Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 28 of Session 2002-03, dated 19 June 2003


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said that overwhelming arguments for or against the PFI are not to be found: PFI deals can lead to substantial benefits but have, at times, been pursued dogmatically, poorly negotiated and ineffectively managed.

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 28th Report of this Session, which draws together the lessons learned from the Committee's work on the PFI in order to help the public sector get the best deals for the taxpayer. Since the Committee's last progress report in 1999, the Committee has issued 18 reports on individual deals or cross-cutting issues involving the PFI.

The Committee found that the PFI is an important method of procuring public services that has now become well established. It offers a number of potential advantages but there are also a number of potential drawbacks. The balance to be struck will depend on the circumstances of each case, and each proposed deal needs to be considered carefully on its merits. Whilst there are examples of good practice, our examination of a wide range of PFI deals shows that many departments need to get better at procuring and managing contracts. Best practice needs to be more widely adopted if the taxpayer is to reap the full benefits of the PFI approach.

Successive administrations have adopted the policy of using the PFI for those cases where the approach is expected to deliver value for money. The Prime Minister said in September 2002 that the PFI has a central role to play in modernising the infrastructure of the NHS - but as an addition, not an alternative, to the public sector capital programme.   Yet the PFI is too often seen as the only option. To justify the PFI option, departments have relied too heavily on public sector comparators. These have often been used incorrectly as a pass or fail test; have been given a spurious precision which is not justified by the uncertainties involved in their calculation; or have been manipulated to get the desired result. Before the PFI route is chosen departments need to examine all realistic alternatives and make a proper value for money assessment of the available choices.

The taxpayer is not always getting the best deal from PFI contracts because good procurement practice is not being followed. We have seen examples where competitive tension is not maintained; where there is only one bidder for the contract; or where the contractor raises the price after becoming the preferred bidder. Sound procurement procedures need to be applied to all purchases of goods and services, however they are financed. Departments need to get better at protecting the taxpayer's interests when negotiating PFI deals.

Most PFI contracts are long-term deals of 25 years or more. Once deals have been signed, projects must be managed effectively so that the required services are delivered to an acceptable standard over the life of the contract. Effective management requires a partnership approach between departments and contractors, a proper system of rewards and penalties for good and bad performance, and satisfactory procedures for dealing with change.

Departments are too willing to bail out PFI contractors who get into trouble. Contractors should expect to lose out when things go wrong just as they expect to be rewarded when projects are successful. Departments must ensure that PFI contracts safeguard the taxpayer's position in circumstances where the contractor is no longer able to deliver what is required under the contract. Departments should consider in advance how they will eventually exit from deals should this prove necessary and draw up contingency plans accordingly. When projects run into difficulties prompt action is necessary to prevent costs rising further. They taxpayer must not be expected to pick up the tab whenever a deal goes wrong.

Mr Leigh said today:

"The debate about the PFI tends to generate more heat than light but my Committee is well placed to offer an objective commentary. We are deliberately ambivalent on the philosophical argument, our focus is delivery and we base our views on the evidence.

The evidence shows the picture to be mixed: overwhelming arguments for or against the PFI are not to be found. It depends on the case in point. We have seen PFI deals that have been well considered, negotiated carefully and managed effectively and we have concluded that they offer substantial benefits for the taxpayer.

By the same token we have seen deals on which the PFI has been pursued dogmatically, as if it were the only option, with Departments making dodgy comparisons with spuriously accurate public sector costs to justify it.

Once the PFI route has been chosen, contractors often have the upper hand in contract negotiations where long time delays allow them to hike the price. And there has been ineffective management of deals once signed with, all too often, the public purse being used to bail out the private sector if things go wrong.

Our recommendations should lead to substantial improvements in PFI deals in future."

Click here to view Report