Taoiseach’s role in appointment of Watt as interim health chief to form part of review

Oireachtas committees co-operate on review after department head’s salary rises to €292,000

 Robert Watt: appointed as Department of Health secretary general on an interim basis. Photograph:  Jenny Barker Photography

Robert Watt: appointed as Department of Health secretary general on an interim basis. Photograph: Jenny Barker Photography

 

The Taoiseach’s role in the process of appointing senior civil servant Robert Watt as Department of Health interim secretary general is set to form part of a review of the salary levels of senior public servants.

Two Oireachtas committees are co-operating on the review in the wake of the controversial decision to increase the salary for the permanent holder of the Department of Health job to €292,000.

Details of the planned review are included with a letter from Oireachtas Committee on Finance chairman John McGuinness to Public Accounts Committee chairman Brian Stanley.

Questions have been raised about the process by which the pay level increase for the Department of Health job was decided upon.

TDs and Senators also want to look into how Mr Watt – the former secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER) – was appointed as Department of Health secretary general on an interim basis.

Mr Watt remains on his DPER salary which is some €81,000 less than the €292,000 that will be on offer to the person who secures the permanent job at the Department of Health as part of an ongoing competitive process.

Earlier this month Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath told the Committee on Finance that Mr Watt had “no input” into the sanctioning of the increased salary level for the next secretary general at health.

Mr McGrath also said that Taoiseach Micheál Martin had briefed the Cabinet verbally in January that Mr Watt was to be appointed as the interim secretary general at the department. He told the committee: “Decisions can be made in that way”.

Mr McGuinness wrote to Mr Stanley last week including a scoping document outlining a suggested list of individuals and organisations who will be asked to make written submissions as part of the committees’ review.

The list includes the Taoiseach, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, Mr McGrath and Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe as well as senior civil servants.

‘Areas for consideration’

The document also sets out “areas for consideration” that are to be included in the initial scope of the review and issues the committee wishes to examine “in detail”.

These include the role of the Taoiseach and his office in what is alleged to be “the apparently casual nature of the decision to appoint a secretary general of the Department of Health on an interim basis without a formal memo to Government”.

The document says that the committee understands from its meeting with Mr McGrath on February 2nd that “the Cabinet was informed of the decision verbally [by the Taoiseach] rather than by way of a formal written memorandum”.

The committee also intends to examine how the €292,000 salary for the permanent job at the Department of Health was decided upon “given the lack of obvious benchmarking in Ireland or abroad”.

They also want to look at the rationale behind previously sanctioned increases in the salaries on offer for the roles of Garda commissioner and chief executive of the HSE and “the possibility that the increased salaries for these posts may be factors in setting salaries for other roles such as secretary general of the Department of Health”.

Asked about the issues the committee plans to review, including the role of the Taoiseach, a Government spokesman said: “These issues are all a matter for the individual Oireachtas committees.”

A DPER spokeswoman declined to comment and the Department of Health did not respond to a request for comment from it or Mr Watt.