Sunday, July 03, 2005

Who gives a rat's bottom?

If the media had managed to tear itself away from the Live8 crap for even a second this week, they might have noticed that a junior minister in parliament coolly revealed that, in less than a year, the cost of a key government project had increased from an horrendous £6 billion to an absolutely staggering £14 billion.

This was in a debate in Westminster hall last Tuesday – a place where journalists rarely venture and thus means by which the government can claim to have addressed an issue while ensuring that no one takes the blindest bit of notice. And, of course, our lamentable, trivial media duly obliged, by ignoring it completely.

The debate in question was on the new Army equipment that goes under the name of Future Rapid Effects System (FRES), and was brought by Ann Winterton, Conservative MP for Congelton – a back-bencher who is proving to be more effective than the entire Tory front-bench on defence questions.

It was in fact, nearly a year ago (28 July to be precise) that I first wrote on this Blog about FRES which, according to Geoff Hoon in his strategic defence review, was a new generation of medium-weight armoured vehicles for the British Army that was going to equip it for the 21st Century.

In a second piece, the following day, I explored the political implications of the decision to procure this equipment and ventured the opinion that we have a debate about it.

So it has come to pass that, 11 months later, we have had a debate, triggered by a back-bench MP in a side hall to the Parliament, on a day when all the defence team, bar the unfortunate who had to answer Ann Winterton, was at the Naval Review in Portsmouth.

In the meantime, with the exception of Booker and a few mentions in The Business, the project has been virtually ignored by parliamentarians and the media alike, as indeed they have all ignored last week’s debate.

Yet, it was in that debate that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Mr Don Touhig, revealed that the FRES system would involve the acquisition of 3,500 vehicles rather than the 900 originally planned, at a cost of £14 billion rather than £6 billion. Yet, until we heard this from the mouth of a junior defence minister, nothing of this had been revealed to the public.

That, incidentally, still makes for an average unit price for each vehicle at something like £4 million and, while Touhig did not specify the total costs of ownership, for a mere 900 vehicles it was about £50 billion. We must expect a proportional increase for the increased number of vehicles.

Anne Winterton, however, did not call the debate to complain about the increased costs – about which she had no information until the minister responded to her – but to air the concerns about the implications of the system with regard to European defence integration, and to question the military validity of the system.

Her speech, therefore, which admirably sums up the issues, can be read from this link (Col. 390WH et seq).

Needless to say, Touhig ignored most of the points raised but, on the possibility that the system would be built in co-operation with other nations' armoured vehicle programmes was not denied. But the minister did deny that FRES would be dependent on the European satellite navigation system, Galileo, repeating that stale old lie that it is "a civil programme under civil control".

Still, a minister lying these days is nothing new – hardly worth bothering about when the media cannot even get off its backside to report a little matter like a £8 billion hike in costs for yet another defence project.

But, with the man lying about the nature of Galileo, there can be no confidence that he is not lying about further European involvement especially when the last two Army procurement contracts, the supply trucks and the Panther command and liaison vehicle, went to European manufacturers.

Incidentally, the Panther story was one Booker would have run this weekend had not the new Sunday Telegraph editor, Sarah Sands, lost her marbles and junked the column in favour of the Live8 crap, but then who gives a rat's bottom about real news these days when there's a whole continent to save?