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 theyworkforyou.com – 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.