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'Who took this decision?': Top civil servant queried decision not to publish pensions paid to former Taoisigh

DPER Secretary General Robert Watt told an official: “I don’t understand why we should not release the information.”

File photo. Robert Watt.
File photo. Robert Watt.
Image: Oireachtas TV

ONE OF THE country’s most senior civil servants queried why pensions paid to former Taoisigh, Ministers, and Presidents could not be published and asked why he had not been consulted about the decision to stop releasing the details.

Robert Watt, the Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure, was reacting to a decision by the Information Commissioner that details of the pensions would not be made available under Freedom of Information (FOI) law.

Internal emails released by the department show Watt expressing surprise at the decision and asking why nobody had asked him about it.

Watt had been sent a media report about the case, and wrote: “Who took this decision? I was never consulted …”

In response, an official said: “We sent note and detail to you on this at the time.”

Watt answered back saying: “I don’t understand why we should not release the information.”

An official responded: “The decision not to release the information was made on the basis that it is personal information but the aggregate data was released i.e. the total amounts paid in pensions to ministers.”

Pension details for former Taoisigh, Presidents, and Ministers had been published as a matter of routine by the Department of Finance every year.

However, the practice was halted amid concerns over GDPR and whether the information was personal to the former politician.

An attempt to access the records using FOI by transparency group Right to Know was rejected by the Information Commissioner who said publication would be a “significant breach” of privacy.

In his decision, the Commissioner said that the public interest in seeing the data published did not “outweigh the privacy rights” of the retired politicians.

Internal Department emails also detail officials saying they were “pleased” with the decision. One wrote: “This [decision] is clear and helpful to us in terms of knowing what we should release.”

Another responded saying they could “expect press queries and probably further follow on requests”.

In briefing notes on the case, Niall Mulligan, a senior official from the Government Reform Unit, said the decision to refuse release of the pension payments was not “remotely surprising”.

He said that “some quarters” believe it is “open season” on information relating to public servants.

However, Mulligan said a distinction had to be made between the role of somebody working for the state and issues relating to their “private employment and financial affairs”.

He wrote: “It does not mean that they forfeit any right to privacy when they take a public office or start work in the public service.”

Mulligan asked whether release of individual pension detail “meaningfully advances transparency” around how a public body does its business.

He said: “Weighing the fairly negligible potential gain in terms of openness, transparency, and accountability of FOI bodies, and the significant impact on the privacy rights of the concerned parties, on balance the public interest favours refusal.”

Mulligan said it was “entirely untrue” that people would no longer know the amount being paid in pensions to former office holders.

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He said that information was still being released in “aggregate form to a significant level of specificity”.

He wrote: “There’s really nothing remarkable or ground-breaking about the outcome here. The [Information] Commissioner applied long established FOI rules in a consistent, straightforward and predictable way.”

The pension decision was also forwarded to the Houses of the Oireachtas 32 minutes after having being received by the department.

Leinster House has since also refused requests for details of termination pay, lump sums, and pensions for former TDs and Senators on the same grounds; they had also been published without issue for more than a decade.

Sending the decision, Niall Mulligan wrote: “I understand from previous discussions that the Houses also regularly receives requests of this nature.”

Asked questions about the contents of specific emails, the Department of Public Expenditure did not provide any comment.

However, a spokeswoman said: “A universal feature of transparency measures the world over is an inherent tension between openness in public administration on the one hand and the right to privacy, on the other.”

She said while the FOI Act made a general exception on privacy for public servants where it related to performance of their official duties, this did not “deprive [them] of the right to privacy generally”.

The spokeswoman said publication of the identity of pensioners but not amounts, aggregate overall figures paid, and methods of calculation for pensions provided “extensive scope for scrutiny” of the Department.

About the author:

Ken Foxe  / Journalist lecturer and freelance reporter

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