Minister asked if salary increase for health job is now ‘unnecessary’

Question posed to McGrath after €80,000 pay rise for Department of Health secretary general role

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins


Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath has been asked if the Government now believes that the salary increase of more than €80,000 for the role of Department of Health secretary general was “unnecessary” and “unwarranted” given that it is being waived by Robert Watt.

The same question has been posed to secretary general to the Government Martin Fraser by the Oireachtas Committee on Finance.

It comes as it continues its joint investigation with the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) into pay levels for senior public servants in the wake of the controversy over the increase in salary for the Department of Health job to €292,000.

Mr Watt, a former secretary general at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, was appointed to the role at the Department of Health by the Government last week. 

He had been serving in the job on an interim basis since January but, on being appointed to the permanent role, said he will waive the higher rate that comes with the job until the economy begins to recover.

The finance committee has written to him seeking details on how long the waiver will apply and how it will impact on pension arrangements. 

Meanwhile, correspondence shared between the two committees shows that both Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar responded to requests for written submissions on the matter with broadly similar letters. 

Both outlined how the vacancy arose in June last year with Mr Martin saying the Government was “anxious” to fill it and Mr Varadkar saying they were “keen” to do so, and they pointed to the “open competition” led by the Top-Level Appointments Committee. They highlighted the demanding nature of the job particularly during a pandemic. 

On the issue of the salary level, Mr Martin and Mr Varadkar wrote: “While determining pay levels for senior roles is always challenging and never popular, the Government believed that this position warranted this increased salary due to the varied responsibilities and in order to recruit the best applicant. It was advertised globally.”

At an appearance at the Committee on Finance on Tuesday, Mr Martin defended the salary insisting it was “appropriate to the position” and that Mr Watt’s successors should also be paid more than other secretary generals as the responsibilities at health are “way above” other Departments. 

In his letter in response to the committee’s initial enquiries, Mr Fraser said the Department of the Taoiseach has a “more limited role” in the matters raised by the committee and that they are “mainly policy issues” which are the responsibility of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

The committee asked about the lack of a written memo to Government on the appointment of Mr Watt to the Department of Health on an interim basis.

Mr Fraser said: “In terms of the process, appointments of [secretary generals] are dealt with orally at meetings of the Government.

“The relevant Minister would of course give advance notice to the Taoiseach as well as the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the party leaders in a coalition government, before raising the matter. 

“The reason for the use of an oral procedure is to protect the integrity and confidentiality of the appointments process, and in particular to ensure that all candidates are properly notified of the outcome of the competition.”

He said: “A similar process is used for transfers and reassignments, when they arise.” 

Mr Fraser also said: “In the specific case you raise, a decision was made by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to offer improved terms for the position of secretary general in the Department of Health and to have a formal open competition to fill the post on a permanent basis. 

“The Taoiseach advised his ministerial colleagues of that decision so that they would be aware of it before the post was publicly advertised.”