Monday, October 23, 2006

What does PFI really mean? We are led to believe it means “Private Finance Initiative” but I have a suspicion it really means “Please Fiddle Indiscriminately”.
But then, you have to bear in mind I am just a grumpy old cynic so maybe I am wrong.
Before condemning me though, let’s have a look at some of the evidence.
I should also mention that PFI has a bastard brother named “PPP”.
I think it is supposed to mean “Public Private Partnership” but it probably has some other, more sinister meaning. “Pass the Port Please”?
I noticed in a BBC report today that Suffolk County Council are being asked to back plans to negotiate with private firm the Land Group over a possible Private Finance Initiative which would see the refurbishment of various fire stations across the county, along with the provision of two new stations.
I am sure the good people of Suffolk will be pleased to see improvements in their Fire & Rescue services but…
Oh dear! Here comes the cynic factor. Five of the proposed new fire stations will be for retained fire fighters. To you and me, these are part timers who carry on their normal way of life, jobs etc and who turn out when the alarm is raised. I am not sure of the ins and outs of the arguments over these but I get the feeling that this is a different version of the “Bobbies on the cheap” philosophy. I know retained fire fighters have been around since the dawn of the fire services but I know of one Sussex village that probably wishes the county would pay up for a full time fire service. I don’t remember the name of the village but local TV news programmes in the South of England recently showed a video of a thatched cottage blazing away while, in the foreground, there was a parked fire engine with the driver sitting in his cab watching the fire.
He was unable to do anything as his retained crew had not turned up. Meanwhile, the hapless owner of the cottage had to wait for a full time crew to arrive from the next town.
Still, full time vs retained fire fighters is another argument.
What bothers me is this PFI fiddle.
The Suffolk fire services example is just one of literally hundreds.
All over this land, we see examples of new hospitals, schools, roads etc being built and operated by private companies.
The government’s professional PFI cheerleaders will say this is the way to get new hospitals etc quickly and efficiently.
When it is pointed out to them that these projects are generally over-priced, shoddy and inefficient, they stick their collective fingers in their ears and go “Nah nah nah , can’t hear you!”
There are two things about this PFI scandal that bother me; first is the cost, efficiency and quality issue I already mentioned. This then leads me to the second; corruption.
If we accept that these PFI projects generally are as bad as I say, then surely one has to wonder why the government insists on sticking with them. Why do politicians persist in writing lucrative contracts for companies that produce rubbish projects that are going to cost the end users a damn sight more than the traditional methods would?
Yes, yes, I have heard their arguments and protestations to the effect that these PFI schemes are good for us but I do not accept a single word of what they say. And because I can not accept their lame reasoning, I am forced to conclude that there must be more to this policy than meets the eye.
I have just been reading a very large spreadsheet, issued by the government, detailing current PPI/PFI “initiatives” and it is very depressing.
For example, Canterbury seems to have got a new secondary school. The contract covering this was for £3.5M and lasts for 10 years.
This means that the good citizens of Kent will be paying a private company an inflated sum of money each year for the next 10 years to provide a school over which they will have very little control. If the classroom wall is falling down and needs to be replaced immediately, the school will have no right to get a contractor in quickly to put it right. (Did you read that? NO RIGHT!). They will be forced to have the “owner” of the school (the PFI mob) organise a contractor of their choice who may or may not do a good job. Eventually. The cost of this work will be lumped onto the school’s ongoing bill. So, the school would get the work done when it suits the PFI contractor, at a cost which suits the PFI contractor and by a contractor which suits the PFI contractor at a cost which won’t stay still; it will be added to an account that attracts interest so they will pay for the work. And pay for the work. And pay for the work….
What about “Armed Forces Personnel Administration”?
This is another of these PFI/PPP scams. This sees the government paying some fat cats £254M for a contract that will run for 25 years. I have no idea, by the way, of whether these stated sums include the interest and are therefore a final figure or are a nominal amount used at the start of the project, to which interest is added frequently and regularly.
Whatever, why could the government not give the Armed Forces £254M and tell them to get their personnel administration sorted out? Hang on, the United Kingdom has had “Armed Forces” in one form or another for getting on for one thousand years; how the hell have they managed to get along for all this time without fat cat companies coming along saying, in the words of Harry Enfield, “You don’t want to do it that way”?
How about transport for the armed forces?
Currently, the RAF are operating 4 (yes, I have counted them!) C17 aircraft for long distance or heavy lift transport. These are the aircraft you used to see (until it became too embarrassing for the government) bringing home British corpses from Iraq or Afghanistan. When they are not being used as flying hearses, they transport troops and equipment to far off places.
Note, I said the RAF were “operating” these aircraft. They don’t own them. They are leased from Boeing (and no doubt a pile of other sticky fingered suppliers).
Can you imagine where we would be now if the RAF had to lease Lancasters or hurricanes during WW2? Now the government is coming unstuck with these aircraft; they have exceeded the number of air miles originally contracted for. It’s a bit like car rentals; if your employer operates a car lease arrangement, there will be a fixed life of, for example, 4 years or 100,000 miles. If you exceed the 100,000 miles during the life of the lease, there will be a hefty penalty to be paid for those extra miles.
And the C17 aircraft deals are into this territory now!
Who remembers the good old RFA? (Royal Fleet Auxiliary). This organisation ran a fleet of ships for and on behalf of the Ministry of Defence. Although manned by civilian crews, they worked exclusively for the MoD, getting supplies etc to troops, ships and aircraft all over the world.
They also carried troops into battle when needed; remember the Sir Galahad?
Well, a couple of years ago, the government had a better idea. Some of the older vessels were getting rather expensive to maintain and replacements were going to be needed.
So, being clever, they put together a scheme to have a mini-fleet of 6 ships built to replace some of the older ships. Being really clever, they also decided these ships would not actually belong to them or the RFA. They would be owned and operated by Foreland Shipping. When the MoD need them, they would be free to ply their trade wherever and whenever they felt like it.
Picture the scene:
“Hello, Foreland chappies. B. Liar here. I was wondering if we can use our ships for a few weeks.
Oh! I see. They are in Australia at the moment eh?
Well, OK, have a chat with your scheduling chaps and let me know when they can see a slot for us to use them.
Well, now that you ask, we will need them to support an invasion of England from Scotland, just to complete the take over and Gordon had hoped to achieve this some time this month.”
Staying with defence related projects, I see there are something like 11 “projects” being undertaken for the MoD.
These are for either Voice and Data systems of IT projects. They have a total value of £1.8 Billion (of which £1.5 Billion is for Skynet 5 whatever that is).
Projects include:
Royal Navy; Fleet VLF voice and data communications. The RN already has VLF communications, as does any other navy that operates submarines. £58M
Army; Defence Intelligence Information System. £5M
RAF; Guaranteed Power Supply at RAF Fylingdales. £8M.
Look at that! They want to spend only £5M on defence intelligence which would presumably be useful to us as a nation and at the same time they allocate £8M to guarantee power supplies for an American radar and electronic eavesdropping facility!
Does anyone know what “TAFMIS” is? Whatever it is, it is getting £41M worth of software.
Most of these projects could have been handled by existing establishments such as the Royal Signals and Radar Research Establishment and the equivalent in the Royal Navy and RAF.
The projects would benefit from having people who understand the military needs working on the project which would go a long way toward ensuring the finished product would work in the way the military expect it to work. Similarly, the military would benefit to the extent that their uniformed personnel would be involved and would be able to fix things in places such as on the front line in Iraq or Afghanistan. Rest assured, the “whiz kids” of the typical latte drinking sort that hang around software houses, talking in multi-syllabic words which generally boil down to whether or not something is “cool”, will not want to go to Helmand province in a hurry.
How about the NHS?
Government keeps telling us they are spending more and more on the NHS every year.
Maybe. But they are not spending that money with the NHS. They are spending it with their PFI mates who, in turn, exact a toll from the Health Authorities, otherwise known as NHS Trusts. Each year, these NHS Trusts are billed for the cost of their new hospital, with interest at greatly enhanced rates. This results in a net loss from their overall operating budgets and this loss could have gone toward providing nursing care, medical equipment etc.
Instead, it is going to line the pockets of God knows who. Foreigners probably.
So, the NHS Trusts suffer from a severe case of “what the Lord giveth, the Lord shall also take away”. Or, as David Nixon might have said “Now you see it, now you don’t”.
The bottom line is that the government, instead of borrowing at favourable rates to finance projects the traditional way, allow private organisations to borrow money at inflated rates to finance a project and then to pass on the huge additional cost burden to the supposed beneficiaries.
Well, if this policy means someone goes without proper cancer care in order to stuff the fat wallets of some overpaid company director, it stinks!
If it means a soldier in Afghanistan is not getting the weapons and support that he needs in order to ensure the safety of the overpaid company director, then the policy is beneath contempt!
If the policy means some poor kid in a blighted inner city area has to sit in a draughty classroom because the overpaid company director would rather appease his share holders than spend the money on the school, then a lot of people in public life should be not only ashamed of themselves but gaoled! (Oh, I seem to have overlooked the fact that we will presumably need a PFI scam to proved the gaol in the first place).
Military wards in NHS hospitals

Once again, British politicians are racing to see who can make the most stupid remarks.
Tony Blair, apparently writing in the News of the World, says that troops will be treated in a "military managed" ward at Birmingham's Selly Oak hospital.
OK so far, with some reservations.
He then goes on to say that he is ruling out reopening military hospitals because they cannot "match NHS specialised care and treatment".
The stupid factor rises to umpteen immediately.
Hello, Mr Blair; since when did NHS hospitals specialise in the treatment of the kind of injuries troops are likely to suffer on the battlefield?
Still, dear old Tony shouldn't feel too embarrassed, the Tory shadow defence secretary, Liam Fox, chipped in with a comment about it being a "disgrace" that wounded soldiers were being treated alongside civilian patients.
So, the stupid factor applies equally across party lines then.
I know they are both talking out of their respective rectums because I was once a patient in a military hospital (Catterick Garrison) and have had first hand experience of how military hospitals operated,
The first thing I have to say about them is that they were excellent in their treatment of both military and non-military patients.
Of course, the military doctors and staff had the requisite grounding etc in the treatment of wounds etc.
They were also bloody good at dealing with other common or garden ailments too.
Just ask the locals from the area around Catterick who were also treated at that hospital.
My stay in Catterick Military Hospital was thankfully for nothing more than a tonsillectomy but, due to my age, I was obliged to spend 3 days in the intensive care ward. Although this was almost 40 years ago, I still remember that the patient in the next bed to me was a young civilian girl, next to her was a young civilian school boy of about 10 years of age. In the beds opposite were people who were in more a serious condition than we three, mostly suffering serious coronary problems and virtually being kept alive by machines.
None of these patients were military.
When I was moved to a general ward, the mix there was probably about 60% military and 40% civilian patients. (This was probably due to the high incidence of heamorrhoids in the Army!)
I visited Catterick again last year for the first time since leaving the Army.
At the site of the miltary hospital, what did I find?
Come on, have a guess....
Yep! A housing estate!
Wasn't it Harold McMillan who once said something about selling off the family silver?

Keeping military (and when I say "military" I mean the likes of the Navy & RAF hospitals as well as Army) hospitals open and operating the way they did was perhaps too much of a sensible option for some of our attention seeking politicians.
Under the old Tory regimes, it was seen to be a good idea to cut expenditure wherever possible, regardless of how service were affected. After all, this meant more money could be slashed off the tax bill which would in turn lead to more votes which would perpetuate the well paid reign of the incumbents in Westminster.
When New Tory came to power in 1997, the Tony B. Liar saw no reason to change this policy and he bullied his acolytes into understanding that, if they wanted to pursue old fashioned Labour Party policies, they were not going to get any of the juicy cash rich jobs that may be on offer. New Tory (I agree, they have been operating under the Nom de Guerre of "New Labour" but don't let that fool anyone!) policies would follow roughly along the same lines as Old Tory but with a bit more vigour.
Old Tory or New Tory, it made no difference.
Think about their logic for a moment; if they cut military hospitals out of the equation, they not only save a few quid to put toward their "We Cut Taxes" fund but they also get an opportunity to grease their mates' palms with the new wonder drug, PFI (or PPI if you like, it's the same thing).
Brilliant idea chaps! Instead of giving the military the money to take care of themselves, let's give it to our mates in their comfy, mahogany lined boardrooms. Then, explain to the gullibles (public to me and thee) how this is really saving billions of pounds and the military ought to shut up whining.
How stupid do they think we are?
When the military ran their own medical services, they had to operate within fixed budgets. They had to get the maximum value out of the assets they had in hand. At least they didn't have to worry about greedy shareholders crying "More, more!".
Under PFI, NHS hospitals will be built with only the operating company's profits in mind. When the greedy shareholders cry "More, more!", they can be staisfied by the company going to the government and demanding more money and "Oh, by the way, we will have to shrink the capacity, facilities, operating budgets or whatever to ensure a good return to our investors".
Now, having read what I have just written, I understand now; it isn't B. Liar and his mate Fox who are stupid, it is me.
They can see that to do what I thought would be the sensible thing with military hospitals, they would risk alienating their well heeled C.E.O. mates.
When the choice is between threatening the continuation of a multi-million pound salary and the health and welfare of a £150 week squaddy, who may have been severely injured or crippled while defending the comfortable existence of these chief executives, well, the answer is obvious isn't it?
"Bugger the squaddy! More champagne anybody?"