On a war footing
By guest blogger JEF SMITH
Imagine that Britain is at war. The protection of the nation is led by a government department called the Ministry of Defence and the Air Force (MDAF). The reason for the slightly cumbersome name is that while the department has direct lines of control over the army, navy and related services, its relationship with the air force is rather more complicated.
For a start, the air force, unlike the rest of the defence effort, is funded from a variety of sources. It gets an annually decided central government grant, occasionally supplemented on an ad hoc basis, but this comes not from Defence but from the totally separate Local Government department. Most operational decisions about spending are in the hands of local authorities, who in addition have some limited powers to raise funds of their own; the money needed for the air force, however, has to compete with all sorts of other local needs.
Strangely, you may think, the local authorities do not own or control most of the aircraft which are vital to the war effort. These, along with the aerodromes from which the planes fly and other vital defence systems such as missiles and radar cover, are run by a variety of independent providers. Some of these are very small family businesses, operating only a plane or two, but others are major companies. Some of the bigger organisations are owned via complex finance mechanisms, many of them not even British-controlled, which are variously accountable to funders and shareholders whose interests may be quite different from those of the British public and who may disinvest without warning if it suits them. There are a few not-for-profit providers, but their future is always precarious, depending on factors like their historic investments, current fund-raising and trustee priorities.
Providers get their income from selling their services to people who need defending from the enemy. For most of them their major customers are the local authorities, who certainly have an interest in looking after their local populations but for many years have been unable to pay what is recognised as the real costs incurred. Many providers therefore also deal directly with those relatively wealthy individuals who can afford, at least until their savings run out, to pay for their own defence. To compensate for the shortfall on what local authorities are prepared to pay for the services they commission, these providers overcharge the private payers.
Predictably, the relationship between the air force and the rest of the defence effort is not at all happy. A lot of people in the army and navy acknowledge that they simply don’t understand the way the air force works. At times of severe crisis, the MDAF often seems to be acting as if the air force hardly existed, except as a body which could be left to pick up the mess when others services come under strain. What a way to run a war, you may be saying.
Just imagine the pickle we’d be in if the management and funding of social care were as chaotic as that!
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