John Glen is the Member of Parliament for Salisbury. Follow John on Twitter.
The House of Commons Defence Committee today publishes its 8th report of this parliamentary session on the MOD’s Annual report and accounts (2010/11). The key underlying question facing the Committee was, how responsible is the MOD each year with over £33 billion of taxpayers’ money? When set against the chorus of ‘we shouldn’t cut here’ we hoped to see a tight ship with clarity on where the money goes and what the country gets in return. Unfortunately, this was far from the case.
The MOD often hides behind the defence that because of the nature of the department’s work it must be treated as a ‘special case’. The assertion that the MOD is different cannot continue to be used. The MOD is not beyond scrutiny, nor beyond the need for responsible use of taxpayers’ money across all its activities. It must also adopt procedures which are standard in other government departments.
I want to highlight four key areas in the report:
Redundancies – The Committee was alarmed to learn that there had been no compulsory redundancies of civil servants in the MOD whereas 40% of all those redundancies in the Armed Forces, so far, have been compulsory. When pressed by the Committee, senior civil servants said this was because “a large number of Civil Servants have flexible skills that enable them to work in a variety of places” – showing apparently little regard for the breadth of skills and flexibility that is the hallmark of our Armed Forces and the direct product of the training they receive. The Committee felt that the discrepancy between the policy for civil servants and forces personnel was “grotesque” and lacked adequate justification. Further, this policy is unjustified given the existence of gaps in current capabilities. Whilst it is clear that retraining would be necessary for existing service personnel to change speciality there should be no presumption that personnel must be made redundant instead of being redeployed in certain areas. Forces redeployment is preferable to expensive redundancy payments, and needs to be explored more fully.
Waste – Perhaps the most notable example of this is the ‘loss’ of Bowman radios. At the end of March 2011 the MOD had 50,893 radio sets recorded, but could find no evidence for the whereabouts of 4093 of them. The total value of these missing sets amounts to some £125 million – over £30,000 per set. Whilst it is understandable that these radios are frequently dismantled and used flexibly in different operations it is still astonishing that so many are ‘lost’ given their importance to operational effectiveness. Robust procedures have still not been put in place to track their whereabouts despite the fact that this has been brought to the MOD’s attention by the committee in both our 2010 and 2011 reports. We also have no assurance that this will be resolved fully until a new tracking system is in place in 2014.
Accounting – This is the fifth year in a row that the MOD’s accounts have not been signed off by the National Audit Office. Nobody doubts the complexities and unusual challenges that the MOD faces; but the fact remains that standard accounting procedures including judging the timing of write-offs, need to occur in all major complex industrial situations: the MOD is no exception. The Committee also noted that “instances of theft and fraud are increasing year on year but detection and recovery remain low”.
Assessing MOD performance – The MOD assess their own performance against a range of indicators. However, when pressed by the committee on the underlying data of, for example, “88% progress towards a stable and secure Afghanistan”, the Permanent Under-Secretary of the MOD revealed that this was based on a very narrow range of indicators, ignoring the quality of governance, the economy, and security. This epitomises the MOD’s reluctance to submit themselves to reasonable outside scrutiny.
The lack of transparency is further demonstrated in the MOD’s inability to provide the committee with any meaningful estimates on the full costs of operations in Afghanistan and Libya. The Committee recognise that a proportion of any operational expenditure would be required regardless of external deployment. However, it seems incredible that the department does not recognise the need to understand and set out the full costs of an operation so that future operations can be planned and costed more accurately. The Committee were further dismayed that they were told they could not see the Quarterly Performance Risk Report on security grounds, and felt that the MOD were “hiding behind security classifications”. In this area the MOD are failing to make themselves available to proper parliamentary scrutiny – if the House of Commons Defence Select Committee are unable to hold the MOD to account, it is difficult to see who should!
Despite this, it is heartening that the new Secretary of State, is committed to reforming the MOD and professionalising its practices, as was his predecessor. This won’t happen overnight but his commitment gives us hope that the department can develop a level of professionalism worthy of those who serve under the Armed Forces banner.
The full report demonstrates the full range of issues that need further attention.