Leading Article: Fraud that costs lives and livelihoods

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The Independent Online
MOST people would condemn the actions of Gordon Foxley, the Ministry of Defence official who became a millionaire thanks to bribes from overseas arms contractors. But it is hard not to admire his tenacity. His fellow grade six civil servants would not be alone in musing how they might likewise set themselves up with an Edwardian mansion, a swimming pool and a Rolls-Royce. The MoD has never recovered a penny.

But fiddling supplies to the Army is not a victimless crime. It has its costs, as soldiers in the Crimean War discovered when they were delivered only left-footed boots. Foxley may have enjoyed divesting himself of his bowler beside the pool, but his corruption is thought to have destroyed the jobs of more than 1,000 British workers at the Royal Ordnance factory in Blackburn, Lancashire. His fraud may also have significantly raised the cost to the taxpayer of supplies that could have been bought at home, had there been fair competition.

Yet this affair does not seem to have prompted much soul-searching at the MoD, beyond prosecuting Foxley. The three European companies that paid pounds 1.5m in backhanders are still doing business with the Government. Nor has the MoD deigned to give assurances that such a fraud will not be repeated. Yet the risk of further corruption is clear. Civil servants face great temptation: Foxley earned just pounds 20,000 a year, but seems to have been virtually unsupervised in his allocation of contracts worth millions of pounds.

Public confidence in defence procurement is not high. The National Audit Office monitors it closely, but scandals are never far away. The most recent was during the Gulf war, when state-of-the-art rifles jammed after becoming clogged with sand. Evidence at Foxley's trial suggested further fraud: one witness said that during the Eighties the British MoD had the reputation of being the most corrupt in Europe.

The MoD's response has been complacent. It should blacklist the companies involved at once and detail changes that will prevent such fraud being repeated. Otherwise, next time, lives, too, might be lost.