Philip Hammond finds bland is best to respond to questions over GPT Saudi contract
By Frederika Whitehead | 3 September 2012
Civil servants at the Ministry of Defence would make Sir Humphrey Appleby proud. The fictional permanent secretary in ‘Yes Minister’ knew exactly what to do when faced with awkward parliamentary questions from troublesome MPs.
That was precisely the scenario that has confronted Philip Hammond, defence secretary, and his ministry team since Stephen Pound, Labour MP, put down three written questions in Parliament in July about a lucrative UK-Saudi government-to-government defence deal embroiled in bribery allegations.
The parliamentary questions, known as PQs, came after a series of revelations by Exaro about the Sangcom project, a huge UK contract – overseen by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) – to overhaul the Saudi national guard’s communications systems.
“Senior officials within the project office seek assurances from the project prime contractor that procedures are in place for the prevention of bribery” – Gerald Howarth, junior defence minister
The prime contractor, GPT Special Project Management, made mysterious transfers totalling just over £14.5 million to two companies in the Cayman Islands, Simec International and Duranton International. GPT is a British subsidiary of the European defence giant, EADS.
Bribery allegations also surrounded a contract that featured in a classic episode of Yes Minister, ‘The Moral Dimension’, first shown six years after senior British civil servants agreed to allow the payment of “agency fees” in two Saudi deals then being negotiated, including the one with the national guard.
Pound asked Hammond, first, what procedures the ministry had “to detect bribery and other impropriety in contracts” that its ‘Saudi Armed Forces Project Office’ supervises in Saudi Arabia.
Second, he wanted to know whether the MoD had “recorded any payments made to Simec International and Duranton International” and, if so, what action it took. And, he asked, what “due diligence” did the MoD undertake on the Sangcom project?
What might Sir Humphrey have advised his minister?
First, there is absolutely no need to rush to answer the PQs. The answers plainly require fully considered answers that take into account all relevant factors and the full range of other appropriate considerations that need to be, well, considered.
Whatever you do, minister, do not actually answer the questions. Mind your p’s and q’s very carefully, minister. Bland is best.
How about responding to one question, and making the irksome MP wait for the others?
And why not dispatch a junior minister to answer for you? Reward him with the phenomenally responsible role of acting as your chaff. There is no point in having a dog unless you can kick it from time to time.
There is, of course, no suggestion that Hammond would have heeded such advice, if, indeed, any such suggestions were ever made at all.
But here is what happened.
Only one question has been answered so far. And Gerald Howarth, junior defence minister responsible for ‘international security’ strategy, responded.
And his response was every bit as elegant as Sir Humphrey himself might have crafted.
Howarth told Pound: “The Ministry of Defence is committed to the prevention, deterrence and detection of bribery. Contracts supervised by the Saudi Armed Forces Project Office are therefore subject to the same procedures and processes as all other Ministry of Defence contracts.
“Additionally, as part of the verification of supplier processes and prices, and with the support of the Saudi Arabian government, senior officials within the project office seek assurances from the project prime contractor that procedures are in place for the prevention of bribery, in accordance with the detailed guidance published by the Ministry of Justice.
“The MoD has well-established procedures through which staff can report concerns about bribery or any other forms of financial irregularity.”
The second paragraph is particularly good. It means: “We ask them whether they pay bribes.”
The rest is hearsay, Sir Humphrey would say: “You heard someone say it.”
Asked for his reaction, Pound told Exaro: “It is absolute classic obfuscation, is it not? If I asked what the date was today, they would say it depends from what perspective you are asking.
“It just does not give you an answer. It is 114 words full of waffle. Camouflage may be an accepted military tactic, but you do not expect it in parliamentary answers.”
But he remains unbowed.
Will he keep pounding away and reminding Hammond about the specific allegations referred to in his questions as Parliament returns today from its summer recess?
Update 3 September 2012: Since this article was published, Gerald Howarth gave the following answer to Stephen Pound’s remaining questions: “Allegations have been made about GPT Special Project Management Ltd, linked to the Saudi Arabian national guard communications project. These are being considered by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO). It would not be appropriate to respond to these questions until such time as the SFO consideration is complete.”
Update 4 September 2012: Gerald Howarth has departed as a defence minister in a reshuffle of ministerial jobs by David Cameron, prime minister.