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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
David Pegg and Rob Evans

Peter Hain calls for inquiry into MoD’s alleged role in Saudi bribes scandal

Lord Peter Hain, ex Labour cabinet minister and anti-apartheid demonstrator, poses by the statue of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square on December 2nd 2019 in London
Lord Hain has written to the National Audit Office to call for a ‘timely, targeted’ investigation after revelations from recently ended criminal trial. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Alleged Ministry of Defence complicity in the “national scandal” of bribery on arms deals in Saudi Arabia must be investigated by government auditors, a senior Labour politician has said.

Peter Hain, the antiapartheid campaigner and peer, said in a letter to the National Audit Office (NAO) that a “timely, targeted” investigation was now necessary after the conclusion of a major criminal trial.

Last month, a jury at Southwark crown court acquitted two men of bribery charges after they argued that the MoD had known about and authorised millions of pounds of payments to foreign officials on a UK arms deal.

The deal, Sangcom, involved the supply of military communications from Britain to the Saudi Arabian national guard. At least £10m was paid to the head of the force, Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, and a coterie of his associates according to prosecutors.

In a letter to the head of the NAO, Gareth Jenkins, Lord Hain said the revelations raised “extremely serious questions about the MoD’s alleged involvement in corruption”. Hain also backed calls from Spotlight on Corruption and Transparency International UK that urged government auditors to immediately review MoD financial practices.

He said: “It is essential that there is scrutiny so that the lessons can be learned, both to protect public taxpayers’ money in the defence sector, and to ensure that government departments are rigorously reviewed for how they handle contracting arrangements and funds on government-to-government contracts, especially when there are corruption allegations.

“It is imperative that the National Audit Office conduct a timely, targeted investigation to establish and report on the facts, and for parliamentarians and the public to understand the MoD’s role in this national scandal and any ongoing corruption risks.”

An NAO spokesperson confirmed that the letter had been received and its contents were being considered.

Reams of internal MoD documents detailing previously undisclosed financial arrangements relating to Sangcom and other arms deals were disclosed to the jury during the trial. Counsel for the defendants told the court that the evidence suggested MoD civil servants had for decades authorised or even orchestrated corrupt practices.

Among the revelations from the trial were an £8m contract between the MoD and the consultancy firm of a Saudi Arabian prince’s fixer under the rubric of Project Arrow, despite the ministry knowing the fixer was rumoured to be involved in bribery. A senior Foreign Office official was revealed to have previously suggested nominating the fixer for an honour in order to curry favour with him.

Separately the MoD was also shown to have been actively involved in multimillion-pound payments to another Saudi Arabian official, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, as part of the notorious al-Yamamah fighter jet deal. It later allowed Saudi Arabian money to be moved through MoD bank accounts, despite not knowing what the funds were for.

Dr Susan Hawley, the executive director of Spotlight in Corruption, said it was essential that the NAO got to the bottom of the allegations so the UK public could be assured that the Mod was not facilitating corruption in any defence contracts.

Steve Goodrich, the head of research and investigations at Transparency International UK, said: “If the UK’s zero-tolerance stance is worth anything, we need greater assurance that the UK state does not condone these corrupt practices under the guise of national security. Opening the MoD’s books to an independent audit by the NAO is crucial to learning from past mistakes and ensuring the UK does business without bribery.”

An MoD spokesperson said the department expected “all staff to act in accordance with the civil service code and the values and standards” of the British army.

A spokesperson previously said Project Arrow was undertaken for a proper purpose, and that it was “conjecture” to describe the payments to Prince Bandar as “corrupt”.

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