After Eyjafjallajökull – time to end NATS secrecy

I had always assumed that NATS – the UK’s air traffic control organisation, which was at the heart of the volcanic ash crisis – would be covered by Freedom of Information legislation.

After all:

The company… holds a monopoly of air traffic control for aircraft flying over the United Kingdom and, with its Irish counterpart, the North East Atlantic. It also provides air traffic control at most of the large airports around the country.

NATS was once a public body, but was converted into a public-private partnership in July 2001. The government maintains a 49% shareholding, with 46% held by a consortium of airlines, and 5% by employees.

It still provides a quintessentially public service, however, but because it’s not 100% government-owned, it’s not covered by the 2000 FOI Act (nor are any other public-private partnerships).

The public has a right to see information held by the British Potato Council, the Horserace Betting Levy Board, or the Architects Registration Board – but none at all to understand how NATS handles flights on which 200 million passengers travel every year.

The Act, however, gives the relevant Secretary of State the power to “designate as a public authority for the purposes of this Act any person…who appears to the Secretary of State to exercise functions of a public nature.”

Surely that clause should be used to bring all or most of NATS’s work under the act, especially as we try to understand the organization’s highly controversial role in the Eyjafjallajökull crisis.

Wonder if the new government will commit to making this change as soon as it takes office…

Eyjafjallajökull: all a con, or not. Who knows?

It is often in the aftermath of a crisis that the government definitively loses control of the agenda – it moves on, while the media cements its narrative on who was to blame, and why.

So it is with the ash cloud. We are told that the Met Office plane that should have been up in the air monitoring the ash cloud was undergoing a refit. As a result, many journalists are now convinced the whole crisis was a con. “Remember that ash cloud?” asks the Daily Mail. “It doesn’t exist, says new evidence.”

Jim McKenna, the Civil Aviation Authority’s head of airworthiness, strategy and policy (great combo), appears to admit the decision to close British airspace was a cock up:

It’s obvious that at the start of this crisis, there was a lack of definitive data. It’s also true that for some of the time, the density of ash above the UK was close to undetectable.

Head to the CAA website, however, and you won’t find anything on these claims. The most recent item on the ash cloud is a highly-defensive op-ed from its chairman [sic], Dame Deirdre Hutton, written three days ago. There’s nothing at all from Jim McKenna – either to explain what went wrong, or to place his quote in a broader context.

NATS stopped updates on the volcano on Friday, while the Met Office’s website is a car crash, and its latest update typifies the jargon-heavy style that the UK’s weathermen and women have made their own. Here’s a defence of the Met’s predictions in the nearest the Met comes to using plain English (more detail here):

We use multiple dispersion models endorsed by the international meteorological community. The output from the Met Office volcanic ash dispersion model has been compared with our neighbouring VAACs in Canada and France since the beginning of this incident and the results are consistent.

The results from our model have been verified by observations of volcanic ash from a variety of sources, including from instruments carried by Met Office, FAAM and NERC research aircraft, balloon and land based LIDARS.

So did the cloud exist? Was Jim McKenna the source of newspaper claims that “the maximum density of the cloud was only five per cent of the safe flying limit”? Who knows? And there seems to be little chance of the UK’s public sector telling you.

Update: Just because it’s wonderful, have a butchers at this superb video of Europe’s airports coming back to life.

The leaders’ foreign policy debate gets interesting

What a fascinating occasion this Thursday’s election debate between the three party leaders on foreign policy promises to be. No-one expected foreign policy to be any kind of election battleground: Ipsos MORI’s election scene-setter (pdf), published on 1 April, had not one foreign policy issue in the top 10 voter concerns. (Afghanistan, climate change, Iraq and defence all scored 5% or less; instead, it was the economy, health, education, asylum and tax that former the big five, followed by unemployment, crime and benefits – see slide 24.)

But given the extraordinary Liberal Democrat surge following Nick Clegg’s performance in last week’s debate on domestic affairs – the party is now up ten points in a week – a lot is suddenly riding on what happens this Thursday night. Gordon Brown and (especially) David Cameron will be desperate to take Clegg down. But how?

Over at FT.com’s Westminster blog, Alex Barker reckons the five key issues for Tory/Lib Dem skirmishing will be Iraq, Afghanistan, Europe, Trident and Iran. Of these, he reckons the Lib Dems’ generally cautious positions on the Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran will give Clegg the upper hand.

He reckons that Trident is a vulnerability for the Lib Dems,though he allows that the ace in Clegg’s hand is the fact that General Sir Richard Dannatt – a Tory adviser – supports the Lib Dem line on the issue.  (Also worth noting that the Lib Dems’ foreign affairs spokesman Ed Davey used yesterday’s debate between foreign affairs leads to stress the Lib Dems’ opposition to unilateral disarmament). I suspect, though, that Lib Dem opposition to Trident might in fact play to their advantage. This isn’t the SDP in 1983. The Cold War is over, and Obama and Medvedev just signed a nuclear deal. Moreover, as Barker notes, Trident looks awfully expensive as public sector cuts loom ever larger. If Clegg plays it right, he ought to be able to use this as another issue on which to position himself as the insurgent, in contrast to more ‘establishment’ positions from Labour and the Tories.

So that leaves Europe out of Barker’s five issues. Barker observes that most people disagree strongly with Lib Dem policy on Europe, but that Cameron’s dilemma is over how hard to push it, given that the Conservatives’ obsession with Europe has backfired in past elections. I’d go further than that. The problem for the Tories isn’t just that Europe was toxic for the Tories under Major, Hague, Howard and Duncan Smith. There’s also the more current issue of the Conservatives’ withdrawal from the EPP in Europe – which is starting to look like an albatross around the party’s neck (David Cameron must have assumed that no one except Eurosceptics would even notice their withdrawal from the bloc, much less care – heaven knows how he must have felt when the Obama Administration started briefing their annoyance).

So this is an issue on which Brown and Clegg can comfortably unite for another “I agree with Nick” double act. (Note that this was the very first issue on which Hague was pressured in yesterday’s foreign policy debate.) Perhaps the best defence for David Cameron will be to try to focus the debate’s Europe section instead on entry to the Euro – an area where he and Gordon “5 economic tests” Brown will be much closer, and where past Lib Dem enthusiasm for entry looks questionable given the ongoing drama [or should that be drachma?] of the Greek bailout.

So what’s missing from Alex Barker’s list?

Well, one area where Labour sense Tory vulnerability is David Cameron’s misstep in last week’s debate in which he suggested that China could potentially pose a nuclear threat to the UK – a position seized on with glee by David Miliband, who accused Cameron of behaving with “appalling immaturity” towards a fellow member of the P5 and strategic partner for the UK.

Then there’s the whole area of international development. The Conservatives have sought to erode Labour’s electoral advantage on this issue by committing to 0.7%, leading to Labour attempts to renew dividing lines on the issue (as for example in this Labour co-ordinated letter published in Sunday’s Observer). Perhaps the most substantive such dividing line is on the potential diversion of aid to climate finance, where the Tory position is genuinely weaker than that of Labour or the Lib Dems. But while that dividing line matters a lot for the small group of voters who put development in their top 10 issues, it might backfire if it become too conspicuous to wider voters – who may already be wondering why aid spending is protected, but their local SureStart centre is not. (See this from the ONE Campaign for more on what parties are promising on development.)

But the most striking omission from Alex Barker’s list is the question of Brits stranded abroad as a result of the ash cloud. As David has already noted here on GD, governments have been behind the curve on this story since it kicked off. And as every Foreign Secretary learns sooner or later, consular assistance stories can become big news, very fast. (Nor are they usually as tough as this one – when was the last consular emergency when the Brits in trouble were everywhere, rather than concentrated in one place?)

The ash cloud presents two wild cards for Thursday’s debate. First, Cameron and Clegg will need to compete over who would be better in a crisis – which may come down to who has more experience of government. Cameron was a special adviser at HM Treasury during the last Tory government. But Clegg also has more experience than is widely recognised: as well as being an MEP, he spent five years in the Commission, including in Leon Brittan’s private office – where he led Europe’s negotiating team on Russian and Chinese accession to the WTO.

But at the same time, neither Clegg nor Cameron can really point to many examples of real crisis management experience on their CVs (unless David Cameron wants to count Black Wednesday). Gordon Brown, on the other hand, does have this – though see Andrew Rawnsley’s new book for a cogent critique of some of Brown’s crisis management credentials.

But then there’s the other ash cloud wild card: who will end up getting the blame, given that UK media outlets are determined to make this someone’s fault (rather than what it is – a risk management challenge in conditions of uncertainty and imperfect information). The European Union, viciously criticised for yet another co-ordination snafu in the New York Times? The poor old Met Office? Or the government (and especially the PM) – as the Times, for one, is already warming up to argue?

The ash cloud story has already proven itself to be totally unpredictable – even just in the last few hours, during which stories about Europe’s airspace reopening have been superseded by newer oh-no-it-isn’t stories. Who knows where things will have got to in another 60 hours’ time…