The UK government’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) which keeps a beady eye on government spend trained its attention on the Ministry of Defence last week. And PAC, made up of members of parliament from different political parties, was not impressed with what it saw. The PAC gets most of its ammunition from National Audit Office reports and investigations. It can then call “witnesses” to question in person. Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, Deputy Chair of the Public Accounts Committee said this as the committee’s report was published.
“If the MoD does not act swiftly to address the fragility of its supply chain, replenish its stocks, and modernise its capabilities, the UK may struggle to maintain its essential contribution to NATO. The 2022-2032 Equipment Plan is already somewhat out of date. It doesn’t reflect the lessons emerging from Ukraine, more than a year in. And every year it’s the same problems – multi-billion-pound procurement problems. Equipment arrives in service many years late and significantly over-budget, and some of it just isn’t arriving at all. The MoD still does not have or seem to be able to attract the skills it needs to deliver the Plan”.
The MOD does not have a great track record when it comes to major capital spend for equipment in particular. The latest disaster (which we’ve covered here previously) is the £5 billion Ajax armoured car programme. Delivery of vehicles from the supplier, US manufacturer General Dynamics, is years late, there have been problems with soldiers suffering from hearing problems after using the test vehicles, and the MOD is in a commercial dispute with the supplier.
As usual, many people are keen to offer simple-sounding solutions. Clifton-Brown speaking on Sky News said that MOD should bring in more private sector procurement people. But many of the (huge) current procurement team in MOD do have private sector backgrounds, and frankly buying MOD kit is not really very similar to anything the private sector does. Indeed, high profile and extremely smart private sector folk such as Bernard Gray have tried to fix defence acquisition and largely failed. The problems are far deeper and more intractable than a bit of a capability shortfall.
To be clear, a lack of skills in procurement is an issue (but probably even more true for contract management and project management capability), but there are other harder-to-fix problems in terms of MOD acquisition, such as these.
- A conspiracy between MOD, Treasury and the supply side to consistently under-estimate the cost of new equipment at business case stage in order to get it approved.
- Competition between the services (Army, Air Force, Navy) which means bidding for new investment is competitive rather than collaborative – this plays into the previous point about misleading plans and budgets.
- Cosy relationships between industry and MOD staff, bordering on the corrupt at times, with a “revolving door” which often makes MOD people cautious about “upsetting” firms that might one day be their own employer.
- The desire to keep changing specifications post contracts – driven by the rapidity of technological advances and also the desire of MOD senior leaders to have “the latest kit”.
- Perpetual uncertainty about the highest level strategies around maintaining the UK’s manufacturing and maintenance capability, and setting that against the concept of buying the best value for money kit off the shelf from whoever makes it.
- Unwillingness of the best staff to go and work on what are perceived to be failing programmes.
These issues should be addressed, but its not all going to be sorted out by recruiting a few more decent procurement professionals from Unilever or Toyota.
Then we also saw stories last week about another MOD dispute with a supplier. Babcock is building a new low-cost (in theory) frigate, which will not only be used by the British navy but will be sold to other countries. However, MOD and Babcock are now arguing about the commercial details of the contract for 5 Type 31 general purpose vessels. Babcock has warned investors it could lose up to £100 million on the contract and there is an argument as to who picks up the bill for the escalating costs. It appears to be related to inflation increasing far more than expected, putting pressure on the supplier as the cost of steel and other items rises.
So the question seems to be this. Who in the contract agreed to take “inflation risk”? Now I would have expected this to be laid out very clearly – if it was not, then that was both Bad Buying and Bad Selling! Or just bad contracting. Then the problem may have arisen if Babcock foolishly agreed to take that risk, not thinking that we might see inflation at 10%+. MOD would be perfectly within their rights to tell the firm to just get on with it, but perhaps there is something more nuanced in the contract, as the parties are now apparently going to a dispute resolution process. We’ll watch with interest to see what comes out of that.