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One of the oldest tricks in the Whitehall playbook is to use a major event as cover to publish unpalatable or embarrassing news.
It means the media are diverted by the event and don’t notice the announcement or report.
It worked an absolute treat for the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury over the US elections to hide two very bad news stories for them. They couldn’t believe their luck when Trump unexpectedly won.
The Ministry of Defence took advantage on polling day to slip a very embarrassing announcement about money for war veterans pensions and disability payments. Evidently the previous July the Treasury, believe it or not, forgot to include in its spending statement the proper money to pay them this year. As a result they will have to raid the contingency reserve for emergency payments to make sure these veterans have the money.
Mark Lancaster, parliamentary secretary to the ministry, admitted the error in a written statement to the Commons just as Parliament rose on November 8 describing the failure to disclose it as an “inadvertent publishing error”. It involved a staggering £438,193,000 in the Armed Forces Pensions and Compensation scheme which is available to serving and former personnel who are injured in military service including in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The second cover up by the Ministry of Defence came on results day. This was an embarrassment to the image of the Ministry of Defence. For years they have endured criticisms on cost overruns on equipment, bad spending decisions and lack of control.
Last year this was all meant to change. A new agency the Defence Equipment and Support, was supposed to take control and rein in all these errors. It describes itself as a bespoke agency in charge of equipment and projects for the armed forces.
Well it seems to have deliberately chosen the US election day to publish its first report. The reason I suspect is that the National Audit Office has qualified its accounts and made a stinging attack on its performance. The NAO can only release this when the report is published and the agency chose election day to do it.
The report by Amyas Morse, the Comptroller and auditor General is damning.Some £499 million of public expenditure cannot be properly accounted for.
“I have qualified my opinion on the financial statements due to a limitation on the scope of my audit because DE&S has been unable to provide me with adequate evidence to enable me to confirm whether or not the private sector support costs, other programme costs and the related trade and other payables balance shown in the financial statements are free from material misstatement.
“I believe this situation has arisen because the Agency’s financial management systems, processes and controls for these transactions and balances are not yet sufficiently well developed to meet the Agency’s needs.”
Examples include having to manually insert some 100,000 changes into the computer programme because it had not been drawn up properly. And reporting money for the wrong year.
Luckily in both cases MPs are not going to let the matter rest- and come back to the issues
Nia Griffith, the shadow Defence Secretary has attacked the government for putting at risk funding to help military veterans warning that they must be given an urgent reassurance that they will not lose money.
Anne Marie Trevelyan, Conservative MP for Berwick on Tweed and a member of the Public Accounts Committtee, said :“At a time when we are seeing a lot of change in the Ministry of Defence, causing a great deal of anxiety for those who are serving, it is very disappointing to see Defence Equipment & Support has not got to grips with financial management.
“At the same time there are serious issues with service family accommodation, highlighted by the Public Accounts Committee which would benefit from a much smaller investment.
“This points to a lack of joined-up financial planning in the Ministry and raises concerns about whether the department is delivering value for money across the board.”
Quite right. Whitehall must not get away with playing games with how it discloses it is spending our money. I have written a news article for Tribune magazine on this.