David Blackburn

A culture of intimidation and a conspiracy to silence

A culture of intimidation and a conspiracy to silence
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On the afternoon of 4 June 2009, John Hutton, then Secretary of State for Defence, told the House of Commons:

‘Every one of our servicemen and women has the right to know that we are doing everything possible to ensure that every pound of investment in our equipment programme goes towards the front line and is not wasted in inefficient or weak processes of acquisition.

That is why I asked Bernard Gray in December last year to conduct a detailed examination of progress in implementing the MOD’s acquisition change programme, as I hope right hon. and hon. Members will recall. I have to be satisfied that the current programme of change is sufficient to meet the challenges of the new combat environment that we now face. To date, I am not. I expect to receive the report shortly. Bernard Gray has conducted a thorough and wide-ranging analysis. I am confident that when his report is published, it will be both honest about the scale of the task that confronts us and clear in describing a detailed and radical blueprint to reform the process of acquisition in the MOD from top to bottom. That is something that we must get right. There can be no room for complacency, and given the current tempo of operations, we have no choice but to act with urgency. I will publish Bernard Gray’s report before the summer recess, and I will come to the House again to outline the Government’s response to it.’

resignation letter states

On 11 April 2009, Damian McBride finally resigned. Thereafter, Brown has been embroiled in stories that have indicted his leadership and the goons who eviscerate opponents on his behalf. Hazel Blears, Caroline Flint, Peter Watt, Andrew Rawnsley, Alistair Darling and the "forces of hell" - all bring their testimony to bear. Brown’s government was disintegrating under the constant pressure of negative press and dismal polls. On the 3 June, the eve of the local and European elections, Hazel Blears resigned. The next day, the day of Hutton’s speech, James Purnell resigned. On the morning of the 5th, with a smattering of junior ministers following Purnell and the government shaking, Hutton resigned. He made it clear that he did not support the rebels; but it's equally clear that Brown could not sustain a further scandal at that moment, especially not one that suggested government negligence was costing lives in Afghanistan. The Gray Report expressed such sentiments with authority.

The Gray Report and the Haddon-Cave Report into the Nimrod crash, argue that failure to reform defence procurement was (and still is) costing lives. The conclusions of both are summed up by Haddon-Cave (in chapter 14, paragraph 32 of his report):

‘I understand that, despite the Rt Hon. John Hutton’s clear statement immediately prior to his resignation, Bernard Gray’s Report has still not yet been published.(24) As the Rt Hon. John Hutton was at pains to emphasise, however, the problem is urgent. If the problems identified by Bernard Gray are not addressed, in my view, it is inevitable that there will be further casualties of the financial pressures within the system.’

How so? Well, Gray and Haddon-Cave explain (14,29):

‘Industry and the Armed Forces have a joint vested interest in sponsoring the largest programme at the lowest apparent cost in a ‘conspiracy of optimism’. This ‘conspiracy’ gives rise to an over-large programme, and the deep reluctance to cancel projects means that these pressure are not relieved.

(3) When this over-large and inflating programme meets the hard cash totals that the MOD has been allocated each year, the Department is left with no choice but to slow down its rate of spend on programmes across the board.

(4) The result is that programmes take significantly longer than originally estimated, because the Department cannot afford to build them at the originally planned rate.’

But optimism was not the only focus of conspiracy. Under-funding, unnecessary casualties, government inaction, gross dereliction of duty – we are in Helmand helicopters territory. And indeed we were. On June 5 2009, Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, who was killed by an IED in Afghanistan a month later, submitted a memo on the subject to the MoD; it was not released until 31 October. Amid the helicopter row and deepening crisis, the government also suppressed the Gray report.

They planned to delay publication until after the election, only Bob Ainsworth could not keep a lid on it. On the 6 August 2009, the BBC published leaked slides of the Gray Report. The government’s position worsened on 23 August 2009, when the Sunday Times printed further leaks.

Ainsworth’s trials didn’t end there. The Haddon-Cave Report was to be published on 28 October 2009 - interestingly, 3 days before Thorneloe's buried memo resurfaced. To lessen Haddon-Cave’s impact, the government published the by then compromised Gray Report on 15 October, after the Haddon-Cave Report had gone to press (Footnote 24, Chapter 14).

Recommendations from both reports were considered and debated, but none have become law as yet. Given his evident predispositions, John Hutton’s sudden resignation cannot escape the political context of intimidation or the government's culture of conspiracy.