Hello and welcome back to the Quango Awards. With election day looming all three major parties are still struggling to suggest meaningful ways to reduce our national debt. Well we think that quangos are the place to start. That's why we've been investigating just what you, the taxpayer, are getting for your money. A round of applause first of all for the National Policing Improvement Agency which took our first award and has done sterling work in the field of expensive pointlessness ever since its inception three years ago. All at the bargain cost to the taxpayer of £1.5 billion.
Onwards and upwards now to The Most Ethically Dubious Quango Award. And the winner is... the UK Trade and Investment Defence and Security Organisation! If you're in the business of selling guns or soldiers to war-torn countries around the world, the UKTI DSO is here to help.
Indeed, posing as the director of a private security company, it only took me a couple of weeks to get in to see a UKTI DSO officer. At first I was told that our bogus company didn't have a big enough turnover for the UKTI to be interested - you need half a million at least, apparently. I had to blag my way in by waffling on about ‘substantial investment in the near future'. But it goes to show that the UKTI DSO doesn't seem to be about helping start up private security firms, it looks like it's more interested in big money contracts and furthering British interests in war-torn countries.
But at what cost? Well UKTI as a whole costs almost £330 million of your money a year and according to our FOI (Freedom of Information) request defence and security spending takes up about £21.6 million of that. But what about the human cost?
The papers have been full of stories of violence and corruption by British and American private military companies over the last few months - Blackwater (or Xe), KBR and G4S, to name but a few. And it's because there is so little regulation in this area that we have such a problem. It seems bizarre that if you want to export flowers abroad, you need a licence, but if it's private soldiers to unstable developing countries you're selling, then it's really not necessary.
The only regulation that does exist is a voluntary self assessment form provided by the British Association of Private Security Companies. One thing the form does stipulate though is that directors of private security companies can't have criminal records. The much more stringently enforced Iraqi Ministry of the Interior regulations for foreign PSCs say the same thing, so when I informed this UKTI DSO representative that my co-director had a criminal record, why did he offer us advice on how to change the names of the directors on any accreditation in order to get around the problem? He was happy to help us set up in Iraq without even asking what the criminal offence of my co-director might have been.
But this isn't about the one UKTI DSO agent we spoke to. I don't think he was doing anything out of the ordinary. It's just that the ‘ordinary' seems to be really rather unpleasant. The issue is the UKTI DSO as an institution and the wild west mentality of those that work in this industry.
Are we really comfortable with British Embassies and their staff being at the disposal of shady private military companies, implicitly endorsing them with government seals of approval in the knowledge that the directors have criminal records? This is not how I want my country represented.
As a result of this investigation The UKTI DSO has issued the following response:
"UK Trade & Investment takes these allegations extremely seriously. We would never condone the obscuring of criminal records. And, while Embassies are legitimately used to promote British business abroad, we would not condone this being misrepresented as official endorsement.
"The person named is not a civil servant and not a member of UK Trade & Investment staff, but is a contractor employed by one of UKTI's delivery partners. We are making our own enquiries and, if appropriate, we will carry out a full investigation."
We'd like to add that we do not consider this UKTI DSO representative to be a rogue element within the organisation. We believe this problem to be endemic.
You may remember the scandal with British company ATSC whose director Jim McCormick was arrested for exporting millions of pounds of phony bomb 'detectors' to Iraq. A company called Global Technical continues to sell the same device around the world. Quentin Davies the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence admitted that UKTI DSO's predecessor DESO (Defence Export Services Organisation) had tasked an Export Support Team to conduct a trial on the device, which Global Technical then used to give its useless equipment a government seal of approval. Testimonies on UKTI DSO's own website say that: "The Export Support Team is made up of members of the armed forces, so they have also been great at providing feedback on our product, as well as advice on how it should be presented, marketed and packaged."
We sent a FOI request to the UKTI DSO asking for information on whether or not they'd facilitated Global Technical in any other way in their marketing of their bogus device. So far they have not answered our question on the basis that it might cause prejudice to the commercial interests of the company.
The entire purpose of the UKTI DSO is to help arms and private military companies to sell their products often in war torn countries. And when trade is prioritised over all else in an industry so intimately linked to conflict, what do you think is going to happen? How much damage has the UKTI DSO done to the reputation of the British government overseas by putting the agendas of the arms and security industry above the human rights of individuals and why is there so little regulation to stop these abuses happening?