On the face of it, it does not sound like a good deal: decide what you want, find someone to supply it, then sign a contract that binds you into a legal straitjacket for decades, during which you pay them 37 times what the item is worth.
Such a deal makes even less financial sense in a country still struggling to escape the effects of the worst slump since the Great Depression. Yet this is what the Government's promotion of private finance initiatives (PFIs) to pay for public services has foisted on the taxpayer.
In the final part of The Independent on Sunday's investigation into government waste, an analysis of the latest Treasury statistics reveals a largely hidden debt mountain of hundreds of billions of pounds.
The taxpayer is, in effect, locked into making enormous annual payments for 667 school, hospital and other public-sector programmes with a capital value, or price, of around £55bn. The good news is that more than £37bn has been paid. But the overall bill for the contracts is more than £262bn, and this will not be fully paid off until 2047.
And that is not all. With a fresh catalogue of further projects valued at £11bn – in capital costs alone – currently under negotiation, Britain's liability for PFI projects since 1997 could exceed £300bn.
The PFI – the brainchild of the former Conservative chancellor Norman Lamont – was seized upon by Tony Blair in 1997, when he swept into power with a New Labour government determined to show that it could be the party of business. The Government committed itself to keeping the proportion of public debt to gross national product (GNP) below 40 per cent. Financing investment through PFI – with costs kept off the balance sheet – was seen as a way of achieving this, and led Alan Milburn, then health minister, to declare that PFI was "the only game in town".
PFI works on the principle of private firms building various forms of infrastructure – whether roads or bridges, schools, hospitals or prisons – then charging the public sector for using them over lengthy contracts that can run for more than 30 years.
But it has left a legacy of debt that will last a generation, according to unions who have slammed what they say is a credit-card approach to buying-in essential services. Calling for an end to the use of PFI to pay for public sector projects, Brian Strutton, the GMB's national secretary for public services, said: "PFI is building up a legacy of high-interest debt that will last for decades. The public is paying over the odds on PFI projects, with debt ratios in most areas at over 500 per cent. This is like paying for schools and hospitals by credit card."
Experts joined the attack on the Government last night.
Jean Shaoul, professor of public accountability at Manchester Business School, said: "They've mortgaged the future in the most profligate way... we have a government that acts in the interests of a financial oligarchy. Using the private sector as an intermediary to raise finance to build hospitals and to run them is extremely expensive and far more expensive than if the Government were to do it itself."
A case in point is the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, where the PFI consortium made tens of millions on a deal described by the Commons' Public Accounts Committee as "the unacceptable face of capitalism".
Firms have also made millions in profit by putting up the money for IT programmes that have become so expensive the Government now frowns on PFI being used to fund them. To take only one case: payments for the Crown Prosecution Service's Compass IT system come to £670m over the 10 years of the contract, 37 times the £18m capital value.
And the nature of PFI deals means that payments still have to be made even if the project is abandoned. Balmoral High School in Belfast closed six years after it was built, when pupil numbers halved. However, the Northern Ireland Department of Education owes the contractor £370,000 a year for the next 18 years.
Making changes to PFI-funded buildings and projects can cause costs to spiral. A 2008 National Audit Office report found that £180m a year is paid out for contractual amendments. And it highlighted extortionate charges for routine maintenance – such as £302 for an electric socket to be fitted, £47 for a key, and almost £500 to fit a lock.
Peter Dixon, chief executive of University College London Hospital – which pays some £43m in PFI charges a year – says that inflation is a real fear. "If we run into a bout of inflation, because all these payments are index-linked, then we are in trouble, all of us."
He described the arrangement as "expensive and inflexible", but added: "For the past 12 years the only way you were going to get a brand new hospital was by the PFI route... people knew they weren't cost effective but it was the only way they could get funding."
But a Treasury spokesman said: "PFI has a good record of delivering to time and budget, and represents good value for money over the whole life costing by telling us what it will cost to build and manage our assets."
Contracting out: Familiar faces with PFI connections
Alan Milburn MP
He famously described PFIs as the "only game in town" during a stint as health minister, and is now a director of Diaverum Healthcare – a company that is contracted to run the kidney dialysis unit at the PFI-funded Burnley General Hospital.
Quentin Davies MP
The Defence minister is a former director (he resigned in 2008) of Vinci UK and Vinci SA – firms involved in PFI projects with a total capital value of £223m which will cost £933m over the terms of their contracts.
John Reid MP
The former home secretary is (since November 2009) a paid consultant to G4S UK and Ireland. G4S is involved in PFIs, mainly in prisons, with a total capital value of £330m; they will end up costing £3.6bn.
Once Conservative Transport minister under John Major, he is now the chairman of Jarvis, a major PFI player which has a number of contracts, worth £721m, with government. The total capital value of PFI programmes funded by Jarvis comes to £175m.
Adam Ingram MP
A defence minister for six years under Tony Blair, he now gets paid more than £50,000 a year as a consultant to Electronic Data Systems – an MoD contractor responsible for the PFI-funded Tafmis IT system which cost £171m over its 10-year contract.
Patricia Hewitt MP
During her tenure as health secretary, BT won IT contracts from the NHS. The former minister is now a director of BT Group and was paid £59,475 for 140 hours' work over the past six months – a rate of £424 an hour.
PFI initiatives - the Lords' inquiry
The continuing flaws in the PFI option have been exposed in evidence to a House of Lords inquiry into the system.
A consultant, T Martin Blaiklock, said the Government had used the PFI option "like a credit card". He added: "It allows payments, which would normally be due to be paid today, to be paid at some future date. The key is to know when to use it, for what, and for how much."
The British Medical Association said: "PFI appears to be an unnecessarily costly and short-sighted means of building new hospitals."
But the Confederation of British Industry claimed that PFIs had helped to deliver a broad range of modern projects with "high-quality services and maintenance activities".
It added: "Without this long-term investment, the UK would not have the infrastructure required to support our economy, nor the public services that are needed."
The soaring cost to taxpayers
Queen Mary's Hospital, Roehampton Cost £73.5m to build, but will cost taxpayers in excess of £340m by 2034.
John Radcliffe hospital, Oxford Taxpayers will have to pay back £832m for key developments at a hospital which cost £134m to build.
Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Greenwich Trust is locked into a PFI deal costing £9m a year more than if it had borrowed money from the Government. Last year it admitted its PFI contract is "underfunded" by £8m to £10m a year, and it was also carrying debts of £65m.
Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital The 953-bed hospital will cost not £229m, as announced in 1998, but £16bn, including PFI charges, staff and equipment. Rent costs are £800m until the end of the contract in 2037.
Highlands School, Enfield Plunged into £300,000 of debt, blamed on "an expensive and inflexible contract" with the private contractor Equion. A former headteacher, Monica Cross, said "huge sums of money have been wasted" on the £16m school.
Paddington Health Scheme £900m super-hospital abandoned in 2007; costs rose £300m to £894m and finish date slipped to 2013.
Leicester hospitals Pathway Project Costs up from £711m to £921m; scrapped in 2007.
University College London Hospital PFI project, rose from £120m to £430m or so in the three years prior to signing off on the deal.
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