AN official attempt to block the appointment of top civil servant Robert Watt as the new Secretary General of the Department of Health is firmly underway.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has agreed to send a letter seeking the suspension of the recruitment process for the new secretary general, with Mr Watt acting as “interim” head of the department.
The PAC is seeking to block his formal appointment to the role with a new annual salary of €292,000 pending an examination of how the level of remuneration was decided upon.
The move, which was widely backed, was taken by cross-party TDs at a private meeting of the committee today after a long discussion. A large majority supported the move.
Members went ahead with the unprecedented letter despite the clerk of the committee advising that it was a potential breach of standing orders.
The meeting was told that it could also be construed by its recipient, the Dáil Committee on Procedure and Privilege (CPP), as the PAC overstepping its powers.
The CPP, the main Leinster House committee to oversee all others, is currently considering the PAC’s request to extend their remit in order to hold hearings to consider remuneration in higher civil service in general.
The members were also told that sending a letter seeking suspension of the appointment process in relation to Mr Watt — who would be earning €81,000 more than the previous Health supremo as well as in comparison to his own last salary — could jeopardise the first request.
The clerk advised that the committee should delay sending the letter until after the CPP has ruled on whether the PAC should be allowed to examine the wider issue.
It is understood that Fine Gael TDs Colm Burke and Jennifer Carroll MacNeill were sympathetic to this advice, as was Fianna Fáil TD Paul McAuliffe in a more reserved way. But everyone else in the committee was for sending the letter immediately.
‘We are simply expressing an opinion that the recruitment process should be suspended until such time as whomsoever examines the process in detail, be it the PAC, Finance Committee, both or another body altogether, looks at it in detail,” one committee member told the Irish Independent.
Members decided against an alternative proposal to send a second letter to the CPP saying the letter seeking suspension of recruitment process should not be seen as the PAC examining the issue already.
“A few agreed with this course of action but no one else did, so the letter is being sent,” a committee member said.
Fianna Fáil TD Marc MacSharry, Sinn Féin’s Matt Carthy, Independent Verona Murphy and Social Democrat co-leader Catherine Murphy, and Labour’s Sean Sherlock were all “very strong” on wanting the letter sent this evening, sources said.
Mr Burke said he would have preferred to wait a few days, as suggested by the clerk. “But in the final analysis no-one objected to the letter going,” a source said.
PAC chairman Brian Stanley (Sinn Féin) was also said to be very much in favour of the letter going out this evening to seek the suspension of the process involving Mr Watt’s appointment.
Mr Watt is a former Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, headed by Minister Michael McGrath, who has defended the restructuring of Mr Watt’s remuneration package.
Separately the Budgetary Oversight Committee heard that the appointment should be an open process with any person entitled to apply, with the terms attached to the position advertised in an open and transparent manner.
Minister Michael McGrath was asked to confirm that there would be no salary increases for other Secretary General positions if there were to become available in different departments.
“There are no plans for any other salary changes in the context of any secretaries general vacancies that will arise in the months ahead,” Mr McGrath said. “There won’t be.”