1 thought on “The case against spending targets”

  1. Posted 15/05/2019 at 16:36 | Permalink

    As Brexit Day approaches, there will be a further squeeze on public finances and it will be increasingly difficult for the government to fulfil its 2% spending target on defence.

    It is a good idea to follow the money of this spending, because it reveals that British capitalism – in its increasingly cronyist guise – is doing the public a disservice. The defence industry is an example of a publicly-funded sector that expects to be subsidised in perpetuity. It also suffers from the increasing problem of concentration of economic power made worse by ill-considered policies of previous governments, including that of Tony Blair.

    The dominance of just a handful of manufacturers, the Select Few, has been a distinctive feature of the defence equipment market for as long as anyone can remember.

    Unlike the market in consumer goods and services, there is only one customer for defence equipment – the government. Consequently, the purchasing decisions taken by the government has a significant bearing upon the composition and diversity of players in the defence equipment market. And because taxpayers money is used by the government to procure military equipment for the Armed Forces, the condition of the defence equipment market should be of concern to anyone who has an interest in the proper functioning of open and free markets, and in securing best value for money, as it relates to the expenditure of public funds.

    Nowhere is the market in defence goods more concentrated than in the naval shipbuilding sector, as exemplified by the number of bidders who entered the competition to build the Type 31e general purpose frigates for the Royal Navy. It is the first time that a contract for combat ships has been competed openly on the global market, to identify the bidder that will construct the five Type 31e frigates. Hitherto, the contractor to receive such a single-source design and build contract has always been selected on a preferential basis (from the Select Few) – by successive generations of people in the pay of the State who have a poor understanding of how free markets work, not least, because they have not spent a single day of their lives in the private sector.

    The consequence of this misguided attempt at shaping the shipbuilding industry has been an unmitigated disaster. Only three industry teams have responded to the (second) announcement to submit expressions of interest for consideration by the procuring authority, the Ministry of Defence – this, after the government went out of its way to relax the demanding technical specification requirements incorporating stringent naval standards, specifically to attract commercial shipyards. A minimum of seven bidders are required to run the winner-takes-all competition efficiently. See this illustration pic.twitter.com/RUToAZ6thx.

    It may be that foreign companies do not believe the government’s word when it says that it will run a genuinely fair competition open to all-comers, including offshore yards – only to then surreptitiously favour domestic contractors, as has happened so often in the past.

    For an island nation with a long tradition in naval shipbuilding going back centuries, such an outcome is a huge disappointment and it leads one to conclude that there is a serious lack of competitiveness in the naval shipbuilding sector. It is the number of bidders entering a competition that determines how competitive a product market is – the higher the count, the healthier and more vibrant the market, and the keener the desire on the part of contestants to win the contract.

    This dire situation has come about because successive governments, going back decades, have sought to protect domestic equipment manufacturers from being exposed to the full rigours of the free market, that is to say, shield them from ‘feeling the heat’ of competitive market forces – which has, in itself, led to this market concentration.

    The creation of the monolithic entity called BAE Systems which dominates the defence equipment market today – from the acquisition of various business units of Marconi Electronic Systems in 1999 with the tacit acquiescence of the Blair government, without referring the merger to the then Competition Commission – further reduced the number of independent participants in the market.

    BAE Systems then went on to use this dominant market position to stifle competition and coerce the Brown government into signing a 15-year Terms of Business Agreement* in secret which, in effect, hands out a series of cost-plus, naval shipbuilding contracts worth £3,450 million up to 2024. In so doing, future governments have been denied freedom of manoeuvre in the management of public finances.

    What’s more, in common with concentration of economic power elsewhere in the UK economy, the defence equipment market monopolised by the usual suspects is plagued by excessive mark-ups, insignificant investment in innovation, R&D and product development and persistently low wages for the vast majority of its workers.

    * Fully examined in written submission to the Public Accounts Committee, Inquiry into Defence Equipment Plan 2017-27, HC 880, Session 2017-19, Written evidence from Jag Patel, published 13 March 2018, PDF file (294 kB): http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/public-accounts-committee/defence-equipment-plan-201727/written/79612.pdf

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