Seanad debates

Tuesday, 25 January 2022

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Public Procurement Contracts

2:30 pm

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, to the House.

Photo of Tim LombardTim Lombard (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State. I also would like to acknowledge the office of the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, which made contact with my own office this morning about this Commencement matter. I tabled this Commencement matter to ask the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to make a statement on how the public spending code ensures that taxpayers get greater value for money from publicly funded projects. It is a real issue to make sure that we get bang for our buck when it comes to publicly-funded projects. These are very significant funds that the State is pumping into Government agencies. We need to make sure that Government agencies deliver on the ability to have these major projects delivered. We have huge sums of money given, in particular, to local authorities. How the public spending code deals with local authorities is a real issue of concern for many people.

I raise this issue on the back of a huge issue we have in my own part of the world where our only public pool, which is in Dunmanway, received €5.5 million four years ago. It has been running at half capacity ever since. To give an example, other public pools in the county will be open up to 60 or 70 hours every week. We have 25 hours every week in Dunmanway. This is a state-of-the-art complex that has a 25 m pool, a jacuzzi and a gym, all funded by the State coffers, and yet it is still running at half capacity. It runs five days a week, from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m., and not on Sundays. This is our money being spent on a public project and the public is not getting value for money.

We have swimming clubs that have not had lessons in two years. We have a huge issue in my part of the world. The Minister of State has visited west Cork and knows it is an area where we have access to water all the way along. For parents to not have access to swimming lessons for over two years is an absolute disgrace.

I am trying to work out where national government fits in. Where does the public spending code fit in to make sure that we get value for money when we give money to local authorities? The local authorities seem to be running around on this issue and have not done anything in the past four years regarding making sure the services that are required in the community are delivered.

We have often seen the call that we need more money for infrastructure and we need to have these projects delivered on. We have the money, we have had the infrastructure built and now we do not have access to it. That is a significant bugbear for so many people. Unless we have due accountability for the moneys that we give to local authorities, we will continue to have this mess. It is a significant issue.

Can the Minister of State elaborate on where the buck stops? Who controls it? Where is the auditor regarding making sure that the investment the State makes on behalf of the Irish people into these publicly-funded projects means they are actually open to the public? That is the crux of the matter. Many Deputies and Senators in west Cork have been going around in circles, trying to get this pool opened. We now need to make sure there is accountability regarding the money spent. Where is the line of command and who can give us that accountability?

Photo of Anne RabbitteAnne Rabbitte (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Lombard for raising this Commencement matter. I am delighted to hear that the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, has made contact with him. I will read the script provided in response to the matter raised.

Delivering greater value for money in the expenditure of public funds is a key element of all public investment policy. Efficient public capital investment means quality investment decisions supported by robust evidence and analysis to maximise outcome for limited public resources. The management and delivery of investment projects and public services within allocation is a key responsibility of every Department and Minister. It is important to note that this is not a static space and public bodies are continually working to improve processes and frameworks to ensure value for money.

The public spending code is the tool used by Government to evaluate the consequences of the capital investment decisions it makes. The code was updated in December 2019 following an extensive consultation process involving engagement with over 150 public officials and a review of international best practice. The update code also incorporated lessons learned in Ireland on a wide range of projects such as those outlined in the PricewaterhouseCoopers, PwC, review of the national children's hospital, which recommended the following: the rules that govern public sector spending should be strengthened; the standards to which business cases are presented should be more clearly defined; and a central assurance and challenge function should provide a consistent challenge to and review of major projects throughout their lifecycle, which I think is the issue the Senator brings to the fore today.

As well as implementing these recommendations, the updated guidance better aligns with the realities of the project delivery, with a particular focus on improved appraisal, cost estimation and management. The public spending code is grounded in the principle of proportionality. The resources and time to be spent on project preparation must be commensurate with the nature, cost and complexity of the investment. All the evidence shows that the greatest impact on improving project outcome comes from the careful project preparation. The more work that is done on the earlier stages leads to more considered decisions on projects. At the same time, there is a need to balance project preparation with the imperative of delivering critical infrastructure. Accordingly, the update to the code streamlines the process for smaller projects. This can speed up project delivery. In addition, the code specifically refers to sectors such as housing and urban regeneration, whereby policy interventions can be appraised on a programme-wide basis without the need to assess every project on scheme individually.

The update of the code in 2019 highlighted the need for more structured scrutiny on major public investment projects, particularly in the areas of planned delivery, costings and risk. This is to ensure that the Government is making decisions with a full picture of the proposal, its costs, risks and benefits. The majority of public investment projects are delivered on budget and on time. There is a high level of professionalism across the various sectors. However, we have also recognised the higher risk profile of larger projects and introduced a new procedure for projects with an estimated cost of over €100 million in order to improve project outturns, avoid cost overruns and reduce the risk of delay in delivery.

The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has put in place an external assurance process to provide independent project scrutiny at key decision stages. This will involve independent expert review of two key points in the project lifecycle under the public spending code - approval in principle and prior to tender - focusing on issues such as cost, risk and ability to deliver. This process will improve value for money and support funding Departments and Government with expert insight relating to project risks, delivery feasibility and robustness of costings, governance and procurement.

To support the external assurance process a new major project advisory group has been established to further strengthen project management. As a prerequisite to seeking Government approval for projects at the relevant decision gates, project proposals and external reviews will be scrutinised by the advisory group in advance of the decision to proceed. The new arrangements bring Ireland into line with leading international best practice and meet a recommendation of the IMF's public investment management assessment of Ireland. It should be noted that timelines associated with public spending code compliance are a fraction of the times required for compliance with a range of statutory requirements.

I am not sure if that response has answered the Senator's question.

Photo of Tim LombardTim Lombard (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for the response. The key issue is not if, following completion of the processes with regard to cost, analysis and so on, a project will be affordable, but whether it will be open to the public. That is the fall down in terms of the public spending code.There is no follow-up. We do not know exactly how much activity has been created because of a project and how much availability is going to be there.

There is also a huge issue with who is accountable when it comes to local government. There are other members in this forum that have a view on it too. They do not come before the Committee of Public Accounts. They do not have a remit before it. Until we actually have local authorities brought before that committee we will not have true auditors ensuring we get value for money when it comes to these issues.

Photo of Anne RabbitteAnne Rabbitte (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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I again thank the Senator for raising an important issue for the successful delivery of State investment and ensuring maximum value for the taxpayer. It is important to have dialogue and engagement on something so key for Government delivery.

As I mentioned in my earlier remarks, this is not a static space and public bodies are continuously working to improve processes and frameworks to ensure value for money. The update of the code in 2019 was done in the context of many lessons learned here in Ireland, including the national children's hospital and also international guidance through a review of the investment framework by the International Monetary Fund. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform continues to work with colleagues from other Departments and agencies to refine the requirements of the overall public spending codes to produce sectoral guidance that is more applicable in specific areas. The appropriateness and proportionality that was adopted in the recent update of the public spending code means the process of projects of less than €100 million have been streamlined. It should lead to a speeding-up of project delivery.

I will bring this back to the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath. The crux of the Senator's Commencement matter today was about having the accountability and the cost-benefit analysis to know that the project has an impact on the general public when it is delivered.