Robert Watt asked to explain how waiving part of salary will work

Department of Health secretary general urged to provide details of how pension affected

 Robert Watt worked as interim secretary general at the Department of Health until Cabinet decided on Tuesday to appoint him to the permanent position. File photograph: Collins Photos

Robert Watt worked as interim secretary general at the Department of Health until Cabinet decided on Tuesday to appoint him to the permanent position. File photograph: Collins Photos

 

Robert Watt, the newly appointed Department of Health secretary general, is being asked to explain how his waiving of some of the €292,000 salary that comes with his new job will work.

He is also being asked to provide details of how the arrangement will affect his pension.

The Oireachtas Committee on Finance agreed to write to Mr Watt seeking detailed information on these issues.

The Irish Times understands that similar letters have been sent to Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath and Department of the Taoiseach secretary general Martin Fraser.

It comes as the Committee on Finance and Public Accounts Committee (PAC) continues their review of the pay of senior public servants in the wake of the controversy over the pay increase for the role of Department of Health secretary general.

Mr Watt – who up until recently was secretary general at the Department of Public Expenditure and is currently paid the €211,000 salary attached to that post – said he would not be accepting the higher rate that comes with his new job, for the present.

He has worked as interim secretary general at the Department of Health until Cabinet decided on Tuesday to appoint him to the permanent position after an open competition carried out by the Top Level Appointments Committee (TLAC).

After his appointment Mr Watt said: “The proposed salary for this role is higher than my current salary. I don’t think it is appropriate to take such an increase in pay given the current difficult economic conditions the country faces.

“It had always been my intention that, if I were to be appointed to this role, I would waive this increase until the economy begins to recover and unemployment falls.”

The Department of Health has not responded to Irish Times queries on the arrangement including what economic conditions would trigger the payment of the full €292,000 salary and how it will impact Mr Watt’s pension.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin defended Mr Watt’s appointment in the Dáil after a claim from Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald that it amounted to a “stroke”.

Ms McDonald accused the Government of signing off on an “obscene” €81,000 pay increase and claimed there was “no process, no rationale for this”.

She said the €81,000 should be “cancelled” not waived.

Mr Martin said the appointment was an “independent process” carried out by the TLAC. He said it was “open as an international competition for anybody to apply and quite a number of people applied”.

The Dáil was separately told that just three of the 23 candidates who applied for the secretary general job were international applicants.

Mr Martin said Mr Watt has served in various capacities in the public service and “would be regarded as a senior, experienced, public servant” and told Ms McDonald: “You shouldn’t cast aspersions on the individual implicitly”.

Mr Martin said that salary increases have previously occurred for the roles of Garda Commissioner and HSE chief executive.

At Fine Gael’s parliamentary party meeting Senator Jerry Buttimer raised concern about the “optics” surrounding Mr Watt’s appointment.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar is understood to have told the private meeting that Mr Watt came through an international competition carried out by the TLAC and that he hopes Mr Watt waiving a portion of the salary will take the sting out of the issue.

Minister for Public Expenditure Mr McGrath gave details of the recruitment process in the Dáil and said that the job was openly advertised online and in international media. He said 10 candidates were women, 17 came from the private sector and six from the public sector and three candidates were shortlisted, all of them Irish, before Mr Watt was appointed to the position.

However, Sinn Féin public expenditure and reform spokeswoman Mairéad Farrell said the Opposition was told an €81,000 salary increase was necessary to attract international talent but only three were international candidates and the best candidate “was right under our noses”.

“Now we now the person is happy to waive that (salary increase) on a temporary basis. So why was it needed at all?” she asked. Mr McGrath said however that “you never know who’s going to apply and the fact of the matter was it was open to any person around the world to apply.“I don’t think we should discount the international experience of the 20 candidates” who were Irish.