McGrath backed health job pay rise if it did not exceed €300,000, committee told

No benchmarking process before €80,000 increase approved for Watt’s role, says civil servant

 Robert Watt, secretary general of the Department of Health, has waived the €80,000 pay increase for the moment in the light of current economic circumstances. File photograph: Collins Photos

Robert Watt, secretary general of the Department of Health, has waived the €80,000 pay increase for the moment in the light of current economic circumstances. File photograph: Collins Photos

 

There was no benchmarking exercise or international comparison carried out before the pay level of the top civil servant in the Department of Health was increased by over €80,000 to €292,000, the secretary general of the Department of An Taoiseach has said.

Martin Fraser said on foot of four options he had presented for filling the position, the Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath had chosen to increase the remuneration package as long as the figure did not exceed €300,000.

“It was not more scientific than that,” he said.

Mr Fraser said he would support the establishment of an independent, evidence-based and transparent process for looking at top-level remuneration in the public service rather than the “ad hoc” arrangements in place at present.

Peadar Tóibín, leader of Aontú, said the increase of €80,000 seemed to have been “plucked out of the air”.

Mr Fraser was speaking at a joint meeting of the Oireachtas committees of Finance and Public Accounts which are examining the processes and procedures in place for determining the remuneration of senior public servants.

The committees are looking at this issue in the wake of controversy over the Government’s decision to increase the pay for the secretary general post in the Department of Health to €292,000.

The chairman of the Oireachtas committee on Finance John McGuinness of Fianna Fáil said it was peculiar that no one seemed to want to own the decision on increasing the pay rate for the post.

He said Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar had told the committee that he had nothing to do with it; the leader of the Green Party Eamon Ryan, he said, had not responded, while Taoiseach Micheál Martin had given “very vague answers” and other officials had loosely pointed the finger at Mr McGrath.

The former secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure Robert Watt was appointed to the post in the Department of Health in April.

Mr Watt has waived the €80,000 pay increase for the moment in the light of current economic circumstances. The Department of Health has declined to answer questions on the economic criteria to apply for the full substantive salary tobe paid.

Mr Fraser told the hearing on Wednesday that this would be at the discretion of Mr Watt.

Questioned by the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee Brian Stanley of Sinn Féin on whether there had been any decsion to carry out a benchmarking exercise on the pay that should apply for the Department of Health post, Mr Fraser said :“I certainly didn’t.”

“The rationale [for the decision to opt for a higher pay rate] was that if we were to run an open competition based on the existing secretary general salary we were very likely to get serving assistant secretaries in the Civil Service or people at that level or lower in the private sector as remuneration in the private sector for those type of jobs is higher.”

Mr Stanley said the secretary general of Department of Health in Scotland had a salary of €173,000 while in Finland the pay for a similar post was €131,000. He said the director of the World Health Organisation was paid €191,000.

Mr Fraser said he did not know these figures.

Mr Stanley said his parliamentary assistant had found out these international salary comparisons in an hour.

Mr Fraser told Mairéad Farrell of Sinn Féin said he would rather “there was a much more scientific basis for all of these things but there isn’t; there isn’t a public service pay body”.

Asked by Mr McGuinness where the €80,000 figure for the pay rise had come from, Mr Fraser said the Minister agreed there should be an increased remuneration package “but felt it should be less than €300,000 and the figure of €292,000 was arrived at”.