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.

Big Issue Cymru – to be written in Scotland

The Welsh edition of The Big Issue is moving production to its Scottish office.
Two out of its three editorial staff – including its editor Rachel Howells – are being made redundant. The editor of The Big Issue Scotland is to become the editor of both titles.
The decision is a blow to the homeless people who sell the magazine, to the media in Wales and to readers.
Plaid Cymru AM Leanne Wood has written to Welsh Heritage Minister Alun Ffred Jones and the Welsh Language Board “to see what pressure they can put on the owners to ensure we don’t lose Big Issue Cymru”.
“The Big Issue Cymru provides news from Wales that you don’t find in many other publications,” she says. “Many people buy it because of its local stories. Big Issue Cymru has played an important role as a campaigning magazine promoting people who don’t have their voices heard. The loss of the Welsh language column is also something which will be felt by a lot of people.
“All of these factors combined could result in fewer people buying the Big Issue in Wales. This is bound to impact on the vendors who are homeless people.”
I have to declare an interest in this. I’ve had a column in Big Issue Cymru for almost four years and will be sad to see Rachel leave.
I haven’t heard from the new regime so don’t know what they plan for the rest of the magazine or how much of it will have any Wales-led content at all.
As Leanne Wood says Big Issue Cymru has often looked at issues which don’t get discussed elsewhere, including ironically the on-going downgrading of our media in Wales.

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 goats who lord it over us

Digby Jones is poised to leave Gordon Brown’s government of all the talents (Goat) before the next election.
Perhaps future goats brought in by the Labour Party will represent areas of society which have less access to power than Lord Jones’ friends.
Jones, after all, is hardly a champion of the voiceless and the vulnerable.
A corporate lawyer by background, his previous senior corporate advisory positions have included senior advisor to Barclays Capital, chairman of the Deloitte Industries Group, corporate and governmental affairs advisor to Ford of Europe and Premier Automotive Group, advisor to JCB and member of the advisory board of Aggregate Industries.
His period in government has given big business the ear of Gordon Brown.
But it has surely helped the individual too – particularly, if that individual is Lord Jones. His consultancy and after dinner fees are certain to rise.
He also, of course, got a peerage out of his entry into government. Will he now hand that back, as suggested by one MP?

Hearing Voices

Just read a new memoir by Studs Terkel.
If you haven’t heard of Studs, you should check him out.
Studs is now 95 and has therefore, obviously, been around.
He’s done a lot in that time, radio presenter, writer, oral historian.
For years he took out his tape recorder and interviewed people, “ordinary people”, about the experiences of the Great Depression, racism, the Second World War.
His memoir, Touch and Go, takes its title from Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, or more precisely the Rev Eli Jenkins’ prayer. “For whether we last the night or no/I’m sure it’s always touch and go”.
With nine decades under his hat, Studs would be forgiven for having little more than lasting the night or no on his mind.
But he’s not that sort of guy.
After listening, really listening, to people for God knows how many years, he now has a few observations of his own.
One should strike a cord in offices up and down the country. It’s a lament for “human noise”.
Studs cites the newspaper office as an example. Once, he points out, the city desk of any paper was a place of voices, people hollering back and for, running this way and that.
Today, it isn’t so. And many journalists would agree.
“The young journalists are seated side by side, staring into their terminals,” he writes. “They are a foot away from each other, yet miles apart.”
I suppose they are emailing each other, one reason why human noise has become quieter.
Studs tells a story to illustrate something else that’s taken over.
He’s at an airport where they have just installed trains to the terminal. The train is packed. A robotic voice comes over the PA system to say where they are: “Concourse One”, etc.
Just as the doors are closing a couple rush in and pull them aside. They collapse with their bags.
The robot voice booms: “Because of late entry, we are delayed thirty seconds”.
Everyone in the carriage glares at the late-comers.
Studs smiles, he’s had a drink, and he cups his hand over his mouth. “George Orwell, your time has come and gone!” he booms back.
There is silence. The crowd now takes Studs into its stare. He realises there are suddenly, in his words, “three of us before the firing squad”.
The human voice is cowered, but not Studs.
There is a little baby sat in the lap of a Mexican woman. Studs bends down. “Sir or Madam,” he says addressing the babe in arms, “what is your opinion of the human species?”
There’s a pause. And then the baby giggles.
“Thank God,” says Studs. “A giggle. The sound of a human voice. There’s my hope.”
:: Big Issue Cymru, February 11-18, 2008

Medical Moneybags

When Prince Charles cut the ribbon on the new Neath Port Talbot Hospital on February 3, 2003, it was time to celebrate – particularly for the building’s private contractors.
A report in the Western Mail today reveals the hospital, which cost £66m to build, will end up costing taxpayers more than £300m as they pay back the PFI investors.
One winner, I note, was the Kier Group – motto ‘Working Together For Growth’.
It sold its interests in the hospital to private equity firm Secondary Market Infrastructure Fund less than two years after the Prince cut the ribbon.
It got £5m for its 25 per cent stake – twice the size of its initial investment.