Tuesday, 11 October 2005
Dáil Eireann Debate
An Ceann Comhairle: I remind the House once again of the strict time limits laid down in Standing Orders for Leaders’ Questions. The times are: leader, two minutes; the member of the Government responding, three minutes; leader’s supplementary question and member of Government’s final reply, one minute each; and overall time at seven minutes. I am doing so early in this session in view of the overruns last week, the first full week of the session. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Leaders’ Questions overran by 14 and 19 minutes, respectively.
An Ceann Comhairle: As I acknowledged previously in the House and in correspondence, Leader’s Questions is regarded as one of the more visible and lively features of Dáil sittings enabling topical issues to be raised early in the sitting day.
An Ceann Comhairle: In the spirit of the relative spontaneity of the procedure, I have rarely intervened during Leaders’ Questions. However, in view of the overruns last week, which on a given day may not be uniform and can even create a perceived imbalance, I ask the leaders to co-operate with the Chair in ensuring the time limits laid down by the House are adhered to. It should not be necessary to remind the House that Leaders’ Questions time is confined to the leaders of Fine Gael, Labour, the designated leader of the Technical Group and the member of the Government responding. All contributions by others are interruptions and are not in order.
Mr. Kenny: Last week’s overruns reflected the gravity of the situation and they were not a waste of time. Having been scalded in the House, I am sure the Taoiseach is glad to be on State business in Downing Street.
The business of the House last week was dominated by the startling revelation that more than €150 million of taxpayers’ money had been wasted on a botched project dealing with an information technology system in the health sector which did not work. The Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, speaking on behalf of the Government, said this sum was a small amount of money.
The Tánaiste has had difficulties in the past being briefed on matters relevant to her Department but I hope she is fully attuned to all the IT issues in the health sector. For example, she will be familiar with the project known as the Irish health services portal, which was to establish a single Internet point of contact for members of the public through which they could access health services throughout Ireland. A contract to develop the portal was awarded early in 2004. Fortunately, on 5 May 2004 the portal was ready for launch and at 6 p.m. that day, after a frenzied photocall staged at 5.50 p.m., the then Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, launched it.
Mr. Kenny: In the last sentence of his speech, he said, “It gives me great pleasure today to launch the Irish national health services portal which can be seen at the stand behind you.” The Department of Health and Children followed up this launch by confirming in the document Health Information National Strategy, published in July 2004, that the portal was by then up and running.
The only problem is that the portal is not up and running. Unfortunately, the portal cannot be seen at the stand behind the Tánaiste or anywhere else because it does not exist. It is not there, it has disappeared and it is an ex-portal. The portal which was created by the press launch of the then Minister, Deputy Martin, has disappeared into the same black hole as e-voting, PPARS, the civic hub, Punchestown and all the others.
This photocall, which was staged in Cork during the European Ministers’ meeting at a cost of €3 million, must be the most expensive in the history of the State. Not only has the portal disappeared but the HSE has re-tendered for a new job, called the unified website, which has all the characteristics of the last portal.
Mr. Kenny: The tender for this was prepared on Friday 30 September and those seeking to submit a tender have a short timeframe within which to complete their business. Is the Tánaiste aware of this project, has she any concerns over the way in which it is being conducted and is she not concerned about the ridiculously short time allowed to tender for this unified website as a successor to the portal that has gloriously disappeared?
The Tánaiste: The technology may not have been compatible with what was intended. It was originally scoped by Accenture. Incredible as it may seem, surveys in the United States show that only 28% of the technology scoped for works on the first occasion.
The Tánaiste: The scope for the exercise was completed as part of the information society initiative, which recommended to the Government that services be provided on a single website so that people could learn the health services available in different places. Work was suspended in February and a tender for a smaller project costing less than €250,000 has been advertised.
I have asked the HSE not to proceed with awarding any tender in this or any other technology area unless it is cleared by the Departments of Finance and Health and Children. That will be the position with regard to all technology projects in the health area.
Mr. Kenny: The Tánaiste seems to be setting all standards by reference to the United States, including the privatisation of hospitals. The then Minister, Deputy Martin, in his speech on this matter said, “Crucially, it will enable the health services to deliver a consistent message to the public and to its employees”. It has gone with the wind.
Is the Tánaiste not concerned over the manner by which this is being advertised? It has been expressed to me by a number of concerned people in the information technology sector that the time allowed for this tender leads to the assumption that this is written for a particular supplier. Will the Tánaiste investigate that?
Will she also familiarise herself with the Butler report, which looked at the health Ireland portal in February and produced a damning critique of it? The report noted that the portal did not have any business sponsor and its writers believed that high level ownership was essential if the project was to continue. The strongest recommendation made was that a sponsor should have been sought at the earliest opportunity. That kind of language is familiar in terms of the reports we have had of PPARS last week.
The Tánaiste made some changes at the Cabinet this morning. Who has political responsibility for this project? Who is in charge and can we take it that she will investigate the short tender time involved and at least clarify that this project is not written with any individual or specific supplier in mind?
The Tánaiste: I suspect that the people who were in contact with Deputy Kenny have also been in contact with me. As a result of that, I have ordered that the HSE must get the approval of the Departments of Finance and Health and Children before it proceeds to tender on this project. Any information project in the health area which has not already been committed will have to go through a process of thorough evaluation.
Now that we have a single organisation and somebody with responsibility for information technology and extensive experience in the health area, single lines of accountability will hopefully avoid situations where unnecessary public investment is made in projects that do not satisfy our needs.
Everybody would acknowledge that it is desirable to have a single site where information can be accessed. Why is it so difficult to be able to specify the technology? Accenture is a reputable company and it completed the scoping. IBM is also a reputable company and it produced the technology. Notwithstanding that fact, the project had to be suspended in February and that is why it has re-tendered. I assure Deputy Kenny that I will ensure that the tender is completed in an open, fair and transparent manner for all participants.
Mr. Rabbitte: Is it correct that every action the HSE has taken since it was established has been to try to stop what Deputy Martin did as Minister for Health and Children? Is that a fair summary of what the Tánaiste has said?
Mr. Rabbitte: Now, after Deputy Kenny’s latest allegation, it is another case of closing the portal after the horse has bolted. There was a time when Fianna Fáil backbenchers entered the House for the Order of Business and Leaders’ Questions. They do not do that anymore, for whatever reason.
Mr. Rabbitte: ——the extent of concern that exists about issues arising last week. I will instance from Deputy Johnny Brady’s own constituency one of the many people who approached me yesterday in fury about one aspect of this matter, which is that it is not possible to find out what happened, why it happened and who is responsible. The Taoiseach entered the House and denied all responsibility. He said it was not an information technology system, that the allegations were incorrect and misleading and all they were doing was to try to add new ideas but that it went wrong. Nobody will admit what happened.
What does the Tánaiste know since she took over? How much of this debacle of €160 million was incurred on her watch and how much was the responsibility of her predecessor? Did the decision go to Government? Was the original decision made by Government? Who was in charge of the project? Who made the decision to continue with the expenditure? If the first phase started out at €8.8 million, why did nobody shout stop when it went to €18.8 million, €28.8 million, €38.8 million or €98 million? Who is responsible? Was this matter ever brought back to Government? If a decision was made to extend it from a payroll system to a human resource management system, who made that decision? Were the consultants, Deloitte & Touche, given an open-ended cheque? Is there a contract with the company? Has the Tánaiste seen the contract? What does the contract provide for? Was it open-ended in that the company could send in any kind of invoice it liked?
Mr. Rabbitte: How many of its own people did the company send in? How much did it cost to commission premises for them? How much did it cost to produce newsletters? Who was monitoring this project? The Minister is in her position a year. Before it was decided to collapse this system, she must have established to her own satisfaction who is responsible for this situation.
The Tánaiste: To answer Deputy Rabbitte’s first point in regard to my colleague, Deputy Martin, my predecessor as Minister for Health and Children, a hospital information system was being rolled out in a number of hospitals in Cork, Tralee and elsewhere. The cost of that project was going to escalate to approximately €400 million and he put the brakes on it and refused to give any more money towards it at the start of 2004.
Regarding this particular project, as I said last week, it justified the idea of not having 11 different health boards with 253 members, which was what we had to deliver health services, and demonstrated the need for the Health Service Executive. It was long overdue. This is one example, among many others——
The Tánaiste: They were given the money. An evaluation is being done both by the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Health Service Executive and the HSE will decide at its board meeting in December whether to continue to roll out this system. It will be a matter for the executive having evaluated its requirements and whether this system can meet its needs but among the difficulties, and I want to acknowledge them, is that there was no fixed price contract with the consultants. It appears that the more they worked, the more they got paid. There was no incentive in the contract for the consultants to deliver a particular project and get paid on the basis of results, which should be normal.
The Tánaiste: That would be normal and it should be the case. I am not aware of the number of individuals from this consulting firm who worked on this project but I do know that the amount of money spent on consultancy in this project and in other projects is excessive. That is why the Government decided today to put a new process in place across Departments in regard to both consultancies and information technology. We all have to learn lessons from this experience.
When I became aware in July that there were concerns about this matter, I spoke to the Secretary General in my Department. He met representatives of the HSE and asked them, on my authority, to ensure that no more staff were put working on this project pending its evaluation, and he asked that the evaluation be completed over the summer. It was completed and that was the evaluation that went to the board of the HSE last week.
The Tánaiste: Hay Management Consultants carried out a review of this matter in 2002 and said at the time, as the Deputy is aware, that what was envisaged in 1998 and 1999 at £9 million would not be sufficient to do what was required and that it would be at least ten times greater than that. The mistake was that a business case was not made for this technology before we embarked on the project.
Mr. Rabbitte: Who is responsible for this matter? She cannot tell the House that the health boards decided that they would embark on this mission. That is not the way it happened. Why does the Tánaiste continue to state that if only she had known about all the differences in practice between the 11 health boards this would not have happened and that this justifies the HSE? How does it justify the HSE? If the health boards were still there, whatever their defects, it is sure that the alarm bells would have gone off before they went off in this particular case, some seven years after the idea was originated. I am sure all of the Tánaiste’s colleagues behind her agree with that.
Everybody who was ever near a health board knows that there were different practices in different health boards, different rates of pay, different systems and so on. Everybody knew that before this project was embarked on. Surely all of that should have been regularised before such an engagement took place. The Tánaiste has not dealt with the question of responsibility.
Mr. Rabbitte: May I ask her about her statement that she will personally sign off on all consultancies in future? Does that mean she will personally monitor them? Does that mean that we now have a blurring of the lines between policy and operational executive action? Is that Government policy or just Progressive Democrats policy? I note that the Government decision of today to which she referred does not confirm anything along those lines. It states that Ministers will also have to confirm that any moneys spent on consultancy in their Departments is necessary in time for next year’s Estimates. Apart from the incompetent English, that does not change anything except that provision must be made in the Estimates, and some Minister cannot decide during the course of the year that he will award an open-ended contract to consultants.
Mr. Rabbitte: What do you think, a Cheann Comhairle, the Government decision of this morning will do? The Government will bring in consultants to advise on the type of new system it should operate. The Government will also be able to bring in external expertise from the private sector and internationally. That should put the tin hat on it.
Mr. Rabbitte: Do I understand the Tánaiste to have said in the reply that there was no contract that fixed any price with the consultants, Deloitte & Touche, or with the consultants brought in to monitor Deloitte & Touche, that it was open-ended and that for as long as they could keep claiming money, money would be paid out by the State?
The Tánaiste: Deputy Rabbitte may have been aware of all the practices but very few other people knew that we have 25,000 different work rosters. In some areas in the country, people doing the same job work a different number of hours.
The Tánaiste: In some areas in the country a holy day of obligation was a bank holiday and bank holiday rates were paid and so on. To expect a computer code to reconcile all of that was expecting too much.
The Tánaiste: Regarding consultancies, it is the case that as Minister for Health and Children I am accountable to this House for policy, legislative matters and so on in the Department of Health and Children, and the accounting officer for the HSE is Professor Brendan Drumm, whose position we provided for under the new legislation. If I am to answer in this House for the appointment of consultants, I want to be certain that we are only using consultants where it is absolutely necessary. It is good practice, therefore, that a case would be made to me when we are not using the in-house expertise available in the Department. That will be good for the Department and as far as accountability is concerned.
Mr. Sargent: According to reports by tribunals of inquiry and by the Comptroller and Auditor General the Government has given rise to some incredible litanies of mismanagement, misspending and sheer waste. I speak not only of the waste of money but also of the waste of human life.
The Tánaiste, as Minister for Health and Children, is aware of the report on alcohol misuse by young people, published in June 2004 by the Joint Committee on Health and Children. She is aware too of a strategic report on the same issue. According to the report of 2004, the cost of alcohol abuse is €2.4 billion per annum. The report states that 80% of this cost could be prevented if public policy measures were in place, and includes a list of policy recommendations.
Is the Tánaiste serious about any of these recommendations, particularly the key points? The Tánaiste’s predecessor saw the light after years of strong but ineffective messages on cigarette packets, and introduced measures to control smoking. Does the Tánaiste accept that education makes little or no difference in regard to abuse of alcohol and that the environment must be shaped to control alcohol consumption?
Will the Tánaiste reverse her decision to abandon the alcohol products Bill and act on her predecessor’s recommendation to introduce that legislation? Will she advise the Government to introduce random testing as the previous Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, promised? Will she implement the recommendations in the committee report, rather than the voluntary code? What is going on between her and the drinks industry that is so set on this code, which we know will make little or no difference?
The Tánaiste: In many other countries where alcohol is widely advertised, perhaps even more than here, drinking patterns are very different. Therefore we must deal with many of the cultural and educational aspects of this issue.
Mr. Sargent: My question has not been answered. The Tánaiste did not say how long she will give to test this voluntary code. Does she understand the voluntary code is nothing new? It appears the Tánaiste has been duped by the drinks industry. It is regarded as acceptable for 33% of people under the age of 18 to see advertisements for alcohol products on television. The Government is playing Russian roulette with children.
The Tánaiste knows from research in New Zealand and the United States that the earlier children are exposed to alcohol and alcohol advertising the worse the situation is. A third of 16 year olds binge drink every week and Irish girls have the worst record for female binge drinking throughout Europe. Does the Tánaiste realise she is presiding over a situation in which our children are more and more being pickled in a sea of alcohol?
Will the Government put measures in place to control the availability of alcohol? Will the Tánaiste ensure random testing is brought in forthwith, as recommended by her ministerial predecessors, and to which the drinks industry willingly acceded?
What is stopping the Tánaiste and the Government introducing random testing and the alcohol products Bill, which was promised? Does the Tánaiste not act on the promises made in Government? Will she implement the key recommendations of the 2004 report, to which doctors have agreed, as have Deputy Gormley and other Members of this House? Why is the Tánaiste not introducing those recommendations? The voluntary code is nothing new and will not work.
The Tánaiste: My colleague, the Minister for Transport, is responsible for random testing but he must resolve legal issues first. Subject to those issues being resolved I strongly support this approach.
The Tánaiste: Deputy Sargent makes a strong case for the greater programme in schools in regard to alcohol. The new social and personal health programme aims to help young people develop self-esteem, be more confident and learn to say “no”, and to address the role of parents. These issues are important. It is not simply a matter of banning advertising by the industry. If the voluntary code does not work we will legislate.
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