John McDonnell caused a stir yesterday with his pledge to bring Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contracts back in house. Commentators who bandy about huge sums of money to pay for this commitment are missing the point.
The shadow chancellor said in his conference speech that Labour had already pledged not to sign any new PFI deals. He then added: “We will go further. I can tell you today, it’s what you’ve been calling for. We’ll bring existing PFI contracts back in-house.”
Unsurprisingly, this was immediately welcomed by UNISON, who campaigned against PFI from the outset, whichever government (Tory, Labour and SNP) used the scheme. Dave Prentis tweeted, “At long last! Our party sees sense on PFI”.
Let’s start by understanding what a PFI scheme is. Instead of borrowing in the normal way, public bodies contract with a consortium of private companies known as a Special Purpose Vehicle, to design, build and operate a public asset - typically schools, hospitals, roads and waste treatment works. The Tories invented the idea, Labour developed it and the SNP use it in Scotland to this day – albeit renamed as NPD or Hubcos. Instead of meeting the borrowing and running costs directly, public bodies pay an annual fee to the contractors.
The scheme has been criticised on many grounds and in the early years the main driver was keeping capital projects off the public sector off the balance sheet. Particularly important in Scotland because of the block grant and led to the saying ‘it’s the only game in town’.
The main problem with PFI is that the private sector can’t borrow as cheaply as the public sector, and of course take a profit. Government can now borrow very cheaply indeed and this had led to calls to refinance such projects. PFI schemes are notoriously secretive, but we know that they are paying interest rates of 7%+, at a time when public bodies could issue bonds at a little over 1%.
UNISON Scotland set out in our ‘Combating Austerity’ plan how this can be done and save millions of pounds of austerity cuts in the process. The Public Accounts Committee at Westminster, hardly a bastion of socialist economics, also highlighted how such refinancing had been achieved in England. Sadly, while some projects have been brought back in-house in Scotland, progress has been glacial, as our progress report this summer shows.
An important forerunner to any contract renegotiations should be stricter monitoring of contracts and restructuring the existing provisions. A number of public bodies in Scotland are beginning to take this seriously, but again more could be done. At UK level John McDonnell could help by committing to changing some of the Treasury rules that make refinancing more difficult than it might be.
That’s why the commitment from Scottish Labour leadership candidate Richard Leonard is so welcome. He said: “Scotland has a huge liability to PFI and the Scottish Government’s Non-Profit Distributing scheme. The Scottish Government could and should set up a debt disposal department dedicated to raising funds to buy out the total outstanding £28.8bn PFI and NPD debt on operational contracts. Doing this could save the public purse hundreds of millions of pounds. If I’m Labour leader I’ll be pressing them on this issue and as a Labour First Minister it will be a priority.”
McDonnell’s actual commitment is fairly modest and doesn’t commit Labour to a massive increase in public spending. That’s because the public sector is already paying over the top for these schemes, so bringing them in-house would actually be a saving to the public purse. As well as giving public bodies control over vital public assets.