PFI is still crippling our public services

PFI contracts need to be thoroughly investigated, so we can return some of the money to schools and hospitals


Tackling the public debt and austerity is a key issue in British politics. The debate needs to focus on the issue of profiteering from public contracts by the private sector, a key cause of the squeeze on public finances.

A good example of this is the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) pioneered by the Conservative government in the early 1990s and enthusiastically embraced by the Labour administration of 1997-2010. The current government is still wedded to it.

The key idea behind the PFI is that the private sector borrows money to build schools, hospitals, roads, prisons and government offices. These are then effectively leased to central/local government and public bodies who in turn make payments for the next 20-30 years. In due course, the asset ownership may be transferred to the public authority.

PFI has been a financial disaster. Currently there are 728 projects, of which 671 are operational, with a capital value of £57 billion. In return, the government is committed to paying £232 billion by 2049/50, effectively guaranteeing a profit of about £175 billon to corporations.

For the next 18 years, the repayments are about £10 billion a year. Hospitals, schools and local authorities have to pay their share of the PFI costs out of their shrinking budgets, a major cause of the degradation of public services.

PFI operators are also allowed to boost their profits by charging hundreds of pounds just to change light fittings and perform other mundane tasks.

The social infrastructure should have been funded by government borrowing. The cost of this is always much lower than that faced by corporations, but successive governments chose the PFI route because they believed that somehow this was off balance sheet, or would not count as part of the official borrowing.

This crazy financial engineering was preferred because the 1992 Maastricht Treaty restricted EU member state deficits to 3 per cent of annual GDP and public debt levels to 60 per cent of GDP.

So the government pretended that the cost of PFI was not really borrowing even though it has to be repaid by taxpayers. Armies of accountants, lawyers and advisers have collected vast fees for selling the fiction that ministers wanted to hear.

Cost of capital or cost of borrowing is a key variable in PFI contracts, but has been loaded in favour of corporations. In 2011, a House of Commons Treasury Committee report noted that:

“The cost of capital for a typical PFI project is currently over 8 per cent —double the long term government gilt rate of approximately 4 per cent.

The difference in finance costs means that PFI projects are significantly more expensive to fund over the life of a project. This represents a significant cost to taxpayers.”

Since 2009, the Bank of England base rate (interest rate) has been fixed at 0.5 per cent. The PFI cost of borrowing is not adjusted to reflect this. Consequently, the profit of contractors is much greater.

Banks such as Barclays, HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland, Bank of Scotland, Lloyds and Royal Bank of Canada have been key players in PFI. Many have also been bailed out by taxpayer-funded loans, guarantees and direct injection of finance. The fallout from the banking crash has shown that banks rigged interest rates and several have paid fines for fraudulent manipulations.

These penalties have not been followed-up by an investigation of the impact of rigged interest rates on PFI profits. The banks and other companies have made excessive profits from interest rate rigging. They have also made excessive profits because since 2009 the actual cost of borrowing has been considerably lower than the one incorporated into PFI contracts.

The 2011 Treasury committee report noted that some 90 major PFI projects have been moved offshoreHospitals and numerous NHS PFI projects are now based offshore. This enables PFI companies to avoid capital gains tax and corporation tax on their profits. Some have arranged their shareholdings in such a way that their executives are also able to avoid income taxes.

The result of profiteering, rigging of interest rates and tax avoidance means that the public pays more for the services. The public deficit is greater and schools and hospitals are unable to provide the required level of public services.

There are calls for the government to buy-up PFI contracts and relieve hospitals of the need to make payments. However, this should be preceded by an independent investigation of every past and present PFI contract.

This would probably recover billions of pounds from PFI contractors. No one should be allowed to make profits by rigging interest rates, making excessive changes or by dodging taxes. The amounts recovered, together with financial penalties, should be returned to schools, hospitals and local authorities.

Prem Sikka is Professor of accounting at the University of Essex, and a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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13 Responses to “PFI is still crippling our public services”

  1. Faerieson

    The insanity of PFI would never have been introduced by any individual or group who didn’t have vested interests in either the exploitation or else the serious corrosion of Public Services.

    St Tony was reputedly quite concerned about the legacy that he would leave behind. That he still refuses to stop tinkering from the sidelines, suggests that he’s prepared to accept the badge of festering toxicity for still a few dollars more.

  2. steroflex

    Mr Brown was constantly warned about PFI.
    He paid no attention.
    Now it has all backfired, let us place the blame squarely on his shoulders.

  3. blarg1987

    PFI was originally conceived by the conservative government which new labour adopted, both parties are equally culpable as the conservatives never complained about PFI in opposition and only did after things went wrong.

  4. Dr. Atul K. Shah

    This is a very important article and hugely damaging to society. Thank you for unraveling the vast frauds perpetuated by professionals and financial institutions. This is another example of white collar crime, for which Britain is a world capital. My own research on how these professional firms systematically rip off our state reveals shocking truths about the Big 4 accounting firms.

  5. Douglas Andrew Town

    If overpricing can be shown to be due to deliberate negligence by officials, civil servants, accountants or lawyers, surely this should render the contract null and void. In any other country the press would be looking to see if anyone got a kickback from such contracts.

  6. blarg1987

    There does not seem any interest in prosecuting civil servants or MP’s for corruption, and large chunks of the media probabaly have connections with PFI either in connections with said PFI companies or stakes in said PFI firms.

  7. blarg1987

    The Big 4 are only going to do things that increase their revenue not do thing which we expect of industry which is to provide a high quality impartial service.


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  9. Ross

    Hi Prem, very good read, thanks for highlighting this. My question relates to the profits enjoyed by the corporations – you have said the assets have a value of £57bn and, with the repayments at £232bn, this leaves a profit of £175bn – do we not have to adjust for inflation over the next 30 years? Ie when the £232bn is paid in 2050, will the assets not be worth more than £57bn, adjusting for inflation?

    The point is still clear – private companies are making a killing out of PFI. My concern is defenders of the current system will use this to show you are exaggerating the profits, and claim it’s not a fair analysis.

  10. Deborah Harrington

    Hi Ross, I think that when it says they have a ‘value’ of £57bn it means that is what it cost to build them so the profits are the difference between build cost to the private sector and finance cost to the public sector. Indeed the consortia who own the hospitals have already had their profits, as many have refinanced at lower interest rates after completion. The asset appreciation itself accrues to the consortia as they remain in ownership at the end of the lease, unless a transfer is negotiated. PFI isn’t a mortgage, it is rent. The public sector also pays all the maintenance on the properties in tied in contracts. That’s a very important element in these deals. The charges are disproportionate and frequently excessive (over £300 to change a lightbulb, as highlighted by the Public Accounts Committee). And what is worse many of these hospitals were never fit for purpose as public hospitals right from their design. They incorporate far more single rooms and far fewer wards. If your aim is to maximise patient care and minimise cost wards are better. If, on the other hand, raising private revenues is your goal, individual rooms are better because your ‘customers’ will pay more for a private room. They also have fewer beds overall. What is missing from this analysis I think, in the proposal to lift the PFI debts off the hospitals, is that you would be clearing the debt from a private company. The essential addition has to be that the hospitals and Foundation Trusts have to be taken back into public ownership as part of any deal.

  11. Robert Barwick

    Australia has something similar to PFI, called BOOT–Build, Own, Operate, Transfer–schemes, pioneered, also in the early 1990s, by Hill Samuel spin-off Macquarie Bank. They specialised in toll roads. There plenty of excellent analysis of how dodgy Macquarie’s schemes are, but they quickly made the bank extremely profitable, earning it the moniker of “the millionaire’s factory”.

  12. blackwater54

    “The social infrastructure should have been funded by government borrowing. The cost of this is always much lower than that faced by corporations”. A good article and in full agreement about the damage being done to public finances through PFI but why do we have to borrow? The truth is we don’t. As a sovereign country issuing its own currency we could spend into the economy to provide necessary economic stimulus without incurring that interest bearing debt as long as there is unused productive capacity available.

  13. Ross

    Thanks for this Deborah – a lot of good detail I didn’t know! The cost of £57bn is what it costs to build which is fine – my point is the time value of money here. You have a cost of £57n paid at todays value but the repayments are at a future value, so generally for this you would adjust for the present value of the money to be able to make a fair comparison. That would then adjust the £232bn to what it is worth today, before subtracting the £57bn to give you a consistent profit figure – I wasn’t sure if this was already done to the calculation or not.

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