The MoD cock-up

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At an obscenely delayed event I attended last year, a small, piqued man came on the mic to explain that the wait was due to “what can only be described as a massive cock-up”. The tragicomic line came back to me while reading of the apparent misplacement of Ministry of Defence assets. Some £6.3bn of equipment has simply vanished. Adding to the farce was the BBC’s title for the story, which described MPs as “alarmed” by the news. Yes, well, one would hope.

The Defence Select Committee released the news, quoting the £6.3bn figure from a 2010 National Audit Office (NAO) report. The lost assets include £183m worth of battlefield radios (bizarre) and even more in firearms (dangerous). This comes on the heels of a 2008-9 audit that found discrepancies between recorded inventory and stock count at 29% of locations. Indeed, last year the NAO refused to approve the MoD budget for a fourth year, citing “failure to adhere to the accounting standards required of government departments”.

This is unacceptable. Some “spillage” in the form of minor theft would be serious in itself, but £6.3bn seems to go far beyond that. It appears to speak of institutional sclerosis and endemic carelessness. Adding to the impression of mind-numbingly cumbersome bureaucracy is the timeline for resolving the whole mess. The MoD has 845,000 lines of stock across 78 IT systems, and sorting all that out may take anywhere from two to four years. After losing £6.3bn, that kind of wait is just offensive. Taxpayers should be apoplectic.

Liam Fox, on the other hand, may have reason to be quite pleased with himself. Last week, he announced plans for a shake-up at the MoD, a “radical new approach to the management of defence”. This will involve removing the heads of the three services from the Defence Board and eliminating 25,000 civilian and 12,000 military posts. Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy has said that this is “going too far and cutting military capability too quickly”. That remains to be seen. What is clear is that some streamlining of the MoD is essential, and Fox’s plans could not have come at a better time.