Saturday 19 October 2019

Howlin defends €140,000 payment to departing HSE director Tony O'Brien

Tony O'Brien, Director General of the Health Service Executive. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
Tony O'Brien, Director General of the Health Service Executive. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
Brendan Howlin. Picture: Collins
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

LABOUR Party leader Brendan Howlin has defended a payment of around €140,000 that is to be made to the outgoing HSE boss Tony O’Brien.

When he was minister for public expenditure during the Fine Gael-Labour coalition government, Mr Howlin was involved in signing off on the pay arrangements for Mr O’Brien.

Mr O’Brien, who was on a salary of €192,000, last week bowed to pressure over the cervical cancer screening controversy and stood down as the HSE’s director general.

It later emerged that he will continue to be paid his normal salary until his contract expires at the end of July and he is to receive a once-off payment equivalent to six months’ wages. The sum he is to receive has been put at around €140,000.

Brendan Howlin. Picture: Collins
Brendan Howlin. Picture: Collins

Mr Howlin defended the decision to sign off on the pay arrangements, saying it was a “normal contract”.

He also insisted that if it had not been for reforms he made to the Top Level Appointments Committee (TLAC), Mr O’Brien would have been “entitled to a much more generous package”.

Mr Howlin said that a package where an individual is paid up to the time of their retirement, along with a six-month severance payment, was “absolutely normal”. He also pointed out that Mr O’Brien had resigned and “hasn’t been found guilty of anything”.

The Labour leader said entitlements under the law must be taken into account, adding: “We can’t arbitrarily change that.”

The Department of Health said that Mr O’Brien stepped down “by mutual agreement”.

His contract had provision for an offer of an alternative position in public service on completion of the contract or payment equivalent to six months’ salary. “The contract also provides for payment in lieu of notice to the end of the contract term,” the department said.

Mr Howlin’s one-time Labour leadership rival Alan Kelly has been at the forefront of seeking to uncover what happened in the cervical cancer screening controversy in his role as vice-chairman of the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

It was at last week’s meeting of the PAC that Mr O’Brien revealed he had first been briefed about an audit of the CervicalCheck screening programme in early 2016. The PAC was later provided with three memos and Mr O’Brien announced his intention to step down later that day.

The memos, prepared by the HSE, included warnings that the audit could result in headlines about cancer misdiagnosis.

One unsigned memo from March 2016 outlined how doctors were to be contacted and told how an opportunity had been missed to diagnose a

patient with cancer. It included a note to “pause all letters” and “await advice of solicitors”.

Department of Health and HSE officials are to be hauled before the PAC again this week.

Mr Kelly last night told RTÉ Radio: “We need to get quick answers into who knew what and when.”

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