Thursday, 14 November 2019
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Public Spending Code
6. To ask the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform when the reviewed and revised public spending code will be published, in view of repeated overruns in large-scale capital projects; the way in which it will address the deficiencies; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46895/19]
The Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Mr. Robert Watt, recently acknowledged that the State had a problem in delivering large capital projects at a cost of more than €100 million. He said a new public spending code was needed to address cost overruns on projects costing more than €100 million and that it was to be published in the following weeks. He said this two months ago and we still do not have it. What is the status of the code? When will it be published? How will it address the deficiencies we see in the runaway costs of Government projects?
The majority of recent projects have been delivered on time and within budget. There is a high level of professionalism in public investment across the various sectors. Ireland's public investment management systems are not static. They are regularly reviewed. In that context, my Department has been engaged in intensive work to update the public spending code. We have had a consultation process involving more than 150 public officials, a review of international best practice and consultation with the OECD and the European Investment Bank. We have also incorporated lessons learned in Ireland, including on the national children’s hospital project. The Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform was merely reiterating what I had said on many occasions about truly mega projects such as the national children's hospital.
The key changes will look at greater clarity on governance, roles and responsibilities, better decision points for projects above a certain level, a requirement to update the business case for a proposed project after tender and increased transparency through the publication of business cases and evaluation reports. The technical guidance on these central elements will be made available next year. With regard to the timing, I anticipate that I will be able to conclude this work once the Finance Bill is passed in the Dáil next week. This has been my main area of focus for the past month.
The public spending code highlights the need for more structured scrutiny of major public investment projects. My Department is developing a new assurance process for major projects with a cost of more than €100 million, with the aim of having it in place next year.
It is clear that a new public spending code is required. It has been required for a long time, but I am still no clearer on when it will be published. The Minister has said he will give it his attention after the Finance Bill is passed.
Two months ago, its publication was promised in the next number of weeks. I am sure that Mr. Robert Watt knew there would be a budget and a finance Bill.
The Minister told me that I should have confidence in what the Government was doing with large-scale projects, but I have no confidence in what it or, indeed, he is doing. Standing in Dáil Éireann, he cannot give assurances to Deputies and the people that a runaway project, one that has gone from €650 million in 2015 to €1 billion in 2017, €1.5 billion this time last year and €1.7 billion now, will not reach the €2 billion mark. He is out of his depth when it comes to reining in major capital projects, and this is just one example. It is the same with the national broadband plan.
Will the Minister indicate when the public spending code will be published and whether it will in any way, shape or form apply when trying to ensure that the projects under way are not allowed to absorb more taxpayers' money?
Let me tell the Deputy about the kinds of project that have been delivered on time and on budget and are making a difference to communities the length and breadth of our country, but about which we will never hear any acknowledgement from him or Sinn Féin more widely - the N11; the Tralee bypass; the Gort-Tuam road; the Belturbet bypass; the infrastructure upgrade of our Luas; the north Dublin sewerage scheme; the Carrigtwohill wastewater treatment plant; and the water investment in Lismore, County Waterford. Such projects all over our country are delivering good value for the taxpayer and making a difference to our citizens' standard of living.
I have acknowledged many times what went wrong with the national children's hospital, but I am not going to give the Deputy an assurance that I am not absolutely confident I can stand over and defend before the House. When I have those figures, I will do that.
When will the Minister be able to give us an assurance? When will he have the figures? This has been going on on his watch for four years. The project has increased by more than €1 billion, yet he somehow takes offence at my questioning him about an overrun that is continuing to escalate on his watch. I am entitled and right to ask these questions on behalf of taxpayers. I would not be doing my job if I did not. When will he be able to stand in this Chamber and tell us that the project will not exceed the current estimate of €1.73 billion? When will the public spending code be published and will it apply in any way, shape or form to the major runaway projects that he has overseen, namely the national broadband plan and the national children's hospital?
I assure the Deputy that I do not take any offence at what he says. While finding him professional and on top of all the detail every time I deal with him, that is always mixed with continual rage towards me. I do not take any offence at that because I am focused on trying to ensure that we can learn from what went wrong and make improvements where possible while also laying out in a composed manner the projects that are delivered by the taxpayer, through this Government, that make a difference to the lives of citizens. Given the time the Deputy has put into the Finance Bill, as he can see me doing, he will understand that I want to see it concluded. I anticipate that we will publish the public spending code by the end of this year, which will take effect for all decisions that are yet to be made.