Consultancy firm PwC has been accused of a "gross conflict of interest" for advising the Health Service Executive about the National Children's Hospital, two months before it was paid almost €500,000 to carry out another review of cost overruns at the project.

Public Accounts Committee chairperson Sean Fleming said it is "extraordinary" that PwC was asked to carry out the most recent review.

Last November, the consultancy firm provided "specialist high level" advice to the HSE about proceeding with the new children's hospital and keeping construction firm BAM on site. 

That was confirmed by the HSE today.

Following a request from the PAC, the HSE has written to the committee providing information about the PwC report into the decision-making process to proceed with Phase B of the hospital project and the firm's subsequent role in carrying out a review of the escalation of costs.

The PAC had sought clarification from the HSE about the matter, which has been "hiding in plain sight".

The hospital is set to cost €1.7bn.

The consultancy firm PWC said it is satisfied that it does not have a conflict of interest in the review it carried out into costs at the National Children's Hospital.

In November 2018, the HSE sought "specialist high level input" from a range of health, construction and procurement specialists including PwC.

The HSE published a document last November titled 'The New Children's Hospital: Options Going Forward'. When the report was produced the Government decided in December to proceed with keeping BAM on site. 

Mr Fleming said the letter from the HSE today verifies that PwC were involved in the process advising the HSE in relation to the Government decision on what option to take.

He said: "Then we find in January 2019, PwC was commissioned by the HSE on behalf of the Government to conduct a comprehensive review of the esclation cost at the National Children's Hospital.

"My view as the chair of the PAC is that it was inappropriate for the HSE to request PwC to carry out that report, given that PwC at the request of the HSE only two months earlier was involved in the process reviewing the gross maximum cost and providing professional and specialist input from a financial point of view to the HSE, which led to the decision for the project to proceed and a decision being taken by the Government."
 
Mr Fleming said that it has now been confirmed that PwC were engaged by the HSE in relation to the options going forward and two months later the same company was engaged by the HSE for nearly €500,000 to examine the cost escalation.

He said this is a "gross conflict of interest" and the HSE were "very wrong to commission PWC to do both reports".

He pointed out that in the most recent report, PwC was not requested to give conclusions about the best options, but had a page of conclusions  where it arrived at the conclusion that it was correct to proceed.

He added: "Here we have PwC in a report drawing a conclusion, saying that the decision made as a result of their previous professional input to the earlier decision making process was the correct decision."

He said he find it "extraordinary" that the HSE commissioned PwC to do the report into cost overruns.

Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane said it seems to him that PwC was paid twice for the same advice and the taxpayer ends up paying for it.

He said that PwC was one of three pillars giving very high level specialist advice in relation to the three options and he is not satisfied with claims from the HSE that there was no conflict of interest. 

Independent TD Catherine Connolly said that it is "worrying" that Minister for Health Simon Harris has said that the PwC conclusion is being relied on that there was no option but to go forward. 

Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy also said that there was a conflict of interest. She said that the committee will be told about 'Chinese walls' but it needs to know if the same arm of the company did the second report.

She said that there should be some procurement rules in relation to commissioning of work.

The PAC will now write to the HSE seeking clarification on the issue of a conflict of interest arising; the nature of the specialist high level input given by PwC and how much it was were paid for it; and if any PwC staff were involved in compiling both reports.