The Government refused to confirm today that staff at HM Revenue and Customs would get bonuses of more than £23 million as a "reward for failure".
Tory Bill Wiggin challenged ministers over the issue at Commons question time after the recent loss of data discs. But Treasury Financial Secretary Jane Kennedy said she would not be drawn into speculation about the payout. Staff only received bonuses if they had earned them, she insisted.
Ms Kennedy said figures for the current year were not yet available but bonuses were received by 38,179 staff in 2006-07.
Mr Wiggin (Leominster) said: "Can you confirm whether the amount expected by these people will be over £23 million.
"Aren't you concerned that, in the light of the data loss on the twin discs of some 25 million people's details and the loss of the details for Standard Life pensioners, that this will be seen as a reward for failure?"
Ms Kennedy said: "I'm not going to be drawn into speculation about what the estimate for the year might be. We don't know yet how many members of staff will have earned a bonus.
"But it is important to remember... bonuses are paid to encourage and reward performance.
"Notwithstanding the incident you refer to, staff in HMRC are working extremely hard to improve performance. They are achieving genuine progress in customer service.
"They are internationally recognised as one of the leading tax administrations in the world and when members of staff receive a bonus... it is because it has been very well earned.
"I don't accept it is any indication of failure."