Robert Watt to waive salary increase for top health job ‘until economy recovers’

Cabinet approves civil servant’s move from senior Department of Public Expenditure role

Robert Watt has been appointed as secretary general of the Department of Health. File photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times.

Robert Watt has been appointed as secretary general of the Department of Health. File photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times.

 

Robert Watt has been appointed as secretary general of the Department of Health but is to waive a salary increase of more than €80,000 that comes with the job until the economy begins to recover from the effects of the pandmeic. 

The Cabinet approved the appointment of the former Department of Public Expenditure and Reform secretary general at its meeting on Tuesday.

He had been appointed to the health job on an interim basis in January while a recruitment process to find a permanent candidate took place.

Controversy arose when it was announced that the next person to take the job would receive an increased salary of €292,000 – more than any other civil servant. It amounts to a pay increase of more than €80,000 for Mr Watt.

The Department of Health on Tuesday issued a statement confirming Mr Watt’s appointment in which he said: “I was delighted to be asked to take on the role of interim Secretary General in the Department of Health earlier this year. 

“An open TLAC (Top Level Appointments Committee) competition was held and I am pleased to be asked to take on this role on a permanent basis following the Government meeting today. 

“The proposed salary for this role is higher than my current salary. 

Economic conditions

“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. 

“I am looking forward to continuing to work with my colleagues in the Department of Health on the many challenges we face.”

Minister fort Health Stephen Donnelly said he was “pleased” to see Mr Watt “taking on this really important role”. 

“The department continues to work through the challenge of Covid-19, is leading on the vaccination programme and the implementation of Sláintecare. Robert brings a wealth of experience to this role and I looking forward to working with him in the time ahead.”

The Oireachtas Committee on Finance and the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) commenced a review of pay of senior officials in the public sector in the wake of the controversy over the pay rise for the Department of Health job.  

Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath has previously said that Mr Watt had “no input” in sanctioning the salary for the health post.

The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has said the new salary is “deemed to be commensurate with the scale of the responsibilities, including the vaccine rollout in the immediate term and the challenges of implementing the Government’s ambition for the rollout of Sláintecare and the budget of €21 billion for health”.

The PAC had called for the recruitment process to be halted pending a review of the decision to increase the salary for the role. 

Salary defended

The salary that goes with the role and the appointment process was defended by Ministers on Tuesday.

Speaking after the Cabinet meeting, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said: “It’s very much the strong view of Cabinet that this position is a crucial position in our public service and should carry a similar salary to that of the head of the HSE or the head of a semi-State company.

“So the salary has been agreed by Cabinet but I understand that Mr Watt himself has decided to waive the higher salary.”

Put to him that Mr Watt will end up being paid the higher rate at some point, Mr Varadkar said: “That’s a question for him rather than for me.” Asked if the foregone pay would be backdated, Mr Varadkar said he did not know.

The Department of Health has not responded to queries about how the decision will be made on when Mr Watt stops waiving the portion of his salary and what definition of an economic recovery would be used in the decision. The department was also asked whether the waived portion of the salary would be repaid to Mr Watt.

The appointment was raised with Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe at Tuesday’s meeting of the Oireachtas Committee on Finance.

National debt

Aontú TD Peadar Tóibín said said many people “can’t get their head around” a pay increase for the role at a time of high unemployment and when the State is taking on “massive national debt”.

Mr Tóibín asked Mr Donohoe if he could stand over the process that led to the appointment, and the Minister replied that he could.

Committee chairman and Fianna Fáil TD John McGuinness outlined how the committee had previously sought written submissions from Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Mr Varadkar and others on the appointment process.

He told Mr Donohoe “you might say that you stand over the process of selection” but that the committee was anxious to look at it in more detail.

Mr McGuinness said the Taoiseach and Tánaiste had not responded to the request for a written submission, which he thinks shows “a great disrespect” to the committee.

He said that a written response from Mr Watt was a “very curt one-liner” which the committee “is not satisfied with at all”. He said Mr Watt’s secretary wrote that he had read the evidence given to the committee by Mr McGrath and “he has nothing further to add”.

Mr Donohoe said the Department of Finance did not play a role in the selection process and he would write to the committee to outline this.