[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair] — Backbench business — Private Finance Initiative
Steven Baker (Wycombe, Conservative)
And indeed Liberals seem to have spoken as anti-liberals. I am perplexed by that. I would like to develop one point: how PFI fits into the nature of our society. I am reminded of something that Churchill said, which I think speaks to the third way. He said:
“Some people regard private enterprise as a predatory tiger to be shot. Others look on it as a cow they can milk.”
I will come back to how he finished the quote at the end. It strikes me that the third way seems to have turned private enterprise into a vampire squid to be suckered on to the faces of people on normal and low incomes.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend wishes to respect contract. Given that the world contains imperfect self-interested people, and given that we have imperfect knowledge of the world, it is important that we are secure in the institutions that we create and in which we operate. Therefore, I am delighted that my hon. Friend emphasised the need to respect contract and to seek voluntary renegotiation. I was particularly impressed that my hon. Friend Dr Coffey hinted at the need for a moral basis on which to operate in capitalism and society. It is necessary that people do not simply blame procurement processes—much as they are an institutional factor—but look to themselves to behave decently.
There are many questions that we could discuss: who provides, who pays, where risk lies. However, I would just like to develop one point made by my hon. Friend Mr Bacon, who said that fat cats are getting fatter at public expense. I believe that is broadly his remark. That reminded me of an old picture of the ancien régime in France, where the bureaucrats and princelings were riding on the backs of the poor. From what we have heard from Members of all parties, it seems that today we have a regime where the state and the clients of the state ride on the backs of everybody else.
It is strange that so much money is being funnelled to firms whose commercial risks are being underwritten by the power to tax. Far from protecting the poor, the state now seems to be an institution for protecting the
rich from the risks they take with their own investments. I am a capitalist, and I believe that capitalism requires entrepreneurs and investors to bear their own risks. Somehow, through all this mire and mess we find ourselves in, we need to recover the principles of a free society and a vision of a capitalism that works, and works for everybody.
The state has become an enormous player in society. It spends about half of national income, and we have ended up with far too many investors and companies looking to the state for its decisions. Where will it spend? What will it spend that money on? Whose risks will it underwrite? And so on and so on. It really is no good. If we wish to call this a free society—one in which people make their own way and flourish—we really do have to end the notion of the state as a giant player in society. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, at different times, has declared that the era of big government is over. I think he is absolutely right, and I am delighted that that is the thrust of the Government’s direction of travel.
I think the British public have a fantastic sense of fair play—that is one reason why Private Eye sells so well. I would like to share with the Government the final line of Churchill’s quote:
“Not enough people see it”—
“as a healthy horse, pulling a sturdy wagon”.
I congratulate the Government on bringing forward their paper, “Making Savings in Operational PFI Contracts,” but I urge them to go further, to try to recover that sense of fair play and regenerate those institutions of a free and fair society which support capitalism and support human flourishing, but above all, pass that Private Eye test.