BUNGLING defence officials have apologised for a pensions mix-up which left a veteran soldier with a bill of £39,000.
Lewis Trickett served in the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment for more than a decade until he was forced to retire in 2010 on medical grounds.
But the struggling single dad was dealt a hammer blow when Veterans UK confessed it had overpaid on his monthly pension – and demanded he repay what he hadn’t been entitled to.
The 33-year-old was horrified by the news and claimed the debt could cost him his home in Middle Park Way, Havant.
The slip-up has outraged armed forces campaigners, who called it a ‘monstrous’ error and branded the government ‘mean’.
Mr Trickett, who served in Iraq, Kosovo, Northern Ireland and Germany, said: ‘I have been treated awfully. It’s been absolutely terrible. I feel that no-one wants to help me.
‘I could lose my house. I’m struggling to pay rent. I’m a single parent but I’m still struggling to pay back debts that I gained when I was unemployed. I just need help.’
Mr Trickett, a former private in the Army, was medically discharged in September, 2010.
But he was mistakenly placed on the Service Invalid Pension and Terminal Grant.
Mr Trickett was unaware of the error and only found out more than six years after the pension was issued.
The situation has infuriated Andy Smith, the chief executive of Portsmouth-based armed forces group the UK National Defence Association.
He was critical of the MoD and Veterans UK and said: ‘It is monstrous for them to take this course of action.
‘What they should have been doing is talking to him about it.
‘So to act in the way they have is absolutely outrageous.
‘But that’s the trouble when you get the squeeze of finances at the top end – it produces penny-pinching and meanness at the bottom end. And it’s at the bottom end that the pressure is really felt.’
Mr Trickett wrote to Havant MP Alan Mak to express his disbelief about the blunder and appealing for help.
Mr Mak demanded an answer from Mark Lancaster, minister of defence for veterans, reserves and personnel.
In response, Mr Lancaster apologised for the overpayment and ‘any distress’ it caused and explained the debt due could be written off.
However, Mr Trickett was critical of the response, saying he felt he had been ‘palmed off’ by MPs and that nobody from the MoD’s defence business service debt recovery team had been in touch.
Reacting to the criticism, Mr Mak said: ‘I have helped Mr Trickett extensively on his case and done all that I can.
‘I have offered to meet him, read all his letters to me, and written to the defence minister to get an answer.
‘I then sent the Ministry of Defence’s reply to Mr Trickett where they apologised for their error and advised him on how he can apply to have the debt written off.’
Penny Mordaunt, minister of state for work and pensions, branded the situation ‘wrong’.
The Portsmouth North MP – who was formerly the armed forces minister –explained she had helped other veterans in Mr Trickett’s situation.
She criticised the lack of financial advice and support for Mr Trickett and said the error should never have happened.
She added: ‘It is quite wrong to ask someone to pay back an amount which would place them in severe hardship – an amount accepted by them in good faith through someone else’s error.’
Veterans UK is in charge of pensions and is part of Defence Business Services (DBS) within the MoD. The News approached the organisation for comment, but it refused to respond.
In 2008 the government admitted that almost 100 veterans had received overpayments every month because of a similar bureaucratic error.
On this occasion, the veterans were told they needed to hand back a total of £1.7m.
The mistake emerged in a review of 49,000 Armed Forces Pension Scheme files.