Education chief could be liable for pounds 834,000: Marianne Macdonald reports on a catalogue of errors over teachers' pay at Lambeth

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THE head of education at Lambeth council in south London may be held liable for more than pounds 800,000 - equal to the sum lost by the authority in an extraordinary series of salary blunders.

They include paying some teachers long after they have left their jobs, others who never worked in the borough, failing to reduce pay for those on maternity leave, and giving others more than the proper grade.

Bebb Burchell, director of education since 1988, is responsible for clawing the money back from up to 360 teachers whom the council has overpaid and underpaid since 1990, in some cases both. The mistakes lost the borough pounds 834,000.

She told to the Lambeth education committee that if the recovery process does not speed up, she could be held liable for the debt herself under the Local Government Finance Act 1982. This holds senior officers responsible for losses where wilful misconduct is proven, although no allegation of misconduct was made against Miss Burchell when the affair was revealed last May by Paul Claydon, Lambeth's district auditor. His report also disclosed the Labour-controlled council had unlawfully spent more than pounds 20m on highway contracts and was owed pounds 173m in unpaid rent, rates and poll tax.

Lambeth blames 300 of the overpayments on inaccurate information given by the Inner London Education Authority in April 1990, when it handed over responsibility for paying Lambeth's 1,700 teachers. So far it claims to have recovered pounds 575,000 of the total.

But it has never explained why the ILEA payroll lists were checked so poorly that in 17 per cent of cases teachers continued to receive pay from Lambeth after leaving their jobs.

A further 9 per cent of teaching staff were paid for the wrong number of hours, 8 per cent the wrong allowance, 5 per cent the wrong salary rate, 4 per cent too much maternity or sick pay, and 3 per cent the wrong grade, according to an education committee report.

In one Lambeth primary school, three teachers got paid the head teacher's salary in one month in 1992, according to Dick North, Lambeth spokesman for the National Union of Teachers. In another, a teacher was paid a different amount every month for a year. She was one of the teachers warned by Lambeth she had been overpaid pounds 4,000; investigations revealed she was actually owed pay. On one occasion in December 1992 a computer error meant many Lambeth teachers were paid twice. The council claims this was the fault of the payroll agents. But when the council recovered the money it allegedly debited too much from some teachers' accounts, throwing their standing orders and mortgage payments into disarray. Internal reports provide further evidence of the council's inability to administer the recovery of the money efficiently, despite a five- strong task force set up in May for the purpose.

It has discovered that most teachers who have long owed money after being overpaid were sent final reminders, then not pursued further.

Another 13 head and deputy head teachers were overpaid owing to misinterpretation of their entitlement. In other cases, when some teachers did repay what they owed, the finance department failed to record who paid up.

Ms Burchell, who is taking Lambeth council to an industrial tribunal on an unrelated sexual discrimination claim, was unavailable for comment. But Stewart Hunter, the education committee chair, said: 'The basic problem was the ILEA computer discs were out of date.'