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Outsourcing of Public Services

Volume 555: debated on Tuesday 18 December 2012

I called for a debate this afternoon on the outsourcing of our public services. I am grateful to Social Enterprise UK, in particular Celia Richardson, for putting together the report, “The Shadow State”, and for raising this important matter and providing fresh insight.

Although politicians can easily become fixated on the high-level discussions in politics, we need to remember that one of the most important roles of government for most people is the provision of high-quality, front-line public services. Over the past 200 years in Britain and throughout the world, Government have become more and more central to the delivery of services vital for millions of people: health care, child care, policing, prisons, helping people back to work, education and transport are just a few of the areas that the public sector reaches. Since 1945, Britain has seen a vast centralisation of such responsibilities away from the local level and from independent organisations and towards central Government. In 2010 prices, the budget has gone from £234 billion in 1945 to £660 billion.

A large proportion of the budget has been spent on public services, and we have seen massive improvements in many areas. I am proud of some of the achievements that have been secured, but we face difficult economic times and cannot expect to keep spending large quantities of money in order to increase the quality of public services. The vast structures of the public sector, which were appropriate in the 1940s and ’50s, are now starting to struggle to deliver the improvements in services and the productivity increases that we need for the decades ahead.

Over the past 20 years, Governments of all colours have increasingly turned to the private sector for delivery of public services, in order to reduce costs and to provide better outcomes. Oxford Economics has estimated that the current outsourced market for public services has an annual turnover of £82 billion, representing 24% of the total spend on goods and services by public services. Rightly, therefore, in July 2011 the Government released their “Open Public Services” White Paper, which sought to lay out the future direction of public services through five key principles: first, wherever possible to increase choice; secondly, to decentralise public services to the lowest appropriate levels; thirdly, to open public services to a range of providers; fourthly, to ensure fair access to public services; and, fifthly, to make public services accountable to users and taxpayers alike.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that a recent Confederation of British Industry report stated that more opportunity for private and independent sourcing of public services could produce savings of £22.6 billion, while maintaining the quality of service? Is that what we should be looking at?

I appreciate both the point made by the hon. Gentleman and the CBI’s report. I will be coming to some of those issues later in my comments.

I support those five principles, which I am confident that Members in all parties support as well. The Government have been clear that they are seeking to increase the amount of public services delivered by independent organisations. Seymour Pierce has predicted that the value of the public services sector will increase to £140 billion by 2014. That is a huge amount of public money and, rightly, we should be concentrating on how that money is spent and on how we ensure maximum benefit for our community. A concern, however, is that the principles outlined in the “Open Public Services” White Paper, to make our public services more accountable, more transparent and more in the control of communities, have not been realised in practice.

One deep concern is explained in the Social Enterprise UK report, “The Shadow State”, which has highlighted a significant lack of transparency and accountability, with information from those delivering our public services hard to come by. It also highlighted the increasing dominance of our public services by a small group of large multinational businesses and the difficulties that small business, charities and social enterprises have experienced in accessing provision of our public services.

My hon. Friend is a champion of social enterprise in the House, and we pay great tribute to his work. He is making a point about large private sector organisations. Is he, like me, sceptical about the big state, but also sceptical about big private corporations? The Government are making some strides in promoting local organisations, but does he believe they are being somewhat timid in their agenda to promote social enterprise locally?

My hon. Friend is also a champion of such issues. My speech is about that very subject: the change from public sector monopolies to, perhaps, private sector monopolies. We should be sceptical about that, as he said.

We need to be clear that, if we are opening our public services, we are doing so to achieve what is best for our communities, in a way that gives choice to commissioners and service users and that ensures appropriate levels of accountability. Unless the Government are able to deliver on their principles, we will not get the outcomes that we want from public sector outsourcing.

Over the past two years, through my work on the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, I have had the opportunity to speak to many community organisations and social enterprises about the Government proposals for opening up public services. Most are keen to engage in the process and to deliver services that are important to their local community. There appears, however, to be a number of obstacles to their involvement, some of which have been highlighted in the report.

First, the size of many contracts is a problem. I appreciate that commissioning on a large scale can create efficient economies of scale, but those are not the only economies that we should be focusing on; the most useful economy is secured through successful outcomes. Large contracts do not always lead to better outcomes, and can increase costs in the long term. For example, the UK Border Agency issued £1.7 billion in contracts for asylum-seeker services in March this year, but each of the contracts was for more than £100 million, completely locking out our charities, social enterprises and small businesses. The Work programme, in which £3.3 billion of contracts were awarded, saw one quarter of the contracts go to one company. That is not the opening- up of public services. Only a handful of organisations can bid for contracts of such size. More accessible contract sizes would go a long way to change the situation, as well as enabling a larger degree of social value, as such contracts are able to target additional benefits to be created through the commissioning process.

Secondly, there is an issue of governance and transparency. Despite extensive research, it is difficult for the public to access information about many public sector contracts. If I or my constituents have questions about state-delivered public services, we may ask questions in this place or through correspondence with Departments to get the appropriate answer. Private companies, however, are often not so willing or forthcoming with information, leaving a sense of unease among the public. Only greater levels of transparency and accountability can change that. I fully support the Government’s efforts to provide details on public spending over £100,000 at both central and local government level. That transparency should and can be extended to all public service providers. We cannot have one rule for public sector organisations and another for private sector providers. I appreciate that some information will be commercially sensitive, but I am confident that we can find a method that balances the public’s right to know with commercial privacy.

There should also be a central register of public sector contracts, both local and national, that are being provided by independent organisations, whether private sector companies, social enterprises, or charities, both past and present. That should outline the size of the contracts, their length, the expected outcome, and information about their success. All that should be online for ease of public access, and would not involve significant cost, because such information should be collected by commissioners in the regular course of their work. That would enable the public to see not only who is providing what services, but how successful providers have been, and could be a useful tool for commissioners.

The Government have rightly championed the cause of transparency to improve our public services, but that must be carried out across providers. I hope that the Government will work with commissioners, private businesses, charities and social enterprises.

My hon. Friend is making a good point about the role of national Government and supporting local commissioners. Is there a role for national Government to name and shame commissioners who are too slow in opening up to local providers, and to name those who are doing a good job and are at the forefront of the breakthrough of social enterprise, but shame those who just want the default of taking what had been a public service and giving it to the large national contractors?

Absolutely. Naming and shaming is always a useful tool in such circumstances. Our commissioners should be encouraged to have a greater sense of urgency in dealing with such matters.

The Government have rightly championed the cause of transparency, and public sector commissioners should take a closer look and a closer interest in the corporate structure of the organisations they are commissioning from. Traditional large multinational companies may have some advantages, but the social enterprise model may also have the potential to deliver better outcomes for our communities. At a time when we are seeking to spend every penny possible on better outcomes, there is concern that traditional private sector models that seek to deliver large returns for shareholders may lead to money seeping out of our public services that might otherwise be spent on improvements to those services.

Social enterprise combines the need to deliver profitability, to innovate and to deliver better outcomes with a sense of community purpose. Not only that, but most social enterprises reinvest their profits either back into the services they provide, or into the communities where they are based. Moreover, through the structure of community interest companies, which are a model that many social enterprises are adopting for public service delivery, communities are directly involved in the governance of the organisation. That gives communities greater levels of accountability than if those services are provided by larger organisations with less accessible governance structures such as multinational corporations. Sometimes that will not be possible, but the Government should encourage commissioners to be creative and to experiment with differing governance needs.

Thirdly, the Treasury can help directly by ensuring that small businesses, social enterprises and charities can have access to the finance they need to bid for these contracts directly. The creation of Big Society Capital has been an excellent example of the Government taking a direct approach to stimulate the social investment market, and social impact bonds also have great potential. However, those methods do not resolve all the issues that are in the way of civil society organisations, which is why the Treasury’s internal review of social investment is so important.

We must ensure that we create a new climate of confidence in the social investment market, so that mainstream lenders and institutional investors feel that they can participate. Big Society Capital is an important step forward, but on its own it will not be able rapidly to expand the social investment market. That will take place only when our banks, pension funds and venture capitalists take a full part in the market, so I hope that the Minister will give us an update on the progress of that internal review, and the main policy areas that the Government seek to address. Broadening community investment tax relief into social investment tax relief that gives incentives for direct investment into social enterprises and their intermediaries could be transformational, and relatively inexpensive.

The report—“The Shadow State”— highlights a number of key policy areas, such as child care, prison, welfare to work, and adult social care, which need to be addressed. The report is constructive and proposes solutions. I hope the Minister will take the time to read the report, and I am happy to give him a copy if he has not already read it.

As we embark on a change in how we deliver our public services, it is vital that we do so in the right way so that the public feel engaged in the process and we deliver services not only with the best outcomes, but in the right manner. Confidence in our public services is important because, without confidence, there is a danger that people will not access the services they need, leading to more expensive interventions down the line. Communities need to feel a strong relationship with the provision of those services, and that is why social enterprises, charities and small businesses are often better placed to deliver them.

The Government have rightly identified a problem in our banking sector about institutions that are too big to fail, yet there is a danger that by relying on a small clique of large multinational organisations to deliver our public services, we end up creating the same problem in public service delivery. The way to combat that is through changing the contract process so that we make contracts more winnable for smaller organisations, helping to build supply chains that are resilient and have a plethora of providers. That will not only reduce costs in the long term through proper competition on costs, but will spur forward innovation and enable greater personalisation and localisation of services.

The White Paper, “Open Public Services”, was a step in the right direction, building on a set of principles that have wide-ranging consensus. All parties went into the election promising to open the door for delivery of our public services, particularly to social enterprises, mutuals and charities. We must now all work together to ensure that implementation matches the rhetoric.

“The Shadow State” report has been useful in helping to refocus minds in this debate, and we must consider the issues now, while we are in the process of reform. We have a fantastic opportunity to change our public services for the better, to realise a future in which people feel ownership of the services they are using, and to spur innovation and creativity. The Government have rightly seen the need to reform public services, despite a period of considerable economic difficulty, but we now need to deliver on the principles that we have outlined.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on an excellent speech, and on his leadership in this matter. This debate contrasts enormously with another on the same subject in which at least two Opposition Members were decrying any involvement of private companies in the public sector. My Surrey community health care contract has gone to Virgin Care, and even within the first six months of operation, using much the same staff, but lifting the bar and using new working methods, the average waiting time for referral for a first appointment has gone down from 31 days to 19 days, and the waiting time to see a community nurse has gone down from seven days to two days. Customer satisfaction has risen from 71% to 82%. Is that not the sort of improvement that, if it were across the whole public sector, would do enormous good for all our residents?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and we should applaud such improvements. The same team is delivering the same products and achieving very different results. We should be able to see that across the sector.

To conclude, I hope that the Government will engage with all sides and work with our civil society organisations to help deliver our public services. We have a window of opportunity; let us use it.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Chope.

The outsourcing of public services is an area in which my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) has a great deal of experience; he feels strongly indeed. I commend him for the successful private Member’s Bill that he pushed through Parliament with support across the Benches and congratulate him on securing today’s debate. I agree with a number of points that he has made this afternoon, and I hope that he will, in turn, agree with some of the sentiments that I will express.

My hon. Friend referred rightly to the biggest issue facing the country: the size of the public sector deficit. There are a number of ways in which we need to go about fixing that problem. One of the most important is that when we spend public money—the taxes of hard-working people—we receive the best possible value in return. The outsourcing of public services, whether to small and medium-sized enterprises, social enterprises or larger organisations, is an excellent way to achieve that. I want to lay out the broad principles behind the Government’s approach and then talk about some of the specific reforms. I also want to talk about some of the measures that we have taken specifically to help SMEs and social enterprises.

The Government are committed to improving the quality of public services and delivering them more efficiently. Last July, as my hon. Friend rightly said— I am glad that he welcomed this—we published the “Open Public Services” White Paper, which set out five key principles: choice, decentralisation, fairness, accountability and diversity. If we are going to be successful in achieving those principles, transparency, which my hon. Friend also mentioned, is key. He talked about it, rightly, at length. Transparency is important to achieving all those principles.

Key elements of our approach include increasing the amount of services that we commission out, taking advantage of efficiencies and real-world benefits that the voluntary and private sectors can deliver and ensuring a diverse provision of services to drive quality through competition. We are also making greater use of payment by results, which is good for Government, because the financial risk is taken by the investor, not the taxpayer. It is also good for the voluntary sector, as it opens up many more opportunities for social enterprises and charities to deliver public services. I am sure that our thinking is very much in the same sentiment as that of my hon. Friend.

Let me turn to some of the key reforms. I know that it is easy for a Minister to stand on this spot and talk about theories and ideologies, so let me be a bit more specific and give some examples of concrete action that the Government have been taking. An example is the Work programme. The Government have taken tens of thousands of people off benefits and helped them into jobs. Figures released last month show that at least 56% of the scheme’s earliest participants have come off benefits, with 19% spending at least six consecutive months off them.

Another example is social impact bonds. My hon. Friend mentioned the importance of access to finance, particularly for SMEs, if they are to win contracts. Social impact bonds are a valuable new way to involve the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector in Government contracts based on payment by results. Already, almost 10 SIBs have been issued throughout the country, tackling reoffending, youth unemployment, homelessness and family breakdown.

We also have a big new opportunity for payment by results in probation, where we are testing a range of models with the private, public and voluntary sectors. As the Prime Minister said just a couple of months ago:

“With payment by results, your money goes into what works: prisoners going straight, crime coming down, our country getting safer.”

He has indicated that he wants to see payment by results spread right across the rehabilitation system by the end of 2015.

Regarding payment by results, I urge the Minister to be cautious about the difference between the desire to achieve improved performance based on payment by results in the short term and the provision of competitive tendering for Government contracts in the long term. One of the issues with privatisation is that it was a good way to make a substantial amount of money in the short term, but there have been competitive results in the long term. I think that part of today’s debate is about ensuring that the Government have the right balance between large corporations that can deliver in the short term and providing more availability for small and medium-sized enterprises to provide that competitive tendering in the long term.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about the tensions that sometimes exist between short-term goals and long-term goals, and he has used the excellent example of previous privatisation programmes. The Government will indeed take that into account.

With regard to prison procurement, we currently have five new contracts in train, bringing the total number of contracted-out prisons to 14. Let me move on to another example. In health care, we have seen an increased volume of treatments being delivered via independent providers. We heard an excellent example from my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord), who referred to Virgin Care in his own constituency. In 2010-11, 17% of hip replacements were delivered by independent providers—a rise from 0% in 2003-04. By outsourcing the services that I have highlighted, we are not only driving up the quality of services available and saving the public’s money, but increasing the public’s choice about the services that they receive.

My hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington spoke eloquently about the importance of social value in procurement. He is passionate about improving access to contracts for SMEs and social enterprises. I hope that he is pleased that the Government share that passion. In fact, every Department in Whitehall has a nominated SME Minister who is responsible for delivering an SME procurement action plan for that Minister’s Department. In the case of my Department, that Minister is me, so he will know who to harass if he believes that the Treasury is not making suitable progress in this area.

Thanks to the provision that I have described, more than 2,000 of the 5,700 contracts awarded through the Government’s contracts finder website have been allocated to SMEs, and we are taking steps to give SMEs greater opportunities to bid for contracts. The Government’s procurement pipelines give forward visibility of future potential public sector procurement opportunities, providing greater confidence for industry to invest. The Cabinet Office is tracking a pipeline of about 100 developing and established projects, worth £84 billion in total.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington not only for allowing us the opportunity to discuss this issue today, but for his tireless work in this area during the past two and a half years. “Procurement” and “outsourcing” are rather dry words that can, if we are perfectly honest, force more than the odd eye to glaze over. I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree, though, that discussions about procurement and outsourcing are crucial to ensuring that public money is spent wisely. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions today and I thank you, Mr Chope, for your chairmanship.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.