Defence buying was shambles, says Hutton

Former minister tells Iraq Inquiry of shortage of vehicles and helicopters
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Gordon Brown has been presented with more damaging evidence that cuts he made to the armed forces during his time as Chancellor led to a lack of helicopters for British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

John Hutton, who became Defence Secretary in 2008 and resigned last June, told the Iraq inquiry yesterday that the shortage of helicopters "undoubtedly was a factor" during his tenure at the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Geoff Hoon had already stated that the shortages were caused when Mr Brown forced the MoD to cut projects as a result of accounting changes.

"The military would certainly have liked more helicopters and I think the politicians would have liked to have made them available," Mr Hutton said. "This is not a capability you can simply buy one day and the next day you've got it."

He also launched a strong attack on the failure to provide troops with armoured vehicles and called for an urgent overhaul of MoD procurement. The Future Rapid Effect System was set up 10 years ago to develop the vehicles, but has still failed to deliver any. "I think it's hard to imagine a worse procurement shambles," Mr Hutton said. "That is a pretty grim episode and in my view makes the case for a very urgent shake-up of the equipment procurement function of the MoD absolutely essential."

Des Browne, who was Mr Hutton's predecessor as Defence Secretary, confirmed that concerns about the shortages of helicopters were raised even before British troops were sent to Afghanistan. He described how the threat of roadside bombs in Iraq increased "dramatically", meaning that troops became more vulnerable to travelling on the ground.

"There was concern being expressed," he said. "I recognised the increasing importance of helicopters from the point of view of secure transport. The more the nature of the risk adapted and changed – and it changed quite dramatically in the time that I was Secretary of State for Defence – the more important it became for us to be able to move in the air as opposed to on the ground."

Mr Browne also said that the Prime Minister's decision to give him a second Cabinet job as Scotland Secretary was a mistake that should not be repeated. "No matter what the reality, the public perception of it was disadvantageous and it was particularly disadvantageous to the well-being of the families," he said. "Very few members of the military ever raised this issue with me but members of their families did."

The inquiry will today hear potentially explosive testimony from the Foreign Office's former chief legal adviser. Sir Michael Wood is expected by many to say that he advised that military action in Iraq was illegal without the explicit permission of the United Nations. Britain and the US sought to secure a further UN resolution, but were unsuccessful. Sir Michael's deputy, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, will also appear. She resigned in protest when troops were sent into Iraq.

In a speech today, Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, will suggest that the pair may have spoken out at the time if there had been greater protection for whistleblowers against prosecution.

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