[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair] — Backbench business — Private Finance Initiative
Justine Greening (Economic Secretary, HM Treasury; Putney, Conservative)
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Jesse Norman for securing this debate. The topic is incredibly important, and he has done a brilliant job of raising it high up the agenda and rightly so.
We have heard from many Members today, but not from as many Opposition Members as we might have expected. Many Members feel that the PFI has, in their experience and their constituencies, let them down. Nevertheless, one of the qualities of today’s debate was the balance demonstrated by hon. Members. Not all PFI contracts have been bad. Many have delivered good contracts. There have been bad ones for the taxpayer and bad ones for the private sector. The one that is particularly close to my heart, as my hon. Friend Mr Bacon has mentioned, is the public-private partnership for the London underground. Investment in my stretch of the underground was significantly delayed, because of its bad structure and the ultimate failure of both of the private companies that participated in it due to the losses that they were making as a result of their poor contracting. The topic is important.
My observation as an incoming Treasury Minister was that the background to the issue was all part and parcel of a much broader lack of financial management shown by the previous Government across government. I might address that later, if I have time, but I intend to leave a couple of minutes at the end to my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire to have a final say.
As my hon. Friend Steve Baker and a number of other colleagues have pointed out, the main attraction for the previous Government in turbo-charging the PFI process was the fact that they were able to spend not only taxpayers’ money that was being earned at the time, but taxpayers’ money that had not even been earned and that would be earned at some point in the future. The main appeal of PFI for them was that it was off balance sheet. It was also unfortunate that it came at a time when that Government thought that they had abolished boom and bust and were saying that we all lived in the land of milk and honey. The general ethos that was applied to the public sector was to spend, spend, spend, get on with things, and be less worried about whether it was good value and just get on with the job at hand. My hon. Friend Mr Walker pointed out how that impacted upon his local hospital.
We have some problems. I will discuss what the Treasury is doing to try to sort some of them out, but we seem to have three main issues. One is a lack of accountability, which is an inherent risk in these contracts, mainly because of their longevity and the fact that the people who set them up will not be there to manage them or be accountable for them throughout their duration. There is also an issue of transparency, and I will talk later about what we are doing in that regard. Underpinning
all that is the need for value for money and for having contracts in place that deliver on behalf of taxpayers in the way in which they are meant to. My hon. Friend David Mowat put it very well: PFI can work, but the challenge is making sure that, in structuring our contracts, we end up with a win-win situation for the private sector contractor, for the public sector and for taxpayers. We can do that, but the challenge that we saw over the past decade is that it just did not happen often enough.
The shadow Minister asked about the number of contracts that we have signed off. No PFI contracts have been approved yet by the new Government, and we have put in place much more stringent processes to ensure that any contracts that go ahead have a much better prospect of being good value for money.
My hon. Friend Mr Jones asked whether the Government are looking closely to see how we can ensure that we get value for money. We are doing that—he is absolutely right to say that we should do it—and we are doing it across the board.
Many hon. Members discussed transparency, which I will discuss shortly. My observation is that one of the reasons why we are debating the PFI is that, ironically, there is perhaps more transparency in the PFI in some respects than there is across the rest of Government spend. One of the projects that I am leading on behalf of the Treasury is to introduce common chartered accounts. Any hon. Member who has been in business will find it fantastical to learn that the Government do not have common chartered accounts, but that is indeed the case. Once that system is in place, once we are able to upgrade the combined online information system database and once we can drive central Government further in terms of the transparency agenda, we will go through a similar process of lifting up the stone on central Government spend as we have done in relation to PFI contracts. Transparency is absolutely critical in that regard.
I want to outline where there is room for improvement. We are all aware that we face tough economic conditions and that we must ensure that we get value for money. The Government have already taken a number of steps to address many of the concerns about the use of PFI in funding public infrastructure, concerns that have been expressed in this important debate. I will go on to talk briefly about what we are doing in relation to existing contracts, but first I will talk about what we are doing to ensure that we can achieve good value for the taxpayer for new projects.
With new projects, value for money is, of course, the primary driver for the choice of procurement route. We are very clear that private finance should be used only when it can be demonstrated that it offers better value for money than a publicly financed alternative. As I have said, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester made a powerful case in relation to that. We have already taken measures to strengthen the value for money assessment of new projects.
As Lorely Burt pointed out, we abolished PFI credits in the 2010 spending review. Previously, funding for local government projects was ring-fenced. That had become a genuine cause for concern, because what it actually meant was that Government Departments and local authorities could
use the PFI as a means to increase their budgets, with the potential for diverting funds away from more beneficial areas—areas that could have offered taxpayers better value for money. Now, the economic case for PFI projects must be compared by Departments and local authorities on a like-for-like basis with the other calls that they have on their budgets.
I have huge respect for my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk. His experience on the Public Accounts Committee goes back many, many years. As he pointed out, too often there has been insufficient competition and an insufficient ability for firms to compete. I actually felt that he was violently agreeing with my hon. Friend Neil Carmichael on the point about specifying contracts. The key is to specify contracts smartly, in other words tying down the details that need to be tied down in areas where we have certainty, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South pointed out, but leaving flexibility in other areas—the right areas.
I remember that that issue arose when I was serving on the Work and Pensions Committee when I came into this House, which I very much enjoyed. We looked at the EDS contract in relation to the Department for Work and Pensions. That point—the importance of flexibility—was one of the key things that came out of that process. I am sure that EDS will not mind my putting this on the record, but one of the challenges that it faced was that it was dealing with a Government who wanted to specify absolutely everything and therefore the cost of the contract absolutely ballooned. In fact, what was needed for that system was to retain an element of flexibility for future demands as they evolved. The key to success in all these contracts is people understanding not only what needs to be tied down in terms of the contract but, critically, where flexibility must be left.
We have issued new guidance, which the shadow Minister, Kerry McCarthy, asked about, to strengthen the approvals for PFI projects. As of
We have also published guidance to help public sector bodies identify savings in their PFI contracts. I will come on to the Romford case study in a second and provide hon. Members with an update. All the measures that I have outlined should mean that we are better placed to ensure that only those projects that offer the best value for money to taxpayers can go ahead, which is absolutely right.
As for operational savings, clearly we have a number of PFI projects that are in place and operating right now. Therefore, it is about looking at not only new projects but the existing stock of PFI projects. As many
hon. Members are aware, we have taken a strong interest in the pilot savings project that is currently under way at the Queen’s hospital in Romford. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire said in a recent newspaper article, we have taken a deep dive to get under the skin of the project to see where we can save money. He raised the idea of a rebate. Although we want to drive savings, it is a challenge to do that with contracts that are already in place, as Stella Creasy pointed out. Nevertheless, we want to try to save money.
The pilot is nearing its conclusion, and we will be passing on the lessons that we have learned to the wider PFI portfolio—of course, there will some lessons that are not applicable. Given the commercial sensitivity of the pilot, it is probably inappropriate for me to comment in more detail before it is completed. However, I assure hon. Members that the pilot has made good progress and that there will be lessons that we can take from it to help to achieve better value for money from existing contracts.
My hon. Friends the Members for Wycombe and for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay) asked about guidance. We have been seeking industry agreement to a new voluntary code of conduct to support the idea of achieving operational savings from other PFI projects. That is important not only for getting better value for money but for driving better standards of transparency, so it is clearer to the outside world what contracts are delivering for the general public. We also issued some draft operational savings guidance in January 2011. Therefore, although the pilot in Romford is still ongoing, we have already issued some guidance on where further savings can be made.
As for the PFI rebate, the Chancellor and the Commercial Secretary have both met with my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire. We fully support the principle of making savings in PFI contracts and we will look carefully at how we can do that over the coming weeks, months and years.
The Government want to improve the financial transparency of PFI projects. We currently collect and publish data on each PFI project twice a year. That includes information on the capital value, the equity owners and the full stream of payments over a project’s life. The Cabinet Office is now publishing tender documents and contracts for all future central Government projects over £25,000, and that will capture privately financed projects.
My hon. Friend Mark Garnier mentioned the PFI equity issue and the trading in secondary markets. We agree that more can be done in that area and that there is not sufficient transparency around investor returns, particularly with regard to secondary market sales. The Treasury is now collaborating with the National Audit Office to look at PFI equity issues including not only transparency, but equity risk issues and equity returns. We are currently working with it to ensure that we scope that work stream effectively to obtain output that will be of use to the Government. We are also engaging with PFI investors and contractors to reach agreement on the voluntary code of conduct, as I have said, and transparency will form a critical part of that.
Value for money, not the accounting treatment, should be the key determinant of whether a PFI scheme goes ahead. We have talked briefly about the fact that public-private partnerships have been left off Government
balance sheets. The whole of Government accounts project, which will be completed in the coming months, is basically, in a nutshell, the Government’s first set of consolidated accounts. They will be done under international financial reporting standards—in other words, proper accounting standards—and they will put that liability on the balance sheet, so giving us a sense of what it is for the first time. That will show the massive liabilities that were run up by the previous Government not only for our generation but for future generations.
The Green Book covers offshore tax. I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Walthamstow. From my experience of having worked in business, of course we want to look at the bottom bottom line, but we also need to be pragmatic in understanding that companies will always look at their tax position. If they think that they are having to move onshore and are disadvantaged by doing so, there is always a sneaky suspicion that they will recoup that lost cost elsewhere. It is not quite as straightforward as simply saying that we should not use any company based offshore.
The key challenge for us all is to ensure that we have a more competitive tax system in the first place that does not drive companies offshore, which is why we are reducing corporation tax year on year. I very much hope that the hon. Lady will find time to support and vote for that when the Finance (No. 3) Bill finally goes through. The best way to tackle offshore tax is to have a competitive tax regime that makes companies want to stay in the UK and be based here for tax in the first place.