Questions over attendance of top official at broadband committee

The Department of Public Expenditure’s top civil servant looks likely to snub an Oireachtas broadband investigation until after the local elections. The communications committee has asked secretary general Robert Watt to appear after he raised serious concerns around the cost of the National Broadband Plan.

Mr Watt has been asked to come before the committee tomorrow, but has yet to respond to the invitation. A spokesperson said Mr Watt will appear before a committee.

“Engagement is under way with the Oireachtas to determine which one. Minister [Paschal] Donohoe will be before the budget oversight committee next Tuesday,” said the spokesperson.

Despite written warnings from Mr Watt, the Government has decided to press ahead with the rollout of rural broadband to more than 500,000 homes and businesses and Cabinet approved a consortium, led by Granahan McCourt, as the preferred bidder for the project last month.

A cross-party investigation into the €5bn plan will also look at the best way to roll out a high-speed network to rural Ireland. Mr Watt is one of the first witnesses who TDs and senators want to question about the project when they meet tomorrow.

The communications committee last week agreed that an inquiry into the Government’s broadband plan will take six weeks. It will then take another two weeks to write up a report which will include identifying the best options to roll out broadband to rural areas.

Fianna Fáil’s Timmy Dooley said he wants more analysis of Granahan McCourt’s €220m equity investment in the plan as against the taxpayers’ contribution of €3bn.

Mr Watt refused to appear before a number of Oireachtas committees earlier this year, including the health committee to discuss the overspend at the National Children’s Hospital.

Mr Watt did come before the public accounts committee to answer questions on the spiralling costs of the hospital but was accused of “playing games” with Oireachtas committees by Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty.

Health committee chairman Michael Harty said the secretary general had shown “disrespect” by refusing to come before them.

Mr Watt said it would have been “impractical” for him to appear before the health committee and said officials from individual departments are responsible to relevant committees.

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