Opposition fails to cash in on Torpey move to B of I
It is curious how little has been made by the Opposition of Michael Torpey decamping from the Department of Finance to Bank of Ireland.
Maybe it is because they – like many – think he is a good guy who has worked hard for the State trying to sort out the banking mess.
But the job of the Opposition is not to be decent. It is to probe Government policy, and in his brief statement wishing Torpey well the Minister for Finance was quick to reference Government policy.
“Over the past number of years, the department has recruited a large number of skilled people from the private sector and is committed, in line with Government policy, to encouraging greater mobility between the public and private sector. Michael’s departure is an example of this increased mobility and I am sure that many more highly skilled individuals will move in both directions between the public and private sectors in the months and years ahead.”
It is possible that Noonan was merely availing of the opportunity to trumpet another policy success. But it is far more likely that someone in his department was alive to the fact that greater mobility between the public and private sectors stirs up a hornets’ nest of conflicts and Torpey’s switch is at the upper end of the scale.
Torpey was the head of the shareholder management unit in the department and was one of the people to whom the Minister delegated his powers as shareholder in the Irish banks. It was his job to make sure that Bank of Ireland and the other banks stuck to the agreements they had reached with the Government as part of their recapitalisation.
To this effect he would meet regularly with Richie Boucher, the Bank of Ireland chief executive, and other managers to review progress and presumably crack the whip if it had to be cracked.
He has now gone from being Boucher’s boss after a fashion – certainly someone who had a degree of power over him – to being one of his lieutenants, and a very well-paid one at that, based on what we know of Bank of Ireland senior executives’ remuneration.
Torpey also takes with him a great deal of knowledge about the plans and problems of three of Bank of Ireland’s biggest rivals: AIB, Irish Permanent and Irish Life, all of which are required to share this information with the Government via him.
He also presumably has a deep understanding of the Government’s long-term plan for the banks, something it might not want shared with Bank of Ireland and its opportunistic North American investors such as Wilbur Ross.
When you look at things through this prism you can see why the Minister was so keen to ground his approval on Government policy.
The problem is that Government policy actually puts several obstacles in the way of what Torpey has done. The Civil Service code of conduct contains a number of measures aimed at addressing the obvious conflict of interest problems posed by staff switching between the private and public sectors.
Under the code, senior civil servants are not able to take up external appointments for 12 months after leaving their job without the approval of the Government. The purpose of this measure is unambiguous.
The code clearly references civil servants’ “intending to be engaged in or connected with (i) any outside business with which he or she had official dealings or (ii) any outside business that might gain an unfair advantage over its competitors by employing him or her”.
However, the code apparently does not apply to Torpey because he is actually an employee of the National Treasury Management Agency on secondment to the Department of Finance, as are most of the staff in the banking unit.
Staff in the NTMA are not subject to the code or any equivalent restriction, although you might have expected them to be. The exemption is justified by the catch-all argument cited by the NTMA whenever embarrassing aspects of its employment and remuneration policies come to light: the need to attract and retain talent.
It would appear, then, that the Minster is powerless to do anything about Torpey’s departure and he might as well try and pretend it is a good thing and in the taxpayers’ interest.