Despite the Scottish Parliament, many important aspects of our lives are still decided in whole or influenced by Westminster. Part of the job of a Scottish MP therefore remains to scrutinise the policy and spending decisions that affect us.
Two of the most common ways of doing this are through questioning Ministers in Parliament or through investigations by Parliamentary Committees.
Normally, a Minister will deliver a statement in person if it is a matter of immediate concern. For less urgent matters, a Written Statement will be published, with little done to draw anyone’s attention to it. Which is all the more reason to keep an eye on what is released in this way!
One such Written Statement sneaked out while people were distracted by whether or not the Prime Minister had been ‘ambushed by cake’ revealed the UK Government, having sold off a large portion of the Defence Estate in 1996 to a private company, was now seeking to buy it back.
At the time, in exchange for £1.7bn, the UK Government granted a 999-year lease over 55,000 service family homes to a company called Annington Property Ltd. The government then immediately leased those homes back on 200-year underleases. Responsibility for maintaining the properties continued to rest with the taxpayer.
The deal has been an excellent one for Annington, which through a combination of rising house prices and sales has made an annual rate of return on its investment of 13.4%. Unfortunately, it’s not been so good for you and me, since the taxpayer is now up to £4bn worse off, while the promised improvements in the quality of MoD housing have not transpired, many remaining well below an acceptable standard.
It’s a staggering example of government waste and poor commercial judgement. But we are seeing more and more of this kind of recklessness with public money from the UK Government.
As part of Boris Johnson’s plan for ‘connecting the Union’ (but mostly to divert attention from the post-Brexit trade border he had just created between Great Britain and Northern Ireland), he commissioned a study into building a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Building a 21-mile fixed link would have been a bold move for someone who as Mayor of London failed to build a bridge from one side of the Thames to the other. However, the depth of the crossing, and the fact that the Ministry of Defence had previously dumped over one million tonnes of conventional and chemical weapons in Beaufort’s Dyke, a 32 mile-long, 16 yard-wide depression in the seabed along the route, should have told us at the outset all we needed to know.
Instead - and some £900,000 of taxpayers’ money later - the report confirmed what many (myself included) told him to begin with: that even if the engineering obstacles could be overcome, the estimated £335 billion pricetag “would be impossible to justify” as “the benefits could not possibly outweigh the costs”.
NHS contracts for PPE and ‘track and trace’ handed out by the UK Government have also been mired in controversy. In October, the Public Accounts Committee concluded the UK Government’s £37billion ‘Test and Trace’ contract was “muddled, overstated, eye-wateringly expensive and had failed on its main objectives”.
When it comes to waste, successive UK Governments have shown themselves to be performing at Olympic standard. We can, and must, do better than this.