Taoiseach denies breaching 'Constitutional duty' to inform Dáil of government spending

Taoiseach denies breaching 'Constitutional duty' to inform Dáil of government spending

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has denied breaching his “Constitutional duty” to inform the Dáil of government spending this year, despite being aware of overruns for a €1.4bn children's hospital.

Labour leader Brendan Howlin made the charge against the Fine Gael leader, also claiming Mr Varadkar was incredibly "ignorant" when it came to the Budget process.

Mr Howlin said the Taoiseach and government knew about the excessive costs for the project when revised spending estimates for 2019 were presented to the Dáil in mid-December, a number of days prior to Cabinet agreeing to €1.4bn for the hospital construction, an increase of €450m.

“Why was there no provision whatsoever for an additional capital spend which was known to be required for this project in the course of 2019 when this House was presented with the budget in October?” asked Mr Howlin.

The government accepts it knew about the extra cost in November, including an extra €100m required from other departments. Health Minister Simon Harris apologised this week for not fully answering a Dáil question last September on likely costs.

Mr Howlin suggested the revised estimates shared with the Dáil on December 19 were “inaccurate”. But Mr Varadkar rejected the claim, replying that the government did not know, until this week, the full cost of the overrun then and what changes would be made with capital spending.

He added that while the revised estimates were provided in December, a decision on reallocating funds was not made until January, after the Dáil commitment.

He also explained away a decision to fill the €100m funding gap for the children's hospital from other projects as a “virement”, where monies are transferred from one capital project to another and from one department to another.

Mr Varadkar also rejected comparisons of the children's hospital to previous overruns for projects such as the 'Bertie Bowl' and Dublin's Port Tunnel, adding:

We have got this right, by and large. The children's hospital is an exception but we will get it right too.

But Mr Howlin refused to accept that, stating Mr Varadkar was "ignorant" of the budgetary process. The Opposition leader insisted that if the Taoiseach knew late last year that the proposed spending for health in 2019 was not true, then “that was an inaccurate presentation in defiance of the Taoiseach's constitutional duty,” an accusation rejected by Mr Varadkar.

The Taoiseach said the amount of money going towards public infrastructure this year had not changed and remained at €7.3 billion which is around €140m a week.

The Taoiseach said around a week's spending would have to reallocated within the additional capital spending. He said the Government accepted responsibility in the under-estimate, but would deal with it and the project would be completed between 2022 and 2023.

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