Editorial: Ministry's timing awful

Mandarins at the Ministry of Education, struggling for too long to sort out problems with the rogue Novopay wage system, can claim one triumph. They have succeeded in uniting National and Labour MPs - along with the Public Service Association - in denouncing their decision to restructure the ministry's payroll unit at the same time as they are trying to sort out the wage shambles.

Nine jobs will be lopped from the payroll unit under the ministry's proposals, reducing the number of positions from 23 to 14. The reasoning - which can't be faulted in terms of the rationale - is that fewer staff will be needed once Novopay is operating smoothly. But the timing was provocatively ill-considered.

For starters, we can only guess when the system will be operating smoothly. Until then, the payroll staff who have been advised they are candidates for the axe in a few months are the same stressed people who must battle alongside Novopay to try to remedy the faults.

PSA National Secretary Brenda Pilott said the timing beggared belief, Labour state services spokesman Chris Hipkins said the decision was "mind bogglingly stupid" and Associate Education Minister Craig Foss declared he was "utterly flabbergasted by this decision".

Last week, the beleaguered ministry seemed to regard it as some sort of triumph that more than 92,000 school staff had been paid correctly overnight, although, as group manager Rebecca Elvy conceded, some people were still not being paid "and that is not acceptable". It isn't acceptable and the backlog of unprocessed transactions from the initial Novopay pay cycles then still stood at 463. Nanaia Mahuta, Labour's education spokeswoman, was on solid ground in pressing Parliament's education and science committee to hold an inquiry into the $30 million teachers' pay system, introduced in August.

Education Minister Hekia Parata, who has had troubles enough in this portfolio, would have been grateful that this time the problems are in Mr Foss's domain as associate minister.

His reaction implies he was caught by surprise. He is entitled to question the competence of officials who kept him in the dark on a matter that inevitably would bring his ministerial responsibility into the spotlight.