A group of soldiers in Afghanistan who received too much danger pay due to an "administrative error" won't have to reimburse the government for the overpayment, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said Monday.
The minister's office said Monday the error could have affected as many as 100 soldiers, many of them stationed in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, and involved payments over 9 months totalling $900 to $1,500 per soldier.
A report in the Ottawa Citizen Monday cited anonymous sources among the troops, who said they were told they'd have to reimburse the money as soon as possible. They said they felt betrayed, but feared retribution for coming forward.
"I firmly believe that this is unfair to penalize soldiers and their families as the result of an accounting error, and so we will not be asking our soldiers to pay back the difference," the defence minister said Monday in the House of Commons.
"Earlier today I instructed my department to take whatever steps are necessary to reverse this collection," MacKay said.
MacKay said it only came "recently" to his attention.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office said it was reversing a decision by bureaucrats to impose a $500 cut in danger pay for Canadian Forces personnel in Afghanistan, following a report on the cut by Radio-Canada/CBC. MacKay's office later clarified that it had asked officials to "re-examine" the move.
"This is the second incident in two weeks where Conservatives have tried to short-change soldiers who were placed in harm's way," Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair said during question period's opening round with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
"Now that it's in the media they agree to back down," Mulcair continued in French. "They can blame others as much as they want. This is the responsibility of the minister of national defence...will he admit that he's lost control of his department?"
Harper said the error was "certainly not the fault of the soldiers themselves."
"For that reason... they will not have to repay those amounts," he said, pledging his government's continued support for the mission in Afghanistan.
NDP questions defence department's priorities
"Why did [MacKay] let his department go after our soldiers in Mazar-i-Sharif while spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a new campus for DND headquarters and saving money there?" said NDP defence critic Jack Harris.
"This $1,600 amounts to about two nights for Bev Oda at the Savoy Hotel or 1/134th of what the Conservatives spend every day on advertising," Harris added during his next question, noting that the government still had not changed its mind about reducing soldiers' danger pay. "Is the only hope for our soldiers to keep leaking the government's badly-thought-out decisions?"
"We have the utmost respect for members of the armed forces and their families, particularly those who are deployed," MacKay said. "As a result I have directed that this clawback not occur."
The Citizen report said soldiers in Mazar-i-Sharif were supposed to receive a lower rate of danger pay than soldiers in Kabul but were paid the same amount, resulting in the discrepancy.
"New day, new screw-up and blame the bureaucrats," said Liberal defence critic John McKay, noting both danger-pay decisions were reversed once leaked to the media.
MacKay's office said Monday it is still awaiting the review by an arms-length committee at Treasury Board of the decision to cut danger pay for all soldiers stationed in the country. That cut came into effect April 15, but MacKay's office said last week that while soldiers would see a dip in their next paycheque, the amount would be made up in subsequent paycheques.
There are currently 930 members of the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan on a tour that ends in late summer. They make up the bulk of the total 980 Canadian Forces personnel currently entitled to danger pay allowances, DND said.
Canada has committed to providing troops to support the training of Afghan soldiers until March 2014.