Privatisation on parade

Much scrutiny of the nationalisation or part-nationalisation of various banks.
If only there had been as much investigation over the years of Labour’s love affair with privatisation.
It started with the air traffic control service and continues in defence.
This month an RAF engineer highlighted the appalling state of accommodation at St Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan.
“The MoD sent us to a welfare house while our quarters were fumigated…the place they gave us was disgusting, with ripped carpets, filthy cupboards and kitchen doors hanging off their hinges,” said the serviceman’s wife.
Local MP John Smith said: “I am deeply concerned. The problem here appears to be that the property was absolutely filthy and that could not have happened 20 or 30 years ago.
“The entire housing stock of the Ministry of Defence was sold to a Japanese bank some 10 or 12 years ago and what that means is the liaison officer on camp has limited control over the standards of these properties.”
The entire housing stock of the MoD was sold to a Japanese bank? Who knew?
And, yes, this is the same John Smith who is drum major for the massive sell-off which will put the training of all three British armed forces into private hands.

CACI, Abu Ghraib and us

There is growing concern in Scotland about a decision to award the multi-million pound 2011 Census contract to a marketing and information company called CACI Ltd.
CACI Ltd is a wholly-owned subsidiary of CACI International Incorporated, an American company which is doing rather well in these troubled times.
It is a publicly-listed company on the New York Stock Exchange with an annual revenue in excess of US $2bn.
But it is how it makes its money that concerns campaigners: it is a key partner in George Bush’s homeland security and “war on terror” – and its staff worked with the US Army in the prison and interrogation blocks of Abu Ghraib in Iraq.
The US Army was forced to close Abu Ghraib after news reports of the torture and humiliation of prisoners. Eleven US soldiers were convicted of breaking military laws for mistreating prisoners, and five others were disciplined.
CACI International Incorporated has produced a book defending itself for its part in the Abu Ghraib scandal and says “we were not involved with horrendous abuses such as death or sexual assault at Abu Ghraib”.
But it is one of two private contractors who are the subject of lawsuits from four Iraqis over allegations that they were tortured there.
CACI’s growing role in UK information systems prompts another concern: in a world which has become one big database and surveillance job, do we really want our personal information handled by a company so closely linked to the US intelligence services?
As CACI International Incorporated boasts in its mission statement: “(Our) mission is to be a leader in providing the information technology and consulting solutions America needs to defeat global terrorism, secure our homeland and improve government services. We are ever vigilant in aligning our solutions with the nation’s highest priorities.”
Realistically, CACI Ltd already plays a larger role in our lives than we know. The UK Government uses the company’s ACORN (“A Classification of Residential Neighbourhoods”) model in areas such as the monitoring of crime to classify us (some of us are “wealthy achievers”, some “hard pressed”).
The company is a major collator of health information too.
Welsh local authorities regularly use their expertise on retail matters. Ceredigion County Council and Bridgend County Borough Council are recent customers.

Contingency plan for St Athan failure

The Government’s sell-off of military training continues to go badly.
It is planned that a consortium of private companies (the Metrix Consortium) will set up and run the massive new St Athan training academy.
Other training sites are to be closed with the land sold off to raise funds by Metrix.
One of the sites expected to go was RAF Cosford in Shropshire.
But now – with the credit crunch biting and few developers queuing up for the MoD land sell-off – it appears that might not be so.
According to the Defence Management Journal, Cosford’s closure might be put on hold during a review of the Government’s scheme, which is known in official circles as the Defence Training Rationalization.
“The DTR is facing an extended period of difficulty and a full blown financial review because its financing was dependent on the sale of surplus MoD land,” the DMJ reported yesterday. “Now the MoD may have to keep the RAF Cosford open as a contingency plan in case the deal at St Athan collapses.
“If the deal at St Athan were to fall through, the MoD would need a backup site for the programme.”

War is Peace

Who will be training their soldiers at the new Defence Training Academy at St Athan?
It’s a question that’s been exercising campaigners who feel the development is not just pledging Wales to a future of “militarism”, but wondering to whose military we are making that pledge.
I mean, we are never going to stop people killing other people. But does it look like we even want to?
Especially if private security companies – like the ones fighting wars for ‘us’ by proxy in Iraq – will be getting trained there.
I contacted the Ministry of Defence under the Freedom of Information Act to ask if, for instance, the MoD would ban any particular nations from using the training camp.
And what about private security companies – would they be able to send personnel there?
After a short delay I received an email from Brigadier Geoff Nield, a project leader with the Defence Training Review.
Under this privatised scheme, it seems, the first decision on who comes in from the outside for training is down to the Metrix Consortium – a group of arms/defence companies and educational establishments like the Open University.
“The MoD is content that Metrix may deliver training and accommodation services to third parties as long as certain contractual conditions and restraints are met,” said Brigadier Nield.
“These include, for example, not impairing the delivery of military training to the MoD, meeting security requirements and maintaining military ethos on-site.
“Furthermore, MoD reserves the right to approve or forbid the use of training assets (including facilities) for third parties.”
So, could a regime like Burma for instance, on paying the right fees, get its soldiers trained here? After all, Britain kindly sold more than 40 Hawk aircraft to the Indonesians during the 1980s and 1990s before world attention suggested that helping the country suppress the East Timorese did not make Britain either great or a land of much hope and glory.
“The MoD…prioritises those countries that receive training on a case by case basis. Where there is a mutual agreement between the UK and countries of interest, agreed scheduled training courses can be attended by those invited, subject to availability and appropriate security clearance.”
There is, some might say, an Orwellian feel to the response. The MoD insists on calling the centre a “college” and the non-UK attendees, “students”.
In addition, the MoD also states that the training of private contractors and foreign armies is actually about making a stable world for our children’s children.

“A key tenet of UK foreign policy is to encourage diplomatic engagement with foreign countries so as to not only serve UK interests but also develop long term stability throughout regions of the world,” said the brigadier. “The MoD supports this policy in different guises, one of which is to train foreign students, both in UK and abroad as arranged through overseas embassies and high commissions.”
War is peace, then, after all.
::The Big Issue Cymru, June 16-22, 2008

Questions at university over military academy

Protesters say they’ve found the first chinks in the armour of the arms and defence consortium behind the new St Athan training academy.
Much is being made about the educational courses which will be on offer at the massive base – and the Open University’s involvement in the Metrix Consortium is key to that.
The OU has a commitment to “social justice”. But as one campaigner put it to me: “How will the OU feel if in a few years time Burmese troops are being trained at St Athan?”
It seems people within the OU have been asking similar questions.
Following a demonstration outside the OU offices in Cardiff recently its Wales director Rob Humphreys said its involvement was about “delivering the highest possible quality of support” to Britain’s armed services.
However, when I pressed the OU on claims that staff had been contacting demonstrators with messages of support and that there might even have been discussions about leaving the consortium, the OU was less bullish.
“Any community as large in number and as diverse in opinion as the Open University will include people who hold differing views about some of their organisation’s activities,” came the response from its Milton Keynes HQ.
“More than anywhere else, it is in a university that such diversity of opinion and discussion of issues are – and should be – found. In this case, a very small number of staff have raised concerns about the University’s involvement, and their concerns are noted.
“The involvement of the University in all major projects with external partners is reviewed regularly by senior managers as part of good business practice. The University’s participation in the Metrix Consortium is no different.”
Watch this space then, as the old gossip columnists used to say.

Comedy’s hot property at the moment is Wales-made ‘Gavin and Stacey’ and in a recent programme Gavin and his mum had problems at the Severn Bridge when they couldn’t find cash.
“Don’t they take card?” said mum. “Everyone takes card.”
Welsh Lib Dem leader Mike German spotted an opportunity for a press release.
“Gavin and Stacey may be a comedy, but it highlights a very serious issue, one that hits the people of Wales hard,” he said. “The Welsh Liberal Democrats have repeatedly called for changes to the Severn Bridges Act to allow road users to pay by credit or debit card.”
Far better for Mr G to continue with his other campaign – reported only four months ago – to get the charges scrapped.
As he pointed out then, the tolls on both bridges have already raised £684m – more than double the cost of the 1996 second crossing.
And there’s no sign of a free crossing for some time to come.
In February UK transport minister Rosie Winterton said the tolls would have to raise £995,830,000 before motorists would stop shelling out.
No laughing matter at all.

::Big Issue Cymru, April 21, 2008

The Open University and St Athan

The Open University is apparently facing pressure from its own staff over its part in Metrix Consortium, the developers behind the St Athan military training academy.
I’ve spoken to OU about these concerns and about whether it is considering pulling out of the consortium – the full report is in the Big Issue Cymru (April 21).
Thanks to Luther ap Blissett for flagging this up.

Hold The Front Page has reported journalists’ concerns about provisions in the Counter-Terrorism Bill which could affect media investigation and reporting.
These include new offences of eliciting, publishing or communicating information about members of the armed forces, new search and seizure powers and new ministerial controls over inquests.
The Newspaper Society has written to Home Secretary Jacqui Smith.
:: Photographer or terrorist?

St Athan on Dragon’s Eye

The BBC’s Dragon’s Eye entered the fray last night to raise questions about the actual number of jobs to be created at the St Athan military training academy.
The programme probed claims that the base would create 5,000 jobs. The PCS union claims the privatisation of training services is about “job relocation rather than job creation”.
Vale of Glamorgan MP John Smith remained bullish, having staked his reputation on the development. He claims the 5,000 jobs figure might even be an under-estimate.
What Is Wales? has long felt the 5,000 new jobs claim just doesn’t add up.
As long ago as July 2007 I focused on a report by Cardiff University’s Stuart Tannock which questioned how “many high quality new jobs” will actually be created for locals.
As I pointed out, politicians were slow to raise these questions themselves because, as we have seen in Wales, “No-one dares criticise job creation, be the creator a dodgy call centre company, a shaky Korean technology firm or the arms industry.”
In August in the Big Issue, I asked: “Just how many jobs will the academy really create? A cursory investigation reveals that many jobs will be relocated from elsewhere. Hundreds of others will be in the base’s construction.”
Local people might feel they deserve further proper scrutiny of the St Athan project.

Muddy waters in the Middle East

Threats of terror and aggression are often more than a little convenient for some.
Take the latest Iranian incident in which five speedboats are reported to have “harassed three US navy ships at the weekend”.
The story comes as George Bush prepares to travel to the Middle East to condemn the “Iranian threat”.
Neat, isn’t it?
The BBC reports that official media in Iran reported the incident with some “scepticism”. Perhaps the BBC might try doing the same.
Instead, it tonight highlights a White House warning to Iran against “provocative actions that could lead to a dangerous incident in the future”.
According to a Pentagon spokesman: “The Iranian boats were operating at distances and speeds that showed reckless, dangerous and potentially hostile intent.”
He said at least some of the boats were visibly armed. Much like the US warships then, in waters thousands of miles from their home.
The BBC reports that the Pentagon insisted that the three US vessels were in international waters.
And the Beeb goes on: “The incident follows a row that erupted last March when Iranian Revolutionary Guards captured 15 British sailors and held them for nearly two weeks.
Iran said the crew had strayed into Iranian waters, a claim which Britain disputed.”
To that it might be worth adding the following: the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee took some time investigating that incident.
It reported: “We conclude that there is evidence to suggest that the map of the Shatt al-Arab
waterway provided by the Government was less clear than it ought to have been. The Government was fortunate that it was not in Iran’s interests to contest the accuracy of the map.”
Martin Pratt, of the International Boundaries Research Unit, Durham University, told the committee that he believed the map published by the Ministry of Defence following the sailors’ arrest was “certainly an oversimplification of reality, and I think it could reasonably be argued that it was deliberately misleading”.

St Athan, Raytheon and the Cluster Bomb

Raytheon, one of the companies behind the St Athan development, today distances itself from the dreaded cluster bomb.
But, as reported here before, the arms trade – including Raytheon – rarely does what it says on the tin – or the shell casing: there are no “New! Improved! Limb-Remover Landmines!”
The Western Mail today quotes a company spokesman as saying: “Raytheon does not manufacture cluster bombs or any associated delivery vehicles. Any assertion to the contrary is based on dated information that is no longer valid or correct.
“To clarify, Raytheon has never manufactured cluster bombs, but in the past we have been associated with their manufacture because of our contract to produce a missile that can carry different types of munition payloads, determined by the customer…”
Well, there you go. It never made the bombs. But it did make a delivery vehicle.
And what a delivery vehicle.
The item in question was the AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapon, used extensively in Iraq and which in 2006 it sold to Turkey.
According to Raytheon’s own press team in April 2006: “The AGM-154 A (also called JSOW-A) variant dispenses BLU-97 combined-effect bomblets for use against soft andarea targets. It is produced for use on the F/A-18, F-16, F-15E, B-1, B-2 and B-52 aircraft.”