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Volume 639: debated on Tuesday 24 April 2018

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office if he will make a statement on the financial position of Capita.

I genuinely welcome this opportunity to update the House on Capita’s announcement yesterday, which covered its 2017 full-year results, the launch of a £701 million rights issue and an update on its transformation programme. As I have told the House repeatedly, private companies can answer for themselves, but the Government’s priority is the continued delivery of public services. As we demonstrated with regard to Carillion, we have continued to deliver public services without interruption.

The House will recall that I came here in February when Capita initially announced the rights issue. Capita confirmed yesterday that it is proceeding in line with that previous announcement. The House might be interested to know that Capita’s statement yesterday announced that underlying profit before tax is £383 million for 2017, which is in line with market expectations; that, as a result of the rights issue, it has made a £21 million contribution to reducing its pensions deficit; and that, as a result of the announcement, the market reaction was a share price rise of over 10% on the day.

Capita’s board and auditors have confirmed that the company will continue to have adequate resources to deliver on its obligations, supported by its rights issue and other steps designed to strengthen its business. The rights issue is underwritten and the required shareholder vote will take place in early May. Management have confirmed that the key shareholders fully support their plan. In addition, the company has suspended dividends until it begins to generate positive cash flow; it expects to generate at least £200 million in 2020. The impact of all this has been to reduce dividends and shareholder returns in favour of other stakeholders. This, once again, is evidence of shareholders taking the burden, not taxpayers.

I understand that Members remain concerned about outsourcing companies, following Carillion’s liquidation. However, we must be clear that Capita has a very different business model and financial situation; it is not a construction business and it has minimal involvement in private finance initiatives. The measures that it has announced are designed to strengthen its balance sheet, reduce its pensions deficit and invest in core elements of its business. As I said in February, arguably these are the measures that might have prevented Carillion from getting into the difficulties that it did.

It remains the position, as I said in February, that neither Capita nor any other strategic supplier is in the same position as Carillion, but I would like to reassure the House that officials in my Department and I continue to engage regularly with all strategic suppliers. It is in taxpayers’ interests to have a well-financed and stable group of key suppliers, so we welcome the moves that the company announced yesterday.

The public will clearly be deeply concerned that yet another major Government contractor has been in financial distress, following Carillion and earlier service problems with Serco and G4S. Capita is not a construction company, but given that we are dealing with IT services that affect literally millions of people—for example, in relation to tax credits, disability testing and benefits, the congestion charge, the BBC licence fee and Army recruitment—what contingency plans has the Minister put in place since he was informed that the company’s losses are not sustainable? Is there a Crown representative in place? Have new contracts been stopped? Since the new chief executive announced cuts of £175 million a year, to make savings for the new company, how far have these been discussed with the Government, and how far have they a bearing on the provisions of those highly sensitive services? In the light of this development and earlier developments with Carillion, what steps have the Government taken to reform the system of Government procurement, so that we do not have companies low-balling to win contracts that then make losses, and to break up some of the contracts, so that we are not over-dependent on a handful of financially fragile companies?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his questions. I will seek to address them all, but please forgive me if I miss any. I will come back to him in writing if I do.

On the company’s overall position, it is important to understand that what has happened is exactly in line with what was announced back in February, so there is not really a new development. The company’s underlying position, as it has said publicly, is that it has about £1 billion of cash that it can call upon.

The right hon. Gentleman asks about the Crown rep. I confirm that the Crown rep is Meryl Bushell. I met her this morning and continue to engage with her, as I do with all the other Crown reps.

The right hon. Gentleman asks whether new contracts had been awarded. Since the statement in February, no new contracts have been announced by central Government. However, I understand that the BBC and authorities in Northern Ireland have announced contracts.

The right hon. Gentleman asks what we are doing to break up the system of Government procurement. I always ask, with every contract that crosses my desk to be authorised, whether we have broken it up into as many small pieces as possible to make it accessible for small businesses. Over the Easter period, I made an announcement to help us meet the very challenging target we have set of 33% of all business going to small or medium-sized enterprises. We set a target of 25% in the last Parliament and met it. I announced a range of measures to help us towards the 33% target. I wrote to all the Government’s key suppliers saying that I wanted them to appoint an SME representative to try to drive business to SMEs. I have required all their subcontracting over the value of £25,000 to be published on the Government’s Contracts Finder. I am consulting on ways to improve prompt payment to make it a condition of business being awarded to strategic suppliers. That is very important to SMEs, and I am looking at ways to give them a right to go over the top of key suppliers to the Government to give them a right of recourse.

I say gently to the right hon. Gentleman that both he and I have a proud record from our time working for the coalition Government—he at a much more senior level, running the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. In line with other Governments, we continue to award contracts to Capita. The House may be interested to know that of the major central Government contracts that have been awarded to Capita, about 20% were awarded under Labour, over half under the coalition Government and 27% under this Government. This issue does not to relate to one party over another.

The reason we do it is that we know outsourcing delivers efficiencies. According to one survey, we receive efficiencies of at least 11%. If we get efficiencies of 11%, that means more money to spend on health, more money to spend on education and more money to spend on core services. That is why the Labour Government did it, why the coalition Government in which the right hon. Gentleman served did it and why this Government continue to use outsourcing.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is something of a correction going on throughout the sector, as it adjusts to the effects of the Carillion collapse and to the perhaps over-tight margins that some contracts have imposed on providers? I draw his attention to the fact that the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee is doing an inquiry into the lessons to be learned from the collapse of Carillion. Personally, I take confidence from the fact that the investors have decided to trust Capita with £700 million more of their capital to secure the long-term future of the company.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is absolutely right that what we discovered yesterday was that the rights issue is proceeding exactly as planned. In terms of the overall market, I have tried to be clear all along that suppliers should expect a decent rate of return—not an excessive rate of return, but one that allows them to run a profitable business, while ensuring that there are savings for the taxpayer. That is why we use private companies. It is not because of ideology; it is because they deliver savings to the taxpayer, which means more money to be spent on health, education and other public services.

May I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question and congratulate the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) on securing it?

Capita is one of the strategic suppliers to the Government, providing services of particular strategic importance, yet, as we heard from its boss today, it had no strategy aside from mucking up the management of the dental register, leaving hundreds of dentists to stand idle; failing to maintain the primary care support service in England, which supervises GP and patient records; and failing on the Army recruitment contract, among many other failings. Members have been highlighting those and other failures to the Government over a period of years and will not be surprised at the latest news. I echo the call from the right hon. Member for Twickenham for the Minister to outline what contingency plans he has put in place to deal with a possible default on any one of those contracts.

The Government claim to be monitoring the situation and have a Crown representative in place, but do they even know what they are monitoring if they are not sure about the number of contracts Capita runs? I and other Members have asked for a list of Government contracts undertaken by Capita and have not been provided with one. Do the Government know how many contracts Capita undertakes across central Government and, indeed, across local government? Will they publish a list of all those contracts?

Will the Minister confirm what improvement plans have been agreed with Capita since its string of profit warnings or yesterday’s refinancing? What quality thresholds will be built into Government contracts to ensure that Capita and other privateers reach an acceptable standard of service delivery, particularly in view of their precarious financial situation?

This latest episode in the saga of outsourcing scandals again shows the public that the Government’s commitment to this practice is nothing more than ideological. Despite the danger to public services, along with the treats to Capita’s staff and subcontractors, the Government will not shift from their view that these giant multinational firms should make huge profits from the public purse, until the point when they fold, taking our public services with them. The Government act as though these firms should be allowed to privatise the profit of the public sector, while nationalising the risk to the British public. We need a change in direction now. Will the Minister use this latest episode involving Capita to finally introduce a presumption in favour of in-house provision of public services?

I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Gentleman, and he could have done a little better than some of the overblown rhetoric in his contribution. Yesterday’s announcement was entirely in line with market expectations.

The hon. Gentleman asks what is being done in relation to strategy. The strategy has been set out clearly by the new chief executive. It includes a revised divisional structure and executive team to better manage and enhance services and client value, as well as a rights issue, which, as I said, has proceeded as planned and will materially improve the company’s financial stability, thereby reducing its debt, enabling it to invest in core services, allowing it to reduce the pensions deficit, which it has done by £21 million—I hope all Members will welcome that fact—and allowing it to reduce its cost base.

The hon. Gentleman asks what contingency planning the Government are doing. As I have said, we undertake appropriate contingency planning in respect of all our strategic suppliers. I take a close personal interest in that as a Minister, and I know that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office takes a similarly close interest in it.

The hon. Gentleman asks about contracts that have been awarded to Capita, so let me give him the numbers. Of the current major central Government contracts that have been awarded to Capita, nine were awarded under Labour, which is 20%, 24 were awarded under the coalition, which is about 53%, and 12 were awarded under the current Conservative Government, which is about 27%. This is not a party issue; all three formations of government have decided to use outsourcing companies.

To conclude, I had thought that the hon. Gentleman would agree with the words of a previous Labour leader and somebody who many regarded as being, at least in some senses, a successful leader. Gordon Brown, hardly a rabid right-winger, said:

“It simply would not have been possible to build or refurbish such a number of schools and hospitals without using the PFI model.”—[Official Report, 14 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 665.]

That was a sensible Labour Government who were committed to delivering public services. We do not see such sense from the current Labour party, I am afraid.

While I agree with the thrust of the Minister’s response, I am afraid I have to tell him that a serious blot on Capita’s record is the Army recruiting contract. Capita does not have much experience in that area and has been underperforming very seriously on the contract for some five years. I told the House in Defence questions yesterday that it is now known universally in the Army as “Crapita”, because of its poor performance on the contract. Will the Minister accept it from me that, although nobody wants to see Capita go bust because of all the jobs that would be lost, equally we cannot have an Army without recruits? Therefore, this is one contract that Capita, honourably, should hand back.

I must tell the right hon. Gentleman that his second reference to the rather unfortunate nickname of the company concerned has just caused some merriment among school students in the Public Gallery. They clearly found it very funny, as did I, so the right hon. Gentleman may be a celebrity among those students—not to mention, of course, in his constituency and in many other parts of the country.

My children are aged six and eight, and on the off chance that they happen to tune into this later, I will make sure that I do not repeat that word, because I would not want to hear it around our breakfast table.

I know about the commitment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) to this issue; he is absolutely right to raise it. We all know that there have been problems with Capita, but I can update him and the House by saying that the MOD and Capita have agreed an improvement plan under their contract. I understand that Capita is looking to deliver on that plan, so I am confident that it is making steps in the right direction, although I do not deny that there have been problems in the past.

A £701 million rights issue after a £530 million loss, with a scramble to recover reputation after damaging contract bungles, is indeed indicative of a business with no strategy. Given the wide range of public services involved, is the Minister at all worried by the situation? If so, what precautions has he put in place to protect people’s jobs? Does he agree that this highlights a role for the public sector in providing vital public services? Given that he is wedded to the PFI model, will he take the time to look closely at the Scottish Government’s Scottish Futures Trust model, which has saved the Scottish Government £1 billion?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. As I have said, Opposition Members keep trying to characterise this as ideological, but the fact is that Governments of all colours have used outsourcing. Why? Because they know that that can deliver savings. It is just the same as when private companies use outsourcing so that they can focus on their core businesses.

The hon. Gentleman asks whether I take a close interest in this—yes, I take a close interest in all our strategic suppliers. On a weekly basis, I receive updates on the position and on the plans that we have, if necessary, in relation to all our strategic suppliers. However, I restate to the House that Capita’s position is not the same as Carillion’s—nor, indeed, are any of the other strategic suppliers in that position.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Labour party is interested only in the ideological pursuit of renationalisation at any cost? What matters to the public is that they get the best services at the best value to the taxpayer.

My hon. Friend’s raises a very important point that is another rebuttal to this idea of ideology. If we want to look at ideology, perhaps the number of PFI contracts signed by a Government would give an indication of that, so let us look at the numbers. How many contracts did Labour sign on average each year? Fifty-five at the peak. How many have this Government signed in the past year? One. If this is about an ideological commitment to the use of the private sector, Labour Members should search their souls in relation to their last Government.

The Minister makes great play of the 11% savings from contracting out, but it is no good making savings if core services are not being delivered well. Will he outline how many of the contracts he is concerned about—he has listed them a couple of times—and will he tell us how many contracts he is discussing with Capita with regard to whether their delivery should be reviewed? It is no good spending taxpayers’ money on a private company if it is not delivering the services that it is paid to deliver.

The contracts that each Department agrees with the private sector for the delivery of services are very stringent. Each Department is responsible for ensuring their proper delivery, and if the company is not delivering properly, it will be in breach of the contract and remedies will be available. At the point of re-letting a contract, we look at the overall performance of the company concerned to ensure that it is in a fit state to be able to deliver on its promises. There is a dual responsibility between the individual Departments, which set out the terms, and the Cabinet Office, in which I sit, which has overall responsibility for the supplier market.

Barnet Council has a significant contract with Capita. It also has a business continuity planning framework that monitors liquidity and indebtedness. It reviewed the situation twice last year, and again after the recent profit warning, and the company was shown to be far from reaching the relevant threshold for triggering any action, but in the local elections, the Liberal Democrats are using the issue to scaremonger. I urge the Minister not to take advice or direction from someone who undersold Royal Mail by £1 billion and then called the loss “froth”.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Tempting though it is, I shall resist the urge to comment on the Royal Mail deal, but I refer him again to the— [Interruption.] When the Department was controlled by the Liberal Democrats, I do not think the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) would have taken kindly to a Conservative special adviser getting too heavily involved.

I refer my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) to statistics that demonstrate that over half of the contracts that were given to Capita were awarded under the coalition Government, in which the Liberal Democrats played a sterling part. If they want to play politics, I refer them to those statistics.

May I push the Minister on contingency planning because I fear that the Government are being a bit complacent about that issue? Since Carillion went bankrupt, hospitals in Sandwell and Liverpool have been mothballed. What confidence does he honestly have that if Capita were to go the same way as Carillion, its contracts would continue to run and these crucial public services would continue to be delivered? The experience of Carillion is that that is not happening.

I gently disagree with the hon. Lady, who has a great deal of expertise in this area. Public services have continued to be delivered without interruption. There is a specific question about the PFI contracts in respect of those two hospitals, but I reassure her and other hon. Members, who I know take an interest in this, that we are taking a very close interest in the matter. We are engaging with NHS Improvement and the Department of Health and Social Care to try to resolve this as quickly as possible and ensure that we have a clear plan for the delivery of the hospitals.

Obviously I support outsourcing in principle, but I am really concerned. If Capita is reviewing the way it operates—it has operated abysmally in various spheres, particularly Army recruiting, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) said—are the Government reviewing how they have oversight of these contracts so that we can get more effective feedback and problems can be corrected quicker?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is absolutely right to raise the issues that we have had with the Army recruitment contract, but what is happening demonstrates that the Government are engaging with these problems. The MOD and Capita have agreed an improvement plan, which seeks to address some of the significant problems that we have. When these problems arise, we are engaging with the companies concerned to try to deliver improvements.

What assessment have the Government made of the impact on apprentices who are employed in Capita’s many workplaces? How many individual apprentices may be affected? Which regions of the UK are particularly exposed? What contingency plans are in place to protect potential losses to the apprenticeship programme, and what will be done to stop these failing business practices? I am fed up with having to listen to poor apprentices in other companies who have lost their roles as a result of failing business practices.

I reassure the hon. Lady that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office is taking a very close interest in this and working in respect of all those apprenticeships. At the moment, those apprenticeships are ongoing, but clearly we need to look at how we can manage their future so that young people do not find themselves disadvantaged. I can assure the hon. Lady that this is a top priority for my right hon. Friend.

The Minister says there have been problems with Capita, and while Capita and Carillion are different businesses in different situations, they have something in common: the businesses are both big and complex. What steps are the Government taking to involve more small and medium-sized businesses in the delivery of public services?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. It is right on two levels that we have a diverse supply market: first, because the more suppliers we have, the less we are at risk from the loss of any one supplier; and, secondly, because small and medium-sized enterprises are the backbone of our economy locally and nationally, creating 16 million jobs, and I am determined to ensure they get their fair share of such contracts. That was why I announced a range of measures over Easter, including providing subcontractors with a right of access to buying authorities in order to report poor practices. It was also why the Prime Minister wrote to every Secretary of State requesting that they appoint an SME champion. I want the message to go out to all SMEs—I spent a lot of time over Easter meeting small businesses and communicating this—that they can bid for and win Government contracts. Go on to Contracts Finder, find them, and bid for them!

In my two decades in the House, I have opposed PFI schemes root and branch from the beginning. It seems that the number of PFI agreements has dwindled to virtually zero, so it looks like the Government agree with me now. A number of public authorities are now insourcing and making financial gains as a result. Will the Government encourage that process, which would save public money? Will they also not hand out lucrative public contracts to Capita to help it out of its present circumstances?

I shall resist the suggestions of Front-Bench colleagues; I do not think I will ever convince the hon. Gentleman to cross the Floor, despite his warm words.

We reviewed PFIs and introduced the new private finance 2 contracts, which removed many of the excesses we saw under the last Government. The hon. Gentleman asks about the rewarding of new contracts. Since the statement in January, as I said, no contracts have been awarded to Capita by central Government. Two have been awarded by the wider public sector—by the BBC and Northern Ireland authorities.

My hon. Friend will recall that Capita developed from the public sector in the first place. Does he agree that the use of outsourcing not only controls costs and gives gains to the public, but provides certainty over the standards of service provided to the public? If an outsourced company fails to deliver to those standards, the contract can be recalled and given to an alternative provider.

As ever, my hon. Friend and neighbour is absolutely correct. That happens regularly, and it is exactly why private companies all use outsourcing to provide services such as cleaning and site security—because they can use specialist providers and because that delivers savings. He talks about how the Capita model arose. I remind Labour Members who are getting overexcited that Capita was founded by Sir Rod Aldridge, who was a major donor to not the Conservative party, but the Labour party.

May I associate myself with the comments about Army recruitment made by the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) and the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart)? Does not the Minister accept that Capita is only the latest outsourcing company to be in trouble? With some, including probation, hospital and rail companies, having to hand back contracts and the growing crisis in the over-leveraged, offshored care industry, does he not question whether there are not actually deep systemic problems with the Government’s dogma-driven privatisation model?

I simply fail to understand how Labour Members can say that this is dogma-driven when the last Labour Government awarded 55 PFI contracts a year and one was awarded in the last year. Some 20% of the contracts awarded to Capita were awarded by the Labour party. This is not about ideology; it is about what works. Outsourcing delivers savings, which means that we have more to invest in the public sector—more in our schools; more in our hospitals.

May I give the Minister an opportunity to repeat and reinforce his message about small businesses and the importance of their getting more involved in the delivery of public services? Will he encourage businesses in my constituency and the wider Dorset region to bid for contracts?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Small businesses should be going out there and bidding for Government contracts. I know that his constituency has much expertise in the aerospace sector, and I announced further measures over Easter to help such small businesses. I wrote to all our strategic suppliers asking that they adhere to the prompt payment code, and I am requiring suppliers on large contracts to provide their subcontracting data. They can be under no illusion that the Government are watching closely to ensure that in terms of contracts from government itself and subcontracting, SMEs get their fair share.

I welcome the Government’s recognition that Capita is not delivering on its contract for Army recruitment, but rather than Capita simply introducing an improvement plan, would it not be better for the Government to consider bringing contracts back in-house so that Army recruitment is conducted by the Army? That is what the Army wants.

As the hon. Gentleman has acknowledged, I have answered the question about the Army recruitment contract, and I shall not repeat my answer, but I would say that we are not driven by an ideological approach. If services can be delivered better in-house, of course they can be delivered in-house, but in the majority of cases, for contracts such as cleaning and security, both the private and public sectors have found that they get cheaper services that are just as good quality when they outsource. That is the right decision to make.

Capita employs hundreds of people in my constituency at a place called Preston Brook. What discussions have the Government had with recognised unions, such as the Communication Workers Union, about the job and pension security of those workers?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. I can reassure his constituents, as I have done repeatedly at the Dispatch Box today, that yesterday’s announcement was in line with expectations. Capita is not in a similar position to Carillion. I can also reassure them that, as a result of the rights issue yesterday, a further £21 million has been paid down into the pension fund, meaning that their pensions are more secure as a result of the announcement on Monday.

The Minister has spoken several times in glowing terms about the importance of the SME sector. One of the issues that came out of Carillion’s collapse was the deplorable reality that it often did not pay its SMEs their subs for 120 days, and sometimes more. That is the way to destroy the SME sector. Given that this is taxpayers’ money, will he give me a guarantee that that is not happening at Capita and that people are getting paid within a fair and reasonable time?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of prompt payment, and I know that various Select Committees are looking into the Carillion case. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is sitting next to me, and the Chancellor announced in the spring statement a call for evidence on the prompt payment code, which governs such payments. The Government pay about 96% of our contractors within 30 days. As I said, I have written, post Carillion, to all our strategic suppliers to re-emphasise the importance of adhering to the code. We are consulting on how to exclude suppliers if they do not do so.