Defence millions wasted on phone lines lines

Commons committee attacks RAF for failing to bar access to costly chatlines
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Indy Politics

Chief Political Correspondent

The Royal Air Force came under fire yesterday from a cross-party committee of MPs for allowing telephones to be used for "chat lines" by members of the armed forces.

The Ministry of Defence was also criticised for spending at least pounds 5m a year on renting private lines which had been disconnected or were no longer needed.

The worst case highlighted in the report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee was a data communications line at RAF Henlow which had been uncoupled and used for "chatline" calls.

The case was brought to light in an investigation by the National Audit Office - the public spending watchdog.

The MPs said: "Where such calls cannot be prevented, we look to the MoD to ensure that bills are carefully checked for signs of abuse and to take firm action against those responsible for making unauthorised calls."

The committee said the MoD tightened up its controls over its telephones, but it had failed to prevent access to chatlines and other illegitimate premium rate services, even where it had the technology to do so.

The report was described as a "damning indictment" of the Government's failure to get its house in order by David Clark, Labour's shadow Secretary of State for Defence. "Millions of pounds have been wasted through a catalogue of the most basic errors and oversights. The MoD is throwing money down the drain."

The MPs said a survey by the National Audit Office on officers' lines from which more than 30 calls were made to residential numbers showed there was "a significant degree of unofficial use".

The Ministry of Defence said in a note to the committee that it had barred premium 01338 calls at RAF Henlow and at RAF Brampton. Call logging had been installed at both stations, Devonport and at MoD Foxhill.

It was paying line rentals a year in advance to British Telecom at a cost of pounds 30m a year. The Treasury estimated it was costing the taxpayer pounds 670,000 a year in lost interest. The MoD said it had renegotiated the deal with BT to allow it to pay its bills quarterly.

After being pressed by the MPs, the Treasury checked on all other government departments and found the annual rental paid in advance amounted to nearly pounds 13m.

The MPs said they could save pounds 250,000 by making the payments quarterly.