The Dáil’s spending watchdog is to investigate what role, if any, top civil servant Robert Watt had in setting a salary of €292,000 for the new secretary-general at the Department of Health, a job he now holds.
Mr Watt was appointed by Cabinet 10 days ago as the top official in the Department of Health on an interim basis, but is seen as the clear frontrunner to get the job on a permanent basis.
As he is acting Secretary General, Mr Watt is currently being paid at the €211,00 level. The €292,000 salary will apply once the post is filled permanently.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has commenced an investigation into the “excessive” salary which is €81,000 higher than Mr Watt’s salary when he was secretary-general at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER) where he earned €211,000 a year.
At a private meeting of the committee on Thursday, it was agreed that a detailed list of questions would be sent to Mr Watt’s former department to ascertain how this salary level was arrived at.
PAC chair Brian Stanley (remember him?) says committee will investigate the €81,000 salary increase being given to the new Sec-Gen at the Dept of Health pic.twitter.com/Pq7Wpzp8Gj— Gavan Reilly (@gavreilly) January 12, 2021
According to sources at the meeting, PAC chairman Brian Stanley raised the matter and proposed a number of questions now be put to the department.
The questions to be posed to DPER include:
- Who signed off on the decision to deviate from the salary norms?
- How was the amount of €292,000 decided upon and what was the rationale?
- Was this matter referred to the Top Level Appointments Committee (TLAC), of which Mr Watt is a member?
Speaking to the, Mr Stanley said: "What type of message does this send out at a time of such crisis when we tell nurses to live on €100 a week?
"Excessive levels of pay like this, we were told we had to pay big money to get good people. We did that in the past, but we didn’t get that quality. The link between salary and quality has shown itself in the past not to hold up.
Incoming Health Secretary General Robert Watt's salary will be 56 times the amount of a student nurse - who will get €100 per week for working on the frontlines.— People Before Profit (@pb4p) January 12, 2021
What does this tell us about this governments priorities? #paystudentnursesandmidwives pic.twitter.com/pCeh0oWIOe
His vice-chair, Social Democrats leader Catherine Murphy, said there were “serious concerns” about the package, about who decided upon it, and the potential knock-on effect of it.
Defending the decision, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe said it was appropriate because of the exceptional importance of the Department of Health for a period of time.
“It is appropriate in order to ensure that we have the right and the right level of skill leading a department like this. We do have a compensation package that reflects that,” he said.
Mr Watt was also one of four secretaries-general appointed by the Government in 2011 who had access to the same enhanced retirement and severance arrangements as former top civil servant Dermot McCarthy, whose departure was mired in controversy.
Mr McCarthy received an annual pension of €142,670, a once-off lump sum of €428,011, and a separate special severance payment of €142,670, despite savage austerity measures being introduced.