THE civil service might no longer face the Cummings Inquisition but, thankfully, the government’s determination to implement reform has not abated. Dame Simone Finn, newly promoted to a senior role in No 10, has had an article highlighting problems and suggesting radical solutions – such as breaking the senior civil service career structure to include outsiders – published in the Telegraph. She has long experience of government and has been working in the Cabinet Office for the past year.
In the same edition there is an exemplar of the problem from Sir Stephen Lovegrove, currently permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence and about to be the National Security Adviser – presumably a promotion. He’s under fire for the quality of soldiers’ accommodation (a problem as old as the hills – current guise is a lack of hot water). He is quoted as saying: ‘We’re not happy with the quality.’ So what? The question is what are you doing to fix it and why is the MoD incapable of the straightforward task of ensuring the supply of hot water? In a previous role I ran an industrial estate and providing hot water was one of my team’s tasks. If, as happened from time to time, the supply failed, we fixed it. Repeated similar failures would have had me sacked – a concept alien to the denizens of Whitehall.
Sir Stephen doubles down with another banality. ‘Our focus is to provide the best, safest and most lethal equipment to our soldiers in our armoured division in order to do the job that they know they have to do and we need them to do; that is the guiding principle behind any decisions we will be making on armour, heavy, medium or light.’ It would be odd indeed if Sir Stephen and his minions were seeking to procure the worst equipment. And yet the conventions of our government are that no one takes senior civil servants to task or questions the veracity or logic of what they say.
Although by no means a paper tiger, the armoured division of the Army has too few tanks to be accurately described as armoured, and 25 per cent of its tanks are part of the reserves. Both its tanks and its armoured fighting vehicles are in desperate need of upgrades, the detail of which bounces from review to review. At any one time only one of its three constituent brigades is at high readiness, which in effect means that what is described to the public as an armoured division can deploy only about 30 per cent of its combat power either immediately or for sustained periods (say over six months – and wars are very seldom over in that time frame).
It’s worse than that: the Express reported the other week that British troops recently deployed to help stabilise Mali are unable to patrol more than 50km from their base owing to a lack of ‘medevac’ (medical evacuation) helicopters (the suitable Chinook airframes having been lent to the French). No medevac is hardly the ‘best, safest’ approach (although these didn’t come from the armoured division, so Sir Stephen has a get-out). Meanwhile the deployed troops are, at some personal risk, seeking to stabilise a country of 1.2million square kilometres by operating in just one hundredth of 1 per cent of it. Perhaps the power of the MoD’s wishful thinking will do the rest of it. Despite these failures, Sir Stephen has been knighted and is now being promoted.
It’s not just the MoD; we have spent the last year watching the near-collapse of the NHS, the abject failure of PHE, the utter inadequacy of the Department for Education and the rest of it. The massive vaccine programme was delivered by the private sector, supported by the field army (the bit that fights rather than the bit that bickers in the MoD).
So good luck to you, Dame Simone. You’ll probably need a bulk order of P45s.