Warning over Civil Service implications of health chief's €292,000 pay

Minister was warned pay package could have implications for other top posts, papers show

Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath was advised by senior officials in his department that plans to pay the next secretary general of the Department of Health a salary of €292,000 could have knock-on implications for remuneration in other top-level Civil Service posts.

Documents released by the Department of Public Expenditure on Monday show senior officials understood the salary rate had been agreed by the Minister following talks with the secretary general to the Government, Martin Fraser.

Officials highlighted to Mr McGrath that the rate agreed was considerably higher than the salaries paid to other secretaries general in Government departments.

In January the Government announced that the then secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure, Robert Watt, was to move on an interim basis to become the top civil servant in the Department of Health pending an open competition. Mr Watt remained on his existing salary.

However, the decision to increase the pay for the substantive post of secretary general of the Department of Health, following the open competition, by more than €80,000 has generated considerable controversy over recent weeks. It is to be the subject of a special joint investigation by the Oireachtas committee on finance and public expenditure and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

The newly-released documents show that the proposed rate for the Department of Health post evolved over a period of weeks last December.

A draft booklet for candidates, including the job specifications for the position, drawn up by the Department of Health on December 9th said the salary of the secretary general with effect from October 2020 was €211,742. At that point the post was deemed to be a secretary general level II position in the Civil Service.

On December 15th the Minister was given a second version of this booklet. This was accompanied by a hand -written note signed “Robert” in which the author said he understood the Minster wanted to have to have the department position advertised as a competition to be run by the top-level appointments committee. The note sought to draw the attention of the Minister to the terms and conditions to apply for the post.

Remuneration package

The December 15th document did not set out a specific salary rate but rather said a remuneration package commensurate with the importance of the role would be provided to the successful candidate.

“Full details will be agreed as part of the final contract negotiations.”

The documents show that by December 23th senior officials were enquiring internally whether the Minister had cleared the draft information booklet .

On Christmas Eve senior officials in the Department of Public Expenditure’s pay and pensions section sent an official submission to Mr McGrath setting out a further updated version of the information booklet which they said could be used to brief the Cabinet if necessary.

The submission suggested that the Minister had proposed including the specific higher salary of €292,000 in the revised booklet.

“We understand that there have been discussions with the secretary general to the Government in relation to the pay and tenure to apply for recruitment to the post of secretary general of the D/Health, and that you have agreed a pay level of €292,000 and a fixed term of 5 years in this regard,” it said.

“As you requested, these terms have been included in the draft advertisement booklet. We understand the post will be advertised publicly on 8th January. The booklet also provides further detail on the role and responsibilities which may be useful for briefing colleagues at Cabinet as required. Also, the appointment of the successful candidate will fall to be agreed by Government in due course.”

The submission advised the Minister that "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 and Reform, the Department of Finance and the Department of the Taoiseach)."

The documents show that on December 30th Mr McGrath formally approved the submission on the health post which allowed for the position to be advertised in early January.

Meanwhile, preparations continue for a joint committee on finance and PAC review of the salary levels of senior public servants.

Among those who may be asked to make written submissions are Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, Mr McGrath, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe and Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, as well as senior civil servants, including Mr Watt.

Martin Wall

Martin Wall

Martin Wall is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times. He was previously industry correspondent