This article by Prem Sikka, appears in The Guardian.
"Privatisation" is the ideological mantra of all major political parties. It has been used to transfer huge amounts of wealth from the taxpayer to private companies, entrepreneurs, accountants, lawyers, bankers and sundry business advisers. Major industries built by taxpayers, such as railways, mines, buses, steel, shipping, gas, water, engineering, petrochemicals, airlines, motor vehicles, biotechnology, electricity, telecommunications, computers, armaments, space and pharmaceuticals have been handed to companies at knockdown prices. Many still receive public subsidies or rely on the state to buy their products. Yet governments seem to have learned little from the past and the routine fleecing of the taxpayer continues.
The most recent example relates to the privatisation of QinetiQ, Britain's defence research organisation. A report by the all-party public accounts committee provides a brief glimpse of conflicts of interests, failures and the private gains that can result from a coming together of the public and the corporate sector.
A stake in the company was bought in 2003 by Carlyle Group, a hedge fund with close connections with leading politicians. Former prime minister John Major was chairman of Carlyle Europe from 2002 to 2005. The company had close links with the family of US president George Bush. At the time of QinetiQ's privatisation, Carlyle was headed by Frank Carlucci, former CIA director and defence secretary under Ronald Reagan.
A stake in QinetiQ was bought at an initial investment of around £42m, and within three years it was worth £350m and floated on the stock market. For reasons best known to senior civil servants, Carlyle had been given preferred bidder status even though six other firms were competing for the defence contractor.
QinetiQ's top 10 managers, which included former civil servants, saw the value of their shares rise from £540,000 to over £107m, a near 20,000% increase. Overall, senior management received £200 for each £1 they invested. All this from technology that was entirely funded by the taxpayer who took the initial risks that the private sector was not willing to take. The government can always introduce legislation to claw back any excessive gains, but all political parties seem to be imitating Trappist monks on this issue.
The increase in value of the company was not due to some invisible hand of the market. Most of it came from the billions of pounds worth of contracts that QinetiQ signed with the Ministry of Defence around the time of its privatisation, including training for the RAF. Subsequently, the company was also the preferred bidder for the government's defence training rationalisation programme, estimated to be worth around £16bn over 30 years.
This guaranteed cash flow provided profits and higher market values. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have increased the potential for even more government contracts and profits. So the taxpayer funded the company, absorbed the risks, provided the contracts and guaranteed future cash flows, but the private sector took almost all the gains and profits. Unsurprisingly, the private sector wants everything privatised.
Business advisers also did very nicely out of the privatisation of QinetiQ. They included lawyers Simmons and Simmons, accountants Pricewaterhousecoopers and Arthur Andersen and bankers UBS Warburg, Merrill Lynch, Credit Suisse, JP Morgan Cazenove and ABN AMRO Rothschild, which between them managed to charge £28m (plus VAT) in fees. No doubt, there are considerable difficulties in valuing businesses, especially where the markets are thin, but how could the valuations in this case be so wide of the mark? At the very least, the government should refuse to give those involved with the valuation any more business until there has been a very thorough public investigation of the quality of their advice. It should amend the law so that the National Audit Office can investigate companies receiving public money. Even better, mobilise the public to scrutinise the privatisation deals by publishing all contracts, correspondence and reports. After all, the public has borne the risks and built the industries. What objection can there be to letting the taxpayer see the details?
The parliamentary committee reports are supposed to enhance public scrutiny and accountability. Yet there are other aspects of the QinetiQ story that deserve further investigation. QinetiQ is a story of political and economic elites combining to profit from war and doing so behind a wall of secrecy.