Last week we saw the full extent of the crisis facing hospital Accident & Emergency departments. Patients face the longest waiting times in a decade, A&E departments are running at capacity and several hospitals in England declared “major incidents” as they struggled to cope with demand.
But it was the week before Christmas that presented us with the most stark and shocking indicator of this government’s priorities.
In the week from 15 to 21 December 2014, emergency departments in England slumped to the worst waiting times since 2004. Just 83.1 per cent of patients were seen within four hours.
And it was in that same week, on the final day of the Parliamentary session, that Defence Secretary Michael Fallon casually announced that the Government was to spend an additional quarter of a billion pounds on nuclear weapons this year.
In fact he didn’t actually announce it.
He simply said ” . . . I am today publishing the third report, ‘The United Kingdom’s Future Nuclear Deterrent: 2014 Update to Parliament’. A copy has been placed in the Library of the House.”
Delving into these reports to find out what’s being buried is vital for any organisation committed to scrutinising government activity.
We regularly find eye-watering sums being added to the vast amounts we already spend – on both maintaining our current nuclear weapons system and on planning its replacement.
And this report was no exception:
Since publication of last year’s report, the MOD, with agreement from HM Treasury, has re-profiled £261M of funding into the Assessment Phase . . .
“Re-profiled”. That’s the kind of linguistic acrobatics the government regularly deploys when it’s talking about spending your money.
In this case, the £261m of taxpayers’ money has been “re-profiled” from requiring parliamentary authorisation to not requiring parliamentary authorisation.
Because – and this is the crucial point – this quarter of a billion pounds was earmarked to be spent after the so-called “Main Gate” vote on Trident replacement in 2016. That’s the vote which will see MPs decide whether or not the UK builds a new generation of nuclear weapons.
The report claims that this decision has been made, “in order to bring forward essential elements of the programme and offer better overall value for money”. It concludes: “This approach is expected to reduce the cost by some £42m from that originally planned.”
The logic of this decision is stunning. If parliament votes against Trident replacement in 2016, £42m won’t have been saved – £261M will have been squandered. It’s like buying a car you don’t need just because it’s discounted: you’re not saving money, you’re spending it.
As the NHS struggles against a £2bn funding gap this year, the money diverted to a Cold War weapons system is brought sharply into focus.
The £3.3bn being spent in the “Assessment Phase” of a new nuclear weapons system which we may or may not build – not to mention the £2-3bn we spend every year just running our current Trident system – reflects the choice our government has made.
It is a choice that imperils our world-leading healthcare system.
It is a choice that pours billions into an exorbitant relic of no military use.
It is a choice that is fundamentally wrong, strategically outdated, and economically ruinous.