[Mr George Howarth in the Chair] — Pay and Consultants (Public Sector)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:32 am on 13th March 2012.

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Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Conservative, Wimbledon 10:32 am, 13th March 2012

Thank you, Mr Howarth. For the record, I am Stephen Hammond—Philip is the tall, good-looking one. I listened carefully to your strictures and have therefore ditched my section on people seeking to re-enter public life and avoid tax. At the outset, I remind hon. Members of and guide them to my declared interest in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I have listened carefully to the debate. I only wish that I had known my hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski sooner, as I could have followed Kawczynski’s law when I was in the private sector, but I singly failed to do so. I also listened to the fascinating opening speech of Mr Slaughter. He chided us on party politics, but I say gently that it might have been helpful if some of the examples had not been exclusively from Hammersmith and Fulham. On that basis, we might take his comments as a party political contribution.

I shall raise three points in my remarks. First, I shall discuss the concept of value for money. I shall then talk briefly about excessive pay and contractors. Many of us feel that one of the big areas where problems arose with value for money in relation to outside firms being used in the provision of public services was with the private finance initiatives that were set up. The public sector should be the enabler. Sometimes, it will also be the facilitator, but it does not need to be so. The real scandal of excessive pay and excessive failure to manage arrangements was in the unitary payment scheme set up under PFI. That unitary payment allowed the capital and the current payment to be collided for the deliberate obfuscation of what was being paid in current payments. That was a real scandal, and value for money was impossible to assess.

On excessive public pay, the hon. Member for Hammersmith is absolutely right: payment should be in line with performance. As reflected by the view of the vast majority of the public, the scandal has been that, at the time of entering austerity, a number of people in the public sector were getting paid well beyond their perceived performance. Although I was chided for using this example, it is absolutely true that, since the Government have come to office, there has been downward pressure on the overall pay in local government. Again, I give the example that, before 2010, £221,000 was the average salary for chief executives. It is now £143,000, which may well still be too high in terms of what is being delivered. None the less, there has been downward pressure. The TaxPayers Alliance “Town Hall Rich List” is a good touchstone for us all, but one should not forget to put the matter into context. Under the previous Administration, we had to revise the definition of public sector productivity twice, because pay increased without a commensurate increase in performance.

I want to put some balance into the debate because if we are not careful, we will end up saying that all contractors and freelancers are bad value and try to evade tax. That is simply not true. The skills that some of those people provide contribute a huge amount to not only the economy, but the public sector. That is clear. The public sector needs all sorts of skills in addition to the work that dedicated, hard-working public servants and public sector workers provide. Some 1.6 million people in the UK work as freelancers. The idea that all those people are tax dodgers is simple nonsense. Oxford Economics has made the point that, in 2009, the overall benefit to the economy was around £21 billion.

I want to touch briefly on the review that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has set up. That review started because of the Ed Lester case and the fact he was given special concessions. However, the idea that all those concessions apply to every individual who is a freelancer in the public sector is simply wrong. We should not forget—I say this to the Minister, as I hope she will address this point—that the reason why a number of freelancers put themselves into limited companies is that the Government procure through agencies rather than directly. Those agencies require that the contract goes to a limited company. The Government need to address that in their review.

I want to allow my hon. Friend Guy Opperman time to speak, but I should like to say that, although I support what the Chief Secretary is saying, I hope that the Treasury will ensure that the review focuses on value for money. That is the key. The danger is that contracts will be delayed and taken away and that it will become a witch hunt, rather than a proper review of value. I hope that the Minister can reassure us that that is what will finally happen.

I did not catch exactly what Stephen Pound said, but he mentioned IR35. The Government rightly set up a review of IR35, but I say to the Minister that there is real concern that HMRC’s fairly simple business tests, which would have allowed a relatively clear definition of someone who is a freelancer or someone who is working full time, are going astray. I therefore urge the Treasury to get back involved in that debate to ensure that the tests are clear, because IR35 could be a good way to ensure that people working in the public sector are true freelancers and contractors, not people who should be on the full-time books of the public sector.