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Private Finance Initiative

Volume 520: debated on Tuesday 21 December 2010

In the spending review the Government abolished the private finance initiative credit system, which provided Departments with a ring-fenced budget that could be used only to support local authority PFI projects. The change levelled the playing field between PFI and other forms of procurement.

What does the Chief Secretary think of the comments made by the former Paymaster General, who said that PFI contracts were far too generous and too expensive?

That has a striking comment, coming from a Minister who was in the Department responsible for those things, and it reflects the general attitude towards public money that was prevalent under the previous Administration. There is a great deal of work that we can do as a Government to ensure that in future PFI is used only where it is absolutely necessary, and that we get best value for public money. That is how we should approach these things.

One of my constituents thinks that the PFI contracts that have been negotiated are one of the greatest scandals ever, if only because one of his relatives has made millions out of one. Apart from the potential £875 cost of a Christmas tree, which PFIs have caused the Minister the most angst?

I am not sure that it would be appropriate for me at this stage to pick out individual examples. The important thing to say is that, in common with the work that we are doing to ensure that we get better value from our suppliers across Government and that those suppliers are making a contribution to reducing the deficit, we are working on examining the future costs of PFI, so that where we can we reduce those costs. That is very important for ensuring that we reduce the deficit effectively and have the maximum amount of money left for front-line services.

A reduction of just 0.05% in contractors’ fees could save some £500 million a year. What can we do to help the Chief Secretary and the Chancellor bring pressure to bear on equity holders and key industry PFI players to persuade them to cut voluntarily their annual charges for rentals and services?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his festive offer of assistance with these matters. I urge him and other colleagues on both sides of the House to draw the Government’s attention to areas where they see PFI schemes being wasteful, or to examples that they would like to bring to our attention. I would be only too delighted to pick those up if he drew them to my attention.

Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to read the Public Accounts Committee’s recent report on PFI in the credit crunch? It suggested that many projects are locked into very high financing costs for periods of up to 30 years. I wonder what scope there is to claw back some of the gains in the event of any refinancing.

The Treasury will respond in the normal way to that report, and it would not be proper for me to comment on it until we have published the relevant Treasury minute. The Treasury and the Cabinet Office are working closely together to ensure that the PFI industry contributes its fair share of savings from operational projects.

PFI was, of course, invented by the Tories; I may be in a small minority in having consistently opposed PFI and urged that we should have public investment instead. In making an assessment of PFI, will the Government make comparisons with superb public investment projects such as Luton sixth-form college, which has been rebuilt at far less cost than it would have been under PFI?

I am grateful for that comment. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the decision that we took in the spending review to end the PFI credit system. Departments now have to look at the best way of funding projects within their own budgets; effectively, the PFI credit system meant that they could top-slice local government funding for local authority projects. The change that we have made means that Departments will have to make a proper comparison between PFI costs and the sorts of costs that the hon. Gentleman has described. I am sure that the House will have heard what he has said.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) said, PFI was an invention of the previous Tory Government, who were having difficulties building new hospitals. Is it beyond the wit of the Chief Secretary, who knows that most of those PFIs were local negotiations and have break clauses in them, to use his imagination and look into the break clauses?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. As for the politics of the matter, it was, of course, the previous Government who oversaw a massive expansion of PFI. It does not come well from the hon. Gentleman and other Opposition Members to be criticising an approach that ballooned under the previous Government.

My constituent Jeanette May wrote to me recently about the cancellation of the PFI at Maghull prison in my constituency to say that cutting the prison will affect the local economy, especially the immediate population. Does the Chief Secretary understand the impact that cuts such as the cancellation of Maghull prison will have, and how they will hit jobs and growth in communities across the country?

I am bound to say that that is yet another example of a saving that is necessary to tackle the terrible inheritance left by the previous Government, which Opposition Members now seem to be opposing. They also oppose every single cut, yet do not recognise that the consequence of such an approach would be to put this country back in the economic mess that they caused.