Civil servant warned against 'risky' pay hike for junior ministers

Civil servant warned against 'risky' pay hike for junior ministers

Jack Chambers who, along with Hildegarde Naughton and Pippa Hackett, waived the additional money and split the original allowance three ways. Picture: Stephen Collins /Collins Photos

One of the country’s most senior civil servants warned it was a “risky” move to try and push through a pay hike for “super junior” ministers, which was included as part of legislation meant to establish a new department.

Robert Watt, Secretary-General of the Department of Public Expenditure, said he had doubts about making the change to pay an extra €17,205 allowance to a third minister of state.

In late July, the pay hike sparked controversy after being passed using legislation that was intended to form the new Department of Higher Education.

And just days later, the three ministers involved – Jack Chambers, Hildegarde Naughton, and Pippa Hackett – agreed to waive the additional money and split the original €34,410 in allowances between them instead.

This meant that each would receive €11,470 on top of their six-figure salary as minister of state.

Records released under a Freedom of Information (FOI) request reveal that senior officials were concerned about making the change, which was required because the legislation allowed only two super-juniors to be paid the allowance.

 Hildegarde Naughton, who would have been one of the junior ministers receiving the pay increase before they decided to waive it. Picture: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie
Hildegarde Naughton, who would have been one of the junior ministers receiving the pay increase before they decided to waive it. Picture: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

In the previous government, one “super-junior” minister had to do without the allowance, while in the administration before that, another minister of state had to pay back money when advice was received saying a third payment was not allowed.

In a submission prepared for Public Expenditure Minister Michael McGrath, department secretary general Robert Watt warned: “Minister, I think amending the legislation to facilitate payment of this is risky. I have doubts about this proposal. We can discuss next week.” 

Internal emails also show one civil servant appearing to suggest the allowance should not be brought through using legislation for creation of the Department of Higher Education.

The official wrote: “I have spoken to [a named civil servant] and his feeling is that we would need to go separately on the allowances.” 

The planned legislation went through the Dáil on July 24, after Minister Michael McGrath signed off on an internal submission.

 Pippa Hackett, who opted to waive the increase, alongside Jack Chambers and Hildegarde Naughton. Photo: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie
Pippa Hackett, who opted to waive the increase, alongside Jack Chambers and Hildegarde Naughton. Photo: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

“Please proceed as per Minister’s instructions,” said an email from Robert Watt, with Mr McGrath’s own final comment on the submission redacted from the documents.

A later email from a different official said: “We need to arrange this asap for Govt.” 

The records also show how the department was keeping a close eye on opposition reaction to legislation authorising the extra allowance.

An official said it has passed through the Seanad with the debate “very much focused on Higher Education etc” rather than the amendment for the new allowance.

The email said that both Sinn Féin and Labour had indicated their opposition but had “focused their remarks on the establishment of the new department”.

“In committee stage when the amendment was discussed a number of Senators spoke on the amended section to object in view of concerns about the economy etc,” said the email.

A copy of the actual submission prepared for Minister McGrath on the allowances has been withheld by the department, who said it was created for use by Cabinet and is therefore exempt from release under Freedom of Information laws.

In a statement, the department said they had no comment on the records.

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