The secretary-general of the Department of Health has denied that he approved funding for chief medical officer Tony Holohan’s secondment to Trinity College without the go-ahead from Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly.
Robert Watt told the Oireachtas Health Committee on Wednesday morning that details of the proposal for the open-ended secondment still needed to be worked out when he sent a letter to the Dublin university on March 16th.
“There’s no basis upon which I can approve spending for new areas of spending without the approval of the minister – I don’t have that authority,” he said.
“This spending wasn’t approved or sanctioned. There was no spending here. It was a commitment and the details had to be worked through.
“The plan was, when the details had been finalised, and we had a detailed set of proposals, that we would seek formal sanction in the normal way for the spending.”
Citing the letter to Trinity, Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane and Social Democrat co-leader Róisín Shortall accused Mr Watt of committing the Department to “substantial” multiannual funding worth more than €20 million over a 10-year period without Mr Donnelly’s approval.
“You committed taxpayer money in that letter, and I don’t think that’s an acceptable action for a secretary-general to take,” Ms Shortall said.
Mr Cullinane said it was “breathtaking arrogance” that Mr Watt would commit €2 million a year in funding to provide for Dr Holohan’s role, while the secretary-general said the spending had not been approved as the details had to be worked through.
“You cannot say that you’re going to seek retrospective approval once you are committing in writing two million euro a year to an outside body – you had an absolute obligation to inform the Minister for Health. You failed to do so,” Mr Cullinane said.
“We cannot have, with respect, Mr Watt, senior civil servants committing taxpayers’ money without any democratic oversight, which is what was happening here.”
Asked when Mr Donnelly was informed of the contents of the letter, Mr Watt said he could not be sure, but he thought it was the week after Dr Holohan’s role as a professor at Trinity College was publicly announced on Friday, March 25th.
Questioned on how the figure of €2 million a year of public health research funding was calculated, Mr Watt said it was for a “broad research agenda” and that it would be used to collaborate across various universities.
Dr Holohan, who appeared before the committee alongside Mr Watt, said he was not annoyed with the secretary-general and the Department about the way the secondment had been handled.
“I never felt that there was anything other than full support for both concept of this and what will be necessary in terms of the working through of detail. So there’s no equivocation whatsoever in my part in saying that,” he said.
Dr Holohan added that, when he saw the “concerns” in the public domain about his secondment to Trinity College, he decided he wanted to make a “clean and early” decision not to accept the role, and to avoid civil servants and politicians being “diverted” by the controversy.
In response to a question from Fianna Fáil TD John Lahart about whether he would be open to another secondment, Dr Holohan said “nobody thus far has sought to persuade me”, and, asked to clarify whether that was “not a no”, he said it was not.
“My own personal situation, I’ve made clear that my ambition was to stay in the public service and to stay committed to the whole objectives and ideals of public health, but just working in a different role,” he said.