Saturday, 28 July 2012

Olympics: the real G4S scandal

Twenty-years ago I worked for the BBC at the Olympics.

It was a great job – almost a month in Barcelona, what’s not to like – but it also opened my eyes to what the Olympics are all about. Up until then, like most people, I assumed the Olympic Games were a showcase for physical attainment and the pursuit of human achievement through sport, not to mention the breaking-down of racial and national barriers by bringing together people from around the globe to compete as equals in the Olympian spirit.

I was wrong. The Olympics are about money.

In Barcelona I was told how the games could not go ahead without funding from global corporations (mainly headquartered in the US) and American television networks, which was why major events, such as the 100m final, were scheduled to accommodate US time-zones and TV audiences.

The power of American TV channels was brought home to me through what, at first, appeared a very minor matter. The Olympic media centre was a vast air-conditioned building on the Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes in the centre of Barcelona and each broadcaster was allocated a stance in nearby streets where staff could be picked-up and dropped off. As it turned out, the BBC was allocated a stance in a back street that happened to be right next to what was effectively the ‘back door’ to the media centre. NBC, one of the two big American channels, apparently objected to the fact the BBC had a better stance to theirs – i.e. NBC staff had to walk slightly further from their transport to the entrance – which resulted in BBC drivers being told to park elsewhere and leave the stance free for NBC to use. The Americans called the shots, to the extent that an armed Barcelona policeman was subsequently stationed at the stance to make sure the BBC didn’t continue to use it. Seriously!

Security was also very tight at all Olympic venues. I will never forget the night of the closing ceremony. There were tanks on the streets of Barcelona. Military tanks! I can remember wondering what they expected to happen that might require the use of tanks in response.

Thankfully, the tanks were not required, and I hope the same can be said of the rocket-launchers currently located on the roofs of buildings in London.

Of course, there will be at least one major difference between security twenty-years ago in Barcelona and the situation at London 2012. In Barcelona, when entering or leaving venues or media centres, our accreditation was checked by Olympic staff, not soldiers.

The farce created by G4S, a private contractor, has meant squaddies just returned from active service in Afghanistan are having to carry out security duties in London rather than spending time with their families. The next time a Tory MP starts repeating the capitalist mantra about how much better the private sector is compared to the public sector, let’s hope there is an off-duty soldier nearby who can forcefully tap ‘G4S’ onto the Tory’s forehead in morse code.

G4S failed to deliver the 10,000 security personnel required through the contract it signed with LOCOG (London Olympic Games Organising Committee), which means it will forfeit some of the £284m the company was due to receive for its Olympic work. Apparently, though, despite its abject failure, G4S does not intend to reduce its ‘management fee’ of £125m.

Incredibly, against this background, Lord Smith, Chairman of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, last week said there was nothing that could be done to prevent G4S from submitting a tender to carry out security operations in two years time. It would appear that, in the capitalist free-market, even complete incompetence does not exclude a private company from fleecing the public purse.

Perhaps, though, Lord Smith might like to note a recent decision by the European Parliament, which declined to renew a contract with G4S that had seen the company provide security at parliament buildings.

The European Parliament’s decision came after it was revealed that G4S currently provides ‘security’ services in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Most countries, including the UK, accept Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land is illegal.

In addition to security staff within commercial premises in illegal Jewish settlements, G4S also provides and maintains screening equipment at several West Bank check-points staffed by the Israeli military, and is responsible for security systems at the Ofer complex near Ramallah, which houses a jail and a court where Palestinian detainees, including children, are held and tried.

G4S also has contracts to provide and service perimeter security systems and control rooms at jails inside Israel. It is known that these jails house Palestinian detainees, which is a breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention’s prohibition on the transfer of prisoners from occupied territories.

In its company accounts, G4S posted revenue of £120m accruing from its contracts in Israel and occupied Palestinian land.

While it continues to operate in illegally occupied Palestinian territory, G4S should be an international pariah. While it continues to provide security for the State of Israel at Palestinian check-points, Israeli police facilities and jails, G4S should be barred from bidding for any publicly-funded contracts in the UK.

The company’s activities in Israel and occupied Palestine should have seen it excluded from tendering for the contract to provide security services at the London Olympics, and should result in those organising the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow issuing a public statement that G4S need not apply.

Maybe it’s time the Olympic Games (and the Commonwealth Games) tried to refocus on what sporting events should really be about – striving to be the best through honest endevour.

Meanwhile, we are left with the conclusion that money does indeed corrupt: how else could an organisation supposedly adhering to the highest ideals end up awarding a contract to a company that administers illegally-occupied land and helps to incarcerate children?

Friday, 27 July 2012

'God Save The Queen' - to sing or not to sing?

Right-wing English newspapers have condemned Welsh and Scottish footballers for ‘refusing’ to sing the British ‘national’ anthem ahead of matches in the London Olympics.

Apparently four Welsh players, including Manchester United’s Ryan Giggs, did not sing ‘God Save The Queen’ before the game against Senegal , while two Scottish women took the same course of action before their match with New Zealand.

Kim Little (pictured above), from Aberdeen, said she did not sing the ‘British’ anthem because she is Scottish.  The other Scot in the ladies football team, Ifeoma Dieke, was born in America to Nigerian parents but was brought up in Scotland from an early age and has previously voiced her pride in being Scottish.

Of course, the British national anthem just happens to be the same as the English national anthem.

In the eyes of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Scotland is not a nation: the governing body sees us as a mere region of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  That being the case, if Scottish athletes want to compete in the Olympics they have no option but to do so as part of ‘Team GB’.  Some, like British Unionist Sir Chris Hoy, are happy to wrap themselves in the Union flag and sing the British/English anthem.  Others who see themselves as Scots should not be forced to sing the anthem of another country.

It is also ridiculous to expect republicans or atheists to sing a song asking ‘God’ to save ‘the Queen’.

Britain is not, never has been, and never will be a nation: it is a geographical area within which there is a state comprising a union of nations.  Much of Europe also features a geographical area that is home to a union of nations, but few people, if any, would state their nationality as ‘European’.  The nationality of the peoples within the British Union are Scottish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish.  A union of nations may adopt a common song, but it can’t be a ‘national’ anthem.

There is no Act of Parliament or even Royal Proclamation that makes ‘God Save The Queen’ a national anthem, it is afforded that status only through custom and use.  It is perfectly acceptable, therefore, for people to choose not to use it.

Of course, Scots have an added reason not to sing ‘God Save The Queen’.  The song contains a verse, written at the time of the 1745 Jacobite uprising, which urges troops under the command of Marshal Wade to “like a torrent rush, rebellious Scots to crush”.

It is also the case that the non-English footballers who chose not to sing the British/English ‘national’ anthem are not the first to take that course of action.  The Queen does not sing it.

The sooner we re-take our national independence, the better – which would allow Scottish athletes to compete in the Olympics representing their nation, Scotland...and English athletes, representing England, can belt out ‘God Save The Queen’ until their hearts are content.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Who is really ripping-off taxpayers? has revealed there are no fewer than nine vacancies advertised at the local Jobcentre that come with no wages. Instead, Jobseekers are told, “This is a self employed vacancy”.

The job ads continue, “The company has given an assurance that this vacancy enables workers to achieve a wage equivalent to the National Minimum Wage rate.” There is no guarantee a Jobseeker will achieve the minimum wage of £6.08 an hour, even if they work all the hours of the day. The companies’ get-out clause, should workers fail to make the equivalent of the minimum wage, would be that the individual was ‘not up to the job’.

In addition to working for commission only, potential workers are told they will require their own transport and to use their own mobile phones.

A number of the current vacancies are for sales positions: in two cases the products being sold are loans. One ‘loans job’ is based in Ardrossan and Saltcoats, the other in Irvine. People working for no wages, just commission, are expected to go door-to-door selling loans in these areas of high unemployment and poverty: the workers are also expected to collect payments.

These ‘vacancies’ raise two issues. Firstly, why is the Jobcentre – part of the UK Government’s Department of Work and Pensions – carrying ads for jobs that pay no wages and require workers to pay their own tax and National Insurance out of any commission they make from selling loans to people living in poverty?  Secondly, the Benefits Agency can stop payments to a Jobseeker who is deemed to be not ‘actively seeking work’: would benefits be stopped if anyone declined to apply for these ‘vacancies’?

the3towns’ revelations came in the same week the UK Tory-Lib Dem Government announced plans for ‘three strikes and you're out’ in relation to benefit fraud. Right-wing newspapers – such as the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Express and the Daily Telegraph – gleefully trotted-out stories about ‘spongers’ living the good life on ‘handouts’, and called for even tougher sanctions than the Government proposes. Some want lengthy jail terms and a lifetime ban from benefits for anyone caught claiming more than the amount to which they are entitled, even if it is done just once.

Headlines screamed about lazy, unemployed freeloaders costing us hard-working taxpayers ‘billions of pounds’ every year. In fact, the Department of Work and Pensions’ official figure for 2010/11, the last year for which full data is available, shows the total cost to the taxpayer of benefit fraud was £1.2bn. Now, that is not an insignificant sum, but it doesn’t come close to the figure for unclaimed benefits – money the Treasury saves because people don’t know they are entitled to it – which for the same year was £12.25bn.

In the same week we also discovered there is one particular family who actually do fleece hard-working taxpayers every year. Genuinely living off publicly-funded ‘handouts’, this bunch of freeloaders -just one family remember – cost us £32.2m last year, up by almost a quarter-of-a-million pounds from the previous twelve months. The head of the household – Mrs Betty Windsor - was in Glasgow last week, where a service of ‘thanks-giving’ was held in her honour. It’s a strange old world.

It’s also worth noting that £32.2m is the ‘official’ cost to taxpayers of funding the royal family. When ‘other’ costs are factored-in, such as round-the-clock security and world-wide travel, the real figure edges up to around £200m a year. How many nurses, doctors and police officers could we employ for £200m? How many real jobs, paying decent wages could be created for £200m?

Meanwhile, as the poorest members of society are hit with further cuts to desperately needed services, and are expected to apply for jobs that pay no wages, the seemingly never-ending story of bankers’ greed and criminality churned out yet more revelations.

Banks have been manipulating the rate at which they lend money to each other, an act that made some bankers extremely rich (even richer) and cost everyone else more for our mortgages, credit cards and loans.

As we know to our cost, bankers played a central role in the economic catastrophe that caused the global collapse of the capitalist system, but they were not alone. Other capitalists, directors and executives in boardrooms around the world, have been ripping us off for generations – ‘us’ being ordinary taxpayers and those unfortunate enough to be out of work.

Richard Murphy, an accountant who is also a director of a company called Tax Research LLP, has just published a report in which he used data sourced from the World Bank, the Heritage Foundation and World Health Organisation to show the level of tax evasion and avoidance by the wealthy.

Mr Murphy’s research revealed the annual amount of tax illegally evaded every year in the UK is just short of £70bn, with a further £25bn avoided in ‘legal’ schemes, such as the one in which comedian Jimmy Carr was involved. That is almost £100bn being stolen from us by the richest people in the country every single year.

If the fat-cats actually paid their fair share in taxation, there would be no need for ‘austerity measures’ leading to soaring unemployment, massively increased levels of poverty and deprivation, and standards of living being eroded to the lowest we have seen in over 30 years.

Instead of scapegoating the unemployed and those scraping-by on benefits, we should be hammering those who caused the current economic crisis – the criminal bankers, the tax evaders and avoiders, and the super-rich who freeload on public handouts.