Officials warned Minister of implications of health post pay hike

Files show Donnelly wanted secretary general post filled quickly on permanent basis

 Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform  Michael McGrath ‘undertook to consider the question of an enhanced package on the basis that it would be set at a level below €300,000 per annum’. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath ‘undertook to consider the question of an enhanced package on the basis that it would be set at a level below €300,000 per annum’. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times

 

Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath was warned by his officials that the planned €80,000 salary increase for the position of secretary general of the Department of Health could have implications for pay for other top level posts in the civil service.

Official files show that the decision to increase the pay for the position was taken at a meeting involving Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, Mr McGrath and the secretary general at the Department of the Taoiseach Martin Fraser on October 30th. The meeting had been sought by Mr Donnelly.

The substantive post of secretary general in the Department of Health had been vacant since the summer after the previous holder Jim Breaslin moved with the former minister Simon Harris to the new Department of Higher Education. The position had been filled in an acting capacity since that time by the deputy secretary general Colm O’Riordan.

A note written following the meeting by Mr Fraser said that it had been agreed that to attract candidates of the highest calibre and to ensure a successful recruitment process, an open competition run by the Top Level Appointments Commission should be held “based on an enhanced remuneration package”.

“The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform therefore undertook to consider the question of an enhanced package on the basis that it would be set at a level below €300,000 per annum.”

“Following conclusion of that consideration, a final decision will be made”, Mr Fraser’s note said.

The meeting had been told that the secretary general position in the Department of Health was “particularly challenging” in normal times given the €22 billion budget, the size of the workforce and the reform plans underway as part of Sláintecare.

The note of the meeting also said there were “specific problems” associated with the Department of Health including Cervical Check, the annual budget over-runs and the National Children’s Hospital.

It also said the role was fundamental to managing the Covid-19 pandemic.

The note said that Mr Donnelly wanted to fill the role quickly on a permanent basis and explore the options for the Government.

The meeting of the Ministers was told by the secretary general to the Government that the options including seeking the current acting secretary general to remain on for a further period, transferring a serving secretary general from another area to the Department of Health, initiating an open competition on the existing salary level or one with a larger remuneration package.

Enhanced salary

The note of the meeting said an open competition on the existing rate for the job - about €211,000 per year - was likely to attract a field of assistant secretaries across the Civil Service “but with an additional uncertainty as to the likely levels of interest given the widely-known and unique challenges of the position”.

It said an enhanced salary level as part of an open competition might “attract a stronger field of candidates including people who had run large organisations and/or implemented significant reform programmes”.

It said this approach had been followed in attracting strong candidates for crucial roles such as the Financial Regulator, the Garda Commissioner, the Governor of the Central Bank and the chief executives of the NTMA and NAMA “all of which had approved remuneration significantly in excess of the secretary general pay scale”.

It said the said the chief executive of the HSE had a remuneration package of about €350,000.

The files reveal that the Department of Health began work on a job spec booklet for the post of secretary general which in an initial draft from early December described the remuneration as being at a level of a grade II secretary general which had a pay rate of €211,000.

On December 15, the Department of Public Expenditure told Mr Fraser that its Minister had been shown an updated job booklet which said full details of the remuneration package would be agreed as part of final negotiations with the successful candidate.

A handwritten note signed “Robert” - confirmed by Mr McGrath on Tuesday to be the then secretary general in the Department of Public Expenditure Robert Watt - to the Minister suggested he look at the section on terms and conditions in this draft job booklet.

On December 22nd Mr Fraser was told by the Department of Public Expenditure that the Minister had not signed off on the booklet but that the job was expected to be advertised on January 8th.

Shortly before 2pm on December 23rd Mr Fraser told an official in the Department of Public Expenditure that Mr McGrath had approved a revised remuneration package and that the new pay rate would be set at €292,000.

A subsequent submission from the Department of Public Expenditure to the Minister for use in briefing the Cabinet said that the pay rate he had approved for the post in the Department of Health represented an increase on those in place for the existing three grades of secretary general positions in the Civil Service. These ranged from €200,000 to €211,000.

“Changes to the rate for the post in the Department of Health may have implications for the rates that are currently in payment for other secretary general level II posts as well as the three posts currently set at secretary general level I - Department of Public Expenditure, Department of Finance and the Department of Taoiseach.”