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Arms biz glovepuppets Parliamentary kit probe

Profiteers' voices the only ones heard

Explain it again - the Eurofighter increases British sovereignty?

The same old bankrupt arguments get trotted out again and again, unchallenged. "Building our own" will give us "sovereignty" - parts and tech support for homebuilt gear will be free of foreign control, allowing us to disregard what other governments think when we want to go and fight somewhere.

It simply passes belief that people are able to say this about things like the Eurofighter and A400M with a straight face. Obviously the Euro-projects involve dependence on other countries. They don't even free us from dependence on America: both of those aircraft contain large amounts of technology from the US, covered by American ITAR rules.

We need US consent to keep them flying; we need US consent to export them. This is true of just about all modern Western-made military equipment, no matter where it supposedly comes from. Supposedly UK-only programmes like Nimrod, Type 45 etc are also riddled with ITAR kit.

"Sovereignty" is a joke - yet it is the main justification for the endless robbery of the UK defence budget by UK industry.

The only other argument is economic, and it is even feebler. Despite huge government support - the great bulk of the £15bn annual defence-materiel budget goes to UK industry, every deal is underwritten by government, even bribery is handled via MoD accounts controlled by nominal MoD employees - resulting manufacturing exports amount to a measly £1-2bn in a normal year. This is less than one per cent of our overseas business.

As for the idea that it's somehow worthwhile paying billions for overpriced and long-delayed kit because the money trickles down and stimulates the domestic economy, think again. The minister in charge of kit buying, Quentin Davies, being grilled by Mr Arbuthnot for the recent report, actually made some cogent points here.

Davies: Let me explain to you about that. If you want to go in for a fiscal stimulation package... First of all you need to have spending which feeds through very rapidly into consumption — in other words you cannot use Crossrail, for example, because by the time you have all the planning inquiries...

[Interruption and needling from Arbuthnot]

Davies: The lead times in defence are quite long between you signing a contract... and when the money actually flows through in the pay packets of the people who are being employed - by contrast to other sectors of economic activity. That is the first thing that really needs to be said.

[More irrelevance from Arbuthnot]

Davies: The second thing is that ideally to use your money for maximum impact you need to spend it on goods and services which are labour-intensive rather than capital-intensive in their manufacture so that the benefits flow through into pay packets rather than into rewards for providers of capital — banks and shareholders and so forth... you need those wages to flow through to people who are relatively low-paid. That is not the case with defence - defence is capital-intensive rather than labour-intensive.

And indeed, whenever you look at a UK weapons contract supposedly set up to preserve or create jobs, it always turns out that one could simply buy better kit from overseas, give every sacked or not-hired UK worker a huge sum of money - a million pounds is typical - and still save hundreds of millions for the Treasury.

As a means of creating jobs and economic wellbeing, the UK defence industry is an incredibly inefficient way to spend money. As a means of putting huge rewards at the disposal of cynical business interests, often foreign-based ones, it is excellent.

Anyone who doubts the latter should recall the history of BAE Systems plc, the only remaining UK-headquarted major arms company and owner of the vast bulk of the UK defence sector. The firm has not ploughed its decades of huge disposable incomes into Britain: instead it has let go the great majority of its former workforce here, closed factories up and down the land, and sunk the cash into other countries - particularly the USA.

Seventy per cent of BAE's employees are now foreigners, and the firm employs more Americans than it does Brits. Mr Turner's protestations of British patriotism, his desire to free us from Washington's domination, ring more than a little hollow - he having supervised much of this process. The idea that giving money to BAE builds the UK's industrial base in some way is quite simply unbelievable - but people keep on believing it.

How does this keep on happening? Why is it that the Parliamentary defence committee itself is controlled by James Arbuthnot, a tireless advocate for the weapons biz? Why is the committee formally advised (pdf) by paid arms industry lobbyists? Why does a fairly lefty media outfit like the BBC quote industry mouthpieces like Arbuthnot, Mike Turner and Ian Godden rubbishing the MoD - and we hear nothing about the other side of the argument?

Because the MoD operates in total silence, utterly failing to make its case against industry - and be assured, there are plenty in the MoD who know who their enemy is (though they spend much more time on internal battles). Because there isn't a politician in the land who dares to take responsibility for job losses. Because nobody cares a jot that we have the second biggest defence budget in the world, but only the sixth, seventh, maybe tenth most powerful armed forces.

It literally seems to be true that Brits don't really care about this stuff. The vast majority of people who do are employed in the field, and usually on the industry side - as the amount of general hatred I get for saying this sort of thing makes clear.

Maybe taxpayers who won't keep their eyes open deserve to get robbed. But it seems very unfair on the fighting men and women of the armed services, whose lives stand forfeit for ours, who actually do - at the lower levels, anyway - work hard for their rubbish pay. The money is there to buy them all that they need, to hire more of them in some categories so that they could actually achieve the tasks we set them, to give them a taste of that well-paid, comfortably-off skilled-professional life when they get some time at home.

The money's there, but it isn't doing any of those things - it's being used as a halfbaked, crooked industrial subsidy scheme which largely gets siphoned off overseas.

In the end that's our fault as citizens, because we simply can't be bothered to pay attention. ®

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