Wednesday 17 January 2018

HSE criticised for withholding information from Dail committee on allowances

Lyndsey Telford

A SPENDING watchdog has criticised the already under-fire Health Service Executive for stonewalling a review into public sector allowances.

A spending watchdog has criticised the already under-fire Health Service Executive (HSE) for stonewalling a review into public sector allowances.

The Dail's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has accused health chiefs of withholding vital information from its probe into its finances.

Fine Gael TD Simon Harris said the committee had been promised information on overtime, sessional and on-call payments to staff two weeks ago, but had still not received it.

"In the interest of full transparency, all this information should have been provided," said Mr Harris.

The PAC has published a report stating that public sector pay structures were not fit for purpose.

The group claimed payments of allowances fell short of taxpayers' expectations of a modern, flexible and transparent pay system, and recommended immediate reforms.

The HSE had agreed with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to withhold information on the payments, claiming they were not classed as allowances and were for vital services.

In its report, the PAC claimed there had been issues surrounding the definition of what constituted an allowance as that within the HSE differed so much from the garda and Irish Prison Service.

But HSE officials bowed to pressure during a PAC meeting earlier this month, and said they would provide the relevant details in time for the publication of its report.

"It's a very worrying issue where the HSE seemed to come to an arrangement with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, whereby they were allowed to exclude payments for overtime, on-call payments and sessional payments from the review," said Mr Harris.

"I think this is an absolute disgrace."

Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin yesterday announced the need for a supplementary health budget, which could see the department receive a 300 million euro (£241 million) payment to plug its massive overruns.

Wicklow TD Mr Harris said it would be wrong for the HSE to request this money while being "conservative at best" with information it is willing to disclose on its finances.

He said it was important the public is made aware of how much money public sector health workers are paid - particularly since many are among the top earners in the country.

"If you have a cohort at the top of the pay scale, such as a consultant who is on X amount of hundreds of thousands of euro, they then get an additional payment for coming into work on a Saturday. Is that right? I'm really not sure. But I think we should be made aware of the details."

The PAC review found allowances paid to HSE staff were the highest in 2011. The total cost amounted to 166.5 million euro (£133.8 million).

The role of clinical director attracted an annual allowance of 46,000 euro (£37,000) and that was paid to 59 hospital consultants.

This was the largest single allowance paid to a public servant in the state.

Last month, PAC member Sean Fleming stormed out of a committee meeting with the HSE after boss Tony O'Brien refused to answer a number of questions on the executive's budgetary overruns.

Elsewhere, the PAC review found that the majority of allowances paid within the public sector go to frontline staff - many of whom were among the lowest paid - and make up a large amount of their take-home pay.

Mr Harris said this was a result of public servants being given extra allowances during the boom instead of having their pay adjusted accordingly.

He said this had been a cop-out.

The committee therefore recommended moving certain allowances into core pay and introducing pay banding structures.

It suggested paying expenses to public servants by way of reimbursement rather than allowance.

The PAC also recommended an independent body would review allowances paid to members of the Oireachtas, to ensure it was not reviewing its own payments.

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