Tag Archives: government

England’s green and privatised land

New Forest Autumn

Image by danny george via Flickr

The Government is currently consulting over proposals to sell off a large proportion of our nationally-owned forests. As far as I can tell the plans are ill-defined, ideologically-driven and risk casting a scar upon the landscape of this land forever. In the consultation document Caroline Spelman describes them as ‘treasured woodlands’, but if thats so, why flog them?

Historically Britain – or at least England – has been one of the most heavily forested countries in Europe. Forests and trees are a strong central thread in British history – look at Robin Hood and his merry men hiding out in Sherwood Forest for starters. For hundreds of years the Forests sustained Royal Hunting, with plenty of lodges and a supportive infrastructure. And then we have the crucial role that Royal Forests played in supplying timber for the burgeoning Royal Navy. Not for nothing is the Royal Navy’s march entitled ‘Heart of Oak‘.

The Government, through the Forestry Commission, currently looks after 18% of Britain’s woodland – 258,000 hectares. The other 82% is privately owned (how much of it is on Tory MP’s and Peers estates, one wonders?). Near me there are a couple of ancient Forests – the Forest of Bere and the New Forest. The Forest of Bere was for hundreds of years an ancient hunting reserve. And the New Forest is an enigma all of its own. There are so many ancient customs going on there, and its a real gem of this country that we should be so proud of and protect to the hilt. Particularly at a time when so many people, especially young people, dwell in inner cities and never get to see the countryside – we should be encouraging them to get out and walking in the mud of the Forests. Maybe in this sense communities could take over and run small forests – particularly those on the fringes of urban areas. But only wealthy, well-adjusted communities will have the time, funds and resources to do so.

I cannot understand what the Government hopes to achieve, aside from saving a few quid. Actually, I’ve answered my own question there. Surely some things should be sacred beyond mere penny-pinching? I am in no way convinced about the safeguards in place to prevent private companies – in all likelihood foreign – exploiting and asset stripping the very fabric of our land. We were told before the privatisation of public transport that it would lead to better services and investment, and to be quite frank that was bollocks. The countryside is not an amenity, it IS part of the country. Are we to see ‘the [insert name of faceless company] New Forest’, complete with huge advertising hoardings, blocking access or charging for the right to visit, or exploiting the hell out of the Forest’s resources? We might not, but once control is handed over, what is there to stop it? The consultation talks about ‘alternative models of ownership’, but past experience shows us that this is window dressing for getting something off the balance sheet, and to hell with the consequences, and if someone can profit from it as well, even better.

Is anything about this country sacred? If we are being consulted about selling off our trees, heaths, fields and pastures, had we might as well consult about privatising the oxygen supply as well. For me this goes beyond politics, it’s just plain wrong. Yet only the other day a majority of MP’s in the House of Commons – aided by a large number of Tory MP’s who have rural constituencies and a vacancy in brain cells – actually backed the Government’s plan. Evidence, if any is needed, that MP’s will just go along with whatever their political masters tell them to vote for.

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30 year rule for historic records reduced to 20 years

I took this photograph myself when I went on a...

The National Archives in Kew (Image via Wikipedia)

The Ministry of Justice has announced that the current 30-year rule for historic official documents is to be reduced to 20 years.

Currently, official Government documents handed to the National Archives are closed for 30 years after they were produced. This means, for example, that documents relating to the Falklands War in 1982 are expected to become available in 2012. The exception, of course, is material that is judged to be too sensitive on national security grounds.

This is welcome news for historians, as it means that more historic records will be available for research much more quickly. According to the announcement on the ministry’s website, however, the process may take a while:

“To amend the Public Records Act to reduce the 30-year rule so that historical records are generally made available at The National Archives and other places of deposit after 20 years; this will be transitioned over a 10 year period at a rate of two years’ worth of records being transferred per year, with a view to commencing the process in 2013″

This still means however that documents relating to a whole host of events in the 1980’s will become available up to 10 years earlier than anticipated – the Falklands War, Thatcher‘s disputes with the Unions, Northern Ireland and the IRA, and possibly even documents relating to football hooliganism, Thatcher’s downfall and the first Gulf War. It has also been argued that the move will enhance transparency in Government, as ministers will only have to wait 20 years for their actions to come under scrutiny, rather than the present cushion of three decades.

Oliver Morley, Acting Chief Executive of The National Archives, said: ‘We look forward to working with government to implement these changes and will play a pivotal role in smoothing the transition for the records bodies involved.’

The move comes following a review of the 30 year rule in 2008. The 30 year rule has been increasingly redundant, as the Freedom of Information Act has made it possible for members of the public to request the opening up of material well before its 30 year closure has elapsed. This is particularly relevant with harmless and non-sensitive material that will help historians and family history enthusiasts alike.

I have also often thought that the 100 year limit on the national census returns is also excessive – might 50 years not be more sensible? I long for the day we can all access the little-known ‘wartime census’.

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Government advisor resigns after recession remarks

Literally hours on from my previous post about class in British society and its effect on the recession, a Government advisor resigned after making inappopriate remarks about the current economic downturn.

Lord Young, a businessman, former Thatcher Government minister and Tory peer, echoed Harold Macmillan’s famous remarks from the 1950’s that Briton’s had ‘never had it so good’. He also referred to the recent downturn as a ‘so-called recession’. Amusingly, his wikipedia entry states that he has ‘not yet’ resigned from his position as Government enterprise advisor. We can only wait and hope.

Lord Young went on to say:

“So, you know, I have a feeling and a hope that when this goes through, people will wonder what all the fuss was about… Of course, there will be people who complain, but these are people who think they have a right for the state to support them.”

These kind of comments show just how removed some sections of society are from reality. The funny thing is, I can sense what Lord Young was trying to say, but he went completely the wrong way about it. They are insulting to people who are struggling, and even more so coming from somebody who quite clearly does not have to worry about where the next meal is coming from, or whether he is going to be laid off. It’s up there with Barbara Bush saying ‘this has worked out quite well for some people’ after Hurricane Katrina, or even Marie Antoinette’s ‘let them eat cake’.

What’s worse for me is that Cameron hired somebody like Young in the first place, it shows either a breathtaking lack of judgement, or it belies the fact that maybe deep down our Dave agrees with Young. It’s all very well for Young to say that he should have chosen his words better, but this is a smokescreen – these are the fundamental thoughts of a whole section of society and the party that represent it. Even if he hadn’t said it, its still what he was thinking deep down. And this naivetey, snobbery and selfishness is what the programme of cuts are based on.

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MOD organisation structure released

The Government has released organisation diagrams of all Departments, including the Ministry of Defence. It makes for pretty interesting reading indeed.

The diagrams show just how many deparments there are in the MOD. The chains of command are incredibly complicated, with all manner of civilians and officers involved. In most cases the diagram shows how many civilians and militarty personnel work for each person or department. In total it runs to 48 pages, covering the MOD centrally, the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force.

The first interesting point is that the main components of each service – eg Fleet, Land Forces, Air Command, Permanent Joint Headquarters, Defence Estates and Defence Equipment and support – are treated as separate from their services when it comes to budgeting. Divide and conquer perhaps, by making the services financially separate from their main components?

Another thing that strikes me is just how many senior officers work in MOD Head Office, and also civilian civil servants, all on significant salaries. This probably accounts for the oft-quoted figures about how the armed forces have more Admirals than major surface ships.

Thought it might make interesting reading for my regulars!

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Mo Mowlam remembered

I watched the docu-drama Mo on Channel 4 last night. It’s a portrayal of the last years of Mo Mowlam’s life, from just before the General Election of 1997 until her untimely death in 2005.

I know its only TV, and although its as a documentary element its not necessarily 100% accurate, but by all accounts her friends who were involved in making it regarded it as very true to life. Julie Walters was fantastic as Mo, and the screenplay was dramatic, moving and heartfelt. Mo’s story tells us a lot about the past 15 years in Britain. Its maybe too early to look at the New Labour era objectively, but with the Labour Government seemingly sloping towards an election defeat in May it seems natural to look back on those early days.

The way that Tony Blair undermined Mowlam after her standing ovation at the Labour Conference was nothing short of a disgrace. In an almost Stalinist manner, it was not acceptable for a Minister to be too popular. In a Government full of figures intent on following a political career rather than staying true to their beliefs, someone like Mo Mowlam was always going to stand out. But there seems little doubt that amongst ordinary people she remains the most popular and likeable Labour politcian of the past 13 years. Isn’t the Labour party supposed to be about representing ordinary people?

In hindsight it would seem as well that Downing Street attempted to marginalise Mowlam during the Northern Ireland negotiations. This fits in with the controlling, unconstitutional style of Government that is rapidly being exposed by the Iraq Inquiry. Despite attempts to steal the limelight, it has to be said that peace in Northern Ireland – largely brought about by Mo Mowlam – is the greatest achievement of the Labour Government.

But most importantly, Mo was herself. And among a cabal of faceless New Labour functionaries, that was refreshing. The way that she handled her illness was an inspiration. It does seem wrong that while Mo Mowlam suffered like she did, somebody like Peter Mandelson keeps bouncing back like a rubber ball and we have a Prime Minister ill at ease with people and vainly clinging onto power.

Her story tells us about much that is right and wrong about British politics, and budding politicians would to well to watch and learn.

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New documents released by National Archives

The National Archives have released a new selection of official documents, dating from 1979. Records relating to the intelligence services, strikes and the civil service are now in the public domain.

Interestingly, in 1979 it was suggested that an official history of the intelligence services in the second world war might be ‘laying up trouble for ourselves in the future’, according to Prime Minister Jim Callaghan. At the time the Government did not even acknowledge that the intelligence services existed. An authorised History was published only in 2009, as part of a new policy of openness.

On 11 January 1979 the Transport and General Workers Union voted for a strike among lorry drivers. There was much concern that essential, supplies would be put in danger due to secondary picketing. Troops were put on standby as the Government was on the verge of declaring a state of emergency. Documents released show robust correspondence between the Prime Minister and Union officials, at a time of much unrest.

When the new Conservative Government, by Margaret Thatcher, came to power in 1979 they immediately set upon schemes to freeze and then reduce civil service manpower and running costs. There was much heated debate among ministers about whether they could a 10% cut in budgets. In particular the Chancellor and Secretary of Defence were concerned. Also, Margaret Thatcher also refused to send a goodwill Christmas to civil service staff.

In Northern Ireland, the new Government took a robust position. After the US Government refused to supply weapons to the Royal Ulster Constabulary Margaret Thatcher took up the issue personally with President Carter. There were suggestions that the powerful Irish-American lobby were behind the problems.

New year always brings an interesting release of documents from thirty years ago. Under the 30 year rule most documents are closed for that period of time, unless they are deemed harmless enough to be released early, or sensitive enough to be closed for longer. 2013 should see the release of many documents relating to the Falklands War that aren’t already in the public domain.

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anger at MOD bonuses

There has been widespread anger at the news that the Ministry of Defence has paid over £47 million worth of bonuses to 50,000 civilian staff for ‘outstanding performance’. The negotiated pay deals saw the civil servants earning an average of just less than £1,000 each. By contrast, a Private in the British Army earns less than £17,000 a year.

Defence Minister Kevin Jones revealed the figures after a written question in Parliament. The revelation comes at a sensitive time, when British forces are suffering serious casualties in Afghanistan, there are calls for more Helicopters, and all armed forces face a savage defence review after the next general election.

There is something fundamentally at odds here. On the one hand the MOD is lavishing bonuses on civilian staff, while looking to make cuts in front line services. There is nothing wrong with employing civilians: in many cases it makes much more sense to employ civilians than have the job performed by a serviceman. Administration, for example, can be performed just as well by a civilian worker. Arguments that civil servants often go into the front line shows the extent of cuts to the services. Personally, I feel that any military-related job that entails someone going into harms way should not be performed by a civilian.

The MOD and civil service unions argue that the payments come from central salary budgets, were already negotiated and have no effect on operational spending. However, this does not add up. Anyone with a simple understanding of Government spending knows that it is quite simple to make savings in one area to transfer the surplus to another.

Not only does this show that the MOD’s values are not the same as those of the armed forces,and that the Government’s priorities are not with the men at the coalface, it sends a disgraceful signal to soldiers, sailors and airmen, and their families. In my own experience, if you cannot subscribe to the values of an organisation, you should not be working there. Hence, I feel that to work in the MOD and accept bonuses, all the time that our armed forces are under such difficulties, is immoral.

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