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
Leave a Reply