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MPs rounded on the Ministry of Defence’s top civil servant on Thursday over Britain’s troubled procurement of new aircraft carriers and fighter jets.
In a brutal verbal grilling by parliamentarians of both parties, Ursula Brennan, permanent under-secretary of state for defence, was asked why she failed to intervene when ministers took decisions on the carrier programme without fully assessing the risks and costs.
Margaret Hodge, Labour MP and chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, said Ms Brennan should have issued a “letter of direction” – used by civil servants in rare cases to flag up concerns – when ministers decided in 2010 to convert Britain’s new carriers to handle a more powerful version of the F-35 fighter jet.
Speculation has mounted in recent weeks that the government will abandon the refit and revert to its original order for the Stovl B variant of the F-35, adding another twist to the long-delayed and costly procurement.
“Why on earth don’t you… stop ministers taking decisions which end up again with the tax payer having to foot the bill for a massive amount of totally, totally torn up pound notes?” said Ms Hodge.
Ms Brennan insisted no decision to scrap the costly carrier conversion has been made. “I am genuinely assuring you that that process has not been completed,” she told the committee.
Conversion of the ships to carry Lockheed Martin’s F35 C version of the Joint Strike Fighter would have allowed the UK to use its carriers in co-operation with the French and US navies. The reported earlier this month that senior government officials had told their French counterparts the aircraft carriers would not be reconfigured because the cost estimate of doing so had more than doubled.
Nick Smith, Labour MP, said he felt the MoD was “fiddling around and burning £50 notes in massive buckets at the moment”. But Conservative MPs, including Richard Bacon and Stewart Jackson, were also deeply critical.
The situation is particularly difficult for David Cameron, prime minister, because he categorically supported switching away from Labour’s plan to buy the F-35 B. Although this is a less powerful aircraft, it can land vertically and therefore does not need the carrier to be fitted with a catapult to launch it, and a trip wire to catch it.
Mr Cameron is now widely expected to reverse the choice of fighter jet once again and return to Labour’s initial idea.
Margaret Hodge, Labour MP and the PAC’s chair, said the indecision and lack of transparency on the issue called into question this government’s progress in ending the decades-long culture that left the MoD with a £38bn budget overhang.
“It calls into question the ways decisions are taken and whether or not the changed culture, which we hoped we were seeing within the MoD, is in practice a reality or just a myth and a lot of words,” she said in closing the hearing.