THE Ministry of Defence’s top civil servant was blasted by MPs yesterday over the rising costs of the navy’s new aircraft carriers and jets.
Ursula Brennan was hauled in front of the Public Accounts Committee following leaked reports that the government’s 2010 decision to change the type of fighter jets it wants on the Portsmouth-based ships could cost an extra £1.8bn.
That’s on top of a project that’s already risen from £3.5bn to £6bn.
Last November, a report by the committee claimed the cost implications of the switch from the F-35B jump-jet variant of the Joint Strike Fighter to conventional F-35C aircraft were not fully understood. Unlike F-35Bs, the F-35Cs require catapults and arrestor gear to be fitted to flight decks to take off and land.
Mrs Brennan, who is the MoD’s Permanent Secretary, yesterday refused to confirm that the conversion will cost an additional £1.8bn.
Nor would she say whether the MoD is set to do a U-turn and go back to having F-35Bs on the ships.
She said: ‘Ministers are looking at the costs of the whole equipment programme, including the carriers, and when they reach a conclusion on that I would be very happy to give you that information.’
Exasperated committee members wanted to know how much the MoD has spent analysing the jet switch after reports suggested the study has cost £250m.
One committee MP, Nick Smith, accused the MoD of ‘burning £50 notes’.
Mrs Brennan claimed she couldn’t confirm any figures until the MoD’s budget Planning Round – which was started in July last year – was signed off.
Committee chairwoman Margaret Hodge took exception at this and said: ‘Given your budget deficit of £38bn, it’s outrageous that here we are sitting into 2012/13 and we still don’t really know where you got your 2011/12 figures from.’
She added: ‘It’s a nonsense. No organisation could run like that in the private sector. It would go bust.’
Mrs Brennan, who is paid £155,000 a year according to the latest available figures, said the delay in publishing the MoD’s planned budget is because ‘we are so determined to get this right’.
Mrs Hodge asked Mrs Brennan: ‘Why on earth didn’t you exercise a little bit of your accounting officer authority and issue letters of direction to stop ministers taking decisions which end up again with the taxpayer having to foot the bill for a massive amount of totally torn-up pound notes – billions of torn-up pound notes? Why don’t you do it? I just can’t get it.’
A bewildered-looking Mrs Brennan did not reply.