HL Deb 19 April 1995 vol 563 cc479-82

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether severely war-disabled war pensioners will be expected to make repayments in cases in which mobility supplements have been paid twice because of errors by the agencies concerned.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish)

My Lords, approximately 400 war pensioners have recently been asked to repay amounts of attendance allowance or disability living allowance which they should not have received in addition to their war pensions, mobility supplement and constant attendance allowance. In cases where the overpayment has occurred as a result of official error there will be no compulsion to repay.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his reply, in particular for the reference to no compulsion. Can he confirm that in almost all the cases the errors were caused by the agencies concerned through no fault of the pensioner? As individuals and their families have to base their budgets on the total amounts expected, will special precautions now be taken against repetition of what must have been most unsettling mistakes?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I can concur with my noble friend that most of the mistakes were made at the official end. As he knows, we are introducing a computer system for war pensions and that has picked up these double payments. It will help prevent further overpayments of this kind. We are also reminding staff at the offices dealing with war pensions, disability living allowance and attendance allowance of the correct procedures to follow so that such mistakes are not made again.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, we thank the Minister for his sensitive and generous response to the problem raised by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy. Can we hope that the Government will exhibit a similar generosity when the amendment of this House on war widows is discussed in the other place?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, that is a clever way to introduce a subject which is a little wide of this Question.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, the Minister's great interest in ex-servicemen via the Royal British Legion is very much appreciated. If there should be difficulties with regard to this matter, will he be prepared to see representatives of the Royal British Legion?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, we wrote to the various ex-servicemen's organisations when this problem came to light. I am happy of course to talk to them. Indeed, on Friday I am visiting a poppy factory in Edinburgh and meeting the chairman of the Royal British Legion (Scotland).

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, can my noble friend say what is the total sum of money involved?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, we estimate that the average overpayment is about £2,500. Bearing in mind that there are approximately 400 cases, the total sum comes to about £1 million.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, I am a member of the War Pensions Committee. Can he say why the computer was not able to identify the people who received this money, through no fault of their own, and why, therefore, the War Pensions Committee needed to advise them that they could not be forced to repay this sum? Why could they not have been asked for the money back?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, the answer to the first part of the noble Lord's question is that the computer system at Norcross and Blackpool is a new one. These discrepancies have come to light because of the bringing into use of the computer system away from the manual clerical systems which had been used before. On the noble Lord's second point, it is made perfectly clear to the person involved that there is no compulsion to repay. It is merely asking for voluntary repayment of any overpayment which was made.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, is it not the case, as the noble Lord admitted, that severely war disabled war pensioners have had pensions paid to them in a sense by mistake through official miscalculation of one form or another? Is it not therefore right that the Minister should say to the House and to others that the Government apologise for this mistake and that this was an error? Would it not be gracious for the noble Lord to do that?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I thought I was trying to indicate that the great majority of the nearly 400 mistakes were due to official error. We do indeed regret that. I should point that that we pay war pensions and mobility supplement to more than 22,000 people and constant attendance allowance to more than 6,000 people. That puts the figure of 400 in context. But we greatly regret that the mistake happened and we are trying to deal with it as sympathetically as we can.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that, following on his answer to an earlier supplementary question, the Government's choice of computer systems seems to go astray every now and again? Is the Minister aware that in at least seven recorded instances so far the Government have suffered very great loss of finance either due to the computer systems themselves or to the advice that the Government have been tendered when those systems have been installed?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, as I believe I have indicated twice, these problems have come to light because we have moved from a clerical system to the new computer system at Norcross. I believe that it will give far better service than the old clerical method of dealing with these matters. I would not claim for a moment that computers are infallible, nor the human beings who work them—perhaps more the latter than the former. Almost everybody who knows anything about them realises that, once some of the initial problems which invariably occur with new computer systems are ironed out, they provide a very much better service whether in administration, science and technology or anything else.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, would the recipients have been aware that they had been overpaid by, on average, £2,500? If they were not aware, did they believe that their pensions had been miraculously increased? If they were aware that they had been overpaid, why should they not pay the money back?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, it is difficult to enter into the minds of the people who received these sums. Perhaps they thought that the Government were being even more generous than we are in these matters, or perhaps because these are complicated matters they probably just took the money and felt that that was the right way to proceed.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn

My Lords, will my noble friend agree that the Government have behaved with great probity and decency in this matter? Does he further agree that it is an increase in efficiency through the introduction of the computer system which has revealed these overpayments? The Government have a responsibility to seek to recover the money, but they are not trying to do so in cases where it cannot be afforded. Will my noble friend accept my congratulations on the finesse which the Government have shown in this matter?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I am always happy to accept congratulations from any noble Lord, particularly from my noble friend. He is quite right that the introduction of computers is helping us in this matter. We are very conscious of the debt that we owe to war pensioners, and that is demonstrated in the very much higher benefits that they receive in the mobility and care allowance than the rest of the population.

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