Robert Watt confirms he receives full €294,920 salary at Department of Health

Secretary general waived €81,000 salary increase last year ‘until unemployment falls’

Robert Watt was appointed secretary general of the Department of Health last April with an €81,000 increase on his previous salary. Photograph: Collins Photos

Robert Watt was appointed secretary general of the Department of Health last April with an €81,000 increase on his previous salary. Photograph: Collins Photos

 

Senior civil servant Robert Watt has confirmed he is in receipt of the full €294,920 salary for his job as secretary general of the Department of Health.

The confirmation comes amid increasing focus on whether or not he was still waiving an €81,000 pay increase he got when he was appointed to the role in April 2021.

Mr Watt said at the time of his appointment he would waive the increase “until the economy begins to recover and unemployment falls”.

A Department of Health spokeswoman said on Wednesday: “The secretary general has confirmed that he is in receipt of the full salary for his role.”

When revised civil service pay scales came into effect on October 1st, 2021, the salary increased from the €292,000 offered in April to €294,920.

The Department of Health statement does not say when Mr Watt began taking the full salary. “Further details are personal and private in respect of the individual concerned. The Department has no further comment.”

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said any decision by Mr Watt in relation to his salary was a matter for the individual alone.

“It’s important to say that the gifting of salaries are matters for the individual concerned.

“As far as I’m concerned the Government decided to set a new level for the pay of the secretary general in Health and I believe in that,” Mr Martin said.

“I think that Health needs very strong sustained radical reforms. That applies to the Department of Health as well as the agencies and HSE. We did something similar when it came to An Garda Síochána. We want people who go to the Department to have proper career paths. It is by far the largest spending department in Government with huge implications for our lives as we saw during Covid.”

Earlier on Wednesday, Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys called for transparency around the wages of top civil servants in a move that added further pressure on Mr Watt.

Speaking on Wednesday morning, Ms Humphreys said: “It’s very important that we have transparency in the public sector. My wages are there for everybody to see.

“As far as I know the wages of my constituency staff and the people who work with me are available for everyone to see, and I don’t see any reason why those at the top of the public service, that their wages shouldn’t also be available to people. I don’t see any reasons why they shouldn’t be published.”

On Tuesday, a spokesman for the Taoiseach said that “transparency is always useful but it’s a matter for Robert Watt” as to whether he answers questions on the topic. That came after the Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien also said earlier this week that “there should not be any secrets” around “salaries like that and what people earn”.

“People know what I earn. People know what other senior civil and public service servants earn as well. I think transparency is always a good thing where it’s appropriate and I would expect that [question] would be answered at the appropriate time.”

During an appearance at the Public Accounts Committee last month Mr Watt refused to say if he was still waiving the €81,000, telling TDs: “I wasn’t brought here to talk about these matters.”

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said on Tuesday that Mr Watt’s pay was a “private matter”.

“As you know, as a Cabinet Minister I surrender 10 per cent of my salary to the State and have done that for a very long time now – all Cabinet Ministers do but for civil servants that’s always obviously a decision for himself,” he said.

“He’s a civil servant. The rules are different for civil servants and public servants in relation to their salaries and pensions so I can’t answer for him.”

‘Cosy deal’

Elsewhere Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe defended the process that led to the appointment of Mr Watt to the job during an appearance at the Oireachtas Committee on Finance

However, the committee chairman, Fianna Fáil TD John McGuinness claimed what happened had been a “cosy deal”.

His committee, along with the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) examined the issue of senior executives’ pay in the public service in the wake of questions over the processes involved in Mr Watt’s appointment to the Department of Health job on an interim basis in January 2021 pending an open competition for the permanent role.

The committees’ report found that the interim appointment and salary increase were arranged in an “ad hoc fashion following discussions among a small number of senior officials and members of the Government”.

Aontú TD Peadar Tóibín put it to Mr Donohoe that the pay rises for Mr Watt are in contrast to the fall spending power for citizens and increased cost of living and that people are frustrated when they see “these two different Irelands”.

Mr Donohoe said he had agreed to Mr Watt’s appointment as a member of Government.

He added: “I was also aware of and support the process that was underway that led to it happening.”

Mr Donohoe said he knows the committee has “strong views” on the matter but said the job of Department of Health secretary general is a very important post and that Mr Watt had played a very important role in helping the country through the pandemic.

Mr Donohoe defended the Goverment’s record on helping with the cost of living citing tax measures and social welfare increases among other measures,

Mr Tóibín predicted that the pay increases for Mr Watt would lead to “a raft of public sector pay demands”. Mr Donohoe told Mr Tóibín that no matter what agreement the Government reaches on public sector pay that “it will never be enough in your eyes”.

Mr McGuinness argued that the pay increase Mr Watt got when he was appointed was “bad governance”. He told Mr Donohoe: “I hate when particularly ministers that I admire like yourself go into this, blind almost, defence of Government and what happened instead of calling out what happened.”

Mr McGuinness claimed: “the fact of the matter is that this was a cosy deal done for one secretary general in the Government buildings and the Cabinet was bounced into it.”

Jobseeker payments

Meanwhile, Ms Humphreys also announced that all jobseeker payments will return to the post office in line with the lifting of restrictions.

She said that a phased approach will see jobseeker claims processed in post offices from next month. The changes will apply initially to all new jobseeker applicants before being extended to other jobseekers over the coming months.

When public health restrictions were introduced in 2020, people in receipt of social welfare were given the option of being paid into a bank account.

The Department of Social Protection said this was an exceptional measure to help reduce the spread of the virus and ensure people could comply with social distancing guidelines.

Ms Humphreys held consultations with An Post and the Irish Postmaster’s Union ahead of Wednesday’s announcement.

“I’m acutely conscious of the challenges that are facing the Post Office network. This is a measure that I know the Irish Postmasters’ Union and An Post have been calling for. Our post offices provide essential services in communities the length and breadth of the country. This measure will increase the footfall in our post offices in communities across the country – sending a clear signal of Government’s commitment to supporting the network as a whole.”