Daniel McConnell: Questions to be answered about appointment of top civil servant

The appointment of Robert Watt to the role of secretary general at the Department of Health has sparked controversy. Daniel McConnell says there are questions to be answered about the appointment.
Daniel McConnell: Questions to be answered about appointment of top civil servant

Robert Watt, whose salary has sparked controversy. File Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Two weeks ago, at a lengthy and crucial Cabinet meeting where ministers agreed to place the country into a new level 5 lockdown, another key matter was raised in passing.

It related to the “re-assignment” of a number of secretaries general, or top officials, in a number of Government departments.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin, according to sources at the top-secret meeting, told weary ministers of the moves of some of the country's highest-paid and most important civil servants.

One stuck out more than the others — the appointment of Robert Watt, then secretary general at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER), to the Department of Health on an interim basis.

“There was no memo, no advance warning, and no discussion of salary for the post,” said one source.

"We had read about Watt’s move in the papers that morning so there was no real surprise, but did we have any insight into the proposed salary hike? Absolutely not.

It was a 20-second contribution from the Taoiseach and it was a fait accompli. It was not a Cabinet decision."

News of the proposed salary hike emerged a day later when newspaper outlets, including the Irish Examiner, got their hands on the advert for the post.

We learned that the role would command a salary of €292,000 a year, it would be for a period of five years.

Explaining the rationale for the pay hike, a spokesman for health minister Stephen Donnelly said the terms for the post have been agreed in recognition of the unique challenges and very significant responsibilities attached to this role. In recent years, increased terms have been agreed for recruitment to certain senior roles of strategic importance in the public service, for example, the post of Garda Commissioner, and in the health sector, the post of CEO of the HSE.

For the moment, Watt is there in health on an interim basis. He retains his previous salary of €211,000 a year.

This salary level is already paid to the top tier of three salary levels available to secretaries general, and is paid only to the top officials in the DPER, the Department of Finance (Derek Moran), and the secretary general to the Government, Martin Fraser. All other secretaries general are paid less.

Controversy immediately arose as it seems most ministers had been kept in the dark as to what was going on.

Indeed, a week after Watt’s transfer was confirmed by the Taoiseach, Green Party minister Catherine Martin raised an objection at another Cabinet meeting to the lack of notice or discussion on the salary issue. 

Screengrab from Oireachtas TV showing secretary general for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform Robert Watt.

Screengrab from Oireachtas TV showing secretary general for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform Robert Watt.

According to several sources at the meeting, she said the full details should have been presented to Cabinet and urged that in the future that be the case. She did not seek to call a halt to the current process, sources say.

While technically, we are meant to believe an open process is under way to find the new secretary general in the Department of Health, very few, including most of the Cabinet, think it will be anyone other than Watt who gets the job permanently.

So, this scenario raises a host of questions, which are now being pursued by the Dáil’s spending watchdog, the Public Accounts Committee.

Firstly, Cabinet approval for such an appointment can only be done on foot of a recommendation and while the Taoiseach briefed the Cabinet on the matter, it would fall to public expenditure minister Michael McGrath to formally table a proposal.

With McGrath being Watt’s political master, it is legitimate to explore did Watt have any role in formulating the proposal for the role. Did he have any oversight in the formation of the remuneration package of which he is likely to be the beneficiary?

Or did he recuse himself from the process and, if so, who then developed the package for approval?

If he did recuse himself, did it fall to his assistant secretary who reports to Watt to prepare the memo?

Put boldly, did Watt have a direct hand in the process which would see him benefit personally?

We do not yet know the answers to these questions, but they need to be clarified.

There is considerable unease within Cabinet as to how this process has been handled.

While it is clear Donnelly and the Taoiseach are “eager” for Watt to take the role, others in Cabinet are not so sure.

During his time in the DPER, Watt was seen as the bulwark against pay rises for some of the most modestly paid people in the sector and many in Fine Gael saw him as having too powerful a hold over his then-minister Paschal Donohoe.

“Many in my party do say that two people cost us the election: Paschal and Robert Watt,” said one senior Fine Gael TD.

His resistance to pay improvements for many lower-paid people is, however, in contrast to his own personal circumstances.

As reported yesterday, 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. 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.

Were Watt to be successful, as most believe he will, based on his entitlements, as has been pointed out, he will be able to retire with a tax-free lump sum of €438,000, or one and a half times his final salary of €292,000 or higher, if that happens, as opposed to a career average which is the case for newer appointees. He would also be entitled to an annual pension until his death of €146,000, as well as his severance payment.

Yesterday, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar sought to defend the salary level on offer.

“While the Cabinet signed off on the temporary appointment of Robert Watt as interim secretary general in the Department of Health, and he's there on his existing salary,” he said. “The party leaders, with the secretary of the Government [Martin Fraser], agreed that that position would be advertised, and that there will be a higher salary level in order to attract the best candidates for the job. 

"The person who will get that job, who will be the new secretary general at the Department of Health, will by no means be the best-paid person in the health service, or in the public service, but we do think that it's such an important job at the moment, and also when it comes to implementing Sláintecare, that it should carry a salary."

Asked did he accept the potential knock-on effect of the salary increase by way of demands from other secretaries general and other top officials, he said: “No doubt that will happen anytime. Anytime there's a pay rise for anyone or any group of people that are knock-on demands, but we deal with them, as we always do, mostly by saying no."

When asked to comment about his new role, Mr Watt responded by texting me saying: “Looking forward to it.” 

I bet he is.

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