads after a while and costing the State money. Also, indemnity insurance needs to be called in. We should not let people off the hook.
I refer to those people along the chain who allowed this to happen. I believe that if someone delivers something on time, the people involved, be it the civil servants or the private sector, should be given a bonus. If they do not deliver it on time and if the project is over budget, there should be consequences for situations like that.
We are now facing a scenario where we do not know the position regarding contracts across this country, especially in rural areas, over the next year or two years. Sadly, that will affect the taxpayer of this country. Everyone is looking around them and saying, "This has to go on". Nothing has to go on. We can put the breaks on something for a few months, do a detailed analysis of it and see where we are going.
With everything that is going on at the moment, I have not heard one word from Ministers or the Taoiseach about broadband, which is another project that is to come. I wonder if there are budgets cut to that project. All we hear is that it is coming shortly. I might not have gone to school for that long but I never knew what date "shortly" meant. I would like to know when it is coming and when it will be delivered because "shortly" has gone on since August and I am getting sick of it.
As stated at the outset, the Government recognises the need at all times to meet the highest standards regarding transparency, oversight and financial disclosure and recognises the intention to address such issues in the Bill proposed tonight.
The Government will abstain on the vote to oppose the Private Members' Bill, the Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment) Bill 2017, sponsored by Deputy Dara Calleary. I will reflect further on the issues raised in advance of the next Stage of parliamentary consideration.
The current legislation, namely, the Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment) Act 1993, was developed with a particular focus and so far has stood the test of time. The framework of accountability and control is a well-established framework encompassing the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General as reflected in the Constitution. The Comptroller and Auditor General's role is to provide independent insurance that public funds and resources are used in accordance with the law, managed to good effect and properly accounted for to contribute to improvement in public administration.
My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, noted that there is no need to consider the provisions made in this Bill as the powers are already provided for in the Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment) Act 1993. Under section 9 of the 1993 Act, the Comptroller and Auditor General can examine the economy, efficiency and use of resources and effectiveness of certain management systems or carry out a value for money audit of a certain person. Therefore, section 9A(1) of the Bill may not necessarily add any more power to the Comptroller and Auditor General than is already provided for in the current Act. However, having heard the issues raised by Members on this point, we will reflect further on how they should be addressed as the Bill proceeds through the Oireachtas.
The Minister of State also noted the issue with the proposed new section 9A(2) of the Bill and its possible impact on the independence of the Comptroller and Auditor General. As drafted, it would seem to give the Minister the ability or discretionary basis to direct the deployment of the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General's resources. As a principle, this is problematic, particularly given the Mexico Declaration on Supreme Audit Institutions Independence. One of the eight core principles of this document, principle 3, states that a supreme audit institution, SAI, should have a "sufficiently broad mandate and full discretion" in the discharge of its functions. In addition, principle 6 states that the supreme audit institution should have the "freedom to decide the content and timing of audit reports". This concern is further highlighted and heightened by the proposed scope of the section. In practice, it would have a significant impact given the limited resources the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General has for its value for money work and the proposed scale of the required work at the direction of the Minister. One possible outcome would be that the Comptroller and Auditor General would be severely constrained in the value for money examinations he could carry out at his discretion.
All Deputies will recognise the key constitutional role of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the need to take great care in considering any changes that might materially affect the scope of the Comptroller and Auditor General's work. The Comptroller and Auditor General has played a critical role in reviewing Government spending and its effectiveness for many years and we do not want to diminish that role. In that context, we have heard the perspectives and views put forward by Members of the Opposition on this issue during this debate and we will reflect further on them before the next stage of consideration of the Bill. Deputy Calleary may also care to reflect on these points as the Bill progresses.
A brief initial consideration suggests there may be a cost to the Exchequer if the Bill is enacted as it would have resource implications for the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General. It is not possible at this stage to quantify the estimated costs but the Bill has the potential to result in additional costs to the Exchequer. Therefore, a money message is required in respect of this Bill. The Government will consider this further in advance of any Committee Stage hearing.
I thank Members for their views and observations on this draft Bill and the wider issues they raised during this debate. The Government fully recognises the importance of the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General in our system of public accountability and we will consider the issues raised in advance of the next stage of consideration of the Bill. I thank all Deputies for their contributions to this Bill, some of which very good and pointed. We will consider all points as the Bill progresses through the House.
I thank all contributors to this evening's debate. I note the support from all sides of the House, bar the Government side, which has decided to abstain. I will address some of the points made by the only two Government Members who spoke, namely, the Ministers of State, Deputies D'Arcy and Kehoe. The Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, stated there is a "well established framework of accountability, responsibility and control in operation at each level." That was an unfortunate statement to make today of all days. We are bringing forward amending legislation on the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General who, as I stated, has independent expertise at his disposal which can help and assist the Government at no extra cost, despite the contention made by Government speakers.
The Government argues that the Bill does not appear to provide any additional powers for the Comptroller and Auditor General, while also contending that there may be a cost to the Exchequer if it is enacted. That is a contradiction. It indicates to me in no uncertain terms that the Government has interpreted and considered the Bill in a flippant manner and has not gone into any great detail in offering a view contrary to the views expressed by Fianna Fáil Deputies and other Opposition Deputies in this debate. I acknowledge Sinn Féin's recognition of our intentions and the basis on which we have proposed the Bill. In doing so, it also agreed with the Bill, as did other speakers.
We want to increase accountability and transparency across Government. Government speakers also said that for a Minister to instruct the Comptroller and Auditor General to intervene and analyse and scrutinise a capital development project and the costs associated with it where they exceed the initially envisaged cost would in some way interfering with the independence of the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General. I find that very hard to comprehend, especially in the week and day that is in it.
I would be more impressed if it were the intention of Government to reflect on this Bill, especially if it is passed by the Dáil, and improve it, especially at it is as plain as the nose on one's face that the State has at its disposal machinery that would allow for an independent assessment of capital projects. It should not leave us in the current predicament where we have abysmal mismanagement of the new children's hospital and we are floundering as we seek to find out what impact this will have on other projects. It is not yet clear from what I have heard from the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform what cutbacks will take place as a result of this. For example, on the A5 road project, he stated that, even allowing for the problems and difficulties with the Northern Ireland Assembly unfortunately not being in place, it may be the end of this year before the €27 million in funding can be drawn down. It will not be a cut from this year's Exchequer allocation if it comes at the end of the year.
In the event that the Government is not forthcoming with information, the Dáil, especially this side of the House, will insist that the Government provide Members of this House and, by association, their constituents with details of what projects and communities will be at a loss in respect of the initial commitments given by the Government when its members travelled the country with a series of roadshows. It is now unable to have one roadshow to tell us exactly where we stand. It is not only the funding of projects this year that we are worried about because it is not as if the Government can move this expenditure from one year to another and the sum involved will end up supposedly being only €100 million.
The Government made commitments to the tune of almost €500 million that will now have to be reprofiled, as the Taoiseach said.
I am conscious of the commitment the same Taoiseach gave to us and, more importantly, to the nation when he spoke on national radio last Sunday week. He said that within ten days everybody would be aware of the implications of the knock-on effects on the capital development programme. The Office of Public Works, OPW, which appears to have been more forthcoming than others at this stage, says that €3 million will come from the flood relief scheme. As a representative who is probably affected by that, I will insist on knowing what schemes and projects in the flood relief scheme will be affected and will not go ahead despite the commitment given by the Government last year and previously regarding the funding that was to be provided in that regard. That will play out in the coming days, as it should. It would be expected of us to extract that from the Government.
As I said, one of the main lessons from how the Government responded to this fiasco and the colossal overspend was that it immediately rushed to the private sector to get it to carry out an analysis and relevant scrutiny. There are many other demanding projects in the offing, as other Members have mentioned, not the least of which is the broadband programme. Many billions will be expended on that and there is great expectation on the part of the public that it will ensure broadband is available to every house. If it is available at a cost, we need to know it and to know that there are processes in place to ensure the taxpayers' interest is protected. If it were the case that there was an indication of an overrun at a certain point, this legislation would allow the Comptroller and Auditor General's office to use its expertise to analyse and scrutinise that to see how such a cost overrun could be arrested.
Another aspect of the national children's hospital debacle is that it appears the initial contract provided for a cost of construction inflation of at least 4% year on year. That did not stop it going to 8% if that is what presented, which is what happened. As Deputy Fleming said, the initial rush to get on site on the part of those with responsibility in this area was purely to meet their aspirations for political advancement, at the fault of not having proper and adequate processes to ensure that any subsequent contract could be tight, protect the interests of taxpayers, ensure their funds were spent wisely and appropriately, and delivered on the commitment that was made initially. We are all interested in this, and many previous Governments have been driven by the desire to put that facility in place and to ensure children are afforded the best possible care, attention and service from the State from a health perspective. That is not diminished in any way by our commentary. We merely make it in the best interests of ensuring that other projects that were committed to can be delivered, be they in Waterford, my constituency or elsewhere. Real commitments were made by the Government, which has taxpayers' funds at its disposal and which should not use thrift with that spending or responsibility for its political gain. That is all we wish to ensure.
We are not interested in heads or in playing political games. As we all know, there are bigger pictures at play. We cannot stand idly by in this jurisdiction when chaos reigns in Westminster and, unfortunately, in the North. The Good Friday Agreement and its contents were hard fought for and hard won but, thankfully, were delivered to give the potential for the type of democracy in the North that there is in other jurisdictions. However, our colleagues in Sinn Féin are part of an unfortunate world record at this stage in respect of not taking their seats. It is a disease they cannot seem to rid themselves of, and that is unfortunate as it is not just at their expense but at the expense of all of us. It is at the expense of this island's prosperity and its potential to succeed economically and socially. More importantly, from our perspective the Good Friday Agreement has the potential to protect our security, and that is paramount. We will not use this unfortunate mismanagement and almost misappropriation of funds for political gain. We think too much of those who give us the privilege to be here to do that. That continues to be the raison d'êtrefor us. We are committed to this country being united in its efforts to respond to that challenge. Obviously, a united Government and united Dáil are essential to ensure the people can rest assured that the commitment is real and meaningful.