Thursday, May 14, 2009

Is this the best you can do?

At last, elements of the Vector story are emerging, drowned in the torrent of stories on MPs' expenses, even though we are seeing the waste of £100 million – roughly the sum paid to all 648 MPs in a year – the unnecessary deaths of at least five men and many more very badly injured.

The proximate cause for the publicity is a National Audit Office report, which has remarked that the vehicle has "limited under-belly armour to counter the evolving IED and mine threat in Afghanistan" and as a result "confidence in the use of the vehicle was low among commanders, both those in theatre and those who have recently returned."

This being an NAO report, the parliamentary end is Edward Leigh, chairman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee. It is thus to him that Deborah Haynes, writing for The Times, goes for a "cut and paste" comment. And what says the mighty Edward Leigh? It is a "woeful state of affairs" when confidence is lost in a new vehicle like the Vector so quickly, he tells us.

It is a "woeful state of affairs"? Is that really the best this man can do – a senior MP costing us £150,000 a year, and change? Is that all he can say about a procurement scandal that has cost us so dear?

But Haynes, not content with just Leigh, also fills her space with a renta-quote from Liam Fox, the shadow defence secretary. He tells us that the NAO's findings confirmed "the gross mismanagement that has characterised Labour's decade of neglect of the Armed Forces".

Extruded verbal material then follows as Fox utters his all-purpose quote: "Due to a lack of strategic planning by this Government, our armed forces now have to play catch up by procuring equipment through [urgent operational requirements], instead of through a coherent procurement strategy. This leads to shortages of key equipment for training and use on operations. This is unacceptable and could cost British lives in the long run."

Yet it is this sort of low-grade rant that brings politics into disrepute. Apart from anything else, the UOR system is widely cited as one of the successes of the procurement systems. It is a rapid means by which the interminable bureaucracy of the MoD has been short-circuited and urgently equipment has been brought into service.

As to the Vector, as we know, this is not a reflection of any lack of strategy – it was purchased by the Army in direct fulfilment of its then current strategy. As even The Times now reports, the vehicle was bought to replace the Snatch Land Rover. The NAO report, however, makes this clearer, stating: "Vector was procured as a lightweight patrol vehicle for Afghanistan, to address the mobility, payload and capacity constraints of Snatch II, while improving on the armour protection."

That this could be taken at all seriously is belied by the fact that in 2006 the Defence Select Committee made several examinations of the Vector procurement, not least here. On one occasion, a member noted of the Vector that "there is a very welcome announcement that the MoD is to buy these vehicles to replace Snatch Land Rovers". Yet, on on 11 July 2006, alongside Des Browne, then secretary of state for defence, David Gould, deputy chief executive of the Defence Procurement Agency said:

We have the Vector programme, which the Secretary of State referred to, which will actually provide not a great deal more in terms of protection than Snatch but much more mobility and load carrying, so very, very suitable for the kind of terrain we meet in Afghanistan.
This, we reported the next day, after already having noted that the vehicle was dangerously vulnerable. Not then nor later did the Defence Committee ever question the safety of the Vector, even though it was quite obviously less safe than the vehicle it was replacing.

This is now confirmed by an article in Defence Management and another in The Financial Times which tells us that, after the weakness of the Vector was noted, the MoD spent £5 million up-armouring the Snatch Land Rover to produce the Vixen, to fill the capacity gap left by withdrawing the Vector.

We thus have the extraordinary situation where the MoD has spent £100 million on replacing a vehicle that was acknowledged to be unsafe – the Snatch Land Rover – only then to find that its replacement was even less safe, then to spend £5 million replacing it with the vehicle which it was intended to replace. And all the while, the Defence Committee failed to understand what was going on, despite having been given evidence of its weakness, well before the vehicle went into service.

On this basis, we can certainly turn to the MoD and complain about its suspect judgement but the long stop is Parliament in the form of the Defence Committee – and it failed to do its job.

Moreover, Fox himself does not come out of this at all well. Despite Ann Winterton raising the issue several times in Parliament, initially, Gerald Howarth, a member of Fox's defence team, supported the vehicle and when, finally, Howarth acknowledged it was too dangerous for use in Afghanistan, neither he nor Fox did anything about it.

Thus, while Fox so casually lays the blame – all blame – at the feet of government, he too shares the blame, with his parliamentary colleagues. They all had the opportunities and power to bring the MoD to book, and failed to do so. In our constitution, the buck stops with Parliament. In this case – and in so many – the institution failed to do its job.

And this really is the nub of the issue, which takes us beyond the child-like tendency to load all our ills on "government". Parliament must accept responsibility for its own mistakes and then it must improve its performance. Otherwise, there is no point in having it at all – at any price.