Mark Leftly: Ineptitude in matters of defence is no laughing matter

Westminster Outlook Dear oh dear, this is damning.

Defence minister Philip Dunne has been forced to admit that his department has no idea how many of its contractors are behind schedule on work worth £50m or more.

The Ministry of Defence has 400 open contracts of that value, Mr Dunne explained this week. "Current performance-related information on each contract is not held centrally and could be provided only at disproportionate cost," said Mr Dunne in a written answer that only a technocrat could have drafted.

So, the department charged with the defence of the realm doesn't keep tabs on how many of its suppliers are failing to deliver vital equipment and supplies. "Nice to see they know what's going on," chuckles a defence industry source.

But ineptitude in matters of defence is, ultimately, not a laughing matter.

For a start, the companies winning those contracts will now know that failure on one contract is unlikely to hurt them winning a deal in another area of the MoD.

One set of officials simply won't have information showing them how poorly – or, indeed, how well – the company is doing on a similar deal, which should surely inform which bidder they select. Knowing that there are no such consequences, there is less incentive to bring contracts in on time and under-budget.

Worse still is Mr Dunne's mention of "disproportionate cost", rather echoing refusals to provide answers to Freedom on Information requests that this column has previously ranted about.

Mr Dunne must surely be concerned that he cannot name and number the suppliers that are failing. Costly or not, the MoD should be suitably embarrassed by its inability to offer an answer to a basic question to start developing a central database of contracts and whether military kit will reach the troops at the specified time.

I only praised him in this column last week, but Angus Robertson, the Scottish Nationalist Party's impressive defence spokesman, again takes the credit for asking the question in the first place. It's a shame he didn't get a proper answer – it only fosters the suspicion that a significant proportion of MoD contracts are well behind schedule.

Twitter: @mleftly

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