Behind the blank statements on St Athan

There was a very upbeat tale in the South Wales Echo yesterday, describing the military training privatisation at St Athan as “‘on track”.
There had been fears that the huge project in the Vale of Glamorgan could fall victim to the worldwide economic crisis, the Echo reported, but Armed Forces Minister Bob Ainsworth had told the House of Commons on Tuesday that “considerable progress has been made in driving down costs and towards achieving affordable, value for money.
“Package one is on track for an investment decision in the spring of next year, with contract signature expected approximately 15 months later.”
The new base is now being called the Defence Technical Academy, as opposed to the Defence Training Academy (name changes are always a sign of trouble), but Vale of Glamorgan MP John Smith, has hit out at “the negative rumours that have been bandied about by doom-and-gloom merchants”.
“The minister’s statement confirms what I have always maintained, that St Athan is the only location that will provide technical training for all our armed forces in a high-quality bespoke environment and purpose-built facilities,” Mr Smith said.
And a spokesman for the Metrix Consortium of private companies behind the academy said greyly: “We are pleased with the progress that has been made so far and look forward to working closely with the MoD to deliver the Package One programme and the Defence Technical Academy in St Athan.”
However, over at the Defence Management Journal, the experts paint a very different picture – and rabid leftie peaceniks those boys ain’t.
They are, however, “doom-and-gloom merchants”, describing the Government’s Defence Training Review (DTR) as “oft-delayed, over budget and controversial” – all elements of the DTR which have been regularly reported at What Is Wales?
“Numerous MPs have told Defence Management that the DTR’s funding is heavily reliant on the sales of vacant MoD properties,” it reported yesterday. “The current financial crisis has not allowed the MoD to do this which has delayed a final financial agreement.
“The project is believed to already be £1bn over budget and Metrix and the MoD are reviewing extensive cuts to the programme. Ainsworth told parliament that even the alternatives such as moving the DTR to a central location in the West Midlands would be just as expensive if not more costly.”
The MoD’s project leader Brigadier Geoff Nield said in a statement that the MoD was committed “to continuing with the current assessment phase”.
He acknowledged that there have been affordability challenges and that this had forced Metrix, the leader of package 1, to re-examine its proposal.
Ultimately, the St Athan training programme which was to begin in 2012 will now be delayed until 2014 at the earliest, Defence Management reported.

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.

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

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.

Campaign against Cardiff Bus privatisation is on the move

Two notes on Cardiff Council’s proposal to sell-off 40 per cent of Cardiff Bus.
Firstly, as I revealed in last week’s Big Issue Cymru, the plan actually goes against the Lib Dem national policy.
In only September 2006, the party voted to reverse bus privatisation.
Secondly, council leader Rodney Berman might want to look closely at Bournemouth where city Lib Dems sold off that city’s buses in 2005 and have seen continuing criticism of the private operator Transdev.
In August, in response to yet another passenger protest, Transdev told the Bournemouth Daily Echo a route was being changed because there were “insufficient people travelling to justify a commercial service.”
The sell-off proposal is part of a wider attempt to privatise council services and follows a report which Cardiff council commissioned from Price Waterhouse Coopers.
Unison has launched a campaign against the plan.

Bus company sell-off on council timetable

On Tuesday, Cardiff Council’s executive will consider plans to sell-off 40 per cent of the publicly-owed Cardiff Bus company.
Cardiff Bus is one of the last local authority-owned bus companies in Wales and struggled to survive the wide-scale sell-off that followed the last Tory government’s deregulation of bus services.
Now chief executive Byron Davies has drawn up a plan which would have the Lib Dem administration searching for a private partner.
According to Davies: “We have been looking at the possibility of a potential partner for Cardiff Bus but with the council retaining majority control. We would expect our partners to grow the existing business and provide an even better service for the people of Cardiff. It would be in their interests to do so.”
I doubt that’s how a private partner would see things. When it comes to making profit they won’t want to miss the bus. Less cost effective routes would certainly go and fares would rise.
As Cardiff Bus chairman Steve Pantak, says: “While I understand a minority shareholding would be involved, I believe this would be the thin edge of the wedge and will open the door to full privatisation of Cardiff Bus which will gradually reduce the service to customers.
“Any private company would expect a return of at least 15 per cent on turnover.
“The only way that can be met is through increased fares and/or a large reduction in marginal services which Cardiff Bus operates as a sort of dividend for the owners, the people of Cardiff.
“This looks like a fire sale to deal with a short-term financial position.”

The Finest Mess

Psst! Do you want to know a secret?
Alright, it’s not much of a shock.
But do you remember all that silly old Iraq stuff about No War for Oil?
Silly marchers, silly banners, and all that. Silly, wasn’t it?
Oh, how They scoffed.
What we should have been highlighting, it seems, was oil as a bi-productive of war.
We can confirm that now. We have a decent source: dear old Kim Howells, Pontypridd MP, and NUM firebrand-turned Blair bootroom-boy.
Dr Kim has given a written response to a Parliamentary question asking what meetings our government has had with oil companies to discuss Iraq since the 2003 invasion.
“Our work on Iraq’s economic and energy sector has included contacts with oil companies, as well as trade unions representatives and non-governmental organisations,” said the dedicated Foreign Office minister.
“These exchanges have included discussion of Iraq’s evolving hydrocarbons legislation where British international oil companies have valuable perspectives to offer based on their experience in other countries. Discussions with international oil companies on hydrocarbons legislation have included the range of contract types which Iraq is considering.”
So, waffle aside, international oil companies have been giving their view on the future of the world’s second largest oil reserves. How long, I wonder, did it take to wipe the oil execs’ saliva off that boardroom table?
In fact, Britain and America are putting pressure on Baghdad to pass a law – “evolving hydrocarbons legislation” – which would hand long-term control of Iraqi oil reserves over to foreign multinationals.
“Exploration contracts” would allow the oil giants to sink their fangs into the country’s untapped fields.
Didn’t see that one coming, did you!
The Iraqi trades unions want its oil reserves kept in public hands. But who will listen to them?
Back in July 2005, Hassan Juma’a Awad al-Asade, leader of the country’s General Union of Oil Workers, said: “The first stage of the occupation of our country was to seize the oil fields. Now, the second stage is under way, and this is the privatisation of the oil and manufacturing industries of our country. We are against this because it is against the interests of the Iraqi people.”
This month, he added: “History will not forgive those who play recklessly with the wealth and destiny of a people.”
Iraq is struggling with violence and poverty. “Yet, with the support of our government, multinationals are poised to take control of Iraq’s oil wealth,” said Ruth Tanner, of War On Want.
Unable to negotiate with the oil giants, Iraq will watch a carve-up of its own natural resources. That’s money that in the hands of the Iraqis themselves could be used to rebuild a country devastated by dictatorship, sanctions, war and occupation.
A year ago this month Dr Howells visited Iraq to examine the oil industry. Afterwards, he admitted to Radio 4’s Today programme that Iraq was a “mess”.
“But it is a mess that can’t launch an attack now on Iran; a mess that won’t be able to march into Kuwait; it’s a mess that can’t develop nuclear weapons,” he said.
“So, yes, it’s a mess but it’s starting to look like the sort of mess that most of us live in.”
Like a mess “that most of us live in”!
Could that be the most offensive thing said about Pontypridd? Or did Dr Howells mean something else altogether?
Maybe he meant Iraq’s just another place held over a barrel by energy companies.

:: The above was written for Big Issue Cymru (March 5). There’s more on this story in today’s Independent On Sunday

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

Government of Wales

For those interested in news of the Government of Wales Bill, I’m posting my column from The Big Issue last week.
The Bill, launched yesterday, proposes a system under which the Assembly would seek permission from Westminster every time it had a new legislative proposal.

Confused future for devolution won’t wash

Put those shopping bags down, take the weight off your feet and let me tell you about my washing machine.
A couple of weeks ago, the dial began clicking around endlessly and a red light flashed.
Either something was broken or it had joined with my other aging kitchen appliances in a conspiracy against me.
Now, as we know, information on everything can be found on the internet, especially conspiracies.
On a trouble-shooting website, I discovered the light was a manufacturer’s code. The number of times it flashed – and its speed – indicates the problem.
I rang the machine’s maker to ask them what was wrong. They said they couldn’t be sure on the phone, they’d have to send someone out. That would cost half the price of a new machine.
So I posted a question to this internet plumber – I was at a loose end that day – telling him I was seeing a flashing light.
The plumber replied: “Eleven flashes, are you sure? It’s the manufacturer’s code.”
“Yes,” I said. “But what does it mean?”
“I don’t know,” he responded. “If I knew that and you knew that we’d all be able to fix it.”
Life is often complicated, I concluded as a lesson for the day, because someone made it deliberately so.
Now, take devolution. As I write this Peter Hain is making sure the ink’s dry on his Government of Wales Bill.
I’m sure for a select few – Mr Hain, some letter writers to Western Mail and a selection of dogged political journos – the document will carry the same erotic charge as Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
But, I ask you, would you allow your wife or your servant to read this bill? I think not.
Neither would they wish too.
The Scottish knew exactly what they were getting with devolution and they are now tottering onwards into the future.
In Wales, devolution was mixed into a fudge, simmered as a stew and is set to become a lumpy dish of spaghetti. That’s no mean culinary feat.
Our diluted devolution was a compromise from the beginning: between pro- and anti-devolution Labour.
The White Paper on which Mr Hain’s new bill will be based was wrenched from the gut of another internal power struggle.
Perhaps our interest is being intentionally discouraged. (Just wait till you start hearing about the new bill’s ‘Orders in Council’.)
Even a constitutional expert like Lord Richard, the man whose commission recommended giving Wales the same law-making powers as Scotland, admits it’s all a bit confusing. “If you are going to have devolution in different parts of the UK then you should have the same type of devolution,” he said recently.
And, although the Welsh Assembly Government’s powers are limited, Downing Street still appears to want to put the boot in for the way it uses them.
When Chris Bryant criticised Rhodri Morgan’s “clear red water” policy, it seemed as if devolution might not have happened at all.
It is for us, the Welsh electorate, to decide whether or not we like the direction Rhodri Morgan is taking.
We do not need signals from Number 10, even if they come via the Rhondda.
It’s easy for Bryant to chip away from behind a 16,242 majority in a safe Labour seat.
However, who is to say that his pro-hospital privatisation, pro-student top-up fee, pro-Iraq invasion opinions resonate any better than Morgan’s with the people of Wales?
Many here still feel their hearts warmed a little by the “ideological glow” he seeks to belittle.
Many here might think some of Bryant’s ideas seem un-WAG Labour because they feel quite clearly Conservative.
And when one hears the line that there need not be Welsh solutions to Welsh problems, one is reminded of Tony Blair’s dismissal of the “f***ing Welsh” for daring to have minds of their own.
Rhodri once asked rhetorically if a one-legged duck swam in circles. Well, yes, it does, and so does one with a leg tied to its body.
Prepare for a confused debate about the Government of Wales Bill and ask yourself if this was the way to sell devolution.
I won’t hear you, mind. I’ll be in the launderette.

Clear Red Water

Rhondda MP Chris Bryant has criticised Rhodri Morgan’s policy of keeping a line of “clear red water” between Westminster New Labour and the Welsh Assembly Government.
Bryant, a dedicated Blairite, argues that Morgan should adopt more of the “choice” agenda in health and education favoured for England by the Prime Minister.
In a pamphlet for think-tank the Smith Institute published today, Mr Bryant argues that some Assembly Government policies, such as free prescriptions, the avoidance of tuition fees for Welsh-domiciled students and the rejection of PFI to increase NHS capacity, betray an ideology that “could be dangerously naïve”.
A quick look at – the website which collects information on how MPs vote and the opinions expressed in their speeches – reveals the ideologies behind Bryant’s thinking for those who don’t know.
He was “very strongly” for foundation hospitals, the Iraq War and ID cards.
He was “quite strongly” for student top-up fees and Labour’s anti-terrorism laws.
Bryant’s loyalties are clearly to Blair. Perhaps he should take into account what devolution means and let the Welsh Assembly Government use the meagre powers it has been allowed.
And let AMs do the criticising when they wish.


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