Minister to take questions from Dáil group on Robert Watt elevation

Group who advised mandarin’s appointment shun invite to appear before Oireachtas committee

The higher salary amounts to a pay increase of more than €80,000 for Robert Watt. File photograph: Collins

The higher salary amounts to a pay increase of more than €80,000 for Robert Watt. File photograph: Collins

 

Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath is to appear before an Oireachtas committee to answer questions on the appointment of Robert Watt as secretary general of the Department of Health, on a significantly increased salary.

Representatives from the body which recommended Mr Watt for the position have declined an invitation to appear before the same committee.

Mr Watt is former secretary general at the Department of Public Expenditure. He was approved in the new position last month after assuming the role on an interim basis earlier in the year.

The appointment has proved controversial after it emerged the salary would rise to €292,000, more than any other civil servant. The higher salary amounts to a pay increase of more than €80,000 for Mr Watt. The senior civil servant has indicated he will waive the increase from the top health job, until the economy starts to recover from the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

Members of the Oireachtas public accounts committee (Pac) and finance committee are to jointly examine the appointment and the circumstances around the role’s salary increase.

Brian Stanley TD, chairman of the Pac, on Tuesday said Mr McGrath had agreed to appear to take questions on the matter next month, on June 16th. Mr Stanley said the Minister had initially declined an invitation, before later agreeing to come before the joint committee.

Sinn Féin TD Matt Carthy said he welcomed the confirmation Mr McGrath would appear before the committee, after “a little bit of persuasion”.

Speaking at a Pac meeting, he said “the very fact that he was refusing in one instance to me, is simply disgraceful”.

Mr Carthy said the Government rationale had been that the substantial increase in salary is needed “in order to attract the best and brightest in the world” to apply for the job.

“Little did we know that the best and brightest in the world was just around the corner from us, all along, in the form of a secretary general in another Government department,” he said.

A letter Mr McGrath sent to the finance committee said he was “unavailable” to attend a proposed meeting on the issue of senior executives remuneration in the civil service on May 26th.

He did tell the committee he would provide “clarification” on matters it raised to him in a letter as required and he would “assist in any way I can”.

The Pac meeting heard that representatives from the Top Level Appointments Committee (TLAC) had declined an invite to take questions from the joint committee.

The TLAC is responsible for recommending candidates for the most senior civil servant posts. The group is made up of several current senior civil servants and external members.

Why no show?

In a May 14th letter to the finance committee, Conor Brady, chairman of the TLAC and former Irish Times editor, said the group had considered carefully the invitation. But it was declining to appear given it had “no involvement in or knowledge of the processes and procedures which remuneration, conditions or benefits are determined” for posts.

The TLAC was “not furnished with any details” of the salary and conditions of the posts for which it recommended candidates, he said.

“In these circumstances I am afraid that TLAC can be of no assistance to the joint committee in the examination you are undertaking,” wrote Mr Brady.

Mr Stanley said the joint committee had issued another invitation to the TLAC to appear before a June 17th hearing.

Secretary general of the Department of the Taoiseach Martin Fraserwas also due to appear before the committee on the matter on June 2nd, he said.

“The joint committee is awaiting reply from secretary general of the Department of Health, who has also been invited to attend,” said Mr Stanley.

Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphysaid she had several concerns with the process of setting the higher salary rate for the top health post.

“The message has to go out loud and clear that this will be followed, until we have all of the answers to how this came about, and what the knock-on consequences might be,” she said.