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To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many army helicopter pilots are being required to repay wages apparently paid in error; and how many have resigned as a result.
My Lords, in 2012, the MoD discovered that a number of Army pilots were being overpaid as the result of an inconsistent interpretation of policy over a prolonged period. That resulted in 146 personnel receiving incorrect pay. In accordance with standard government practice, arrangements have been made to ensure personnel now receive the correct pay and recovery action for overpayments has been initiated. Since notification of the recovery action, we are unaware of any linked resignations.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that reply. In view of the fact that, in public at least, some 200 personnel have apparently been involved in this matter, what steps are being taken to maintain the operational effectiveness of the Army Air Corps, both for the present and in the future?
My Lords, the Army has done several things. Most importantly, it has implemented a comprehensive manning strategy for building and sustaining the Army Air Corps. There is also now a financial retention incentive for Army Air Corps pilots which has resulted in an 81% take-up rate, including from personnel affected by the recovery of previous overpayments. In addition, a more flexible—and therefore more attractive—career as an aviation specialist will be available, including recruiting some direct entry, senior other ranks aircrew and improving the return on initial training investment.
First, and less importantly, is the noble Earl aware that admirals have been overpaid? That is an interesting point. More importantly, will this impact at all on the increased number of naval pilots that we need to recruit and train for the new Sea Lightning aircraft that are coming in? We have been promised that they will be ordered, and we will need those pilots, so this must not impact on recruiting and training.
Let me first make it clear that the overpayment referred to in the Question has not affected Royal Navy air crew, nor indeed RAF pilots. I can give the noble Lord the reassurance that he seeks, because the action now being taken is in the wake of mistakes made in the past. The system is now working correctly.
My Lords, I served as Colonel Commandant of the Army Air Corps from 2004 to 2009, and many of the pilots involved came under my control and command. Will the Minister accept that, although remedial measures are being taken, stories such as the one that has given rise to the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, are enormously damaging to morale? Will the Minister commit to publicly refuting these stories and getting a much better message out there? In the context of the regular Army having been reduced from 102,000 to 82,000 in the lifetime of the coalition and Conservative Governments, and now having fallen to a strength of around 79,000, such damaging stories are extraordinarily destructive of morale and do not help the safety and security of our country.
I can only agree with my noble friend—these stories are damaging. At the same time, the Army is very aware of the need to retain and, indeed, recruit skilled personnel of this level. It has been careful to adopt a case-by-case approach when overpayments have occurred, taking account of people’s individual circumstances when they are brought to its attention; certainly, that includes hardship where necessary. What we are now hearing in general from Army pilots is that they like what they see in the package available to them, in terms not only of pay but how their skills are being used. Many are signing up now for five years.
My Lords, when I served as a Wales Office Minister, officials came in to tell me that a Harrier jet had crashed into the sea off west Wales— a very expensive piece of kit was lost but a more expensive pilot was saved. The point is that we invested more in the pilot than in the plane. I cannot for the life of me understand why the Government would be prepared to lose some of our most experienced and expensively trained Army helicopter pilots over this overpayment issue. I hear what the Minister has said and hope that the Government will use some common sense and, if necessary, write off this debt rather than lose these very skilled servicemen—or perhaps the Government will prove that my late mother’s advice to me when I was young was correct. She told me that in life, I would find that sense was not that common.
My Lords, I take the noble Lord’s point about common sense. At the same time, he will realise that this is public money; it cannot simply be written off in bulk. Having said that, each debt will be dealt with individually and recovered over a long period. Recovery from serving personnel commenced in January, less those that have submitted an objection to recovery, and we have not seen anyone cite this issue as the reason for leaving the Army Air Corps since that recovery process started.
My Lords, we are where we are as a result of human error. In just over a week, the new employment model commences for the Armed Forces. Why should we be confident that the transfer will be error free?
My Lords, the pay system that is now in place is mature, and people have got used to using it. There is far less scope for error, although I cannot obviously give a guarantee that no errors will ever occur. More generally, running in parallel to this is a five-year tri-service review of flying retention pay, which is currently being staffed and should put in place a sustainable and more retention-positive remunerative package for the air crew of all three armed services.