5. Deputy Róisín Shortall asked the Minister for Health the details of the draft framework agreement on the future ownership of the new national maternity hospital; if the new hospital will remain in public ownership; if he will bring before Dáil Éireann details of the proposal prior to the final legal agreement being signed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. (Question 6588/18 asked on 08 Feb 2018)
Deputy Róisín Shortall: At the end of August the Minister stated that his Department was finalising an agreement with St. Vincent’s Hospital and Holles Street hospital under which the new national maternity hospital would remain in full public ownership. However, as of last month discussions on the legal framework were still ongoing. Will the Minister recommit today to ensuring that the hospital will remain in full public ownership? Will he update the House on the progress of the talks?
Deputy Simon Harris: I thank the Deputy for raising this issue, which I know she has consistently raised. I will recommit to those two issues. I want to assure the Deputy that we are making progress on the draft legal framework. We have involved the Chief State Solicitor’s office on that to make sure it is as robust as we would all want it to be from the State’s point of view. That will ensure the State’s significant investment in a new maternity hospital, which is so badly needed, will be protected. While completion of the detailed legal agreement will require some further engagement between both hospitals, the HSE and my Department, I can confirm there is a broad understanding and agreement on the way forward. That will protect the State’s resources in investing in this important project and it will also further underpin the operational independence of the maternity hospital; it is envisaged that the new hospital building will remain in State ownership. I know that is something people have been seeking.
My Department undertook to develop the initial draft legal framework and this work, which has proved highly complex, is nearing completion. The Deputy will, I hope, appreciate that pending its finalisation it is premature for me to give too much further information. However, I intend to brief Government once the agreement has been finalised and I will happily share the agreement with the Deputy, the House and the appropriate Oireachtas having regard to whatever the Oireachtas considers is appropriate in due course.
In terms of the project, I would like to reiterate my commitment and the Government’s commitment to the development of a new maternity hospital on the St. Vincent’s campus. This is vital for women and babies in Ireland in terms of the co-location of a maternity hospital with an acute adult hospital. It will represent the flagship project of the national maternity strategy and constitute the largest single investment ever made in maternity services, which makes the case for the Deputy’s point in terms of how important it is that we get the legal framework right. The new development will cater for up to 10,000 births per annum and include state-of-the-art obstetrics, neonatal and gynaecology care facilities. Following the granting of planning permission, which thankfully has now happened, the design team is continuing to work on the detailed design of the hospital and the preparation of tender documents. As I have made clear, the agreement needs to be finalised and brought to Government before any of that progresses.
Deputy Róisín Shortall: We are all conscious of the fact that when it emerged last year that the new hospital building would be in effect gifted to a private interest, there was an understandable public outcry. The Minister’s commitment last August to State ownership went some way to alleviating public concerns about that. However, the language he used in his statement was and still is to some extent concerning. He referred to the building on a number of occasions but never to the site. He replied to a parliamentary question in recent times and he has been quite vague about this. We need to know what legal arrangements will be put in place in regard to the site. Does the Minister expect it to be a lien, a licence a lease or some other arrangement? Will financial commitments be made to secure the use of this site and what will they be? Will the Minister commit to return to the Dáil with details of the proposal prior to any legal agreement being signed?
Deputy Simon Harris: The Deputy is correct in that there was significant public concern regarding this situation, which I heard loudly and clearly. That told us that while we have invested significant resources in the past in facilities that we have not necessarily owned, the public want that to change now. That is why I have set up a group chaired by Dr. Catherine Day and including Professor Jane Grimson and Professor Deirdre Madden to examine the relationship between the voluntary and the public health service. I am very pleased they are doing that good body of work.
I am not endeavouring to be vague, I am just endeavouring to be careful because of the fact that the legal agreement is pending finalisation. The Deputy will be well aware that often we could see a lease or a licence of a site granted at a nominal or peppercorn rent. We could see a lien put in place, which is the normal course of action, to protect the State’s investment. The issue that was very clear, which I believe the Deputy raised, among many others, was on whose balance sheet would the asset sit. I am being very clear in saying the asset will sit on the State’s balance sheet. That is what I want the agreement to be.
In terms of sequencing, I am more than happy to have this issue debated in the Dáil. The approval process is one for myself and specifically for the HSE, but I will brief Government also before there is any further progress.
Deputy Róisín Shortall: I thank the Minister for that information. He mentioned a lien and certainly Nicholas Kearns said last year that a ministerial lien would be the approach that would be taken and an undertaking was given on that. If it is to be a lien, will the Minister require the approval of the Bank of Ireland to agree such a lien, given that the land and much of the property is mortgaged to Bank of Ireland? Is that an issue currently and is it holding up matters? Will the Minister assure us that no final decision on this agreement will be taken without bringing the proposal back to the Dáil, as substantial public money is involved? While other means have been talked about in terms of a licence or a lease, these would not give the type of protection that the public would demand. It is a lien that is expected. Can the Minister clarify exactly what the position is about the role of the bank in all of this?
Deputy Simon Harris: I have no knowledge, nor has any issue been brought to my attention, that an issue relating to any bank is causing any delay. I have been told that there has been very constructive and intensive engagement, which has moved this situation significantly in terms of an agreement, in principle, that the building and ownership of the new national maternity hospital would remain in State ownership. That is quite significant. I will happily brief the Dáil but every capital project, and there are many significant ones, does not come to the Dáil for approval, but I am very aware of the sensitivities of this and I am more than happy to have the Oireachtas health committee or the appropriate committee briefed on this issue at the appropriate time. Very good progress is being made. We have planning permission for this flagship project. I will make sure that the asset, the hospital, remains in State ownership, in public ownership. The legalities in terms of how we utilise the site at St. Vincent’s will be spelt out in the agreement. It would be premature of me to say anything further but I have given indications of how this has been done in other areas by way of leases or licences with nominal rents and I will certainly keep the House-----
Deputy Róisín Shortall: It will be a lien - is the Minister confirming that?
Deputy Simon Harris: No, I am not confirming that. I am saying that it is being finalised. I will brief the Deputy. I have used examples of how it is used. I do not wish to say anything on the floor of the Dáil to jeopardise this project and I am trying to provide the Deputy with as much information as possible.
Deputy Róisín Shortall: The Minister’s own statement was that it would be a lien.
Deputy Simon Harris: I expect it will be.