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Archive for November 17, 2011

Steve Bell on Virgin’s takeover of Northern Rock – cartoon.

Virgin Money has agreed to buy the ‘good’ part of Northern Rock from the Treasury.

George Osborne was criticised for locking the taxpayer into a loss of at least £400m on Northern Rock after he agreed the sale of the bank to Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin empire for £750m.

Steve Bell cartoon

Categories: Cartoons

Steve Bell’s “IF” – ‘Hi ho! Hi ho! It’s down the abyss we go!’

Steve Bell's If …

Steve Bell's If… 15/11/2011

Steve Bell's If… 16.11.2011

Steve Bell's If… 17.11.2011

 

Categories: Cartoons

MoD spent £600m on consultants.

Cash meant for equipment was used to pay outside specialists in breach of government guidelines on expenditure – internal report.

The Ministry of Defence has spent almost £600m from the military‘s equipment budget to hire hundreds of outside specialists and consultants, routinely breaching government guidelines controlling this type of expenditure.

An internal audit of the defence contracts signed in the last two years highlighted numerous flaws and warned that control of the MoD purse appeared to be “poorly developed or non-existent”.

The report also stated that defence officials made little or no effort to ensure that contracts provided value for money. Despite the numerous concerns raised in the report, a defence minister said nothing was wrong.

The scale of the spending, and the apparent lack of control, come at a time when the department has been making thousands of civilian and military personnel redundant to cut spiralling costs.

The MoD confirmed the figures and said new, stricter rules had now been introduced.

The disclosures have angered union leaders, who argue that the MoD is paying the price for losing too many in-house specialists, forcing it to rely on hiring expensive help from the private sector.

Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show the MoD spent £564m in the last two years buying in “technical support” for teams running the department’s biggest engineering and procurement projects. In 2006, the MoD spent £6m.

The sums have been rising dramatically year on year in part because of a new regime introduced by Labour in April 2009, which allowed senior defence officials to hire specialist, short-term help for “niche” tasks – without needing authorisation from a minister. In the first year of the new regime, spending jumped by £130m to £297m. Spending this year will reach £267m.

In total, 380 firms are now being paid to give the MoD technical support and consultancy.

Amid concern from union leaders that spending was running out of control, the MoD asked a senior civil servant to conduct a review of the programme – called Framework Agreement for Technical Support (FATs).

The final report was circulated earlier this month. It concluded it had “no assurance” that guidelines were being followed.

The executive summary said:

• There were “significant weaknesses” in the cases submitted for money.

• There were “weaknesses in the robustness of scrutiny” by those in charge of the budget.

• Contract extensions were approved when they probably should have been rejected.

• In 75% of cases looked at, contracts were awarded without any kind of competition, meaning that the “ability to demonstrate value for money was compromised”.

• Not enough effort was put in to ensure the jobs could have been done “in-house”.

Despite concerns within the department, two weeks after the interim report was published, the defence minister Andrew Robathan told union leaders in a letter: “I am … content that appropriate safeguards are in place.”

Steve Jary, national secretary of Prospect, a union representing MoD civil servants, said his members had first raised concerns about FATs months ago, and said the MoD had to publish more details of the spending.

“We need to know what this money been spent on and at what cost to the equipment programme. We need to know how much of the £250m-plus spent on FATs has been spent wrongly, without proper scrutiny and without ministerial approval.”

The union believes the increase in spending on contractors is a direct result of cuts over the last few years.

“Thousands of engineering and scientific jobs have gone in pursuit of arbitrary headcount reductions. Their work now has to be contracted out, and FATs has been a way to do this while hiding the extra costs,” Prospect argued.

“A saving on FATs of just a third – £100m – equates to 5,000 jobs.”

Jim Murphy, the shadow defence secretary, said he was “concerned” about the revelations.

But one Whitehall source blamed Labour for introducing a programme that was too lax. “This looks like another case of waste and profligacy under Labour. Ministers in the last government clearly had no control on what the MoD was spending its money on.”

The MoD said that the a new, stricter regime had been adopted because of the internal report.

“The framework ensures that equipment programmes can access a range of technical support services such as independent airworthiness certification to ensure our military aircraft meet the very highest safety standards, something civil servants cannot provide.

“This summer the government instigated an internal audit to assess the procurement of this technical assistance. As a result of the findings of that report we are tightening the approvals process to ensure proper scrutiny of spending under this framework.”

The MoD was unable to say whether Robothan knew about the internal audit when he sent the letter.

The ministry has a separate budget for management consultants. It spent £20m on them last year, and £71m the year before.

Unions want it to disclose whether any money from the equipment budget has been spent on management consultants too – which would be another clear breach of government guidelines.

Categories: News of the moment

Steve Bell on Mervyn King – cartoon.

Bank of England cuts growth forecasts and makes grim predictions of a weak recovery.

Steve Bell cartoon

Categories: Cartoons

If you lived in Iran, wouldn’t you want the nuclear bomb?

The best way for the US to stop Iran developing nuclear weapons is to dial down the rhetoric and adopt some diplomacy.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits nuclear facility

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visiting the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility.
Photograph: Ho New/Reuters

Imagine, for a moment, that you are an Iranian mullah. Sitting crosslegged on your Persian rug in Tehran, sipping a cup of chai, you glance up at the map of the Middle East on the wall. It is a disturbing image: your country, the Islamic Republic of Iran, is surrounded on all sides by virulent enemies and regional rivals, both nuclear and non-nuclear.

On your eastern border, the United States has 100,000 troops serving in Afghanistan. On your western border, the US has been occupying Iraq since 2003 and plans to retain a small force of military contractors and CIA operatives even after its official withdrawal next month. Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation, is to the south-east; Turkey, America’s Nato ally, to the north-west; Turkmenistan, which has acted as a refuelling base for US military transport planes since 2002, to the north-east. To the south, across the Persian Gulf, you see a cluster of US client states: Bahrain, home to the US Fifth Fleet; Qatar, host to a forward headquarters of US Central Command; Saudi Arabia, whose king has exhorted America to “attack Iran” and “cut off the head of the snake“.

Then, of course, less than a thousand miles to the west, there is Israel, your mortal enemy, in possession of over a hundred nuclear warheads and with a history of pre-emptive aggression against its opponents.

The map makes it clear: Iran is, literally, encircled by the United States and its allies.

If that wasn’t worrying enough, your country seems to be under (covert) attack. Several nuclear scientists have been mysteriously assassinated and, late last year, a sophisticated computer virus succeeded in shutting down roughly a fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. Only last weekend, the “pioneer” of the Islamic Republic’s missile programme, Major General Hassan Moghaddam, was killed – with 16 others – in a huge explosion at a Revolutionary Guards base 25 miles outside Tehran. You go online to discover western journalists reporting that the Mossad is believed to have been behind the blast.

And then you pause to remind yourself of the fundamental geopolitical lesson that you and your countrymen learned over the last decade: the US and its allies opted for war with non-nuclear Iraq, but diplomacy with nuclear-armed North Korea.

If you were our mullah in Tehran, wouldn’t you want Iran to have the bomb – or at the very minimum, “nuclear latency” (that is, the capability and technology to quickly build a nuclear weapon if threatened with attack)?

Let’s be clear: there is still no concrete evidence Iran is building a bomb. The latest report from the IAEA, despite its much discussed reference to “possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme”, also admits that its inspectors continue “to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material at [Iran’s] nuclear facilities”. The leaders of the Islamic Republic – from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei to bombastic President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – maintain their goal is only to develop a civilian nuclear programme, not atomic bombs.

Nonetheless, wouldn’t it be rational for Iran – geographically encircled, politically isolated, feeling threatened – to want its own arsenal of nukes, for defensive and deterrent purposes? The US government’s Nuclear Posture Review admits such weapons play an “essential role in deterring potential adversaries” and maintaining “strategic stability” with other nuclear powers. In 2006, the UK’s Ministry of Defence claimed our own strategic nuclear deterrent was designed to “deter and prevent nuclear blackmail and acts of aggression against our vital interests that cannot be countered by other means”.

Apparently, what is sauce for the Anglo-American goose is not sauce for the Iranian gander. Empathy is in short supply. As leading US nuclear policy analyst George Perkovich has observed: “The US government never has publicly and objectively assessed Iranian leaders’ motivations for seeking nuclear weapons and what the US and others could do to remove those motivations.” Instead, the Islamic Republic is dismissed as irrational and megalomaniacal.

But it isn’t just Iran’s leaders who are unwilling to back down on the nuclear issue. On Tuesday, around 1,000 Iranian students formed a human chain around the uranium conversion facility in Isfahan, chanting “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”. Their protest may have been organised by the authorities but even the leaders and members of the opposition Green Movement tend to support Iran’s uranium enrichment programme. According to a 2010 University of Maryland survey, 55% of Iranians back their country’s pursuit of nuclear power and, remarkably, 38% support the building of a nuclear bomb.

So what is to be done? Sanctions haven’t worked and won’t work. Iranians refuse to compromise on what they believe to be their “inalienable” right to nuclear power under the Non-proliferation treaty. Military action, as the US defence secretary Leon Panetta admitted last week, could have “unintended consequences”, including a backlash against “US forces in the region”. The threat of attack will only harden the resolve for a nuclear deterrent; belligerence breeds belligerence.

The simple fact is there is no alternative to diplomacy, no matter how truculent or paranoid the leaders of Iran might seem to western eyes. If a nuclear-armed Iran is to be avoided, US politicians have to dial down their threatening rhetoric and tackle the very real and rational perception, on the streets of Tehran and Isfahan, of America and Israel as military threats to the Islamic Republic. Iranians are fearful, nervous, defensive – and, as the Middle East map shows, perhaps with good reason. As the old adage goes, just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

Categories: News of the moment
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