The costs of some of the most expensive and controversial military procurement programmes are to remain shrouded in secrecy despite a government promise to disclose spending on all contracts valued over £25,000.
High cost, high risk projects such as the programme for replacing Trident nuclear weapons and construction of the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers – already nearly £2 billion over budget – have been declared exempt from a government pledge to disclose spending on all contracts by the Cabinet Office at the request of the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
MoD has one of the worst spending records for all government departments and was last year accused by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee of wasting money on out-of-control contracts in a way that was “entirely unacceptable”.
One of David Cameron's first acts as Prime Minister was to write to all government departments instructing them to open up access to government data and publish details of all contracts with a value of over £25,000. A new government website, set up at the time to allow access to information, announced “We want to be the most open and transparent government in the world”. The claim has since been removed from the website.
MoD claims that information on the procurement of “war like stores” is exempt from disclosure under European Union procurement arrangements – even though the commitment to disclose contract spending is a commitment given in the Coalition Agreement published by the government after last year's election, and bears no relation to procurement laws. There is no suggestion that the information should not be disclosed for reasons of national security (see correspondence below).
The exemption from disclosure was initially agreed for a twelve month period until May 2011, but has now been further extended until October, with no indication of when it will be lifted.
It covers spending on the principal elements of the programme for replacing Trident nuclear weapons, including spending on new submarines, plans for major construction work at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, where nuclear warheads are designed and maintained, and refurbishment of the Rolls Royce Nuclear factory at Raynesway in Derby, where submarine reactor cores are built.
Other controversial military projects on which spending will remain secret include construction of Astute class submarines – £1.5 billion over budget – and purchase of Typhoon aircraft – £3.5 billion over budget.
Much of this spending relates to government contracts with BAE Systems – one of the world's largest arms dealers, which last year agreed plea bargains with the Serious Fraud Office and the US Department of Justice to pay criminal fines totalling hundreds of millions of dollars following investigations into corrupt arms deals.
Peter Burt of the Nuclear Information Service, which undertakes research into the costs of the UK's nuclear weapons programme, said: “Foot-dragging by the MoD is making a mockery of the Coalition government's claim that it wants to be the most open and transparent government in the world.
“There is little value in publishing information on how much the civil service is spending on paperclips when details of the most expensive, high risk projects being run by the department with the worst record on overspending are being kept secret.
“The reason that this information is being kept from us is not to preserve military secrets but to prevent us from finding out how much money civil servants at the Ministry of Defence are wasting”.
Download the correspondence between NIS and the Ministry of Defence on this issue here: