Enough popular culture, already – here’s more moaning

Like a miser at a boot sale the Government will always find something else to sell-off.
The latest plan is to privatise the search and rescue (SAR) helicopter service which has saved something like 6,500 people since 1983.
The service operates out of a dozen bases stretched the length of the UK, winching ill and stranded sailors or exhausted and injured climbers and mountain-walkers to safety.
It’s a service with a long history in Wales, where we have as many places to fall off, get stuck down or lost in as any other part of Britain.
The SAR base at RAF Valley in Anglesey is one of the service’s busiest, carrying out 300 missions a year.
Many climbers from Cumbria to Snowdonia, and Irish Sea fishermen, owe their lives to the men and women of the unit.
Until a few years ago, the treacherous western approaches to Wales were covered by helicopters from RAF Brawdy. Since that was closed down – in the face of massive local opposition – the service has been based at Chivenor in Devon.
Anyone who lives on the Welsh coast will be more than familiar with the yellow Sea Kings of the SAR flights.
And the fact that these aircraft are now becoming obsolete is one of the reasons Lord Drayson, Minister for Defence Procurement, has given for turning to the private sector.
Under the new plan the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) would still run the bases but civilian crews from private companies would operate the rescue choppers (and so, one assumes, free up military personnel for Iraq and Afghanistan).
“We recognise that the current UK SAR helicopter providers deliver a first-class service,” Lord Drayson said.
“However, the fact remains that the helicopters will need replacing over the course of the next decade.”
He added: “This (new) high quality service will be as effective as the present one, while delivering better value for money for the taxpayer.”
One can’t help wondering about that last statement.
This Government’s biggest sell-off so far involved the MoD and was great value, yes, but unfortunately not for the tax-payer.
The Government sold off its part of the defence research service, Qinetiq, back in 2002 when the stock market was sluggish, and the US investment firm, Carlyle, happily stepped in with £42m to buy a 31 per cent share.
By the time of Qinetiq’s flotation on the Stock Exchange this February, Carlyle’s share had swollen in worth to about £350m.
Not bad, eh, considering the service had been built up over many years of public investment.
The public servants – engineers and scientists – who had worked so hard at its research centres must have been overjoyed to see the fat cats of Carlyle slip away with all that dosh.
Former prime minister John Major, by the way, enjoyed some of the cut, being a manager at Carlyle. (Older readers may remember he was the PM who privatized the railways and buggered them up, so hats off to John.)
The SAR proposal raises other concerns. How will rescues – often each costing thousands, if not tens of thousands, of pounds – be paid for under a privatized system?
Will a stranded walker with his foot twisted behind him in some freezing mountain pass be made to show the helicopter winchman his Switch card?
The plan has already set alarm bells ringing in Scotland. One national newspaper stated: “Today Britain boasts the best air-sea rescue service in the world, one which in human and financial terms, gives without counting the cost. Will that be the case in future?”
We should be asking the same question here in Wales.
Canadian-based CHC Helicopters and Bristow Helicopters, which is owned by US firm Offshore Logistics, are thought to be favourites to take over the SAR contract, which will run from 2012.
Looking at privatisations like the Qinetiq saga it’s not hard to see what is in it for them.
But you don’t have to be slowly turning blue inside a red kagoule to see that the SAR sell-off may well leave the rest of us up an unpleasantly-smelling creak without a paddle.

‘A service worth saving’ : First published in The Big Issue Cymru, May 22-28, 2006

The truth about me and Big Brother stunner

Popular culture, I know, has been shockingly thin on the ground here at What Is Wales.
Well, now, by a strange quirk of fate, I can change all that. I find myself with a Big Brother story to tell.
The Welsh contestant, the former Miss Wales (not Glyn, the world’s skinniest lifeguard), once got undressed in the back of my car. Honest.
It was a hands-on-the-wheel, eyes-on-the-road moment, though, as Imogen shuffled out of a Welsh football strip.
And I headed west over Hammersmith flyover.
It was all part of a Wales on Sunday prank to upset Sven ahead of a match with England (no, it didn’t work).
Imogen Thomas (favourite footballers David James and Michael Owen) and another model, Ceri Jones – who attempted to do her bit for road accident statistics by undressing at my side – wandered around London in their football kits (with myself and a photographer) being snapped at various tourist spots, the London Eye etc, and then outside FA HQ.
Also on our team was a professional Sven-a-like (real name Spike) who gallantly posed with the girls draped on his arms.
Our saucy antics – as we like to call them – drew a crowd in Soho Square. Van drivers were particularly fascinated.
“Blimey,” one said eloquently.
Another – an Open Mike candidate – was more interested in Spike. “That bloke doesn’t look anything like Bobby Robson,” he shouted out his window.
Anyway, Sven’s adventures in Germany will be far from Imogen’s mind now. She’ll be locked up in the BB house during the World Cup.
Assuming, that is, she doesn’t receive an early eviction.
I don’t mind her not winning.
But if a man, who once held her jacket as she skipped up the Embankment steps in footie shorts, can say one thing, it’s: “Imogen, please don’t do anything embarrassing!”

A right royal neighbour

Excited to learn that Prince Charles is looking for a home in Wales.
Charles and Camilla need somewhere to stay during “Welsh engagements”, according to the Sunday Times.
Anybody selling something suitable? Something large enough, with great character and spectacular views?
Pembrokeshire, perhaps?

Punishing the wronged isn’t right

The sleight of hand with which the government delivered its latest insult to victims of miscarriages of justice illustrated its growing disregard for the presumption of innocence.
It hoped to enforce its cap on compensation to those wrongly jailed by persuading the public the policy was directly related to low pay-outs to victims of crime.
It isn’t, of course, and the illusion failed to disguise the real motivation: to save cash.
Reporting of the move was widely hostile, although strangely muted in the Welsh press even though miscarriages of justice have troubled our society greatly in the past.
The policy was one of those enforced immediately, although its presentation may still return to bite the government on the behind.
Welsh injustice victim Michael O’Brien was among those who did not take kindly to the choice of words used by Home Office minister Fiona Mactaggart on an ITV news bulletin.
O’Brien, who spent 11 years in the slammer for a Cardiff murder he did not commit, has now taken legal advice and is considering suing Mactaggart.
The government erected its own petard for this one before hoisting itself upon it – although it will be the victims who will be strung out in the long run.
Early reports, no doubt encouraged by Home Office spin, presented the idea of capping pay-outs to innocent ex-prisoners at £500,000 as a way of benefiting victims of crime. It would save, explained one national newspaper, “an estimated £5m a year which the government said would be ploughed back into support for victims of crime”. The new system would be “fairer”, (then)Home Secretary Charles Clarke muttered through the thick disguise of his kindly beard.
It quickly became apparent that was not the case. The money would not simply be diverted to victims of muggings, burglary and rape.
And anyway why should some victims be used to compensate others? As O’Brien told the media the government was attempting to play off one group of victims against another.
The Home Office was plainly making invalid comparisons and dumping the blame for low pay-outs to victims of crime on the wrong people.
Much was made of the levels of pay-outs to miscarriages of justice.
O’Brien’s is still to be settled in the courts after he turned down an offer of around £700,000.
It sounds a lot and would indeed be a tidy wedge if O’Brien had won it on the lottery after laying down £1 for a ticket.
But he gave up a lot more than that.
The pay-out included cash for loss of earnings – while in jail and in the future due to illnesses such as post traumatic stress disorder – as well as cash for non-pecuniary loss.
This listed £125,000 for loss of liberty (about £11,000 for every year spent in jail) and £30,000 for loss of family life, including the twin traumas of learning from inside a cell of the deaths of his baby daughter and his step-father, and missing out on the first decade of his son’s life.
The compensation assessor also took about £37,000 off O’Brien for living expenses saved in jail – the so-called ‘bed and board’ charge. That is due to be contested at the House of Lords.
David Davis has said: “Both victims of crime and those who have suffered a miscarriage of justice should be compensated in a fair fashion that reflects the impact of their suffering. In the case of a miscarriage, the need is overwhelming because it is the state that instigated proceedings in the first place.”
The words of a Tory shadow home secretary: it’s strange the places we now have to go for some sanity!
I’ve no doubt that any criminal justice system, no matter how neatly created, would through up injustices.
But while the state appears to feel that these people and the wrong done to them really does not matter, their number will not be reduced. It will grow.
O’Brien knows the pain caused by the Home Office’s media-catching statements.
He still gets called ‘criminal’ by some on the street. The government’s appalling attitude to him and others like him only reinforces that prejudice.

: First published The Big Issue Cymru, May 8, 2006

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