By a Newsnet reporter
SNP Westminster leader and Defence spokesperson Angus Robertson MP has called for military personnel to be afforded the same whistleblowing rights as other workers after it emerged that the Ministry of Defence had issued orders banning service personnel from having contact with MPs and MSPs without first securing permission from a special unit of civil servants.
Official guidance, released under freedom of information by the MoD, states:
"Unless authorised by Ministers in advance, meetings, either formal or informal between Parliamentarians and members of the Armed Forces or MOD civilians to discuss Defence business are not permitted. Approval can be sought from Ministers by contacting the Private Office of the Minister for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans."
The order goes on to ban service personnel and civilian MoD employees from inviting any MPs or MSPs onto MoD property without first gaining approval for the visit from the MoD's special unit. The MoD order states:
"Visits by Parliamentarians are important, and it is imperative they are carefully handled. To ensure that this happens, visits by Parliamentarians to Defence establishments are not permitted unless authorised by Ministers in advance."
Many service personnel live on MoD property, the order means that those affected will be unable to invite their own elected representatives into their homes.
The MoD ban goes far beyond the necessary military demand for operational secrecy. The nature and extent of the restrictions being placed on MoD employees raises the fear that the ban was put into place not for reasons of National Security, but rather to protect UK Government ministers and senior MoD civil servants from public embarrassment.
The MoD is notorious for its long history of cost over-runs on large contracts. In April 2011, the influential House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts said the Typhoon aircraft project represented yet another example of over-optimism, bad planning and an unacceptably high bill for the taxpayer. Costs on the project have soared by £3.5 billion, despite the MoD ordering 30% fewer aircraft than originally planned.
In March 2010, during the last months of Gordon Brown's government, MPs on the Commons Defence Committee strongly criticised the Ministry for its poor financial management and accused Defence Ministers and senior MoD civil servants of being "deliberately obstructive" and "disingenuous" in blocking the release of information, or distorting figures.
MPs went on to complain that they were effectively incapable of holding the MoD to account on defence spending, saying in their report:
"The MoD's responses to our questions about the funding gap were at best confused and unhelpful and at worst deliberately obstructive."
"We cannot fulfil our scrutiny role if the MoD refuses to provide such information about its activities."
The MoD's ban on "unauthorised" contacts between MoD staff and MPs or MSPs suggests that the MoD remains deeply reluctant to permit the public's elected representatives to exercise any scrutiny role.
The wide ranging extent of the ban, and the restrictions it places on the right to freedom of speech and communication of MoD employees will raise the question of whether the MoD is in breach of human rights legislation.
Mr Robertson – who represents defence personnel based at RAF Lossiemouth and Kinloss Barracks – said:
"As an MP representing two major military bases, I am appalled by this diktat which raises the obvious question of what the MoD has to hide.
"It is totally unacceptable for anyone to dictate what an individual can tell their MP – particularly given our dual duty to represent constituents and hold the government, including the Ministry of Defence, to account.
"Without whistleblowers we would never have know that frontline troops had been left without basic kit, that shortcuts were being taken on the maintenance of aircraft, uncovered the scandal over under-armed Snatch Land Rovers or the many MoD procurement bungles.
"And at a time when the MoD is making further deep cuts to our defence capabilities it is more important than ever that personnel feel able to raise concerns about malpractice or wrongdoing.
"Why should defence personnel not be afforded the same employment rights as other workers when it comes to whistleblowing?"