British military wastes billions and fails to learn from mistakes, watchdog says

Public accounts committee publishes report that is highly critical of Defence Ministry

Billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money have been wasted as the Ministry of Defence continually fails to learn from its mistakes, the House of Commons' spending watchdog has said.

The public accounts committee on Wednesday published a highly critical report accusing the department of having a “broken” system for procuring military equipment.

The cross-party committee said it was “extremely disappointed and frustrated by the continued poor track record” on procurement by the ministry.

With the waste “of taxpayers’ money running into the billions”, the MPs called for the Treasury and the Cabinet Office to review the ministry's model for delivering equipment.

“The department’s system for delivering major equipment capabilities is broken and is repeatedly wasting taxpayers’ money,” they wrote.

The committee warned that the department “continually fails to learn from its mistakes”, having “overseen many expensive failures”.

They called for further “catastrophes”, such as the £5.5 billion ($7.49bn) Ajax tank programme that has been beset with problems, to be avoided by greater openness earlier in the procurement process.

But the MPs said they were not convinced that the ministry was “sufficiently serious” or that it could quickly deliver the necessary “radical step change in performance”.

They said witnesses did not assure them they would “not simply throw good money after bad”, raising concerns the department was unclear about what extra capability the taxpayer would get from the extra £16.5bn from last year’s spending review.

And the committee said it was “deeply concerned about departmental witnesses’ inability or unwillingness to answer basic questions”.

“Despite years of official inquiries and recommendations and promises of learning and change, we have still heard nothing from the [ministry] to give any assurance about our biggest concern, which is now that last year’s lauded and substantial uplift to the department’s budget will not simply be used to plug financial holes across its programmes," committee chairwoman Dame Meg Hillier said.

“It seems no matter who we ask across the ministry, whatever their particular responsibilities, they all point to this same additional funding as a solution to their problems.

“[Ministry] senior management appears to have made the calculation that, at the cost of a few uncomfortable hours in front of a select committee, they can get away with leaving one of the largest financial holes in any government departments’ budget, not just for now, but year after year.

“This committee is determined that this state of affairs cannot and will not continue.”

Updated: November 3rd 2021, 1:12 AM