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Armed Forces: Pay

Volume 697: debated on Wednesday 9 January 2008

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. Before doing so, I draw attention to my non-pecuniary interest, which I have declared in the Register of Members’ Interests.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will ensure that in future all service personnel will be paid the correct salary on time.

My Lords, the vast majority of service personnel are paid correctly by the joint personnel administration system. Since the first full pay run of this system in April 2007, the accuracy rate has been 99.3 per cent against the submitted data. Joint personnel administration marks a significant step in modernising the Armed Forces. The complexity of the services and their pay structures mean that pay errors have occurred in the past. Error rates under joint personnel administration will reduce further as familiarity with the new system grows.

My Lords, what is the exact number of service men and women who have been disadvantaged by not receiving their correct pay entitlement over a prolonged period, stretching into months? Will the Minister not only confirm that these errors will be stopped immediately, but also give a guarantee that they will not be repeated, in view of the great irritation caused not just to the service men and women but to their whole families?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right that there have been some underpayments and some months have been worse than others. For instance, a report in the Sunday Times on 9 December, to which the noble Lord may be referring, gave a figure of 16,000 to 17,000 people with incorrect payments. This was not a basic salary payment but a home-to-duty travel expense to reserves who were attending their training nights, so we are talking about figures of £20 to £30. We have looked at what has caused that: it was caused by a system change to prevent duplicate entries resulting in overpayments. However, the payments were made in full in the following months. We have learnt the lessons and the system has been rectified to allow those retrospective claims put in for home-to-duty training.

The noble Lord asked me to give a reassurance that this will not happen in future. I am afraid that I cannot give him a complete reassurance, but lessons have been learnt and we hope that we will minimise risks of mistakes in future.

My Lords, this is obviously very important for the individuals concerned. Have the Ministry of Defence and the Government thought of any recompense to those who have been affected adversely? I was surprised to hear the Minister quoting from a newspaper; surely what we want to hear in this House is what the Government think the figures should be.

My Lords, I should say to the noble and gallant Lord that I was quoting that newspaper because that is where other newspaper articles have come from about a seemingly catastrophic situation which, when you look at it, is not so at all. I quite agree with the noble and gallant Lord that our soldiers, airmen and naval personnel should get their pay and allowances on time, as they are putting their lives on the line for this country. They should be getting the correct and accurate payment—I absolutely agree with that. As I have said, lessons will be learnt.

Noble Lords might like to know that out of 300,000 possible personnel being paid, 322 suffered from underpayment in September last year; in October, the figure was 50 and in November it was 311. None of them should have been underpaid, but it is a small percentage of 300,000.

My Lords, to follow up on that question, if anybody is financially embarrassed by underpayment, will the Government undertake to guarantee that they will be assisted and that embarrassment will be removed? That is quite simple.

Absolutely, my Lords, and as soon as an underpayment comes to light, assistance is given. Payment is made as quickly as possible, often at unit level so that the member of the armed services can get it as quickly as possible. The payment information system needed improving and is being improved. For example, reservists may want to access the information line in the evenings when they are doing their training. The access line for information on pay will be open in the evenings from next week.

My Lords, I accept the Minister’s assurance that the new personnel system has certainly improved efficiency and regularity, but does she agree that this is not a new issue? Indeed, in the early 1990s, when I was in Bosnia as chairman of the Armed Forces’ Pay Review Body, I can remember that the whole of our visit was taken up with the issue of personnel not being paid the correct amount. There were no arrangements in place at that time to give people cash payments. This Government introduced cash payments to help people in that situation. I agree that it is not acceptable for people not to be paid, but it is not new and the situation is improving.

My Lords, I very much agree with my noble friend and recognise the authority with which she speaks on this issue. The new system, the JPA, has successfully been rolled out on time and on budget to all three of the services. It is a major IT change programme—one of the biggest in the world, I am told—so I hope that nobody downloads it and puts it in the post.

My Lords, I do not recognise the bland statements made by the Minister. On a visit to a ship last year as part of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme, I was told in no uncertain terms that virtually everybody on board had had the wrong payments and that it was a continuing process. What is the Minister's answer to that?

My Lords, we recognise that with any new system, particularly one supporting a large, complex payroll, there will be mistakes. Mistakes should not be tolerated, but should any come to light they must be dealt with as soon as possible.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this problem is particularly irksome to members of the Reserve Forces and that many have decided to leave the forces as a result?

My Lords, I do not necessarily agree with the last part of that suggestion, but reservists have found this system more difficult for two reasons. First, the data held in the old legacy systems were not as good as for regular service personnel. Secondly, as the noble Lord will know, their principal pay as reservists is attendance-based. The system has now caught up with that, but there were glitches in the past.