The timing of the leak - given to The Sun by an anonymous soldier who apparently works in the stores at a large UK army base - could hardly be worse for the government. With 11,000 personnel across the services facing the sack and warships, fighter jets and Nimrod surveillance aircraft being scrapped to save money, the news of such pointless profligacy is deeply embarrassing. Despite a hastily-issued denial from the MoD this morning - it claims the bulbs were in fact highly specialised parts for the Watchman radar system - we can expect plenty of jokes about how many civil servants it takes to change a lightbulb.
And there’s more - sums of up to £103 each are also paid for screws, it seems. And not the kind of super-strength titanium numbers that might be used to hold, say, a Eurofighter’s wings on either, but a pretty common-or-garden straight variety which can be had for two or three quid apiece online. Perhaps they needed some to replace all the loose ones back at MoD HQ.
Now of course we all know that defence procurement is hardly a model of best practice, and that all kinds of undesirable things from featherbedding to over-speccing, and from under-quoting to contract creep are rife on both sides. But this story is pretty mind-boggling all the same. How, we wonder in shocked amazement, can this be allowed to happen? Where’s the nous? An organisation with the huge buying power and clout of the MoD should be getting massive discounts for these kind of sundries, not paying eyewatering mark ups on them. That’s certainly the line being taken by defence secretary Liam Fox, who has angrily decried the lack of ‘common sense’ on display - as well as falling back on that old chestnut, blaming the last government.
But despite its surreal aspects, this story does have something significant to say about the fundamental nature of the task the government faces if it really is to tackle the deficit and save money. For starters, we might wish these kinds of things didn’t happen, but they do - this is hardly the first time. So instead of decrying the foolishness of civil servants, we should look instead to the nature of the MoD machine, and how that might be improved and made more commercial. That’s a tall order, but it urgently needs to be done.
Secondly, there is the fact that saving money effectively is really much more difficult than it seems. For while it’s easy to lop big chunks off the budget by cancelling projects wholesale and ‘downsizing’ employees, such action runs the real risk of causing so much damage down the line - and incurring so much unanticipated additional cost - that it may end up actually being more rather than less expensive in the end. And it does nothing about systemic inefficiencies of the £103 screw variety, either. Fixing that kind of thing requires detailed, consistent and unglamorous management graft - which the civil service isn’t set-up for and most politicians regard as career-limiting. So until that changes we can expect more of the same…