Saturday, December 20, 2008

Disgraceful Sneaky Aldermaston Sell-Off

Arrogant government ministers have put two fingers up to parliament, slipping out the sneaky fire sale of the UK's nuclear bomb factory as a crafty way of boosting treasury coffers and bypassing MPs. 

Opposition MPs are furious over the secret sale which makes a mockery of any claim the UK has an 'independent' nuclear deterrent.

The government is tight-lipped over how much it got for its stake in the Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), as news of the sale slipped out just before parliament broke up for the long Christmas hols.

The sale to a US firm was announced in a single one-paragraph statement posted here on the firm's website:

"BNFL is delighted to confirm that it has today agreed the sale of its one third shareholding in AWE Management Limited to the Jacobs Engineering Group".

This underhand behaviour from the government is a disgrace. The fact that something of such strategic importance could happen without a by-your-leave to parliament beggars belief. 

Opposition MPs are furious, accusing the government of burying the sale. And there's anger the UK would no longer control the site where controversial Trident nuclear warheads are produced, maintained and due to be replaced.

The sale means we no longer have any stake in the production of our own Trident nuclear warheads. The other two thirds of AWE were already in private hands, split between American defence giant, Lockheed Martin and the UK firm, Serco.

There are concerns too that this was a knock-down sale at below the market price and is the thin end of the wedge, as the government steams ahead with sell-off sales to claw-back some cash in the face of a recession borrowing binge.

Other state assets ear-marked for quickie sales include Ordnance Survey, Met Office  and Forestry Commission. 

As with the planned part-privatisation of Royal Mail, these sales have the paw prints of deputy prime minister, Mandleson, all over them.

And, like the sale of Royal Mail, the whole issue of back-door privatisation and indeed the hugely expensive and morally corrupt Trident missile programme are dear to the hearts of the Orange Party and many backbench Labour MPs and trade unions.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Brown's Iraq Gibberish Dupes Public

Brown came up with more gibberish today as he finally got round to telling parliament what he had already announced on his carefully staged whistle-stop tour of Iraq to capture the headlines. Much of the media toed the Downing Street line with troop withdrawals spun as Brown's decision. The Orange Party doubts the public are so gullible.

Brown threw out Tory and LibDem calls for an immediate Iraq inquiry as he simply repeated the timetable for withdrawal to MPs, now old news as Brown has already declared everything but 'mission accomplished' to the BBC. 

Does the government really believe we are a bunch of fools to be taken in by all the lies, spin and deceit? 

The troop withdrawal has been spun as a decision of Brown's own making, when it is nothing of the sort. 

The Orange Party has repeatedly pointed out that the UN mandate for foreign troop occupation in Iraq expires at the end of this month. The withdrawal timetable is being fixed by Washington and Baghdad. 

It was the Iraqi council of ministers who only agreed a new resolution on Tuesday to allow UK operational troops to stay until the end of July.

To say a few hundred troops will remain in Iraq for "training and mentoring duties" is deceitful. Operational forces will be stationed at and around the historical base in southern Iraq to guard the Gulf oil supply routes. 

The BBC was alone in leading with Brown's troop announcement on yesterday's evening news. Both ITV and C4 news saw through the sham and rightly chose the Woolies closure tied in with unemployment. 

Not being straight with the public over Iraq is clearly an inherited genetic defect for Brown and his New Labour heirs to Blair. 

Any reputation Brown had as another pretty straight sort of guy was thrown out of the window last year, with an act of blatant political opportunism, popping up in Basra to announce a troop reduction that never was, followed by a snap election that never was, all to wrong-foot the Tories. 

Yesterday and today to MPs, Brown repeated the deceit that troop withdrawal was possible because of the "success of the UK's mission in improving security to Iraq, training Iraqi troops and police, reducing violence around Basra and helping reconstruction - tasks which would be completed by the end of May. People can be proud that Iraq is a far better place than it was five years ago."

Those words will come back to haunt him. And paying tribute to the 178 troop deaths is an insult to the huge numbers of troops wounded and the hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties.

Holed up at a heavily defended base at Basra airport forced to watch on while US forces cleared up the mess is hardly a triumph. But the mission in Iraq must end in triumph, regardless of the truth. So we have to sit back and suffer more spin. 

The Iraq war was Blair's criminal legacy. But Brown was there and helped rubber-stamp that illegal and immoral war. He should share that blame and responsibility. 

Brown has repeatedly used the get-out clause, citing that the time for an inquiry will come after the end of 'active military operations'. But even then any remit would be tightly drawn up by the government. 

Parliament approved the war based on the lie of WMDs, not regime change. No UK parliament would have given approval to invade another sovereign state, simply to topple a dictator. 

The illegality of the war would be the only question for an inquiry to address but that would re-open a whole can of worms and put into sharp focus the bloody, mad hopeless war in Afghanistan, now escalating on Brown's watch as he too develops Blair's 'taste for war'. 


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Brown Spins Over Iraq To Duck The Flak

When the going gets tough, the tough get going - in Brown's case to Iraq for more photo-ops for the Downing Street Christmas album, a chance to grab a few headlines and escape some hard questions in the final commons punch-up before the hols.

In a parting shot and final insult to parliament, the saviour of the world chose to announce troop withdrawals on another whistle-stop tour of Baghdad and Basra. 

The announcement has been widely expected and predicted in the run up to the general election. For months the Orange Party has been pointing out that the UN mandate for foreign occupation ends in a few weeks time and the actual announcement left for political advantage. 

But it is a major announcement of the final pull-out nonetheless and that should have been made to parliament. 

So what else is happening today that made that quick trip to Iraq so important? 

Oh yes, harsh questions in the commons at PMQs. Unemployment close to 2 million and rising - the nightmare for this government hanging over its head, now at their highest since New Labour took over in 1997.

Many face a bleak Christmas as the recession (or BBC downturn) starts to bite. The TUC, is warning today that half a million people are likely to spend their second Christmas in a row on the dole because of a rise in long-term unemployment.

The sharp rise is much more than expected and that's using the government's own preferred method of fiddling the figures.

Unemployment is set to rise to over 3 million next year and into 2010 and there's no light at the end of the tunnel, according to a member of the Bank of England's monetary policy committee, reported today by the Guardian.

So just what is the government doing about it? Planning to sell-off Royal Mail and put thousands more jobs at risk. 

Mandleson's plans for a sell-off dressed up as 'part-privatisation' will not go away especially among backbench Labour MPs, furious at the betrayal of a central plank of Labour Party policy and manifesto commitment. 

No matter how Mandy the Mailman tried to spin it, this is a backdoor sell-off with disastrous consequences for jobs. 

At the moment the outrage is coming from backbench Labour MPs. Soon it will filter up to some pay-roll MPs in lowly government positions and then to the cabinet, where former postie, Alan Johnson, won't get away with just a bemused smile. 

Questions would be asked in the House - if only Brown could be bothered to turn up. 

11am UPDATE: Labour MP Jim McGovern has resigned from the government in protest at Mandelson's Royal Mail part-privatisation plans. McGovern, PPS to business minister Pat McFadden, whose department would overseeing the changes said: "In his statement Pat McFadden said he welcomed an expression of interest from the Dutch postal company TNT, for me it simply beggars belief that we would employ the services of a company from abroad to tell the Royal Mail in this country where they are going wrong."


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Sats Whitewash Lets Balls Off Hook

Ministers have been let off the hook over the Sats shambles with a widely-leaked whitewash which laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of the government quangos and contractor. Nowhere did the report answer a simple question - what was Ed Balls doing while the Sats fiasco was falling around his ears? 

As expected and highlighted by the Orange Party here, the Sutherland report, out today, blamed the exam watchdog QCA and private contractor ETS Europe, under a tight remit drawn up by the school's secretary, Ed Balls, craftily crafted to get him off the hook. 

As Balls apologised to schools and families for "all their inconvenience, stress and frustration", questions still need to be asked over how on earth ministers could sit back and let this all happen, when teachers and markers were shouting from the rooftops that something was amiss. 

The 178 page Sutherland report is full of strong criticism of government quangos. 

The QCA watchdog "failed its remit". Pupils, parents, schools and markers were "badly let down". The impact had been "massive". There had been a culture within the QCA and its National Assessment Agency (NAA) that "it'll be all right on the night". It has not delivered and there have been "massive failures."

And the report blames ETS Europe and its "insufficient" capacity to deliver the tests with a "lack of comprehensive planning and testing" of the systems used for the tests.

Not a word about the government. Setting up government quangos and then watching them implode at arms length is irresponsible. But ministers have found a neat device to hide behind, saying they know nothing and it's all down to their own complacent quangos. 

Teachers were telling the secretary of state there were problems long before the marking stage. 

The Tories want answers: Ken Boston has pointed out that ministers were closely involved at every stage of the process. They cannot escape their role in the fiasco by claiming, as Ed Balls has done, that they were at 'arms length' from this disaster."

The LibDems also called for ministers to accept responsibility: "Ministers themselves should also accept some blame for their complacent attitude to the delivery of the tests. It is clear that they were asleep at the wheel."

But Downing Street spinners have managed to work their warped magic and control the fall out from the summer Sats fiasco, shifting the blame away from the school's secretary. 

Most ministers are elected MPs and that makes them both accountable and responsible to parliament and the electorate. 

Political voices from both ends of the spectrum speak with one voice but in vain if they expect Brown's trusty lieutenant to hold up his hands over this latest cock-up. As with the Baby P scandal, saying sorry isn't good enough.

6pm UPDATE: Balls has said he's sorry again, telling the commons he blames ETS and QCA and, er, that's it. 


Wasteful Govt Computer Says Nein

Government waste and crap computer systems reached a new low today with revelations that a transport department 'efficiency drive' will end up costing taxpayers £81m. The commons watchdog has branded it "stupendously incompetent". And to make matters worse - the damn computer speaks German. 

Public accounts committee (PAC) chairman, Edward Leigh, said it was one of the worst cases of project management he had seen.

The Swansea department of transport payroll and admin centre was originally down to cost £55m leading to £112m savings.

But the programme will now cost £121m and save £40m, meaning taxpayers will have to make up the difference, as £81m is poured down the drain.

MPs were told the new computer system had even issued messages in German.

PAC seems to be running out of words to describe government IT scandals but they threw the dictionary at this cock-up. The project had been "rushed through", deadliness "overly optimistic" and the result was "lamentable". 

The computer system was "inadequately procured and tested, resulting in an unstable set-up when it was switched on." 

Of course no-one has been disciplined yet alone fired over the scandal. And no government minister has crawled out of the woodwork to issue even the slightest apology, explanation or take any of the blame. 

Even that is small fry compared with the NHS's multi-billion pound Connecting for Health (CfH) computer system. The biggest non-military IT computer project in the world, is set to become the biggest IT disaster in the world, costing a staggering £12.7 billion and four years behind schedule. When will they ever learn?


Monday, December 15, 2008

Blunder Forces Pensions Slash

Thousands of public sector pensioners, including retired NHS staff and ex-soldiers, face a bleak New Year as the government slashes  decades of over-payments, following a blunder by the government paymaster agency, Xafinity.

The cabinet office is due to make a statement tomorrow after the disaster facing pensioners was revealed by LibDem treasury spokesman, Vince Cable.

The agency has been paying the public sector pensioners too much for years but Chancellor Alistair Darling, said the claw-back would not be retrospective and, instead, it will be taken from future payments.

Cable said he had been told to keep quiet until pensioners could be notified. The extent of the sums involved is not clear but is reported to run into tens of millions of pounds.

Cable said he had been told Xafinity Paymaster, which pays out public sector pensions, had been making "excessive" payments. He had been alerted to the problem 10 days ago but had been asked by the head of the civil service not to publicise it for a few days to give the government time to notify pensioners.

The BBC reports, Cable asked Darling in the commons how many people were involved, how much money was involved and what steps would be taken to retrieve the overpayments, "which I understand in some cases go back decades and are potentially enormous".

Xafinity Paymaster is one of the largest providers of outsourced financial services in the UK. 

According to its website, the company manages the accounts, administration, payroll and banking services for over 1,100 public sector customers and primary care trusts and various non-departmental public bodies.

Current clients include the treasury, the mineworkers pension scheme, NHS business services authority, the Police and the forces service personnel and veterans agency (SPVA).


Brown's Afghan Coat Looks Threadbare

More troops are to be sent to the killing fields of Afghanistan, as Brown embarks on a private war to win the hearts and minds of the public. Setting out to save the world from economic doom is one thing. Trying to convince sceptical voters he can save the world from 'terrorism' is quite another. While Downing Street pushes the Afghan line, Brown's Afghan coat is looking distinctly threadbare. 

What Downing Street and Brown fail to realise is that public and media support for our troops is not the same as support for a hugely expensive, bloody, mad and hopeless war, which no-one can understand. 

The sight of Brown grinning and posing for Christmas photographs with our boys and girls in Helmand was a sickening spectacle, as the prime minister was forced to think up an excuse for being there, while paying tribute to brave soldiers killed in action. 

Then the Orange Party warned, that by using the lame excuse of a 'war on terror', the government is spinning its way out of the Iraq frying-pan into the new Vietnam of the Afghanistan fire. And the public and many backbench Labour MPs can see through the sham. 

Sending more troops to the front-line is only the beginning as Brown obeys orders from Washington and sucks up to president-elect Obama, as part of a US surge against the so-called Tailban.

Bush had only a pair of shoes to duck, Blair can hide behind his faith and no drama Obama will say whatever he thinks the American public want to hear. But the 'saviour of the world' is now grovelling around for excuses to get the public on side and on message. 

The megalomania hold no bounds as Brown now seems to have taken change of everything and ordered preparations for more troops to be sent in time for the Afghan presidential election.

Using the argument of 'being at war there makes us safer here' didn't work in Iraq and won't work in Afghanistan. But, as in Vietnam, the turning point will come only when the body bag count reaches a due sense of outrage. 

Brown, as chancellor, took the country through a false economic boom on a lie, while prime minister Blair took the country to war on a lie. Brown had a taste for crafty accounting, Blair a taste for war. 

It seems the prime minister as master of the universe is setting out his stall out to save the world from everything and everybody. But try telling that to tribal Afghans and global Islamic terrorists. 

And try telling that to voters at this time of economic hardship, when any fool who has read a history book knows waging war in Afghanistan didn't work for the British Empire, didn't work for the Soviet Union and won't work for a country which wants something better than the awful legacy of another war.


Blame Balls For Sats Shambles

The government is trying to control the fall out from the summer Sats fiasco and shift the blame away from school's secretary, Ed Balls, who should shoulder responsibility for the shambles. 

With some crafty footwork and shifty spin, the children's secretary managed to wriggle out of any responsibility for the Baby P scandal. Now Brown's trusty lieutenant looks set to do it again.

The Sats shambles is just the latest in a whole series of government cock-ups over big IT projects awarded to their pals in the IT industry. It's costing the country billions of pounds and countless suffering to people. 

But ministers have found a neat little device to hide behind, saying they know nothing and it's all down to their own complacent quangos.

The carefully leaked outcome of the Sutherland inquiry has been quick to point the finger at US-based contractor ETS Europe and the head of the exams quango, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA).

Time and again the Orange Party has called into question the role of government ministers in this whole affair, pointing out that a government minister must have signed off the £156m five-year contract and with that responsibility comes accountability. 

That view is shared today by both the Tories and the LibDems.

Warning bells were sounded months before the government finally got round to scrapping the ETS contract and with it tests for 14 year olds. 

But the Sutherland inquiry can only examine what it was set up to examine. It was carefully framed to avoid any remit which would question why the contract was awarded in the first place to a US company with a poor track record and the government's failed testing policies.

Hundreds of thousands of pupils' test results were delayed, this year's league tables were postponed and half of the tests were scrapped.

The government must now face questions over its role in the debacle as they were repeatedly warned something was wrong. 

However much Balls and ministers try to wriggle out of it, the government used taxpayers cash to sign a multi-million-pound contract with a firm with such an appalling track record. Ministers have a duty to make sure that cash is spent wisely and efficiently.

Head teachers, teachers and markers had been warning of problems since the spring. MPs were told the tests had become a "shambles" long before the results date in July.

Balls is not the only one who should shoulder responsibility. There are other legacy ministers involved in the fiasco and the inquiry needed to examine the role of all of them, including the chairman of the QCA and head of the QCA’s testing arm, the National Assessment Agency.

But so far QCA chief, Ken Boston, is the only head to roll in this appalling affair.

Ministers must bear direct responsibility for signing up with a firm that let down children and teachers so badly. 

The sheer arrogance of a government minister, who can hide behind weak excuses while the fiasco unfolded, leaving parents and youngsters frantic with worry, is quite beyond belief.

These get-out clauses used by ministers for big IT projects are a scandal. Ministers are accountable and responsible. And if they don't like that, or they preside over a cock-up, they should quit the job.


Taxpayers Bill For Royal Mail Sell-Off

Taxpayers look set to be saddled with Royal Mail's £7 billion pension burden for years to come with some crafty accounting, as the government plans a back door sell-off, putting thousands of jobs at risk. 

The struggling £22 billion pension fund is the stumbling block to the government's obsession with the privatisation of Royal Mail. 

That comes to a head this week with the publication of the year long Hooper report, now with business secretary Lord Mandleson, widely leaked to prepare the ground and  soften up the public. 

The report, claiming 'inefficiencies' with a remedy of 'radical surgery', will give the government and Mandelson just the excuse they need for a partial sell-off, once the stumbling block of the massive pension debt is removed with a neat accounting trick. 

With that £7 billion pension black-hole dumped on the taxpayer, the government can press ahead with a sell-off dressed up as a 'partnership' with private operators and neatly side step any manifesto commitment that this vital public service will not be privatised, making a mockery of a 'universal public service'.

Outraged postal workers are already threatening strike action in the run up to Christmas over depot closures and changed working practices, inflamed by recent reports of posties made to walk faster on their rounds while callous bosses enjoy obscene salaries and bonuses. 

Time and again the myth of privatisation as a cure all for economic ills carried out with so much glee by the so-called 'Labour' government has been exposed as a miserable failure. 

The Hooper report will be published with the usual fanfare of government spin but no matter how it is dressed up, this will lead to switching the huge pension asset and liability to taxpayers who will get nothing in return, as a vital and strategic public service is prepared to be sold off. 

What is needed is investment not a half-baked sell-off. If pushed through, the casualties will be the hard working and dedicated postal workers, a raft of large-scale job losses and the loss of a 'Royal' service we have come to rely on over the years. 

But with a general election coming up and trade union cash vital, Mandelson may be forced to rethink his private plans.