Taoiseach defends health chief Robert Watt’s pay increase of €80,000 as ‘appropriate’

Fianna Fáil TD criticises information provided to PAC over salary

During an appearance at the Oireachtas Finance Committee, Taoiseach Micheál Martin  denied that Robert Watt (pictured) was head-hunted for the €292,000 position. Photograph: Collins

During an appearance at the Oireachtas Finance Committee, Taoiseach Micheál Martin denied that Robert Watt (pictured) was head-hunted for the €292,000 position. Photograph: Collins

 

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has defended the salary increase of more than €80,000 for the job of Department of Health secretary general as “appropriate” and argued that the holder of the role should be paid more than other department chiefs into the future. 

During an appearance at the Oireachtas Finance Committee Mr Martin also denied that Robert Watt was head-hunted for the €292,000 job.

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.

Mr Watt said the proposed pay is higher than his existing €211,000 salary and he did not think “it is appropriate to take such an increase in pay given the current difficult economic conditions the country faces”. 

The Finance Committee and Public Accounts Committee is investigating the pay of senior civil servants in the wake of the controversy over the pay increase for the job at the Department of Health. 

Economic oconditions

Aontú TD Peadar Tóibín put it to the Taoiseach that Mr Watt has said the pay increase is not appropriate given the current economic conditions and asked Mr Martin if he agreed with him.

Mr Martin insisted the increase “is appropriate to the position” and added “long after the present incumbent leaves the position I think the secretary general of health should get a higher remuneration than other government department secretary generals.”

He said the department’s responsibilities are “way above” any other department citing the Covid-19 pandemic, the implementation of Sláintecare and issues surrounding the National Children’s Hospital project. 

He also said pay increases were previously decided for the top jobs at the National Treasury Management Agency, the Garda and the HSE.

Sinn Féin TD Brian Stanley, the chairman of the PAC, asked Mr Martin if he was concerned the pay increase would lead to a “cascade” of claims at the top levels of the Civil Service.

Mr Martin said he is not as the pay rise is “very specific to the Department of Health.”

Mr Stanley asked if Mr Watt had been head-hunted for the job and Mr Martin said he was not and the job was advertised.

The Taoiseach said that for the interim role, “certainly we needed someone to go in there to act” but he added: “we were clear that it would have to be, all along, an independent approach”.

Fianna Fáil TD John McGuinness criticised the information provided to the committee by senior politicians and civil servants on the decision-making process surrounding the pay rise and Mr Watt’s appointment as “inadequate” and “weak”. He said questions raised are being “overlooked and not being dealt with”.

Mr Martin said his officials have co-operated and disputed Mr McGuinness’s assertion that “comprehensive” information has not been provided. 

Mr McGuinness said he looks forward to the co-operation of the Taoiseach and senior civil servants as the investigation continues. He said the two committees will be writing to those involved again and he asked Mr Martin to encourage them to review their responses to the investigation.