The decision to award the MOD contract to Serco was an unwelcome piece of news at the start of a new year. Much time and effort had gone into preparing what had become known as the in-house option, only to be trounced at the final hurdle on the grounds of cost. Local concern at the MOD’s decision was clear to see in the numbers of people demonstrating just days after the announcement was made.
In the increasingly budget constrained climate of the MOD, the quest for value for money has become the deciding factor in whether to keep or cut. Various groups pleaded for special treatment. After all, they said, the cost difference between the local bid and that of the winner was miniscule given the MOD’s annual defence budget. This was to miss the point. In an outsourced world, accountability is all and UK government ministers have become super-sensitive to accusations of the inefficient use of taxpayer’s money. The realpolitik of the MOD’s decision may deliver some savings over the short to medium term but the little local difficulty may in the end cost them dear.
It is clear that the Navy has become less reliant on Gibraltar over the years as the world’s trouble spots spring up further afield. British warships collect stores and the sailors enjoy shore leave in Spanish and Portuguese ports rather than come to the Rock. Sometimes entire complements are flown out to a ship so that it does not need to return to its home base in Portsmouth. It’s quicker and saves money. But it leads to other operational problems for both crew and equipment.
Death by a thousand cuts
The symbiotic but at times strained relationship between the MOD and its overseas bases, highlights the emerging confidence of the bases’ hosts. Gibraltar today is far less reliant on the MOD as an economic driver than it was 20 years ago. As the historic threat dissipated and morphed into a series of different but no less deadly guises, Gibraltar has been unable to escape the cuts imposed by successive UK defence reviews. In 2004 Geoff Hoon, the then UK Defence Secretary, handed over to the Gibraltar Government a significant chunk of the MOD’s estate on the Rock. Nevertheless the MOD still exerts considerable control on the remaining parts even though much of it is not maintained, much less used.
The MOD needs to decide if it wants to keep Gibraltar as a base. If it does, it should be prepared to invest in it, rather than see just how much it can squeeze it to accommodate cost savings dictated by the UK Treasury.
Friendly relationships are a two-way street. That does not mean that friends always need to agree, but to be healthy neither should take each other for granted. Otherwise the inequality will sour the relationship.
This is not a call for a blank cheque for the local workforce. Our members, virtually all of who operate in the private sector, know all too well the harsh reality of having to compete. It is a call for a realisation by the MOD that, although Gibraltar values the MOD’s presence, it is not at any price.