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Private Finance Initiatives

Volume 555: debated on Tuesday 11 December 2012

Last week, the Government announced the details of a new approach to replace the private finance initiative with private finance initiative 2, which is a more transparent approach to securing investment in public infrastructure. The Government will become a shareholder in future projects. We can all see now that the public sector was sharing the risk under PFI. We will now ensure that we also share in the rewards.

I looked at PFI for nine years on the Public Accounts Committee. I am sure people will agree that it was a good system that was scandalously misused to rip off tomorrow’s taxpayers for the sake of today and to rip off the public sector in favour of the private sector. How can the Chancellor assure the House that, if he is to use PFI 2 to pay for large infrastructure projects, we will not repeat the mistakes of the past?

I sat on the PAC under my hon. Friend’s chairmanship and I remember our investigations into various hospital and prison schemes that had gone wrong. As we saw it, there were three problems. First, contracts were very inflexible, so it cost a huge amount to do things such as change light bulbs or clean hospitals and the like. Secondly, the private sector got all the upside of the projects and made more money than expected. Thirdly, there was no control on the overall off-balance sheet total. We are addressing all three: we are creating more flexible and transparent contracts; we will share in the upside by taking a public sector stake and having the public sector on the board; and at the Budget we will set out a control total for PFI 2 liabilities.

The Chancellor says that things are getting better, but Essex county council has issued a social impact bond on which it proposes to pay 12%—six times the price of gilts—and the Government are putting £20 million into subsidising this financing. Why are the Government wasting money like that at a time of austerity?

I think that most people in the House—I thought this was the case in all parties—welcome the innovative work being done on social financing and social impact bonds. Sir Ronald Cohen is one of the leading advocates of this and has been advising the Government. It is all about trying to get new forms of financing into improving our society. I would have hoped she would have welcomed that, rather than criticising it.

Many on the Treasury Select Committee are already concerned that Whitehall Departments might again find themselves addicted to the “get something now, pay later” culture that bedevilled PFI the first time round. What is also concerning us is that a number of the proposals set out by the Government—I refer, in particular, to page 13 of the document produced—look more like motherhood and apple pie than something substantive enough to offset that Whitehall pressure. Will the Chancellor assure the House that, excluding value-for-money considerations, all accounting incentives to remove PFI from balance sheets will now be closed off to Departments?

I say to the Chair of the Treasury Select Committee that we will set out at the Budget—of course, he will want to scrutinise this carefully—a new control total for the off-balance sheet liabilities of PFI. We already now publish the whole-of-Government accounts so that people can see the liabilities built up under the previous Administration. The country now has more than £280 billion of PFI debt, of which only £40 billion has been paid off, so he is absolutely right to hold our feet to the fire to ensure that we properly account for this and remove perverse incentives in Whitehall. We want the private sector investing with us in public services, however, so it is important that we have the right regime.

The House will be pleased that the Chancellor is not trying to get rid of PFI, but trying to improve it in those areas where it can be improved. What does he mean, however, when he says that the Government will take a stake in the projects? How will he do that? It will need more than a director on the board, which I heard him say.

We propose to take a public sector share and put in an equity stake on behalf of the public sector. It will be a minority stake, but it means that we will share in the upside, and, of course, in order to keep an eye on our investment, we will have a director on the board representing the public sector, which was not the case in previous projects.

Cumbria’s health service is under immense pressure because of PFI deals going back a decade and more. What can the Chancellor do to go toe-to-toe with the private sector to renegotiate existing PFI deals to ensure that more money goes to front-line health services?

We are seeking to renegotiate existing contracts to get better value for money for taxpayers and local communities. I have a figure here showing that in north Cumbria the public were being charged £466 to replace a light fitting under the PFI contract that was signed. That is completely unacceptable—it is people being ripped off. That is what we are seeking to end.