As the government contemplates awarding the largest PFI/PPP in UK
history Mark Pritchard, MP for The Wrekin, challenges the government to
declare its obvious conflict of interest in the matter and to come to
its decision based on who the Ministry of Defence believes can best
provide the best 21st century training to Her Majesty’s Armed Forces –
in the interests of the nation as a whole.
Later this year, probably in the Autumn, the government will decide the
fate of RAF Cosford, Shropshire – the RAF’s largest operational base in
the world. In the balance are the lives and dreams of the 2,750
dedicated civilian and military staff employed at the base. The
Secretary of State for Defence’s decision will have a dramatic impact,
negative or positive, for the whole county and the nation. That is why
small, medium, and large suppliers to the base, from electronic
suppliers in Birmingham to local retailers in quaint Shropshire
villages, like Shifnal and Albrighton wait anxiously to hear whether
the government will continue to invest in Shropshire’s 6,000 strong
defence sector , or instead, switch future defence investment to an
alternative military base, RAF St Athan, in Wales.
This decision, part of the Ministry of Defence’s so-called
modernisation programme for defence training, entitled: Defence
Training Rationalisation (DTR), will be the biggest public private
partnership in UK history – worth an estimated £10 Billion. Success
would provide RAF Cosford with a secure future and bring tens of
millions of pounds of new investment into England’s largest landlocked
County – and create up to 3,000 new jobs. Winning the DTR would provide
a much needed boost to Shropshire and the West Midlands region’s
service, retail, electro-manufacturing and aerospace sectors. As the
government deliberates the existing socio and economic vitality of East
Shropshire and the region hangs in the balance. That is why the whole
of the people of the West Midlands has the right to expect the
consultation and bidding process to be conducted with integrity,
fairness, and transparency. And this is where I have concerns.
There are two main bidders seeking to provide defence training under the DTR (each one made up of a consortium of defence companies). These are: the Metrix bid, which prefer St Athan in Wales, and the MC3 bid who say they wish to expand RAF Cosford. So why the concern?
My key concern is that the Metrix bid (St Athan) includes the recently government floated defence company Qinetiq, in which the government still has a major shareholding. This creates a clear ‘conflict of interest’. This means the government could use its privileged position to award itself a multi-billion contract, not necessarily to facilitate ‘best value’ for the taxpayer or to provide the very best training for our future soldiers, sailors and airmen, but merely to benefit from a possible hike in the share price, immediately on the back of the government possibly awarding itself the Metrix/St Athan bid – should the decision go that way. Self-evidently, the government is in a near impossible position to be able to make an objective and unbiased judgement about RAF Cosford’s suitability for future defence training needs when the government itself has a direct and vested interest in ensuring that Qinetiq’s share price does well. Perhaps moreso, now that the value of the government’s Qinetiq shares have fallen 20% post flotation?
Should the government choose RAF St Athan over RAF Cosford, and there is no training, human resource, geographical, infrastructure, defence, or socio-economic reason why it should, Minister’s will have to work hard to prove they have come to their final decision based on the defence training needs of the country. Indeed, a decision against RAF Cosford could merit a full blown investigation by the European Competition Commissioner, the Department for Trade and Industry, and the Auditor General. An inquiry would cause disruption to the UK’s vital defence training needs and undermine the continuity of existing training services. This would not be a comfortable time for the government.
The Qinetiq factor reveals that the government is steering very close to being accused of creating a contractual environment where its actions in one direction might be perceived as introducing a new scale of corporate kick-back – this time to the Ministry of Defence itself. If the government allows such an obvious conflict of interest to overshadow Cosford’s and Shropshire’s future, then the political fallout throughout the West Midlands, a key electoral battleground, may result in the loss of just enough Labour Parliamentary seats to decide the outcome of the next General Election. The stakes are very high indeed – both for Cosford and the government.
Let us hope RAF Cosford in Shropshire wins – any rationale and fair assessment of the defence training needs of UK Armed Forces should bring the DTR to the West Midlands.