‘Millions wasted’ on empty leases

Senior civil servants have been accused of “squandering” millions of euro that could have been pumped into hospitals by signing up to a Department of Health offices lease — and then leaving the building empty for 17 months.

Officials from the Office of Public Works (OPW) admitted the situation yesterday, but insist that the controversial deal still represents “value for money”.

During the latest Dáil public accounts committee (PAC), OPW chairman Maurice Buckley said that, as part of changes in the Department of Health, it was agreed to move the department’s offices from Hawkins House in Dublin city centre to the nearby Miesian Plaza.

The deal involved a 25-year lease costing €300m, and was meant to begin in December 2016. However, the move was delayed for 17 months, costing the taxpayer a minimum of €11m in funds which could have otherwise been used to improve front-line health services.

Asked about the massive loss of public funds, Mr Buckley repeatedly told Fianna Fáil TDs Marc MacSharry and Shane Cassels, Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy, Labour TD Alan Kelly, and Sinn Féin TD Jonathan O’Brien that the move is a “good deal” that represents “value for money”.

“This is a very good deal, and I do stand over it,” Mr Buckley said. “Overall, this was a very good deal, the State is better off.”

However, he was criticised by PAC members, with Mr Cassels saying the needless loss of funds is “nothing but a scandal” and means that money that could have helped seriously ill people has been “squandered”.

“Can we have the €11m you’ve squandered back?,” he said.

It’s a very simple question. Your attitude is ‘hunker down, maybe get a rap on the knuckles, and life goes on’. But life doesn’t go on for our citizens. I can tell you €11m would do a lot for them. The impact of you guys flittering away €11m has real consequences.

Meanwhile, the PAC has been informed that HSE officials legally “shredded” files relating to the cervical cancer labs tender process, meaning they cannot now be examined by State investigators.

During an early morning meeting of the PAC, Mr Kelly said that he has serious concerns over the ongoing lack of transparency on why a US firm central to the scandal was allowed to outsource its work to another company.

Noting similar concerns from Gabriel Scally, who is conducting an inquiry into the cervical cancer scandal, Mr Kelly said “[the HSE] actually shredded them when the time limits were up” in what he labelled as an unusual example of “the one time the HSE has been efficient” on the matter.

His concerns were echoed by Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell, who said it is deeply worrying that “tenders have been shredded” and that there are obvious concerns about trusting the firms involved to “give them [their copies of files] to us”.

Yesterday’s PAC meeting also heard that the Stepaside Garda Station controversially championed by Transport Minister Shane Ross will reopen next summer, and cost the taxpayer at least €1.5m.

Mr Buckley confirmed that the likely cost of the project will be €1.5m, but did not give other costs for the re-opening of five other short-listed stations.

Mr Buckley also confirmed tha the sale of 40 garda stations in recent years has brought in just over €3m for the Exchequer.

The vast majority of the now sold stations are based in rural areas, many of which have been the subject of repeated claims they do not have enough protection from burglars and criminal gangs.

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