Major's pound fails to reach his pocket in the

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Oh dear. As if John Major does not already have enough problems his Prime Minister's salary did not make it to his bank account yesterday.

Mr Major was not the only minister to feel the pinch. Cabinet "supporters", including Michael Heseltine and Michael Portillo were also affected.

The embarrassing debacle, which instantly reduced all ministers' monthly salaries of pounds 5,650 before tax to the pounds 2,765 paid to mere MPs, came after a computer breakdown at a government pay centre in Chessington, south- west London.

About 220,000 civil servants in a wide range of government departments also found that their wages had not been paid into their bank accounts.

Among those affected were staff in Customs and Excise, the Treasury, the Cabinet Office, and the departments of trade and industry, transport and agriculture. Even that former Vulcan stronghold, the Welsh Office, was hit.

A Cabinet Office spokeswoman, desperately trying to contain a fit of giggles, confirmed the cock-up: "There was an error in the transmission of data needed for security reasons and it was not possible to pay people on the final day of the month, when salaries are due. But the money will be transferred on Monday."

She said that the Chessington computer centre, one of several, is now part of the Government's Next Steps programme where agencies are run at arms-length prior to possible full privatisation.

As befits such a serious matter, David Hunt, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, has ordered a full inquiry into how ministers, including himself, failed to be paid on time yesterday.

Meanwhile, every major bank and building society has been informed of the computer problem and asked not to impose any overdraft charges on their civil service customers' accounts.

Should he wish to draw a further crumb of comfort from the episode, Mr Major can console himself in the knowledge that the last time something like this happened was about 40 years ago - when Winston Churchill was Prime Minister.