Mr Redwood’s interventions during the debate on the Infrastructure (Financial Assistance) Bill, 15 Oct

Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): We are being invited to agree to a potential £50 billion commitment. Do the Opposition have any thoughts on the pace of that kind of expenditure? What levels would they recommend for this year, next year and the following year?

Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): It is difficult to say, when looking at a guarantee scheme or underwriting scheme, because certain things are not wholly in the control of Ministers. They are putting the guarantee out there and waiting for organisations in the private sector or elsewhere to come forward and bid for the resource. It is a bit like pushing against a piece of string; it is impossible to know what the demand will be. We do not rule out the possibility of the proposal being of benefit—of course it could be—but it is impossible to know at this stage. We are holding up a finger to test the direction of the wind. There are no time scales in the Bill, and the explanatory notes do not add any information in that regard. We want to know the judgment of the studied intellects in the Treasury.

Mr Redwood: I think we should be a bit careful. I thought that the Bill to which we are being invited to consent would provide solely, or primarily, for guarantees and loans, but in fact it allows expenditure and “any… kind of financial assistance”, which could include direct purchase. It certainly includes court or prison facilities and roads, which, in many cases, will involve no revenue, so presumably that means direct spending.

Chris Leslie: I think that the right hon. Gentleman is technically correct. The wording of the Bill is very loosely framed. We know that accounting officers in the Treasury had put a big question mark over exactly what Ministers were proposing. They wanted one line to cover them in circumstances in which things might go wrong, and they would be challenged and hauled before the Public Accounts Committee. That dates back to the 1932 concordat on public accounts, and it is being radically changed by the Bill. We do not necessarily think that that is the wrong thing to do, but it is noticeable that legislation has been presented to the House of Commons by Ministers who cannot say what it will be used for. We need information on the specifics of the schemes and the dates on which they will be supported. That is the level of detail that we require.

Amendment 9 relates to the definition of “infrastructure” in clause 1. I am sorry that the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) was not selected; he noticed that flood defence schemes were not included in the list of items covered by infrastructure expenditure.

Our amendment seeks to insert the word “childcare”. Education is included in the set of infrastructure projects that might benefit from the scheme, but child care is quite different. We consider that to be an obvious anomaly which the Government should correct. We know that the costs of child care are afflicting many families throughout the country, a number of whom are not necessarily choosing to enter employment because the child care options are too limited or too expensive. One of the reasons why child care is so expensive is that the facilities are expensive. We do not have enough of them, and we need more investment in them.

Mr Redwood: My concern about this Bill is with the definitions and the amount of money involved. I am obviously very much in favour of more productive infrastructure projects going ahead as quickly as possible. There may well be utility in facilitating the Government to make guarantees, support or indemnities available at a time when the banking system is still not functioning well and it is difficult getting these things financed privately in the way we normally like. However, I start from the proposition that what we really need to be doing is generating a lot more freestanding private sector investment projects. It would be better if we took stronger and faster action to remedy the banking problems that lie underneath the problems we face in getting these things financed.

I am concerned that the wide-ranging powers in clause 1 may lead to a big increase in public spending, which would damage the Government’s fiscal targets. A lot of time and energy has been expended by Governments on reducing capital programmes to try to get public spending down to levels thought to be more compatible with reality and markets. We want to avoid this Bill becoming a way of undoing all the hard work that has been done to try to get the deficit down, at a time when this Government strongly believe that deficit reduction is crucial. The outgoing Government actually enacted legislation committing themselves to halving the deficit over the lifetime of this Parliament.

The definition of “infrastructure” in clause 1(2) is wide ranging. I thought that the type of infrastructure we had in mind for this Bill was that in subsection 2(a), which states that infrastructure is about “water, electricity, gas, telecommunications”. Those services are all provided by the private sector with charges to customers, so there is a flow of revenue that can remunerate the capital. If those projects are held up because of banking difficulties, I have every wish to encourage the Minister, newly in his job—I give him my congratulations—to expedite them. One hopes that the Government would be properly rewarded for the indemnities and the guarantees, or that they would not be necessary in the fullness of time, and so the taxpayer would not lose by this process. I am happy with that provision, which I thought was the thrust of the Bill.

However, subsection (2) also provides for mixed projects and entirely public sector projects. It includes mixed projects in the form of railway facilities. Railways are extremely heavily subsidised, and any new project is likely to require many years of future subsidy, because such projects do not normally reward the railway operator or the taxpayer sufficiently from the fare revenue. We therefore need to consider, for any one of these projects, the medium-term and long-term implications of cash outflows from the public sector, as well as the private sector revenues. Those things cause difficulty in the evaluation, as we have found recently through one of the franchise problems.

Subsection (2) also makes provision in respect of areas where spending must entirely be an expense for the public sector—I assume that we are not envisaging court or prison facilities having paying guests who would contribute towards the costs, so this money will be entirely expended by the public sector.

Mr Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): I return to an argument about prisons that I made on Second Reading. New prisons cost substantially less to run per place than old prisons and can better develop wider policy objectives—for example, on rehabilitation and work in prisons. When debating the Bill, reference should be made to the spending on prisons that would come from the Ministry of Justice’s delegated expenditure limit. This approach would enable the capital expenditure to happen now, in order to take the savings later.

Mr Redwood: That is a helpful contribution, but it shows the dangers of this clause, because it demonstrates that if these projects are not properly evaluated they could be more expensive overall. My hon. Friend has recent experience as Minister with responsibility for prisons and he is saying that in the short term they will definitely be dearer, because the state will have a big cash outflow in order to buy the new prison. It will take time to close down the old one and find some alternative use for it, and that process might not produce anything like the amount of money that the new prison costs. He is arguing, with his former brief in mind, that this may still represent a good bargain for the taxpayer, but when we come to account for it, we will have to account for the fact that a lot more has been spent in the first couple of years; there may be benefits for Governments to come if, as he hopes, the thing is cheaper and better in the longer term.

In debating this clause, we need to unpack the three types of project we are talking about. The first is a genuine private sector project, where we hope that there will be no ultimate call on the taxpayer and it may just involve a facilitation guarantee that will be properly rewarded. The second is a mixed project, where a lot of accounting has to be done—as the Department for Transport is discovering, such projects are difficult to evaluate. The third is the pure public sector project, where we need to go into the departmental budget. So I hope that the Minister will give me some reassurances about this.

Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): I follow the argument that the right hon. Gentleman is making, although I do not necessarily share his conclusion. Health facilities are defined as one of the fields of infrastructure that this fund could be used to support. The recent health Bill showed that the Government favour more NHS services being provided by private contractors and private hospitals. Is he telling the Committee that he would be happy for this fund to be used to finance a private clinic or a private hospital, but not happy for it to be used to fund an NHS hospital trust?

Mr Redwood: I am not trying to say anything that contentious. I am trying to unpack what is going on in this clause, because we are in Committee. I was not going to presume to give my views on total public spending, because that is a matter for another day and another debate. I am trying to get the Committee to understand that we are dealing with three different types of project, and the health one is closer to the pure public sector project. Even if it is carried out in a private sector facility with some so-called “private sector risk”, all the patients will be paid for by the NHS if it is for the NHS and so it is a flow of public revenue. We have to account for it in the proper way and be realistic about that.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman is making an interesting argument. Does he not also accept that one of the difficulties with long-term infrastructure projects is that they have different phases, some of which may be susceptible to public intervention and some of which, later on, will require private investment. Let me give the example of a large site in my constituency that is currently in private ownership and has large redevelopment potential. The initial investment will have to be public investment to decontaminate the land and prepare the planning requirements, but down the line one would hope to see private investment. Does that not create a further accounting conundrum?

Mr Redwood: Yes, indeed. My point, which is not hostile to the Minister and is merely an attempt to inform the debate, is that we are discussing a set of very different projects and we are not sure what we are talking about because the Bill is very generic and general. We can probably all come to the conclusion that for this to work we will need precise control over what is being proposed—of how much of it is public, how much is private, how much involves a direct charge on the taxpayer and how much involves a guarantee or indemnity.

If a guarantee or indemnity is involved, I am sure that the Minister, with his forensic financial backgrounds and skills, will be able to keep control of it and to reassure the Committee that it is unlikely to be called on unless it was absolutely essential and a very important project would not go ahead without it, which would mean that it was a reasonable risk to run. I am happy at that end of the spectrum, as we will have to trust the Minister’s judgment and this is a good Minister with the skills and ability to do such things. We need to probe when such projects are proposed, however, as we are the custodians of public money and do not want to end up with white elephant projects with huge guarantees and indemnities that will in due course have to be met by some Government.

I am also concerned about the projects in which there is more of a mixture or a muddle, because they must be fitted in to the public expenditure plans. That does not prejudge whether the expenditure should be higher or lower, and there will be different views on that in the Committee, but they will need to be fitted into the plans. A large sum is involved—£50 billion—and we do not know the time scale. The Government might want to come back and ask for more money, and a provision allows them to do so by order, so I want a little more information from the Minister about how such projects will fit into the public expenditure plans and how Ministers collectively will evaluate the mixed projects that receive a big flow of public subsidy and, more particularly, those that really are public sector projects. They might be dressed up as private sector projects, but as far as I am concerned if all the money for the provision on behalf of customers or users of the service comes from the state, that is a public sector project and the private sector is merely a franchisee or agent of the state. If all the money comes from the state, I expect the state to have a grip of the project and to satisfy us that it represents value for money that is being organised in the best way.

I am not ideologically driven as regards the provision of state services. I think that should be done in the cheapest possible way, provided that they offer good quality, and that always causes problems, but I hope that the Minister will give us some guidance about how he will differentiate and seek reassurances about the granting of those indemnities and guarantees and about what proportion of the projects will involve pure public spending, as the Bill entitles him to spend as well as offer guarantees.

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Although I accept much of the thrust of what my right hon. Friend has to say, does he not accept that if too much time and Treasury orthodoxy are spent on evaluating schemes at this stage, many of the infrastructure projects will simply not be built? We need to move ahead with getting them under way at the earliest opportunity if there is to be economic growth and some of the evaluation process to which he refers might be better placed at a later date.

Mr Redwood: I normally agree with my hon. Friend, but I am afraid that I do not on this occasion. There is not now an excuse to go in for projects that do not make any economic sense just because we all want some more growth and jobs. Indeed, that would be a very good way of setting us all back further as it would damage the public finances without giving us the benefit of a good project that people wanted to use and that produced plenty of user revenue. When one is in a financial hole, as our country is, one needs to be very careful. We look to the Treasury, in particular, to evaluate such matters carefully and I want a little more guidance because £50 billion is a huge sum. I am not surprised that so few MPs want to discuss it—if we were debating £500 million, the place would probably be packed, but because we are discussing £50 billion everyone has gone off for a tea or a coffee—but to me it is a serious sum of money and I want some reassurance that we will get something worth having for it.

Mr Redwood: I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Government could not merely offer a loan for the new school door; they could pay for it—they can pay for operating expenditure. So the issue is very wide-ranging.

Mr Nick Raynsford (Greenwich & Woolwich) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly fair point, and I concur.

The Institution of Civil Engineers, the professional body for engineers and those involved in the provision of infrastructure, makes a telling point in its submission to us about the Bill. It says that the approval criteria that the Government have set out for considering schemes state clearly that “any project must be nationally significant before it can receive financial support.”

It would clearly be a total waste of time if people read the fine print of the Bill and believed that it was appropriate for the kind of project to which the right hon. Gentleman and I were referring and submitted one, simply for it to be rejected because it did not have national significance. That is why the amendment has been tabled—to help the Government by bringing a degree of clarity and focus to the Bill.

I entirely concur with the objective of helping schemes that are stalled and ought to be able to proceed, but they should only be schemes of national significance. That is the purpose of my amendments, to which I hope the Government will be sympathetic.

1 Comment

  1. The PrangWizard
    October 17, 2012

    Thank you for posting this Mr Redwood. I missed your contributions when I was watching BBC parliament – I stepped in rather late, at ‘the school door’.

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