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PFI Projects

Volume 454: debated on Thursday 7 December 2006

2. What recent representations he has received on the National Audit Office’s access to the accounts of companies involved in private finance initiative projects. (104883)

The most recent representation was in the Hansard Society report in July. Last December, we introduced an addition to the standard PFI contract that gives the NAO access, within reason, to all such documentation and requires contractors to agree up front that they will disclose publicly all but the most commercially sensitive information.

As both a Labour MP and a public sector accountant, I am politically delighted with the huge health infrastructural investment, but professionally disappointed that much of it has been rooted in PFI, whose spiralling costs and deepening inflexibility are aggravating NHS budgetary difficulties. Therefore much greater NAO access to PFI company accounts is urgently needed to expose their worrying lack of probity, efficiency and accountability. However, does the Chief Secretary believe that the incoming Prime Minister next summer will get a grip of the Treasury policy shapers, whose ardent love affair with private sector finance has stored up such serious problems for his future Administration?

The PFI has made an important, albeit minority, contribution to the big boost in public sector investment of the past few years. I agree that better transparency and accountability improve management and performance, and we have made much headway in that direction. However, it is very important to maintain the programme so that the progress that has been made with new hospital building, new schools and other public sector investment can continue to go from strength to strength.

Is it now Treasury policy, agreed with the Office for National Statistics, that PFI investment in hospitals is public sector investment, not private sector investment? Will the Minister say whether the National Audit Office is told each time that a hospital PFI contract is doubled in length from 30 years to 60 years because the original terms are too generous? Is that information normally given to the NAO and is it usually approved by the Treasury?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s contribution. Thanks to freedom of information, the Department of Health places on its website detailed information on the profitability of each PFI contract. On the specific point, I did not quite grasp the question that he asked about the NAO information. I will gladly come back to him on that.

Will my right hon. Friend accept congratulations from many of the people in my constituency, whose children are now being taught in the seven new PFI-built schools? Those schools had been on the books to be built for years and years, but never appeared until this Government took office.

I gladly accept that point and I thank my hon. Friend for it. She will have heard the announcement that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor made yesterday about £36 billion of investment in education over the next four years, to ensure that many more children and communities around the country benefit in the way that her constituents already have.

Several years ago the Chancellor called PFI

“a cynical distortion of public finance”.

Does the Minister agree with him?

Of course, under the Conservative Government there were serious problems with PFI. [Interruption.] Absolutely. Not least of those problems was the fact that they could not make it work. For years under the Conservative Government we were waiting for the programme even to start. Under this Government, however, we have seen the problem solved and impressive and important progress.

Sir John Bourn, the head of the National Audit Office, told the Public Accounts Committee in February this year that too many PFI schemes were off balance sheet, even where the majority of risk was borne by the public sector, not the private sector. Given that the Chancellor told us yesterday that he plans to borrow about £167 billion, if Labour stays in power over the next five years, is it not time that we had an honest appraisal of the true state of the nation’s balance sheet, including the £48.4 billion cost of PFI?

The hon. Lady should tell the House whether she is in favour or against the big programme of public investment that the PFI initiative has provided the country with. We have provided full information about the scale of the liabilities and the extent of the programme, and we will continue to do so.