Bunhill: Crusader trains his sights on the MoD

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WHEN I said to a friend last week that I was going for lunch with Humphry Berkeley, he replied that he thought the great man had died years ago.

Not a bit of it. I can report that Berkeley, the Sixties Tory MP turned Labour candidate turned SDP candidate, reformer of homosexual law, capital punishment abolisher and campaigner against racial prejudice, is in rude health. And, at 66, still fighting.

His target this time is the Ministry of Defence. He is chairman of JN Electronic Supplies, a maker of engineering parts for the MoD. In 1984, JNES won a contract to manufacture the 'control head' - the bit that allows a gun to be sighted manually if the electrical system packs up - for the Chieftain and Challenger 1 tanks.

JNES worked to drawings provided by the MoD. Unfortunately, when the part came to be fitted, it was defective. The company asked permission to change the plans. The MoD refused, claiming no other supplier had complained its drawings were wrong. The control heads were manufactured and sent out to the British Army on the Rhine, which promptly returned them saying they didn't work.

The fault, said the MoD, lay with the workmanship of JNES. The company called in experts who said the drawings were to blame.

With JNES facing financial ruin, the row went to arbitration. JNES won but the award was heavily cut, because the arbitrator said lack of complaints from other suppliers was proof of the company's poor workmanship.

JNES was subsequently wound up and Berkeley's loans, plus interest of pounds 218,000, were lost. His bankers have threatened to repossess his house in Chiswick, west London. Unbowed, he is having the company unwound and, along with the managing director, will shortly issue writs against the MoD and its officials for deceit, claiming they lied at the arbitration: other companies had found fault with the Ministry's drawings.

'The only reason why justice has not been seen to be done is the bloody-mindedness of the people who give out contracts at the MoD,' he thundered. 'They can't bear to think they made a mistake.'

(Photograph omitted)