Varadkar and Reilly tussle over public health portfolio

Minister for Health will allow Minister for Children some say but wants to hold on to major initiatives

 Minister for Children and Youth Affairs James Reilly: “For every euro spent on children, that is where you get the best return, whether it’s in health or other aspects in education.”    Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

Minister for Children and Youth Affairs James Reilly: “For every euro spent on children, that is where you get the best return, whether it’s in health or other aspects in education.” Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

Fri, Jul 18, 2014, 01:02

Former minister for health James Reilly is at loggerheads with his successor, Leo Varadkar, over plans to move the public health portfolio to his new job at the Department of Children.

Mr Varadkar, while prepared to allow Dr Reilly to have some involvement in measures to reduce child obesity, is resisting his party colleague’s attempt to wrest control of major public health initiatives, such as the Healthy Ireland Council. “This is a solo run by James. There is no way Leo will allow his new department to be filleted like this,” one senior source said last night.

Public health is seen as the easier side of the health ministry, which is generally dominated by concerns over budget overruns, safety fears and long waiting lists. Dr Reilly was long expected to lose his job as minister for health in last week’s Cabinet reshuffle but he successfully lobbied Taoiseach Enda Kenny to be kept in Cabinet.

Assigning him responsibility for public health was mooted as a way of softening the blow of his demotion, while recognising his achievements in bringing forward tobacco-control measures.

It was widely reported in the hours leading up to the reshuffle last Friday that Dr Reilly was to be moved from the Department of Health to a department of children and public health. In the event, the Taoiseach named him as the new Minister for Children and Youth Affairs.

Little clarity has been provided since about the public health aspect, if any, of Dr Reilly’s new position. Dr Reilly’s Wikipedia entry states that he retains responsibility for public health and anti-smoking policy, although no citation is provided.

Yesterday, he told the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children that the addition of “elements” of public health to his brief as Minister for Children would strengthen his new department. “There are many elements of public health that specifically affect children and we know that for every euro spent on children, that is where you get the best return, whether it’s in health or other aspects in education.”

Mr Varadkar has refused to cede control of public health, while recognising that Dr Reilly has played an important role in the prevention of smoking. One suggestion would see the two Ministers co-sponsor important pieces of tobacco legislation. With the two unable to agree on a division of responsibilities, the secretaries general of their departments are to discuss what parts of public health are to be moved to the Department of Children.

“Whatever happens, it will be done with the one key objective in mind and that is that it will achieve better outcomes for children,” Dr Reilly said yesterday. He said the transfer of elements of public health specific to children did not represent “dilution or downgrading” of the Department of Health.