The DfT’s Bristow helicopters deal has to be the oddest privatisation of all time
As a country, Britain doesn’t have the best of track-records when it comes to buying and contracting helicopters and associated services. In between following his many other eccentric recreational pursuits, Leon Brittan was caught doing naughty things during the Westland fiasco in the 1980s. A certain Alan Bristow was about to buy Westland at the time…but pulled out when it was discovered that Brittan had given the company a secret £40m Government loan. Hold that thought, it’s important.
Add to all that Whitehall’s copious cock-up in supplying Iraq War helicopters that were never delivered as such, and it would be nice to think that newish Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin (left) has got it right by awarding a £1.6bn contract for UK search and rescue helicopter services to the American firm Bristow Helicopters. Well, well: there’s that name again. Even in today’s climate of noughts inflation, one point six billion quid is a whopping expenditure; to be exact, it represents 10% of what the Draper has managed to ‘save’ since May 2010.
When the adorably bitchy Matthew Parris wrote in The Times at one point that McLoughlin was ‘a man more of action than philosophy’, most of us read between the lines. The Minister has an odd past consisting of, as his cv says, ‘1974-79: agricultural worker/ 1979-86: various positions in the National Coal Board. In fact, not having the Latin, Patrick became a miner, and then mooched about in the hugely loss-making NCB for seven years until it was abolished. Then he joined the local Council. On his own admission by then, “I was a Tory bastard”. After that, he stood for Parliament, got in, and became a Whip bastard instead.
In summary, McLoughlin scaled the heights of being a miner, and then never had a proper job again. So despite the mediocrity, the pattern is tediously predictable: a not very bright chap used to universal complaints, he got the job of pushing through Cameron’s High Speed trains gesture because (a) he isn’t a shires Tory and (b) he could be guaranteed to do as he was told. So it was that, on the Today programme last January, the Transport Secretary explained to presenter Evan Davis why Britain needs to cough up £33bn for new track and trains travelling at 220 mph, in order to get people to Birmingham even more quickly. It is hard to imagine a more pointless way to piss away thirty-three billion quid, but this is what the Tory Bastard told his listeners about ‘HS2’:
“It will help capacity for the United Kingdom. This isn’t just for Manchester or Leeds, but it’s also connectivity with other parts of the United Kingdom as well.”
What nobody has so far explained – least of all McLackluster – is why the connectivity needs to be quicker in a world where more and more business is being conducted via online webcams…and why cutting the time it takes to get to Manchester is even remotely likely to stand a snowball in Hell’s chance of ever paying for itself….as the UK’s manufacturing base continues to erode. HS2, you can be sure, is going to be Cameron’s Connecting for Health.
But Patrick McLoughlin is used to explaining disasters once they’ve happened. Just a few days into the job, he was faced with the West Coast Mainline contract
corruption misunderstanding. The bidding botch by Whitehall cost taxpayers £45m, and raised some questions never properly answered. But the Minister insists that “lessons have been learnt” and believes the civil servants will use it as an example of when something goes badly wrong. “The whole of the civil service from Jeremy Heywood to Philip Rutman will all have to learn the lessons from that. It won’t happen again.” Aaaarhahahahahahaargh. What, you mean they’ll learn the oldest lesson of all, don’t get caught?
Anyway, most of the clowns who upf**ked West Coast (only to come up against the wrath of Sir Richard Branson) are still in place and contracting £1.6bn worth of helicopter services.
Problem is, what I can’t quite get my head round is why we need to do this, given that previously it was done by the armed forces entirely free of charge. Could this this be yet another unforeseen consequence of Slasher Dave leaving us defenceless just as Argentina starts to get uppity again?
Bristow Helicopters started out as a British company, founded by the aforementioned swashbuckling Alan Bristow. When it comes to safety and responsibility, Alan wasn’t exactly of the front rank: he was involved in numerous helicopter crashes, once suffered six engine failures in one day, regularly got himself involved in brawls, and was fired for punching his boss on the nose.
Bristow himself died in 2009, and the company he set up is now headquartered in Louisiana, but with a strong presence in Britain. Although Sky this morning reports that it is being ‘sold off to a US-based company in a deal worth £1.6bn’, it seems to have eluded Roop’s boys that this sum is going out, not coming in. When you sell something off, that’s not supposed to be the direction of money-travel. But apparently so in this case. Ah. Right.
And here’s another odd thing: the contract will continue to be managed by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. I’m a big fan of the M&CA, but is this a privatisation or not? Could it be that Prince William’s concern over privatisation plans expressed to David Cameron in 2011 (when the pair met in Zurich as part of England’s 2018 World Cup bid, earning 2 out of 21 votes) has led to a dog’s dinner? As in, a sell-off losing money and with part of the State still in there?
We may never know, but here’s something we do know. Or rather, we do now. Bristow’s UK Managing director is, funnily enough, not called Eric, but in fact Mike Imlach. Mr Imlach had this to say:
“Bristow Helicopters Ltd knows the responsibilities that go with providing this service and we are committed to working in full partnership with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and ensuring a smooth transition process and the long-term continued delivery of a world class SAR operation in the UK.”
Oh dear: standard issue bollocks. ‘Committed’, ‘partnership’, ‘delivery’, ‘world class’. Only ‘passionate about’ is missing from the list of usual protesting suspects. But fear not, because the Bristow website has done it already: ‘Bristow is dedicated to safety to both its employees and the environment. Air transportation safety & helicopter safety are priority #1.’ The site says it has the best safety record in the industry. But what it doesn’t mention is the crash report of February 2010, at which time a local paper said ‘Bosses of an Aberdeen helicopter firm have been urged to improve pilots’ training after an aircraft crashed into the sea. Accident investigators have now made several recommendations for Bristow Helicopters, which is based at Aberdeen Airport. The report by the Dutch Safety Board said “shortcomings” were found in the company’s provision of simulator training and called for this to be addressed.’
Four years before that accident, a Sikorsky S-76A helicopter operated by Bristow crashed in the North Sea, leaving 11 people dead. Mechanical failure was blamed.
In August 2007, UK-born Bristow Helicopter pilot Cleighton Brown died after his helicopter crashed into an Exxon Mobil oil export terminal in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria.
So maybe the ‘best’ safety record in the copter services sector is a case of all things are relative. But it was the final incident above that caught my eye. Because while today’s Bristow press release mentioned a whole string of their companies around the world, the Nigerian one wasn’t on it. That seems odd given the oil-rich country has an insatiable need for helicopter transportation to and from rigs. There may be a number of reasons why. And they may well, yet again, involve safety.
If Akin Oni, Managing Director of Bristow Helicopters (Nigeria) Limited, could turn back the hands of time (Nigerian Voice wrote last year) the first thing he would probably do is to ‘perform all necessary business rituals that would have prevented the termination of the juicy Shell Petroleum contract’. Hmm. Does this mean that there was a lack of world class delivery here?
In a long interview, Akin offers some clues. They include his observation about doing safety checks: “What I can give you is an idea of what we save by doing the checks locally. While the aircraft is undergoing D-Check, if they have to fly the aircraft out of Nigeria, we will spend nothing less than $1.5 million”. Ah. Is Mr Oni, we wonder, related to Michael O’Leary the boss of Ryanair?
Trying to reassure readers on this score, Akin Oni adds, “We have the engineering capability as a management but staff is inadequate in that regard…..If you go outside and see the complexity of the machines that we fly, one typical helicopter is worth the Boeing….that’s a major check that in other places you will have to fly the aircraft out of Nigeria. It has to be done but we are doing it locally.” The engineering staff is inadequate but you do the checks locally to save money? Nope. I’m not reassured yet. Keep going Akin.
“We usually employ those with excellent hand-eye coordination,” he continues, referring to the hiring of pilots. Usually? What do you look for unusually Mr Oni?
In an unrelated episode, Sir Alex Ferguson told Sky News that when recruiting footballers, he usually preferred men with feet.
See this clip for a reminder of the bare essentials when it comes to human resources policy.
Is this yet another episode in the long and untamed history of the Civil Service being incapable of buying anything in a competent manner? Stay tuned: and read more in due course about Bristow’s holding company, its fascinating list of directors, and much, much more.