Considered in Committee
[Dawn Primarolo in the Chair]
Expenditure on financial assistance for the provision of infrastructure
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 1, page 1, line 7, leave out ‘includes’ and insert ‘means’.
Amendment 9, page 1, line 11, after ‘health’, insert ‘childcare’.
Amendment 4, page 1, line 13, leave out paragraph (e).
Amendment 2, page 1, line 13, after ‘housing’, insert ‘, the function of which has a national significance.’.
Amendment 10, in clause 1, page 1, line 13, at end insert—
‘(2A) “Infrastructure” excludes the expansion of Heathrow airport before May 2015.’.
At near enough to 7 o’clock, I am glad that we finally turn our attention to the Infrastructure (Financial Assistance) Bill. Anybody following these proceedings might be astonished that we have been allowed just over two hours for the Committee stage. In our view it is unsatisfactory to leave the rules governing £50 billion of public expenditure to such scant and inadequate scrutiny. Although we do not necessarily disagree with the broad principles behind the Bill, that does not mean that we should fall short in our duty as parliamentarians to analyse, consider and improve the details of the legislation. Ministers cannot point to the House of Lords as the place where the Bill can be improved and amended if we run out of time for consideration in Committee. I think the last time the Lords sat in Committee on a money Bill was in 1995, when it considered the European Communities (Finance) Bill. This two-hour period is therefore the only opportunity we will get to scrutinise the particulars of the legislation; hence the amendments that are before us.
I want to talk to amendments 11 and 9 in this first group. Amendment 11 would make it clear that the substantive powers in the Bill, which give Ministers the ability to grant financial assistance to any persons, should be used for infrastructure in the United Kingdom, for essentially this reason: we believe that we should focus all our efforts on the domestic infrastructure needs of our country. That is why we think the Bill, if it can bring benefits, needs to focus very much on the benefits of infrastructure and bringing forward capital schemes here at home. Hon. Members will be aware that the UK has been falling behind quite considerably in the past couple of years in terms of infrastructure and capital investment schemes. Only today in the Financial Times we read about the Construction Products Association warning that
“infrastructure is in free-fall,”
and that it expects spending to fall by 13% in 2012 compared with the last calendar year, despite the hollow words of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Noble Francis, economics director at the CPA, said:
“We are getting to the stage where the government just can’t make more announcements with nothing happening. At some stage they are going to have to launch some capital investment that sees work happening on the ground. This can be done quickly, easily and cheaply speeding up work on the repair and maintenance of roads, schools, hospitals and housing.”
The article points out that road construction, to take one example of infrastructure investment,
“is suffering in particular, with the CPA projecting a decline of 40 per cent this year and 5 per cent next year.”
I am listening to my hon. Friend’s speech with a lot of interest. I wonder whether he saw the recent CBI survey and the comments by its director general, John Cridland, who described it as
“a wake-up call that businesses in Britain are looking for action”—
“and we haven’t seen any yet.”
Alarm bells are ringing from a number of eminent institutions across the country, and they are not those that one might necessarily feel were natural allies of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition. Nevertheless, they are saying exactly the same thing as us: when will the Treasury wake up and realise that the Government’s strategy on infrastructure—this laissez-faire approach—is singularly failing? Rather than driving new schemes forward, with their Bill and the rest of their strategy, the Government seem to be waiting for others to come forward with various schemes; they seem to be saying, “Please will you dream up some ideas?” They are hoping that something will turn up, but that is an approach characterised by drift rather than leadership when it comes to capital investment.
Is the situation not worse than that? In the early days of this Government, one of the first things they did was stop the Building Schools for the Future programme, which had been clarified and was seen as the way forward to develop new schools. There were projects involving five schools in my constituency, which would have put £80 million into the local economy, with the money spent on the private sector and building schools for those children. Those projects were frozen—the same thing happened across the country—but if they had gone ahead, we would now be in a much better position.
It is the long-term cost to public service quality and communities up and down the country that is the most frustrating thing about the Government’s approach. They have scrapped Building Schools for the Future. Who knows? Perhaps in a couple of years’ time they will realise the error of their ways and devise a “Funding building for schools” scheme, or cobble together some other name. It is no wonder that we are in this prolonged double-dip recession, with the Government pulling the rug from underneath the economy in the way that they have, chopping capital infrastructure investment away at its knees. It is no wonder that, for example, the construction sector has shrunk by, I think, 10% in the past 12 months. Nor is it any wonder that the “State of Trade” survey published by the Federation of Master Builders today—apparently it is the only survey of its kind looking at SME construction activity—says that 39% of respondents reported a decline in private new house building workloads in the third quarter of this year or that 40% predicted a further decline in the next quarter.
The Government’s record on capital investment and their approach to infrastructure are lamentable. It has never been clearer that they should be focusing squarely on the needs of infrastructure within the United Kingdom; hence amendment 11. Contrary to the claims of the Government—we will probably hear this from the Minister—figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility show that the Government will have spent £6.6 billion less over the three-year period from the spending review than Labour had planned, with budgets for schools, such as BSF, and affordable housing hit especially hard.
My hon. Friend has talked about organisations that are not necessarily natural supporters of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition. Has he seen the recent comments from the Country Land and Business Association, which described the superfast broadband situation as “lamentable”—precisely the same word that he has just used? The association stated:
“It is becoming clear that the Government’s strategy will not meet the target date of 2015…There is no clear mechanism to put in place the universal service commitment.”
Is not this another example of the economy crying out for investment that is simply not being delivered?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point that emphasises the argument that we are making. This is not simply a question of the levels of capital investment; it is also a question of competence. It is also about the relentless need to focus on delivery, and on the detail behind the delivery. I just do not see the Treasury, as currently comprised, being capable of getting to grips with the granularity of some of the obstacles that face capital schemes. It is no wonder that we are falling further and further behind. The Treasury seems to see an obstacle and be deterred by it, rather than trying to tackle it and move past it.
It is difficult to say, when looking at a guarantee scheme or underwriting scheme, because certain things are not wholly in the control of Ministers. They are putting the guarantee out there and waiting for organisations in the private sector or elsewhere to come forward and bid for the resource. It is a bit like pushing against a piece of string; it is impossible to know what the demand will be. We do not rule out the possibility of the proposal being of benefit—of course it could be—but it is impossible to know at this stage. We are holding up a finger to test the direction of the wind. There are no time scales in the Bill, and the explanatory notes do not add any information in that regard. We want to know the judgment of the studied intellects in the Treasury.
My hon. Friend mentioned the downturn in the house building industry. In my constituency, the total number of new house builds in the last quarter was just 10, and that is in a city whose population is growing. Does he accept that, in addition to the immediate difficulties that the construction industry is experiencing, companies that go bust and firms that close down cannot suddenly spring back into action when the economy changes? This is another reason why we need the measures that he is outlining, and that the Government have not yet put into operation.
That loss of productive capacity is another example of the permanent damage caused by recession, resulting in an inability to take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves when a recovery occurs. The International Monetary Fund released figures only last week to illustrate the damage being done by the recession to our ability to fulfil such expectations. In my city of Nottingham, not a single new affordable social house has been constructed in the past 12 months. Is that because there is no demand? Absolutely not. We have more than 12,000 people on waiting lists for decent homes. That applies in many other areas of the country as well, including Greenwich.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely valid point about housing, but he understates the case. Infrastructure was the one sector of the construction industry that survived the early period of the recession relatively well. Indeed, by 2009, expenditure on infrastructure stood at £11.6 billion, which was the highest real-terms level for about two decades. That has now slipped away badly, because of the failure of the current Government to maintain infrastructure investment. That is the charge against them: they have allowed activity that was helping to counter the recession to be lost, and the sectors of the industry that are concerned with infrastructure are now as alarmed as the housing sector and all the others that have suffered so badly in the recession.
That is a pertinent point. The Government seem oblivious to the thoughtful concerns being expressed by industry practitioners about the damage that is being done. Their ideological fixation with austerity has led them to a position in which they have completely pulled the rug out from underneath the economy, and we are still only at an early stage of being able to calculate the damage.
Will my hon. Friend answer a question on amendment 11, which proposes to add the words “within the United Kingdom” to clause 1(1)? One of the most important areas of infrastructure over the next decade will be energy, and the infrastructure required to meet our energy need will include interconnectors for electricity and gas pipelines that will come across Europe from the Caucasus. I presume that the Bill, as it stands, could incentivise investment in interconnectors and gas pipelines, but would it still be able to do so if the amendment were agreed to, even though parts of the pipelines would obviously be within the United Kingdom?
It is important to recognise that we want the benefits of any financial assistance to be felt in the UK economy. I shall deal with the details of the amendments in a moment. We believe that the scheme should focus on stimulating growth within these shores, and prioritising resources for infrastructure within the United Kingdom is the right approach. The Minister will undoubtedly point out that, as part of the guarantees under the scheme that the Government announced in July, a £5 billion export refinancing facility was introduced to underwrite the lending commitments of foreign buyers of UK exports. Of course we believe that export credit guarantees can be legitimate and helpful to construction exports, but in times of UK recession, our priorities should lie squarely here at home.
Incidentally, if there is such a great demand for the services of the Export Credits Guarantee Department—which is part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—why does it appear to have underspent its existing budget in the past year? That does not suggest that there is a need to divert resources from domestic infrastructure into bankrolling foreign firms any more than is currently the case. The latest research shows that infrastructure spending within the UK will be of far greater benefit to our economy.
Indeed, the IMF had discussions last week about the multipliers. I do not want to go into too much technical detail, but the Office for Budget Responsibility used a fiscal multiplier of 0.5, which meant that Ministers thought that each pound they cut from public expenditure and capital investment would reduce economic output by only 50p. However, after examining the records of many countries that have embraced austerity since the financial crisis, the IMF reckons that the true multiplier is between 0.9 and 1.7. That has led the TUC to reveal that if the real multiplier is 1.3—somewhere in the middle of the IMF’s range—the OBR has underestimated the impact of the cuts by a cumulative £76 billion, more than 8% of gross domestic product, over five years. Instead of shaving less than 1% off economic growth during this financial year, austerity has potentially depressed it by more than 2%, which helps to explain why the economy has plunged into this double-dip recession. It is self-evident that providing financial assistance to infrastructure projects in the UK will provide a much greater stimulus to the British economy than giving financial assistance to projects abroad. Projects in the UK will boost employment in Britain; providing assistance to overseas projects will not.
Conservative Governments have a dubious record when it comes to underwriting foreign construction schemes. I am referring not only to the most recent, and much vaunted, export enterprise finance guarantee scheme, which assisted only five firms and has now folded because it was such a flop. I am also thinking of historic occasions such as that relating to the Pergau dam in Malaysia, which involved a too-close relationship between the aid being given to a foreign country and the trade that was taking place, particularly in relation to arms exports. It is very important that we learn the lessons from past failures when it comes to finance for foreign infrastructure schemes, and we particularly need to start prioritising schemes here in the UK.
It is important for the hon. Gentleman to follow through the logic of his comments when it comes to funding for the European Investment Bank, for instance, or substantial increases in funds flowing to support projects elsewhere in the EU. Is that something that he and his hon. Friends would like to do something about?
We definitely need more scrutiny of the resources committed through the European Union to some of the schemes abroad, but as I understand it, this Bill will not substitute for the investment that the UK taxpayer makes to the European Investment Bank and elsewhere. This is about underwriting private projects that will, hopefully, bring benefit to our economy more broadly. Our view is that we should focus our prime attention on the economic needs here within the UK.
Does my hon. Friend accept that some of us have a concern with the wording of his amendment, which specifically refers to “within the United Kingdom”? In Northern Ireland, for instance, many of the infrastructure projects are likely to have a cross-border character. Infrastructure projects both large and small sometimes have commitments of money from the Irish Government as they serve hinterlands that cross the borders. With renewable energy, of course it makes sense for significant projects to have a cross-border character. They will serve not only Northern Ireland’s but Great Britain’s future energy needs. Might not my hon. Friend’s amendment preclude sensible investment support for such projects?
I would not want the amendment to have that particular effect, and I do not think it need have it, especially if the Government were in a position to frame the legislation in such a way as to see this potential £50 billion focused very much on the needs of our own people in our own country. I hear what my hon. Friend says, but I do not think this is the be-all-and-end-all of Treasury expenditure, as there are other ways and means of dealing with those few projects that might have a cross-border character. When it comes to the underwriting capacity of this particular Bill, we think it important to prioritise investment here at home.
My hon. Friend will be aware that the perimeter of Northern Ireland is defined as the six counties, and that the continental shelf offshore was never included in the original agreement drawn up by the Foreign Office. [Interruption.] I realise that my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) knows this only too well. What that means is that we need clarity in respect not only of amendment 11, but of the “Short title, commencement and extent” provisions. At the moment, the Bill would preclude offshore wind development from the Northern Ireland coast. These matters may seem abstruse, but as constituted, the Bill does not make it clear that such infrastructure development would qualify for support. That question is as much one for the Minister as for my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie), but it seems to me that the question needs to be answered.
I am not sure I agree with my hon. Friend on the particular example he provided. It is quite clear that there would be benefit for the economy within the UK if those offshore schemes proceeded. The frustration I have is with the rather hasty drafting. Yes, we accept that it is necessary to frame a scheme that has sufficient flexibility, but there are dangers in enacting legislation that does not focus sufficiently on significant financial schemes, employment and jobs here in the UK. That is the purpose of the amendment.
I am sure that when my hon. Friend’s amendment is successful, he will arrange for his noble Friends in the other place to deal with any clarifications required as a result of our debate. Earlier today we heard a statement on the west coast main line franchise, and we saw how the whole franchising system is in a state of shambles. Is that not going to have an effect on private sector investment, making it important to get even quicker investment in rail projects across the UK, through Directly Operated Railways, through Network Rail and other means to ensure that we gain the benefit—to the rail industry, to passengers and to the economy—now and not four, five, six or seven years down the line?
My hon. Friend is entirely right. This sends a message that the Government are incapable of running some of these bidding arrangements, incapable of awarding schemes in a competent and straightforward way and have no transparent or available methodology for scrutiny. That is my wider point. If we compare the laudable statements in the national infrastructure plan back in November 2011 with the actual progress made on many of those schemes to date, we see that the Government have fallen short in many different respects.
The Prime Minister said just under a year ago that the plan for job creation made it critical to get construction projects off the ground. My hon. Friend referred earlier to the Construction Products Association, which predicts a 13% decline in spending. Is it any wonder that the director general of the CBI says that Government plans for infrastructure are hot air—a complete fiction?
Looking through the detail of that national infrastructure plan helps us to realise how far the Government are falling short. Let us start looking at some of the particular schemes that are of great concern to our constituents here in the United Kingdom. The A14 road link between Felixstowe and the midlands, for example, was promised immediate investment in the national infrastructure plan in 2011, but the Department for Transport has now said that the construction will not begin for six years, subject to agreement with various local authorities on funding packages and so forth. There is already much concern about that particular scheme.
The Mersey Gateway bridge is another example. Many Cabinet Ministers described it as incredibly important. I think the Chancellor and the Transport Secretary at the time said that it could be implemented quickly, but although the Department for Transport wanted construction to begin in 2010, there will not be a preferred bidder until late 2013. Construction will not start until the end of that year and it is not due to open until 2016, or potentially even later.
My hon. Friend makes some important points about the consistency of Government leadership in seeing through some of the projects in the infrastructure plan. Comparison between the original plan for construction of November 2011 and the update in April this year suggests that 182 new projects have been added, but 63 disappeared without explanation. Does my hon. Friend agree that for any measures to have effect, leadership is necessary to see the projects through and to gain clarity on the outcomes we want to be delivered?
My hon. Friend is totally correct. Ministers seem to think they can come to the Dispatch Box and make a set of announcements, which will then magically happen as they busy themselves in their part-time political advisory roles or whatever they happen to be doing. If we start to walk through the projects one by one, we realise that Ministers are not gripping the issue.
My hon. Friend must have noticed during the Conservative party conference that the chaos and shambles goes right to the top. The Prime Minister claimed that work on the A11 was already under way, but any check on the Highways Agency website will show that the first spade will not be put into the ground until January. The Government simply do not know what they are doing, do they?
A pattern is emerging, but I shall not use the word “omnishambles”, which is probably past its best. There is great concern about these schemes. Thameslink, for example, is a project that is slipping considerably. The contracts for rolling stock were due to be awarded by early 2012; then it was by the summer, and now the Department says that the contract with the preferred bidder will be signed in the autumn. The Transport Select Committee is on top of that issue. It is writing to Secretaries of State asking why there is a delay with the rolling stock procurement, and I am sure that the Minister will be able to reply to that question when he responds to the debate. However, many other significant questions about delay need to be answered.
We need to know about the ongoing programme of work on the north Doncaster chord, a rail link that is greatly needed in that part of Yorkshire. The national infrastructure plan of 2011 promised that a business case would be provided by April 2012, but the proposed development is still awaiting a decision from the Secretary of State, which must be delivered before production can continue and construction can start.
The preferred bidder for the extension of the Northern line to Battersea was announced in June. A Treasury source then told the Evening Standard:
“The entire weight of the Government is being thrown behind the extension of the Northern Line”,
but nearly a year after the Chancellor’s autumn statement, the extension is still subject to the existence of funds. Despite backing from the
“entire weight of the Government”,
Transport for London can only say:
“Subject to funding being in place and permission from the Secretary of State for Transport, the new stations could be open by 2019.”
The construction of the Green Port Hull was due to begin this year, but Siemens now says that it will not sign a contract for the wind turbine factory until 2013. As for carbon capture and storage, the Department for Energy and Climate Change was supposedly
“developing a streamlined selection process”,
and £1 billion of capital was supposedly available to support the project, but construction is not due to begin until 2014.
Planning permission was granted in March for biomass electricity generation at Royal Portbury dock, but E.ON is currently taking time to
“review the prospects for the project in light of the UK Government’s current banding review”.
Again, a Government decision is awaited.
I am sure that I do not need to mention the issue of the 4G mobile spectrum auction and roll-out. Many Members may be checking their not necessarily 4G-compatible handsets as I speak. However, I will say that a very messy approach was taken to the auction of that particular regulatory arrangement, and that anyone who may be thinking of buying an iPhone 5 should be careful, because it will not necessarily be compatible with many possible providers. This is an example of our falling many years behind the United States, Germany, Sweden and parts of Asia. Unlike this country, they already have 4G services which are giving businesses opportunities to benefit customers.
We need only compare the much-vaunted promises of the 2011 national infrastructure plan with the actuality of the infrastructure pipeline that was announced in April. Although 182 new projects had been added, 63 had disappeared without explanation. Of the 357 projects announced in November that were updated in April, nearly two thirds were still in pre-procurement stages, and just 38 had proceeded to procurement or construction. Of the 229 that were still at the pre-procurement stage, three quarters were still at the same stage as had been reported in November 2011, and 36 had moved backwards.
Members may recall the regional growth fund, the supposed successor of the regional development agencies and, supposedly, the Government’s flagship alternative for regional economic development. Although the winners were announced in, I believe, April 2011, fewer than half the final offer agreements in rounds 1 and 2 of the fund have been put in place. Only £60 million of the £1.4 billion fund to spur growth has been released to businesses, and, according to a report by the Public Accounts Committee, the £364 million spent by the fund so far has been held up in intermediaries such as banks and local authorities.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case, and I hope that we shall hear a response to it shortly. Has he seen the assessment by the British Chambers of Commerce which—before the election, I believe—identified 13 critical infrastructure projects, and said that although three were going ahead, there had been little or no progress on eight of them? That is a lamentable situation. Businesses across the country are desperate for those projects to go ahead.
It is very difficult to find an explanation for this Keystone Cops approach to infrastructure schemes, other than that the Government are incapable of getting to grips with the detail. I welcome the Minister to his position—he may be a new broom who will sweep everything clean, deal with the issues firmly and move many of these infrastructure projects forward—but I want to hear about his strategy for improving infrastructure on these shores, in the United Kingdom.
May I intervene on my hon. Friend before he leaves the subject of the regional spread of investment? He will recall that on Second Reading I informed the House of changes in the level of infrastructure investment region by region. Some regions experienced an increase in investment between 2009 and 2011—most notably London, whose 18% increase was probably fuelled by the Olympics—but all the rest of the country, apart from three regions, experienced a reduction. Investment fell by 31% in Yorkshire and the Humber and the north-west, and by 32% in Wales. Does my hon. Friend think that the Bill, and the fund that it will establish, will provide an opportunity for some of those regional imbalances to be redressed?
I would like to hope so, but I do not advise my hon. Friend to hold his breath. We are not even talking about a fund; we are talking about promises to under-run funds in order to guarantee other schemes as they come forward. Where is the confidence? Where is the demand in the economy? Where are the private sector schemes whose organisers want to come forward? Far greater efforts must be made, and the Government must take the economic climate more seriously. We should be bringing forward schemes, prioritising UK infrastructure, and kick-starting construction here at home. We have suggested that revenue from the 4G spectrum auction should be used to fund the building of 100,000 new homes, and we are more than happy for the Chancellor to steal our thunder in the autumn—or should I say Christmas—statement on 5 December. Our amendment would ensure that the Bill focused on the British economy, and that should surely be the starting point.
I think we should be a bit careful. I thought that the Bill to which we are being invited to consent would provide solely, or primarily, for guarantees and loans, but in fact it allows expenditure and
“any… kind of financial assistance”,
which could include direct purchase. It certainly includes court or prison facilities and roads, which, in many cases, will involve no revenue, so presumably that means direct spending.
I think that the right hon. Gentleman is technically correct. The wording of the Bill is very loosely framed. We know that accounting officers in the Treasury had put a big question mark over exactly what Ministers were proposing. They wanted one line to cover them in circumstances in which things might go wrong, and they would be challenged and hauled before the Public Accounts Committee. That dates back to the 1932 concordat on public accounts, and it is being radically changed by the Bill. We do not necessarily think that that is the wrong thing to do, but it is noticeable that legislation has been presented to the House of Commons by Ministers who cannot say what it will be used for. We need information on the specifics of the schemes and the dates on which they will be supported. That is the level of detail that we require.
Amendment 9 relates to the definition of “infrastructure” in clause 1. I am sorry that the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) was not selected; he noticed that flood defence schemes were not included in the list of items covered by infrastructure expenditure.
Our amendment seeks to insert the word “childcare”. Education is included in the set of infrastructure projects that might benefit from the scheme, but child care is quite different. We consider that to be an obvious anomaly which the Government should correct. We know that the costs of child care are afflicting many families throughout the country, a number of whom are not necessarily choosing to enter employment because the child care options are too limited or too expensive. One of the reasons why child care is so expensive is that the facilities are expensive. We do not have enough of them, and we need more investment in them.
Does my hon. Friend agree that many of the infrastructure projects the Government have talked about have been in typically masculine industries? Does he also agree that one of the huge advantages of investment in child care is that it also helps to redress the high level of female unemployment—it is the highest in a quarter of a century—because it offers the opportunity for more mothers to go out to work and because that sector remains largely dominated by female employees?
My hon. Friend’s point is borne out by the statistics. Only 67% of mothers in the UK are in employment, which compares with figures of 84% in Denmark, 79% in the Netherlands and 74% in France. That reflects on the characteristics of our national output and our economy. More could be done to help those parents to gain access to employment. Families in the UK with pre-school-age children spend more on child care than is spent by this group in any other OECD country, except Switzerland. More nursery places and more not-for-profit providers of child care would help to drive down that cost. According to the OECD, the cost of child care in the UK is more than 26% of the average family income in those circumstances, whereas the OECD average is just under 12%, so this is a very significant drag on family budgets and it is holding back our economy.
The Daycare Trust has called for Government assistance to enable children’s centres, smaller private providers and not-for-profit early years providers to expand. It has pointed out that some 28,000 extra nursery places for two-year-olds need to be found in London alone, so we can clearly see that child care issues need to be considered in the definition of “infrastructure” that could obtain support under this legislation. Those are the amendments that I wish to discuss for the time being, but other hon. Members will doubtless have noticed omissions in the legislation.
My concern about this Bill is with the definitions and the amount of money involved. I am obviously very much in favour of more productive infrastructure projects going ahead as quickly as possible. There may well be utility in facilitating the Government to make guarantees, support or indemnities available at a time when the banking system is still not functioning well and it is difficult getting these things financed privately in the way we normally like. However, I start from the proposition that what we really need to be doing is generating a lot more freestanding private sector investment projects. It would be better if we took stronger and faster action to remedy the banking problems that lie underneath the problems we face in getting these things financed.
I am concerned that the wide-ranging powers in clause 1 may lead to a big increase in public spending, which would damage the Government’s fiscal targets. A lot of time and energy has been expended by Governments on reducing capital programmes to try to get public spending down to levels thought to be more compatible with reality and markets. We want to avoid this Bill becoming a way of undoing all the hard work that has been done to try to get the deficit down, at a time when this Government strongly believe that deficit reduction is crucial. The outgoing Government actually enacted legislation committing themselves to halving the deficit over the lifetime of this Parliament.
The definition of “infrastructure” in clause 1(2) is wide ranging. I thought that the type of infrastructure we had in mind for this Bill was that in subsection 2(a), which states that infrastructure is about “water, electricity, gas, telecommunications”. Those services are all provided by the private sector with charges to customers, so there is a flow of revenue that can remunerate the capital. If those projects are held up because of banking difficulties, I have every wish to encourage the Minister, newly in his job—I give him my congratulations—to expedite them. One hopes that the Government would be properly rewarded for the indemnities and the guarantees, or that they would not be necessary in the fullness of time, and so the taxpayer would not lose by this process. I am happy with that provision, which I thought was the thrust of the Bill.
However, subsection (2) also provides for mixed projects and entirely public sector projects. It includes mixed projects in the form of railway facilities. Railways are extremely heavily subsidised, and any new project is likely to require many years of future subsidy, because such projects do not normally reward the railway operator or the taxpayer sufficiently from the fare revenue. We therefore need to consider, for any one of these projects, the medium-term and long-term implications of cash outflows from the public sector, as well as the private sector revenues. Those things cause difficulty in the evaluation, as we have found recently through one of the franchise problems.
Subsection (2) also makes provision in respect of areas where spending must entirely be an expense for the public sector—I assume that we are not envisaging court or prison facilities having paying guests who would contribute towards the costs, so this money will be entirely expended by the public sector.
I return to an argument about prisons that I made on Second Reading. New prisons cost substantially less to run per place than old prisons and can better develop wider policy objectives—for example, on rehabilitation and work in prisons. When debating the Bill, reference should be made to the spending on prisons that would come from the Ministry of Justice’s delegated expenditure limit. This approach would enable the capital expenditure to happen now, in order to take the savings later.
That is a helpful contribution, but it shows the dangers of this clause, because it demonstrates that if these projects are not properly evaluated they could be more expensive overall. My hon. Friend has recent experience as Minister with responsibility for prisons and he is saying that in the short term they will definitely be dearer, because the state will have a big cash outflow in order to buy the new prison. It will take time to close down the old one and find some alternative use for it, and that process might not produce anything like the amount of money that the new prison costs. He is arguing, with his former brief in mind, that this may still represent a good bargain for the taxpayer, but when we come to account for it, we will have to account for the fact that a lot more has been spent in the first couple of years; there may be benefits for Governments to come if, as he hopes, the thing is cheaper and better in the longer term.
In debating this clause, we need to unpack the three types of project we are talking about. The first is a genuine private sector project, where we hope that there will be no ultimate call on the taxpayer and it may just involve a facilitation guarantee that will be properly rewarded. The second is a mixed project, where a lot of accounting has to be done—as the Department for Transport is discovering, such projects are difficult to evaluate. The third is the pure public sector project, where we need to go into the departmental budget. So I hope that the Minister will give me some reassurances about this.
I follow the argument that the right hon. Gentleman is making, although I do not necessarily share his conclusion. Health facilities are defined as one of the fields of infrastructure that this fund could be used to support. The recent health Bill showed that the Government favour more NHS services being provided by private contractors and private hospitals. Is he telling the Committee that he would be happy for this fund to be used to finance a private clinic or a private hospital, but not happy for it to be used to fund an NHS hospital trust?
I am not trying to say anything that contentious. I am trying to unpack what is going on in this clause, because we are in Committee. I was not going to presume to give my views on total public spending, because that is a matter for another day and another debate. I am trying to get the Committee to understand that we are dealing with three different types of project, and the health one is closer to the pure public sector project. Even if it is carried out in a private sector facility with some so-called “private sector risk”, all the patients will be paid for by the NHS if it is for the NHS and so it is a flow of public revenue. We have to account for it in the proper way and be realistic about that.
The right hon. Gentleman is making an interesting argument. Does he not also accept that one of the difficulties with long-term infrastructure projects is that they have different phases, some of which may be susceptible to public intervention and some of which, later on, will require private investment. Let me give the example of a large site in my constituency that is currently in private ownership and has large redevelopment potential. The initial investment will have to be public investment to decontaminate the land and prepare the planning requirements, but down the line one would hope to see private investment. Does that not create a further accounting conundrum?
Yes, indeed. My point, which is not hostile to the Minister and is merely an attempt to inform the debate, is that we are discussing a set of very different projects and we are not sure what we are talking about because the Bill is very generic and general. We can probably all come to the conclusion that for this to work we will need precise control over what is being proposed—of how much of it is public, how much is private, how much involves a direct charge on the taxpayer and how much involves a guarantee or indemnity.
If a guarantee or indemnity is involved, I am sure that the Minister, with his forensic financial backgrounds and skills, will be able to keep control of it and to reassure the Committee that it is unlikely to be called on unless it was absolutely essential and a very important project would not go ahead without it, which would mean that it was a reasonable risk to run. I am happy at that end of the spectrum, as we will have to trust the Minister’s judgment and this is a good Minister with the skills and ability to do such things. We need to probe when such projects are proposed, however, as we are the custodians of public money and do not want to end up with white elephant projects with huge guarantees and indemnities that will in due course have to be met by some Government.
I am also concerned about the projects in which there is more of a mixture or a muddle, because they must be fitted in to the public expenditure plans. That does not prejudge whether the expenditure should be higher or lower, and there will be different views on that in the Committee, but they will need to be fitted into the plans. A large sum is involved—£50 billion—and we do not know the time scale. The Government might want to come back and ask for more money, and a provision allows them to do so by order, so I want a little more information from the Minister about how such projects will fit into the public expenditure plans and how Ministers collectively will evaluate the mixed projects that receive a big flow of public subsidy and, more particularly, those that really are public sector projects. They might be dressed up as private sector projects, but as far as I am concerned if all the money for the provision on behalf of customers or users of the service comes from the state, that is a public sector project and the private sector is merely a franchisee or agent of the state. If all the money comes from the state, I expect the state to have a grip of the project and to satisfy us that it represents value for money that is being organised in the best way.
I am not ideologically driven as regards the provision of state services. I think that should be done in the cheapest possible way, provided that they offer good quality, and that always causes problems, but I hope that the Minister will give us some guidance about how he will differentiate and seek reassurances about the granting of those indemnities and guarantees and about what proportion of the projects will involve pure public spending, as the Bill entitles him to spend as well as offer guarantees.
Although I accept much of the thrust of what my right hon. Friend has to say, does he not accept that if too much time and Treasury orthodoxy are spent on evaluating schemes at this stage, many of the infrastructure projects will simply not be built? We need to move ahead with getting them under way at the earliest opportunity if there is to be economic growth and some of the evaluation process to which he refers might be better placed at a later date.
I normally agree with my hon. Friend, but I am afraid that I do not on this occasion. There is not now an excuse to go in for projects that do not make any economic sense just because we all want some more growth and jobs. Indeed, that would be a very good way of setting us all back further as it would damage the public finances without giving us the benefit of a good project that people wanted to use and that produced plenty of user revenue. When one is in a financial hole, as our country is, one needs to be very careful. We look to the Treasury, in particular, to evaluate such matters carefully and I want a little more guidance because £50 billion is a huge sum. I am not surprised that so few MPs want to discuss it—if we were debating £500 million, the place would probably be packed, but because we are discussing £50 billion everyone has gone off for a tea or a coffee—but to me it is a serious sum of money and I want some reassurance that we will get something worth having for it.
The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) roamed over many of the issues covered on Second Reading and over the scepticism on both sides of the Committee. I say to the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) that I think evaluation is critical, as we have seen with the west coast main line, and undertaking projects on a wing and prayer at this stage is dangerous, to say the least.
The Bill, as we said on Second Reading, seems to be the reverse of the private finance initiative. PFI was meant to shift the risk on to the private sector, yet the Bill seems to shifting it back on to the public sector. I share the concerns. Clause 1(4) defines financial assistance in the broadest terms possible, so it could involve revenue assistance, and clause 1(3) refers to the operation of a project. In addition to a capital project, we could be subsidising in revenue terms the operation undertaken by a capital project. That leaves open the issue of hospitals being built by the private sector and then revenue supported under the Bill.
There are anxieties, but I do not want to repeat everything that was said on Second Reading. One suggestion I made then was that to assist the Government in clarifying their policy on Heathrow we should table an amendment seeking to enact the Prime Minister’s commitment not to proceed with a third runway or expansion at Heathrow before the next general election, leaving it open for a proper debate to be held at that time. My amendment simply does that. I am seeking to assist the Government in clarifying their policy and legislating accordingly.
I hope that the Minister will repeat the Prime Minister’s commitment tonight and, I hope, accept the amendment. That is even more important if we bear in mind recent statements. Only two weeks ago, Willie Walsh, the chief executive of British Airways, confirmed that he accepted that there will not be a third runway at Heathrow and that he would operate British Airways on the basis of that decision. In addition, this weekend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published its research on air pollution and the impact of a third runway at Heathrow, which suggested that the number of deaths from air pollution would quadruple if a third runway went ahead. This is an ideal time for the Government to put on the statute book the Prime Minister’s commitment that there will be no third runway at Heathrow in the lifetime of this Parliament. That is what the amendment does and I hope that it will receive a positive response from the Government.
The thrust of my speech will reinforce the remarks made by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) about the reassurance we should receive about the possibilities opened up by the Bill. The mechanism I have chosen to secure that reassurance is to table an amendment that would delete the reference to housing. I have no intention of pressing it to a Division; I am merely seeking clarity on what we want to achieve with the Bill.
On Second Reading, the Opposition spokesman said he thought that housing was infrastructure, but I am afraid that I do not—neither does the “Oxford Dictionary of Economics”, nor do The Economist or the Government in their 2011 national infrastructure plan. That does not mean, however, that I do not think that investment in housing is essential or necessary, which was the conclusion slightly unfairly drawn by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington on Second Reading. Given his interest in criminal justice, I was somewhat surprised that he then juxtaposed the need for decent prison facilities—
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his customary self-criticism and generosity.
The Minister must give us the necessary clarity. I note that the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) has tabled an amendment on housing schemes that would add the words “of national significance”—or words to that effect. It is at that point that alarm bells start ringing for me, as the Member for Reigate, a constituency wholly within the metropolitan green belt. We have had a significant increase in housing, particularly through infill but also through new housing schemes that were agreed and supported by the local authority, and there has been development in parts of Redhill, but that has actually led to a shortage of infrastructure to support the people in that housing.
We desperately need two new primary schools locally, and then there is the small matter of the M23 never being finished. In these circumstances, when we are looking for capital schemes, it might be rather nice if the M23, several decades later, was finally finished properly where it joins the A23. In addition to the schemes that the Government will come forward with, which I anticipate will be announced in the expenditure statement, I hope that we can begin to look at some of the schemes that have been around for a long time and that these funding mechanisms will help to enable expenditure on them to take place.
I am seeking the same level of reassurance that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham seeks. I have the same implicit trust that he has in the ability of the Economic Secretary and the team of Treasury Ministers to manage these things satisfactorily, but Parliament is owed proper accountability on this.
I am concerned that we will find housing schemes, particularly those of national significance, being imposed in the way they were under previous regional development strategies, with housing numbers simply being cascaded down from Whitehall to the regions, to the counties and then to local authorities, such as mine, in a way that leaves the borough councillors, as owners of the planning policy, completely unable to do anything other than mitigate the consequences. They have never been in the position that we, as a localist Government, want them to be in, in which they can judge between the economic and social need for housing locally and the environmental consequences of such development. Those are the balances that local authorities are there to draw.
The Bill will suddenly enable a substantially greater amount of new expenditure to take place, but where is the link with the rhetoric about planning policy? I just want to raise that concern, as I did on Second Reading. I do not want the financial provisions set out in the Bill to be combined with planning policy debates that take place elsewhere, and then suddenly find that in constituencies such as mine the powers of local representatives are being overridden in some rush to develop housing, which by no stretch of the imagination is infrastructure in the proper sense of the word.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the experience of the past 15 years is that there has been very little cascading down, despite all the intentions to build new housing? Is he perhaps becoming over-concerned that the inclusion of housing as one of the infrastructure heads might mean that only a number of housing schemes—relatively small ones; not necessarily national housing schemes—become the shovel-ready schemes that the Treasury is looking to encourage given that some of the other heads might mean that considerably more time is required before anything is built?
That is fine, but the borough councillors of Reigate of Banstead, as the planning authority, have a mandate from their local electors and they are perfectly capable of making decisions about the requirements for housing in the area and to weigh up the competing factors. That is the mandate they enjoy from local people and, as far as I am concerned, there is no need for the view that the gentleman in Whitehall knows best. If there is going to be a wider economic case for building, it needs to be made with great clarity. If that needs to be done with infrastructure of major national significance, there are bound to be occasions when local interests will have to be overridden in the wider national interest. As far as housing is concerned, the arguments are certainly significantly weaker in that regard than they are for actual national infrastructure, the benefits of which we will enjoy for decades to come. If we have too much jerry-built housing, we will then have to live with the environmental consequences for generations.
I draw attention to the interests declared in my entry in the register.
I disagree with the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), but I do not intend to engage in a debate with him. I will simply say that I think he is in for a big disappointment and that he clearly did not listen to the statement that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government made about changes to the planning system that will allow him to refer a whole series of matters to the Planning Inspectorate when he does not agree with a local council’s decision. I am afraid that that is where the Government have got to in relation to localism. However, I do not intend to enter into that debate.
I entirely understand why the hon. Member for Reigate misinterpreted the effect of amendment 2, because the amendment paper gives the impression that it was designed to refer only to housing of “national significance”. It was not. It is simply that housing is the last item prior to the next clause. My reference to “national significance” applies to all the items, including roads, sewers and all the rest, as well as housing. The purpose of the amendment, which is what I will focus on, is to limit the impact of the definition of the Bill to schemes of national significance.
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that clarification following my inability to read his amendment properly. On the planning point, and with respect to his long-established expertise and experience in this area, if he thinks that green-belt constituencies such as mine are liable to be affected under the changes he has identified, I am in the market for his advice.
I said that I did not intend to engage in a debate on that subject. I believe that we need a great deal more housing in this country, but I will not engage with the hon. Gentleman in a debate about his constituency, which he knows much better than I do, and I certainly would not advocate extensive building on the green belt, which would be entirely inappropriate. I was simply drawing attention to the fact that the Secretary of State’s recent decision on planning, which came a mere three or four months after the national planning policy framework was put in place, withdrew many of the original localist hopes about allowing decisions to rest with the local authority and made it clear that he would refer items over the local authority’s head to the Planning Inspectorate. To me, that is not localism, but let us leave it there.
I tabled the amendments simply to try to get clarity and focus on the uses and application of the Bill. As drafted, it is incredibly broad. I do not object to the definition set out in clause 1(2), but the definition in clause 1(3) states:
‘“Provision” includes acquisition, design, construction, conversion, improvement, operation and repair.’
As the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) pointed out, subsection (4) defines financial assistance as covering a whole range of activities, including
“loans, guarantees or indemnities, or any other kind of financial assistance”.
In theory at least, that definition would allow the Government to offer a guarantee literally on the repair of a door in a school or prison. Although that work might be entirely necessary and desirable, it is clearly nonsense for the provisions in this Bill, which are designed to allow major infrastructure schemes that are stalled for financial reasons to proceed. That is the purpose of the Bill.
I am following my right hon. Friend’s argument. I am slightly concerned about how he would define “national significance”. I can think of a number of important infrastructure projects in my region that could be described as being of national or regional significance. For instance, would dualling the A-road that goes around York be seen as nationally significant? Flood defences, a matter that I hope to raise later if I catch the Chairman’s eye, need to be designed on a region-wide basis. Would my right hon. Friend regard flood defences as being of national significance—if they affected the Thames, perhaps?
I think it very likely that any definition of “national significance” would include flood defence schemes, which are defined as infrastructure in the national infrastructure plan. My hon. Friend should not be troubled about their absence from the list, although he wishes to move an amendment to clarify the matter. There is no question but that flood defences are infrastructure, and if they protect from flooding areas of the country at risk of flooding, which is clearly catastrophic, the likely interpretation would be that they were of national significance.
However, I do not propose to add a precise definition; I simply want to give an overall, overarching legislative obligation for the Bill to be used for the provision of financial assistance to schemes of genuinely national significance.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly fair point, and I concur.
The Institution of Civil Engineers, the professional body for engineers and those involved in the provision of infrastructure, makes a telling point in its submission to us about the Bill. It says that the approval criteria that the Government have set out for considering schemes state clearly that
“any project must be nationally significant before it can receive financial support.”
It would clearly be a total waste of time if people read the fine print of the Bill and believed that it was appropriate for the kind of project to which the right hon. Gentleman and I were referring and submitted one, simply for it to be rejected because it did not have national significance. That is why the amendment has been tabled—to help the Government by bringing a degree of clarity and focus to the Bill.
I entirely concur with the objective of helping schemes that are stalled and ought to be able to proceed, but they should only be schemes of national significance. That is the purpose of my amendments, to which I hope the Government will be sympathetic.
I shall speak briefly against amendment 1, which would have the effect of limiting the definition of infrastructure to the items listed. That could mean that key elements of economic infrastructure would be omitted. We have already heard reference to broadband and flood defences, but I am thinking in particular of the installation of carbon capture and storage networks, such as the one proposed for Teesside, which already has strong private sector support.
Those networks will be vital for future economic growth and that type of investment must be included in the scope of the Bill. I would welcome clarity on that from the Minister and I ask him to consider adding such schemes to the list. Having said that, I accept the excellent inputs from my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) and my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt) on the need to limit how the Bill is implemented.
As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I certainly do not want any suspension of proper process, judgment or value-for-money assessment of any project that comes through under the Bill.
When we discussed the Bill on Second Reading on 17 September, I had no idea that just one week later the River Ouse was going to rise 5 metres higher than its normal summer level and put York once again in the national and international news as a flood-prone city. I am glad to say that the emergency was well managed by the local authority, the Environment Agency, Yorkshire Water and the police, who led the silver and gold command, of course.
The consequence was far less dramatic than 12 years ago, when the Ouse rose just 10 cm higher—about 4 inches, for those who are metrically challenged. On that occasion, some 230 homes were inundated. Some homes were affected this time, but the damage was much lower, in part as a consequence of investment in flood defences and other flood alleviation schemes.
Hard flood defences have been built in the city of York to provide better protection for houses flooded during the previous high flood 12 years ago. Other alleviation measures have also been taken upstream. There has been funding to encourage farmers to build ponds—in one case, a major dam that stores millions of gallons of water during a high-flood event—and to plant more trees to slow the run-off so that the peak height is a few inches lower than it would otherwise be. I have asked the Environment Agency to calculate whether those measures made the 4 inches of difference between this occasion and 12 years ago, so preventing hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of damage to hundreds of houses and commercial businesses, as happened then.
I should stress that throughout the flood, 99.9% of York was open for business. It gets a bad press whenever there is a flood because journalists are lazy and know that a pub called the King’s Arms in York floods four or five times a year, and it is as easy as pie to get a picture of somebody in waders pulling pints behind a bar. When people see such photos, they need to realise that York is up and running and not closed for business.
On Second Reading, I posed the question of whether the list of types of infrastructure in the Bill would include funding, or support through loan guarantees, for flood defence schemes. The Economic Secretary took advice between hearing my remarks and replying to the debate. He said:
“I am advised that there is no reason for them”—
that is, flood defences—
“to be excluded, and we envisage their being part of the infrastructure that is being considered.”—[Official Report, 17 September 2012; Vol. 550, c. 747.]
Since the Economic Secretary has had an opportunity to consider the matter a little further in the weeks since Second Reading and was notified by an amendment that I tabled, which has not been selected, that I would raise this issue, will he go slightly further and reassure me and other hon. Members representing constituencies with considerable flood risk that it is not that there is no reason for such schemes to be excluded, but that they will be open for consideration if it is deemed appropriate?
I say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford), whose knowledge about these matters is enormous and whose judgment I respect—I normally consult him about matters of housing, planning or infrastructure—that I would be concerned if we limited the schemes to those of national significance. Some of the infrastructure that badly needs investment is important and will help to generate economic growth. Flood alleviation schemes, for instance, can support economic output by keeping businesses open and avoiding diverting expenditure to repairs when the funding could instead go to a future profitable investment that would generate a return.
I caution against limiting investment to matters of national significance. My right hon. Friend makes a telling point about the school door, but many schemes of local or regional, rather than national, significance ought to be candidates for consideration for the funds provided in the Bill. When the Minister responds, I hope that he will say something further about flooding and give an assurance that although we ought to be supporting schemes of national significance with this fund, we should not limit it to supporting such schemes and it should be open for the support of other schemes of local or regional importance.
We have heard excellent contributions from Members on both sides of the House. The shadow Minister rightly noted that the time for the debate has been restricted. That is not unusual when we first come back after a recess, but he made a fair point. However, I was taken aback when he then went on about many different issues that did not much focus on the nature of his amendments, as he could have saved some time for hon. Members to continue with a proper debate.
On the Opposition amendments, amendment 11 is designed to limit the Bill’s geographical ambit. My response is that it is clear that the scheme relies on the spending cover provided by the Bill and is designed to facilitate and accelerate infrastructure investment throughout the United Kingdom economy. The eligibility criteria have been published. For example, the guarantee scheme contains provisions requiring the infrastructure to be of national significance to the UK. Such conditions will be sufficient to achieve protection against the UK supporting other economies. If I understood the hon. Gentleman correctly, he was concerned about the potential effect on economies outside the UK.
Since Second Reading, have the Government been able to develop any further their ideas on how the spending under the Bill will be allocated within areas where there are devolved legislatures? In Scotland, for instance, how much will be allocated by the Scottish Government and how much will come directly from the UK Government? Can the Minister elucidate and illuminate us on that point?
Yes. There is no geographical division within the United Kingdom as regards the total amount of £50 billion that is being allocated in the Bill. Applications will be dealt with and assessed on a case-by-case basis as they come in from different areas of the UK, including the devolved authorities.
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to continue, there may be time for him to contribute later.
Any Government expenditure will need to satisfy the standard requirements relating to value for money, and the accounting officer will need to be satisfied about that expenditure. It is also worth noting that, as the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) said, making a very fair point, there may be instances where infrastructure that receives a guarantee is cross-border in nature. In those cases, we would not want to be prevented from providing financial assistance to the UK aspect of the project because of a technical limitation. I therefore beg the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 9 would insert the word “childcare” after the word “health”. The amendment is unnecessary because social infrastructure, including child care, is already captured under the Bill, and so any child care facilities will be accommodated within the current definition. However, even including child care within the definition would not ensure that a provider of child care facilities was able to obtain financial assistance under the current scheme because the application will need to fall within the ambit of one of the schemes being operated which relies on spending cover provided by the Bill.
At this point, I would like to deal with the comments of the hon. Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley). I well remember that he raised the issue of flood defences on Second Reading, and he is right to do so again. It shows just how deeply he is concerned about the issue on behalf of his constituents, and I respect that. I can say again that his local flood defences are not excluded within the definition in the Bill. In the case of projects of that nature, applications should be made under the process and they will be considered like all others.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) for his kind words regarding my new position. He made two broad points. First, he rightly raised issues about overall deficit targets for the Government and their overall plan to deal with the reckless deficit inherited from the previous Government. Let me assure him that the reason we can have this programme of guarantees is the credibility that this Government have built up. Long-term interest rates and Government debt are less than half what they were when this Government came to power. That credibility is recognised by the financial markets. Sadly, the financial markets are not open for all borrowers as they were in the past. Some very viable commercial infrastructure projects cannot tap into lending in the financial markets, whether through bonds or other types of debt mechanism. The Government are using the credibility that they have built up to offer and provide these guarantees.
That brings me to my right hon. Friend’s second point. The type of projects that are intended to be considered under the Bill are private sector-led ones that are commercially viable and creditworthy in their own right. The Government will make an assessment of each project. Let me say a bit more about how that will be done, because it is important. The Government have already set up a team within the Treasury called Infrastructure UK, which retains commercial specialists with the financial skills needed to handle a scheme of this nature. The due diligence process will involve external advisers in the same way as a financial institution, for example, would involve external advisers, and the governance structure will include expert members drawn from the private sector. At the end of this process, Infrastructure UK will have to assure Ministers that the project is commercially viable and that the only impediment to its going ahead is that it does not have the usual access to debt markets that it would have had under normal market situations. Even then, the Government will charge for a guarantee and have to be satisfied that they will not make a loss on their support for the project.
I cannot tell the right hon. Gentleman exactly what the budget will be because that depends on the amount of work that the Infrastructure UK team is asked to do. In other words, it depends on the nature of the applications and the complexity of the projects. However, I can say that the income generated from the guarantee, and other sources of income, will be used to pay those expenses. The Government therefore do not believe that there will be a net cost in terms of the management costs of the team.
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, the term “commercially viable” covers a multitude of sins; it could mean almost anything. One of the reasons that businesses may not be able to raise the cash from banks or in the money market is the length of the payback on the scheme. Will there be any limit on the length of payback on these commercially viable schemes, given that infrastructure investment often does not pay back for decades?
That is a good point. There will be no limit on the length of the guarantees that the Government can issue to support the schemes because, as the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, many infrastructure projects typically require very long-dated debt which could involve a period of 20 to 30 years. There is a limit on the application time frame whereby all applications under the Bill have to come in by 31 December 2014, but there is no limit on the debt profile that can be guaranteed.
I think that the hon. Gentleman will know that there is no way I can tell him that. I cannot predict the future; he may be able to do so, but I am not. I can tell him that there have already been expressions of interest from more than 50 project sponsors and that the Government have entered into negotiations with a number of them, but no final decisions have yet been made. He will also know that, in the national infrastructure plan published last year, the Government identified numerous key projects worth more than £200 billion, so there could be a substantial number of projects.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way on the point that he was good enough to respond to earlier. He said that there would be charges as part of the project costs and that, therefore, there would be no net cost for consultants to advise the Treasury’s Infrastructure UK team. Does that also apply to consultants who may be required to advise other Departments as part of this due diligence process? Will there be a net cost to those Departments for such advice?
Because of the charges that the Government will make for the guarantees, we anticipate that there will be no net cost. Of course, that cannot be absolutely guaranteed, because our current projected cost profile may change, but it is anticipated that the income will cover most of the costs.
I want to pursue an important point. Will any of the £50 billion of loans, guarantees and financing be allocated directly to the Scottish Government, the Welsh Assembly Government and the Northern Ireland Government to allocate themselves, or will every project in Scotland and the other devolved regions have to go directly to the Treasury, or will there be an intermediary mechanism to ensure that the funds will be allocated throughout the UK? An answer from the Minister would be genuinely helpful.
That is a good question. It reminds me that I cannot remember any Member from Scotland or Northern Ireland being present during our lengthy debate on Second Reading. The recess was about to start, so perhaps they though it was a good opportunity to take a longer break. Let me be clear: this is a United Kingdom Government Bill. It is based on macro-economic policy, which is a reserved power for the United Kingdom Government, and takes advantage of the credit-worthiness of the United Kingdom Government. Members discussed the referendum on Scottish independence earlier, and this scheme is a great example of the strength of the United Kingdom when it works together. If we asked project sponsors in Scotland whether they would prefer a United Kingdom Government guarantee or a Scottish Government guarantee, I know which one they would pick. On deciding how those guarantees are used in devolved areas such as Scotland, the United Kingdom Government would work closely with their counterparts in the Scottish Executive, but the final decision would be for the United Kingdom Government.
I do not want to say too much about amendment 10, tabled by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), because the issue has come up a number of times, but I will point out that international connectivity is an important issue for overall economic growth. This Government believe that maintaining the UK’s status as a leading global aviation hub is fundamental to our long-term international competitiveness, but we are also mindful of the need to take full account of the social, environmental and other impacts of any expansion in airport capacity. That is why we set up the independent commission under Sir Howard Davies, which will issue its final report in the summer of 2015. Any decision on whether to support any of that report’s recommendations will be taken by the next Government. In any case, the coalition agreement is clear on this issue. That represents the Government’s position clearly, so I do not think there is any need for the amendment and ask the hon. Gentleman not to press it..
Amendment 4 was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), who said that he raised the issue on Second Reading. I remember discussing it with him at the time and afterwards. The Government believe that the definition of “infrastructure” should be broad enough to include housing, because housing and rented homes are a fundamental part of supporting a young dynamic work force and millions of other people, as well as of increasing the overall supply of housing. Including housing in the Bill’s non-exhaustive, illustrative list makes clear our intention to introduce major investment in the UK and increase the number of houses being built and occupied.
I reassure my hon. Friend, however, on one of his key points. In no way does this deal with planning issues or take away planning authority from local authorities. He should be reassured that the Localism Act 2011 is unaffected —there is no change to that—and the Government have no plans under this Bill to impose housing on any local authority with different views. This is about providing financial support for housing projects that meet the Bill’s criteria.
If I have not been clear enough, I apologise to my hon. Friend. Perhaps I could write to him later in order to be clearer, or even have a meeting with him on this particular issue.
I will respond to amendments 1 and 2 together. The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) was right to point out that many Members seem to have misunderstood his proposal to add the words “national significance”, by linking them to a definition of housing. I get his point. It is fair to take both amendments together, because he is considering the overall definition of infrastructure and trying to make it more inclusive. The amendments are, however, unnecessary and I will explain why. The Bill’s purpose is to allow the Treasury, or the Secretary of State with the Treasury’s consent, to incur expenditure in support of the various infrastructure projects. Members will be aware that “infrastructure” has a plain English meaning, namely the physical facilities and installations needed for the functioning of a community or a society, such as transportation and communication systems, water and energy facilities, and public institutions, including housing, hospitals, schools and universities.
I can confirm that CCS facilities are not excluded from the definition of infrastructure. If a project sponsor wanted to suggest such a project, it would be duly considered by the team under the scheme’s terms.
Finally, it would be difficult to define “national significance” and that may take away from the overall intention of the Bill. Perhaps I do not need to make that point because it was made very well by the hon. Member for York Central. I therefore ask the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich not to press his two amendments.
I welcome the speech by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood), who sought to tease out the Minister. Unfortunately, I am not sure that the Minister has provided the clarification that was sought. In clause 1, subsection (1), which provides that money may be provided by Parliament, is negated by subsection (5), which states that it would be provided on the say- so of the Treasury. This is a Government Bill that avoids real scrutiny by Parliament. I suspect that that is the objection of the right hon. Member for Wokingham, as well as my own.
I am grateful to the Minister for his clarification on interconnectors and gas pipelines. That is an important point.
I would ask for greater clarification on whether the “sewerage and other services” referred to in subsection (2) might apply to payment for ecosystem services along the lines of the Catskill model in the United States, whereby water bill payers in Manhattan end up paying farmers in the Catskills to maintain their land in a certain way to ensure that the purity of the water supplied to Manhattan is maintained.
It seems to me that the reference to “operation” in subsection (3) is so wide that to call this an infrastructure Bill, in the real sense of the provision of infrastructure, is nonsense.
The Minister will not have the opportunity to respond to me at this stage, but I trust that he will be able to clarify those points on Third Reading.
I am not satisfied by the Minister’s answer on amendment 11. Nothing in the Bill precludes the £50 billion from being used largely—never mind in part—to bankroll foreign infrastructure schemes. He did not address that point carefully enough. We believe that the focus has to be on economic recovery here at home in the United Kingdom. The Minister may well believe that he would not sanction schemes that strayed beyond that, but reshuffles come and go—we could even end up with a Liberal Democrat Minister in his position. Who knows what would happen in those circumstances?
For those reasons, as well as those that I enunciated earlier, I would like to press amendment 11 to a vote.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
I beg to move amendment 7, in page 2, line 3, at end insert—
‘(6A) In any agreement to give financial assistance in this section the Treasury or Secretary of State shall give reasonable consideration to clawback provisions which safeguard best value for the taxpayer.’.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 12, in clause 4, page 3, line 8, at end insert—
‘(f) the beneficial owners of any debt issued by a company receiving infrastructure assistance or one of their subsidiary companies,
(g) the beneficial owners of any company which has entered into an agreement to receive infrastructure assistance,
(h) for the purposes of this Act beneficial owner has the same meaning as that conferred by the Money Laundering Regulations 2007.’.
New clause 3—Customer due diligence measures
‘(1) Before any infrastructure assistance is given the Treasury must apply customer due diligence measures on any business requesting infrastructure assistance.
(2) For the purposes of this Act customer due diligence measures will have the same meaning as that conferred by the Money Laundering Regulations 2007.’.
Amendment 7, which stands in my name and those of my hon. Friends, seeks to ensure that the Bill provides a safeguard for taxpayers’ money. After all, £50 billion of guarantees could be underwritten for the private sector on pretty much any kind of scheme, and we heard fuzzy logic from the Minister earlier, when he said that infrastructure is not quite as defined as it appears in the Bill, and that some projects could be national and some foreign.
In some circumstances, underwriting can be beneficial and welcome—it can make schemes viable that were not viable previously and unlock infrastructure developments that might not otherwise take place, but in other circumstances there are disadvantages to underwriting. Underwriting means that gains from a private endeavour are privatised, but that any losses are socialised. The entrepreneur, the shareholder and the owner of a private company or project that benefits from the safety net provided by the taxpayer could profit well for many years if a scheme bears fruit, but if the scheme goes wrong and if there are failures in it, the losses fall on you, Mr Gale, on me, on hon. Members and, most importantly, on our constituents.
I make no apologies for standing up for the taxpayer’s best interests. It is important that we ensure that Ministers consider introducing clawback provisions that safeguard best value for taxpayers. The amendment is so unobjectionable that I cannot understand why the Government would object to it. The Opposition are simply saying that, in any agreement to give financial assistance, the Chancellor or Secretary of State
“shall give reasonable consideration to clawback provisions which safeguard the taxpayer.”
What do I mean by “clawback provisions”? Hon. Members who have served on the Public Accounts Committee will know that from time to time Governments have entered into contracts and sold privatised parts of the public sector. The purchasers have then gone on to make millions of pounds when they have sold on some of those assets. In this case, the guarantor has ended up facilitating a project, but the beneficiary of the guarantee went on to make significant sums.
We are simply saying that the Treasury needs to make sure that there are clauses in the underwriting contracts—the offers—that ensure that if significant gains are made in the long term, the taxpayer can have a share in some of the future profits. It is a basic principle—if the taxpayer helps to create profitability for a person and bears the risk of loss, that person can reasonably be expected to share some of the excess profits with the taxpayer. It is a basic principle of prudent stewardship of taxpayers’ money. It would also ensure that we deal with the question of moral hazard. We know that in some circumstances underwriting can cause difficulties if a scheme that might be shaky goes ahead as a result, which is of course a distortion of the market environment.
If schemes go ahead and make significant gains and provide future returns that are in excess of what might be expected, the taxpayer could have some rights to those. For example, in a prime executive housing site in central London developed thanks in part to the Government underwriting property market risks, the units may sell at multiples of expected initial prices, with vast profits for the developer. In the current situation, what would the taxpayer get? Foreign-owned energy companies want a pipeline stretching from our shores across the continent, which could well be underwritten by the provisions in the Bill. If we fund part of that as taxpayers, but the company makes significant long-term returns on the oil and gas, what should be the taxpayers’ share in that?
Do not the Government appear to be privatising the profits, but socialising the losses? How can that be fair?
That is indeed the approach taken in some of the underwriting provisions. Of course there can be circumstances in which that makes sense, perhaps to tip a project that is viable and in the national interest from something that might not happen to something that moves ahead in a way that benefits everyone.
The amendment does not even say that every contract should have a clawback provision: we are simply saying that the Treasury should be under a statutory obligation to give reasonable consideration to the insertion of clawback clauses in the contracts. That is the be all and end all of amendment 7 and I hope that the arguments are fairly straightforward. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s view.
I wish to speak briefly to amendment 12 and new clause 3, which are both in my name. Both relate to the reports that the Government propose in clause 3 should be annually produced, and to the transparency of the companies involved in this support for infrastructure, which I welcome.
Both the amendment and the new clause follow discussions that I have had with my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary, who is now in his place on the Front Bench with his new ministerial colleague, whom I also welcome. The amendment and new clause are prompted by the fact that we often do not know the identities of the beneficial owners of the companies with which the Government do business. Companies often have shares owned by trusts or other companies based in countries that do not require disclosure of ownership, and I shall give a few examples.
The M6 toll road is owned by Midland Expressway Ltd, which is owned in turn by the Macquarie Motorways Group Ltd, which is in turn owned by Macquarie Atlas Roads International Ltd of Bermuda. It is controlled by Macquarie Infrastructure Group, but the identity of its investors and therefore of the owners of MEL remains unknown and undisclosed. In 2006, however, they paid themselves a £392 million exceptional dividend, and over six years made a return on their investment of more than 150% a year. This sort of profit at the public’s expense by we know not whom is not an acceptable arrangement, and I want the Government to be warned against it and to ensure that all owners are in the public domain.
Arqiva, as a private sector monopoly, is regulated by Ofcom. It runs all the transmission services for all UK terrestrial television broadcasters and for BBC Radio and most commercial radio services, owns two of the four digital multiplexes, supplies the Government with mobile and wireless communications and supplies three quarters of all police forces. It receives annual revenues of about £1 billion and makes annual losses of about £250 million. The ultimate owners of the company appear to be based in Bermuda, although we do not know who they are, and Arqiva has paid no corporation tax for four years.
Thames Water, the UK’s largest water supplier and a monopoly private sector company providing a public service with which the public therefore has no option but to deal was bought by Macquarie European Infrastructure Fund in 2006. The long-term debt held by the company was £3.4 billion and is now £7.7 billion. When the company was bought, Thames Water took on all the debt taken out by its owners to buy the company, which was more than £3 billion. To do that, it set up a company in the Cayman islands, Thames Water Utilities Cayman Finance Ltd, which is registered at an address at which are registered 18,000 other companies.
Over the past four years, Thames Water has made profits after tax of £314 million, £331 million, £225 million and £247 million, and has paid dividends of £398 million, £291 million, £271 million and £480 million, but in the last tax year paid no tax. In the previous year, it paid £500,000 in tax, and the year before that £16 million, yet it has a stable operating profit of about £600 million a year. I could go on. There are health care companies, and the company currently negotiating with the London fire brigade over the water to buy the old fire brigade headquarters looks as if it is based in the British Virgin Islands and the Isle of Man.
I shall make one short point and then give way.
The other really important thing—this is the purpose of new clause 3—is that we should require due diligence to be carried out in the same way as we require it for money-laundering prevention. The trouble is that it is not done properly and is not effective.
On a point of order, Mr Gale. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman. Surely, the point of a Committee stage is to allow a Bill to be considered at greater length and in greater detail than is possible on Second Reading. Owing to reasons beyond your control, Mr Gale, we have less than half the time for debate in Committee that we had on Second Reading. We have not yet finished clause 1. All the other clauses will go unconsidered in Committee. Would it be in order, Mr Gale, for you to make a report to the Chairman of Ways and Means about how this Committee stage went, so that he and the Panel of Chairs can consider whether it is appropriate for us to have such short Committee stages on the Floor of the whole House?
I am conscious that the first of my amendments is technically deficient—which was my fault, not anybody else’s—but I hope that Ministers will accept the point and amend the Bill in the other place. I will press them hard—I know that I have support from colleagues in both other parties in this place—to try to get the change made. I am hopeful that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who is in his place, has heard the proposition and will be able to respond.
Debate interrupted (Programme Order, 17 September).
The Chair put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83D), That the amendment be made.
The Chair then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83D).
Clauses 1 to 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.
Bill reported, without amendment.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
We have had an excellent and informative debate. I am grateful to everyone who has taken part in scrutiny of this important Bill and to members of all parties who have contributed as it has passed through the House, and I am grateful for the constructive, thoughtful and considered approach that has been adopted by most Members.
When the global crisis hit, the United Kingdom was among the hardest hit. Our recession was among the deepest, our deficit was among the largest, and our challenge to deliver sustainable recovery was among the greatest. The Government have set out a comprehensive strategy to deal with the challenges that we face. Fiscal, monetary, tax and structural reform are all playing their role to deliver our objective of lasting recovery and sustainable public finances. That strategy has reduced the deficit and helped to deliver near-record low interest rates.
As a result of the tough decisions that the Government have made and the responsibility and credibility of our long-term fiscal plans, the UK is a safe haven in a global debt storm. Ten-year gilt interest rates are now 1.9%, less than half what they were when we came to power. We are in a position to help unlock private sector infrastructure investment because of the strength and credibility of the UK Government’s balance sheet.
May I briefly develop a point that I raised earlier? The Minister confirmed then that the Bill was a UK-wide measure, and that funding from the scheme would be provided for all parts of the UK from the Treasury. Will he now confirm that it will be possible for a private sector project in my constituency in Edinburgh to apply directly to the Treasury for support, without needing to go through the Scottish Government?
Yes, I can confirm that any application will go directly to the UK Treasury. If an application were made by one of the devolved areas, the Treasury would consider working with its counterparts in that area, but the decision would be made by the Treasury itself.
As my hon. Friend knows, my colleagues and I support the Bill strongly. May I give him a chance to deal with a point that he did not have a chance to deal with earlier? Will any investment made through the arrangements in the Bill allow the Government to track down the beneficial owners of any companies with which we do business, and to find out where they are based? May I also ask whether the due diligence rules that are set out in the Money Laundering Regulations 2007 will be applied, so that there will be a check on the interest rates, the creditworthiness and the ethics of the companies in question?
My right hon. Friend began to make his point in the earlier debate, but was unfortunately cut short. The Government are keen to ensure that when they analyse each application that will benefit from these guarantees, they establish the identities of the true beneficial owners of every scheme. Although that process is not included in what was deliberately designed to be a short Bill, much of the detail is included in the individual schemes. It will be in the UK guarantees scheme, and also in the programme that will cover the housing element of the guarantees, which will be published shortly.
My right hon. Friend also raised a point, in relation to one of his amendments, about the beneficiaries of the debt guarantees. He may have been alluding to the actual holders of the debt instruments. Although I understand and sympathise with his principle, this approach would not be very practical because debt instruments, particularly bonds, are tradeable and so, as with gilts, it would be hard to track the owners of those instruments.
I am glad that the Minister was addressing the important amendments tabled by the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), but I wish to focus on transparency in respect of not only the beneficiaries, but the person receiving financial assistance. The Minister will know that, because of the knife, we did not get to my amendment asking for the details of the persons receiving some of this funding to be placed in the public domain. Will he give a commitment that that information—the details of those beneficiaries—will be made public?
The process of analysing each of the applications under the Bill will include a thorough due diligence process, which will examine the beneficiaries in each case. The Government will not issue a guarantee if they are not satisfied with the outcome of that due diligence process. It is not the standard procedure for the Government to publish all the information they look at when making decisions on guarantees, but the hon. Gentleman should be assured that this will be a very thorough process, which will have the assistance of outside sources if required.
It may be helpful if, at a date in the near future, friends from all parties might have an opportunity to talk through these things with the Minister when the other scheme on housing is published. May I alert him to the fact that the due diligence tests under the Money Laundering Regulations 2007 are, by objective assessment, not always effectively applied by the banks? So it is all very well having the tests in theory, but we need to ensure that the tests for this Bill are carried out in practice and that we can all see that they are effective and as stringent as they were meant to be.
The Minister was boasting before the last interventions about near-record-low interest rates of 1.9%. What does he think about the judgment of that by the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier), who was trusted and appointed by the Chancellor to be his party’s member of the LIBOR investigation committee? He said:
“The reason we have a low interest rate is because the economy is absolutely screwed.”
We have low interest rates because, for once, we have a Government who actually understand public finances. Less than an hour ago, the shadow Financial Secretary, in introducing his latest amendment, said that he was concerned about the use of taxpayers’ money—I had to have a little chuckle to myself, because what happened to that during 13 years of Labour government? Our national debt tripled. He also talked about clawbacks, and there is one clawback I would be interested to learn about. When the previous Government sold off our precious gold reserves, did they negotiate a clawback at that point? I do not think so.
I will plough on.
The Government are committed to delivering a sustainable, private sector-led recovery that is balanced across industrial sectors and across geographical regions. To achieve that ambition, the Government are committed to delivering world-class infrastructure. Firms will have access to the communications and transport networks that they need, wherever in the UK they happen to be, thus enabling Britain to compete on the world stage. Our national infrastructure plan sets out an ambitious but credible road map to deliver on that vision—a £200 billion pipeline of upcoming investment in key, large-scale projects, of which more than two thirds will, typically, be financed and delivered by the private sector.
A number of key infrastructure projects are close to starting construction but are being delayed because of the difficulties they face in securing the finance and investment that they require, and the housing market continues to suffer from an under-supply of homes in key areas. Even under favourable credit conditions, raising the amount of private finance required to deliver these projects and to meet these goals would be a challenge. However, the disruption caused by the instability of international financial markets and its adverse effect on long-term debt provision makes it clear that proactive, decisive action is needed now. The Bill will allow us to take that action and bring forward the investment that is needed.
As hon. Members will know, the principal aim of the Bill is to facilitate headline schemes for infrastructure and housing investment, to accelerate and bring forward significant investment in major UK infrastructure projects and to increase the number of homes being built and occupied. Through the Bill, guarantees provided by Government will help to ensure that when projects are struggling to access private finance due to adverse credit conditions they can now go ahead.
What will be the success measures for the Bill? The Government have presumably set some measures by which its performance will be assessed. How many schemes and what type of schemes will go forward as a result of the Bill and how many will be required for it to be seen as successful?
That is a good question from a former Housing Minister—I am sure that he has all types of structures in mind, including housing. The Government cannot predict the applications we will receive under the schemes. As we said in Committee, how success is measured ultimately depends on how many projects the Government can help to finance. I am confident that many projects will come forward—they have already started to do so—and the requirement on the Government to report back annually will allow the right hon. Gentleman to judge the Bill’s success for himself.
Is not the real point that the Government are taking action? Does my hon. Friend agree that it is that action that is important? We do not necessarily need to consider what the measures of success might be in the future, as the real point is that the Government are actually doing something, unlike the previous Government.
As always, my hon. and learned Friend makes a fantastic point and I agree wholeheartedly.
The Government have agreed in principle, and subject to strict approvals criteria, to make financial support available to infrastructure projects, using the strength and credibility of our balance sheet to support the investment we need. The Treasury and the Secretary of State already have common law power to issue guarantees, make loans, and give other financial assistance. In addition, in some cases, Secretaries of State have express statutory powers to support infrastructure. However, the Treasury does not have authority to incur expenditure in relation to guarantees on the scale that I have outlined. Moreover, Members will know that there is a long-standing convention dating back to 1932 that Government should not rest significant and regular expenditure under common law powers on the sole authority of general supply legislation. So, to achieve the crucial level of financial support required for key infrastructure projects, we need new primary legislation.
The legislation authorises the Treasury and, where appropriate, the Secretary of State, to incur expenditure for providing financial assistance. The Bill will allow the Government to support crucial investment in key areas of economic and public service infrastructure. That will include utilities, such as energy and telecommunications; transport, such as railways and roads; infrastructure to provide public services, such as hospitals and schools; and housing development to deliver much-needed homes. We estimate that up to £40 billion of investment in infrastructure and an additional £10 billion in housing investment could be accelerated under the UK guarantee scheme using the powers in the Bill. Importantly, we will put in place strict guidelines and eligibility criteria for the schemes to protect the taxpayer and ensure the Exchequer does not take on unacceptable fiscal risks.
In Committee, I was asked about application time frames. Let me clarify that the time frames are detailed in the scheme rules, not in the Bill. Any proposal that receives an infrastructure guarantee will, as a minimum, have satisfied the requirements to be nationally or economically significant; financially credible; good value for money for the taxpayer; not solely dependent on a guarantee to proceed; and ready to start construction within 12 months.
The projects we expect to back will be structured to minimise potential losses to the Exchequer, so there will be a minimal impact on public sector net borrowing as a result. The exception is under the extreme circumstances that a guarantee is called upon or other forms of financial assistance are provided. Furthermore, we will levy a commercial charge for the services received by infrastructure providers, ensuring that companies pay a fair price for the benefits they receive and taxpayers receive a fair price for any risk being taken.
We have designed the UK guarantee scheme to ensure that critical infrastructure projects receive the investment they urgently require.
Further to the Minister’s earlier clarification, will he assure us that any moneys committed or guaranteed to support an infrastructure project in a devolved area will be truly and fully additional to allocations under the Barnett formula, or will some subsequent adjustments be sought?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that the commitments for guarantees or other moneys used under the Bill will have nothing to do with the Barnett formula and that it will be true and genuine assistance from the United Kingdom Government for any area of the United Kingdom, including the devolved areas.
In conclusion, I believe that this is an important and much-needed Bill. It will allow critical infrastructure projects that are being held back by adverse credit conditions to proceed. It contains measures that will support growth, jobs and families, all at a minimal cost to the taxpayer. It will support the UK’s construction sector by providing access to finance for financially credible and high-value-for-money projects. It will help unlock the investment that the UK requires, it will help make the UK one of the predominant places in the world to do business, and it will support sustainable growth that is balanced across sectors and regions. I commend the Bill to the House.
Although the Opposition will not oppose the Bill on Third Reading, we do not think that the matter should rest there. It is not the most impressive Bill ever placed before this august Chamber. The Minister said that he was grateful for the excellent and informative debate we have had so far, but we had a pretty farcical two hours of scrutiny in Committee; we managed to debate only clause 1 and had no debate on a third of the amendments that were tabled. I think the Government showed a large measure of disrespect to the process of parliamentary scrutiny in the way they misallocated time for today’s discussions.
This legislation is very much in the frame of mind of the “wait and see” game we are used to seeing from the Chancellor and the Treasury team. They hope that something will crop up but are not exactly sure what. The Minister said that he hoped there would be some expressions of interest in something or other but that, ultimately, he cannot predict the future. My right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) asked the killer question: what will be the measure of success for the Bill? What answer did the Minister give? Essentially he said, “We cannot not really predict that, but we are confident that projects will come forward, so judge for yourself.” That is a totally embarrassing and appalling way of managing and advocating what should be a far more sophisticated approach to making public and economic policy.
The country deserves far better than the “wait and see” approach from Ministers. Surely there should be some semblance of projections for how the Bill will be deployed and some way of gauging what that interest is, rather than just putting it out there and hoping that something will happen. But of course we must not forget that the Bill is in large part a device to make it look as though the Government are actually busy. There is one effective sentence in clause 1 that covers the blushes of the accounting officers so that underwriting arrangements can span various financial years, but essentially this is makey-uppy, make-work legislation to make the Government look determined and busy in the Chamber.
Do not forget that we will have a growth Bill in due course, although we are still not clear what will be in it. The Prime Minister famously said that we cannot legislate for growth, so we will see what becomes of that Bill.
The hon. Gentleman criticises the Minister for not laying out what the hon. Gentleman regards as the criteria by which the Bill’s success is to be measured. What are the criteria by which the Opposition will measure the success of the Bill, given that they are not going to divide the House on Third Reading?
We did not have time to discuss some of our amendments. We wanted far more information about the nature of the loans, underwriting and even grants being given to the private sector. The right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) tabled some important amendments that we did not get the chance to discuss in any great detail.
My amendment 5 simply talked about making sure that the public can know to whom the financial assistance is being given—a pretty basic tenet of transparency and accountability for public resources. The Minister could not say that that information would be in the public domain. We are not even necessarily allowed to know to whom the financial assistance is being given.
The Minister says that due diligence will be thorough as far as the Treasury is concerned, but what about the rest of us? Our constituents send us here to keep an eye on what the Executive are doing with public money. Without that basic information, how are we to judge the success of the legislation?
The hon. Gentleman knows that I share his frustration that we did not have more time to look at the issues in Committee. I suggest that that is not the Government’s fault. I remember many occasions when we had exactly the same problem under the Labour Government. Rather than blaming the Government, will he and his colleagues work with us to make sure that we have a system across Parliament—just a change in the rules that gives injury time if urgent questions or statements take up time for principal legislation? That is a way of solving the problem, and we would all be much happier as a result.
Of course we can have arrangements. There are perfectly available arrangements for making sure that there is time for legislation, but the Opposition do not control the timetabling of debates. I do not want to bang on about the procedure, but suffice it to say that it was inadequate.
We did not get a chance to debate the reporting mechanisms for what happens in terms of the financial assistance given to unknown persons. The hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) asked what measure we would have of the Bill’s success. I think that there should be reports not every 12 months, but every six months. If the issue is so urgent and there is a national emergency—if it is a case of, “Let’s get infrastructure going and press ahead with capital investment”—let us have far more frequent reports.
We do not know how much taxpayers’ money is on the line, how much is being committed per project, what form the financial assistance will commonly take, what type of companies will receive the financial assistance and even what type of infrastructure projects will receive such assistance. There are a lot of unknown unknowns in the legislation.
I hoped that we would have the chance to cover other key points. For example, I am particularly concerned about the availability of social housing. I mentioned earlier that in my city of Nottingham, not a single extra affordable social house was built in the last financial year. That is unacceptable.
Perhaps the situation will be made worse by the fact that the housing stock of certain local authorities has been transferred to housing associations, but quite a number of authorities either retain their council housing stock or have arm’s length management organisations —ALMOs—doing that. As I read the legislation, if someone’s local authority has not moved to housing associations, they will not be able to benefit from the underwriting as much as people whose local authorities have, because ALMOs and local authority-retained stock areas cannot be underwritten because of the borrowing constraints. There is a perfectly legitimate question—not a partisan question—about how we ensure fairness from one city to another and one area to another, but we did not get an opportunity to debate those issues.
I am pleased that the shadow Minister is now concerned about social housing for his constituents, because perhaps he can explain to them why, during his party’s 13 years in government, the number of social houses fell by a net 421,000 and the number of people on the social housing waiting list went up from 1 million to 1.8 million.
If the Minister were talking on the basis of having made some progress or having reached some level of achievement as regards housing policy, perhaps he would have the right to start throwing accusations about. Of course, far more could and should have been done in the past, but after two and a half years under his party’s Administration, where are we going on housing construction? According to the Construction Products Association, it is going through the floor; “free-fall” is the phrase linked to the CPA in this morning’s Financial Times.
Exactly; my right hon. Friend is right. Official data show that construction output is down by 11.6% on the year before, and the Construction Products Association predicts a 13% fall in infrastructure investment this year. When one starts to look at what is actually happening in the real economy and the real world today, it is clearly not about the announcements that Ministers bring to the Chamber as though they represent reality. The Bill may well go on to the statute book after this debate, but if the Government are relying on it alone, we remain concerned that the infrastructure schemes for housing, schools, child care, transport and so forth which should be proceeding will not move forward as effectively as they should.
There are other concerns that the Minister has not addressed, perhaps because the Government do not have an implementation plan that they can allude to. For example, they have not talked about state aid clearance. The Bill says that financial assistance can be given to particular industries and private sector ventures in operations, in maintenance and in repairs, but perhaps to the exclusion of other companies. What is the Government’s approach to state aid clearance from the European Union? If they hit such a barrier in the EU, will they simply say, “Well, another month, another quarter, another year has gone by and we didn’t get state aid clearance”? How are they approaching those barriers, and when will they report to Parliament about how they are going to tackle these issues? Those are more obstacles that they do not appear to have addressed in any way.
Does my hon. Friend perceive that under the Bill there is a risk of the UK Government granting guarantees to companies in a way that would mean that those companies could gazump other projects that had been developed, perhaps in devolved areas, and come in on a pretty anti-competitive basis, not only constraining the choices of devolved Administrations but ruining the chances and prospects of companies that were working on projects and making good offers in those areas?
That is the sort of point that should have arisen if we had had the opportunity properly to scrutinise the Bill.
Most people observing the Government and the workings of Parliament from outside assume that there is a level of sophistication in the Treasury and that the people there must have a level of intellect and capability that is somehow superior to the rest of us. They do not realise that when one looks inside the Treasury it is clear that those people are crossing their fingers, holding their breath, and making it up as they go along. This back-of-a-fag-packet approach to legislation simply will not do. This country’s growth prospects have been worsened by this Administration’s policies. As the former US Treasury Secretary, Larry Summers, wrote in the Financial Times this morning, economies that become stuck in a vicious circle of austerity and stagnation will find it ever harder to deal with their deficits and stabilise public finances.
The Office for Budget Responsibility’s out-turn figures show that the Government are cutting capital expenditure by more than £6 billion more than the previous Government planned. Combined with other austerity measures, this has resulted in a collapse in infrastructure investment. More than 119,000 construction sector jobs have been lost so far, and according to the Construction Industry Training Board the Government are spending £8 billion more in benefits for the 188,000 unemployed construction workers.
Borrowing is not falling, but rising this year—it is up 22% in the first five months of this financial year compared with last year. This Government are borrowing not to pay for investment and positive development, but to pay for the failures of their economic plan and to cover the costs of considerable increases in welfare in particular.
We need an alternative that focuses on action today and that understands that we need to introduce—really introduce—some of the capital schemes, roll up our sleeves and get on with them. The 4G mobile spectrum auction will take place soon and we hope that it will yield at least £3 billion. Let us put that money towards 100,000 new homes and put some serious investment into infrastructure. Let us build on some of the successes that we know Britain can deliver on infrastructure.
There is a complete mismatch between the Government’s words and their actions: our infrastructure is deteriorating, not improving; construction work is down, not up; and hundreds of thousands of young people are languishing on benefits while businesses delay the investment needed to maintain their competitiveness and market share. That is just not good enough and much more is needed than the vagaries of this Bill.
The Minister opened his Third Reading speech by claiming that we had had an excellent debate. If only! He must have had his tongue in his cheek when he said that. We have had a shockingly truncated debate in which only one group of amendments has been properly debated. The second group received only a perfunctory opportunity for debate, and that was cut short by the timetable at 9 pm. That left no time for any debate on three of the Bill’s four clauses. Frankly, that is not an adequate performance and I hope that conclusions will be drawn in the other place.
When I intervened on the Minister to ask what success criteria had been set to assess the Bill’s effectiveness, after a rather telling pause in which he had difficulty identifying success criteria, he referred me to the provision for annual reports, thereby neatly highlighting the fact that we had not had a debate about the frequency of the reports. I tabled an amendment to have those reports at six-monthly intervals, in order to make the point that the urgency for action to stimulate investment in infrastructure required a more accelerated timetable than the leisurely one proposed by the Government. Of course, we had no chance to debate that amendment, because it related to clause 3, which we never reached.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) rightly emphasised, the Minister’s response to our request for a definition of the success measures was essentially one of “Wait and see”. Frankly, this country cannot afford to wait and see. We are facing a serious economic crisis, which is more acute in the construction sector than in almost any other sector of our economy, and the serious problems affecting the construction industry are impacting more widely on the whole economy.
Urgent action to stimulate construction investment is absolutely vital. In theory, the Government are aware of that, because the Bill’s explanatory notes start with reference to the need for fast-track legislation. The notes ask:
“Why is fast-tracking necessary?”
They go on to say:
“The financial assistance is designed to assist infrastructure projects that may find it difficult to obtain private finance…The Government understand that there are currently commercially and economically viable infrastructure projects that are stalled because they cannot secure private finance. The timing of the UK’s proposed financial assistance is currently unclear, but the evidence indicates that there are projects that might be waiting only for finance before they can proceed to the construction phase.”
That may well be correct. We share the Government’s stated objective of bringing forward and accelerating the necessary investment. However, if that is the case, why can the Government not name a single project that stands ready and waiting to receive the benefit of the financial guarantees offered by the Bill?
In July, Lord Sassoon, speaking for the Government, referred to £40 billion-worth of projects that were ready to go by the autumn. I put it to the Minister that we are now in the autumn. If we are to see a significant proportion of that £40 billion of investment reasonably soon, we need to know very soon what those projects are. I put it to the Minister and to all Government Members from both coalition parties that it is not good enough to talk about good intentions but fail to come forward with concrete, practical proposals, particularly when they have said that the projects are shovel-ready and that it is only the lack of financial support from the private sector that is holding them back. They have said that the Bill is here to unlock that potential.
I repeat my question to the Minister: what are the success criteria? We believe that one measure of success would be a considerable increase in the investment in infrastructure. Back in 2009, in the depths of recession, investment in infrastructure was running at about £11.5 billion. That was the highest level for 20 years and was an indication of the previous Government’s commitment to infrastructure investment as one of the measures to deal with recession. Investment in infrastructure is now down to £8.6 billion and further falls are forecast. That is the record of the present Government. They have presided over a catastrophic fall in construction activity. Infrastructure, which was one of the few parts of the construction sector to survive the worst of the recession in the early years, is also falling. The industry is desperate for assistance.
The right hon. Gentleman refers to the record of the present Government, but it was under the previous Government that house building fell to its lowest level since 1923 and 1924. Why does he not welcome the action that this Government are taking in the way that it should be welcomed?
The hon. and learned Gentleman clearly did not listen to the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), who pointed out that house building levels have gone down further under this Government. The levels are now at their lowest since the 1920s and are lower than when the Government came to office.
The sad thing is that when the Government came to office, the housing sector was recovering. [Interruption.] It was recovering. If Government Members look at the statistics, they will see that in—[Interruption.] They clearly do not want to listen to the statistics. In the second quarter of 2010, there were more than 30,000 new starts in the housing sector. That was a recovery from the depths of recession. Since then, that level has never been matched. In the latest quarter, the number of starts was down to 23,000—a level that is consistent with an output of less than 100,000 in any one year. That is a shameful record, for which this Government are responsible. I say to Government Members that, for all their bravado and posture, their record is a shameful one and will hang around their necks as the British electorate come to see just what a mess their failed policies have left.
In conclusion, this is a Bill that we cannot object to in principle, because investment in infrastructure and housing is vital. Sadly, it is a Bill that, on the evidence that we have heard tonight, will not deliver what the Government say they would like to see and what Opposition Members would dearly love to see: increased investment in infrastructure and housing. The country needs it and the industry needs it. Sadly, I fear that the Bill promises it, but will not deliver it. Only time will tell, but the Government’s failure to respond adequately on the question of the success criteria speaks volumes about how this is a triumph of spin over substance.
I had not planned to speak on Third Reading, but I have been moved to do so by how seriously the Committee stage was curtailed this afternoon. For the entire Committee stage on the Floor of the House, we have had less time than a single sitting of a Public Bill Committee. I put it to the Economic Secretary that proper scrutiny would have done a great service to the objectives of a Bill as important as this, on which the Government are rightly looking to build a consensus in the House and beyond. I say that not least because those with an interest, who will have to finance, plan, deliver and make decisions about the big infrastructure projects that our country needs, could have had the chance to give evidence to the Public Bill Committee. That would not have held the Government up for long, but it would have made the Bill and the debate on it a great deal better.
We did not reach some amendments and new clauses today, but I hope that the Economic Secretary and his colleagues in another place will seriously consider amendment 3, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford), about the frequency of reports; amendment 12 and new clause 3, tabled by the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), on transparency, due diligence and the tracing of beneficial owners; and new clause 1, tabled by my right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor, on social and affordable housing. The Economic Secretary gave the House the impression that he cared about that matter, so I hope he will take that suggested provision seriously.
I do not just say, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich did, that I can find little to object to in the Bill; I positively welcome the aims behind it, and I will welcome action should it follow from the Bill’s provisions. It makes sound sense to make the private sector balance sheet support the public sector balance sheet and bring the two together, especially at a time when public finances are limited and normal lending is constrained.
The principles and aims of the Bill are sound, but the question remains whether the Government can put schemes in place in a way that is simple enough and speedy enough to ensure that the necessary action follows. The Economic Secretary will have to forgive me if I have a certain amount of scepticism about that. After all, it is almost a year since the Prime Minister promised
“an all-out mission to unblock the system and get projects under way”,
and almost two years since the Government published their first national infrastructure plan. It is almost two and a half years since they set up the Infrastructure UK unit in the Treasury, which the Economic Secretary has mentioned today, with its remit to
“provide a stronger focus on the UK’s long-term infrastructure priorities and meet the challenge of facilitating significant private sector investment”.
It has been so long, and there has been so little action, that business, investors and industry are all understandably losing confidence in the Government’s ability to act. That was reflected in the CBI’s annual infrastructure survey published recently, which concluded:
“The message to Government is a wake-up call that businesses in Britain are looking for action and we haven’t seen any yet.”
It found that business and industry were less confident about the Government’s ability to drive investment into crucial transport, energy, water and waste projects than they were a year ago.
I hope that the Bill will be part of a proper rebalancing of the British economy, and that the Economic Secretary will recognise that investment is currently heavily skewed towards London and the south-east. I hope he will take seriously his own interest in seeing a cross-party consensus because, in the end, long-term infrastructure projects do not correspond to our political cycle—they require cross-party consistency, confidence and consensus. If the Bill can contribute to that, it will build a sound basis for that consensus for the future.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.