Lying to Ourselves over PFI – Private Finance Initiative

Ashmole-Academy-817x389

PFI was Government outsourcing at its worst as the Independent has uncovered. There is a saying “There are no free lunches” but politicians like to pretend that there are.

PFI was a scheme to bring forward capital spending for hospitals, schools, care homes and others areas of under-funded public utilities without showing it in spending profiles – without being honest and transparent with the public about what it was doing.

Ally this to the cozy relationship between certain politicians and those in the building and construction industry and the inability of civil servants to really understand enough about the risks to dissuade politicians and the recipe was in place.

What we have is a burden on our public sector that will not impact the politicians that made the decisions but will have grave (in some cases literally) consequences for those who will be unable to be provided with the care they need as costs in our public sector rise over the next few decades as the bills are paid.

Back in 1998, when I was a Trustee / Governor at a local school in North London, I identified that the school needed to be rebuilt. It was crumbling, had asbestos, its electrical wiring was unsafe, roofs were collapsing and let in vast amounts of rain water and the school had to make use of temporary facilities that were installed 30 years before. There was a real danger that the school would be closed at some time in the future unless radical steps were taken and the only answer was to rebuild.

I made a presentation to the Board of Governors in 1998 where I proposed that, while PFI was an option being actively touted by Government as a panacea, we should not touch it. In Powerpoint slides, printed and shown on an overhead projector (we could not afford the computer equipment) I tried to persuade reluctant but well-meaning local people to reject the obvious answer because of “long-term high charge over 30 years” and loss of control over our own assets. The slide shown 17 years ago is below:

1998

The school, now Ashmole Academy in Barnet was built without PFI – although it took until 2004 to see it through. Eleven years’ later, the school (where I was Chair for 12 years from 2002 until 2014) remains in excellent condition and is an excellent school – one of the best in England.

When this Government began its enquiry into school buildings a few years’ ago, it commissioned Sebastian James and his team that produced the James Report.

This report, to which a few of us from the board at Ashmole made representations and met with members of the Report team prior to publication, did not condemn PFI but simply said:

Private Finance Initiative

A procurement route established in 1995, and more widely adopted since 1997. It is an important route for much Government spending on assets as it transfers significant risks to the private sector. PFI requires private sector consortia to raise private finance to fund a project, which must involve investment in assets, and the long-term delivery of services to the public sector.

As a result, PFI was allowed to continue on the basis that it meant to provide a “transfer of risks to the private sector”. For this transfer (which is really nonsense as the transfer was merely to get public sector spending off the books and into the books of the companies), the construction and service companies were handsomely compensated.

Not only that, but local and national public sectors were completely overwhelmed by the prospect of architectural excellence rather than practical building and this resulted in grandiose schemes that impress architects and win awards but ended up being hard to maintain, costly to build and a long-term drain on finances.

The lessor, now the School or the local authority is then stuck with a long-term agreement which it has to pay – at costs which are far greater than those which a Government could have loaned the money at – just to get costs off the books so no-one would notice that the financial burden was excessive while the new facilities were being built.

As to the risk being transferred, at Ashmole, we decided to take on such risk and then make sure that we had good contractors, good architects, good project management overseen by knowledgeable Board directors / trustees and good contracts in place. The risk was normal – it was on the suppliers not the school as we were the customers. The risk issue is nonsense.

The James Report is now forgotten but should have been a reminder that PFI was a major accident waiting to happen.

The Independent’s Report highlights not just the crippling costs of PFI but also the problems that are met when government (local and national) become swept away by those in the private sector who promise a free lunch and by their own lack of transparency and inability to understand business.

We entrust Government with much of our future but, while we condemn those that allowed PFI to take place in such a shambolic way, we should bear in mind that we may be expecting far too much in an area of greatest risk – the place where public and private sector meet. Knowledge and capability on either side are varied but neither really “gets” the other. This is why banking crises will always appear from time to time and why outsourcing of public sector often delivers much less than “expected”.

The place where public and private sector meet is a dangerous one and is less well understood than the specific sectors themselves. However, one way that such disasters as PFI could be reduced is through transparency – it was the desire to keep costs “off the books” that took us into PFI when extra expenditure on the public sector financed by low-costs Treasuries would have been a far better investment.

However, the pressure to falsely account was made by the pressure put on politicians by keeping government spending down even in the face of greatest need. It is why, even today, the NHS funding row is all about showing how the £8bn will be afforded in years to come when we all really know that we have very little idea what the UK’s finances will look like in three to five years. Good management of finances does not mean we can possibly be that accurate (no company really believes it knows how it will be doing beyond twelve months and beyond that, forecasts are but guides based on spreadsheets – the same is true of economies but with thousands more indeterminate variables).

So, PFI and similar comes from our desire to lie to ourselves and for politicians to lie to a public that is implicit in the lie.

We need to educate ourselves to reality by being more transparent.

Education and Equal Concern

I was at two contrasting events this week that provided strong connections.

The first was the Annual Prize Giving at Ashmole Academy, where I am Chair of Governors / Directors. Our guest of honour was Professor A C (Anthony) Grayling – one of this country’s best-known philosophers and writer on ethics through books such as “Liberty in the Age of Terror”. He has also recently opened the New College of the Humanities (NCH) in London – a new private university.

The second was the inaugural meeting of the Board of Directors of Future Brilliance Limited – a not-for-profit set up by Sophia Swire, a courageous and hugely talented woman who has spent much of her life working to improve the lives of Afghans. Future Brilliance – Afghanistan has already begun work to provide business skills training and business opportunities to young Afghans and has a focus on especially improving access to woman for education and business in Afghanistan.

Education

I introduced Anthony Grayling to parents and students and quoted from his book mentioned above – a quote he himself had taken from Ronald Dworkin’s “Sovereign Virtue”:  “Equality must be understood in terms of the equal concern for its citizens that any legitimate government must show  – equal concern is the sovereign virtue of political community: without it government is only tyranny” and equality of resources or opportunities, giving everyone a fair start in making something of their lives.”

The concept of “equal concern” for all is not about providing everyone with the same standard of living but a desire to provide everyone with the same opportunities. It is up to the individual how they exploit those opportunities.

Anthony Grayling gave an excellent talk to our students. He described how we only have around 1,000 months to live and 2/3rds are spent sleeping and shopping or similar. That leaves just 1/3rd of our lives to do something meaningful. He believes that we should use our time in education to broaden our knowledge, ask questions, to develop the enquiring mind.

This was brought home by Sir James Dyson’s comments about education – where he decried the reading of French lesbian poetry as his example of a liberal, humanities-based education rather than one focused on science and engineering. Michael Gove defended the former. Anthony Grayling provided a very good set of reasons for ensuring that the humanities gain equal concern.

At Ashmole Academy, we have developed the ability to help students pass the exams they need and at the right level to gain acceptance to Russell Group Universities (and a large percentage do this in science and maths) but also produce individuals ready and equipped to face the world. Ashmole is non-selective and provides equal concern for all students – providing that equality of opportunities that gives everyone a fair start in making something of their lives. If only that was true of the whole education system in this country – where there is a major disparity between independent (alpha schools) and maintained sectors (although we believe Ashmole now challenges that assertion) and between good maintained schools (beta) and those who struggle (epsilon) for any number of reasons – see https://jeffkaye.wordpress.com/2012/05/13/the-fight-over-education/  We do not have equal concern yet borne out by the equality of opportunity.

Equality of Opportunity

However, in the UK we are blessed when compared to the range of destructive problems that exist in countries like Afghanistan. The problems are well known but the solutions are tough to consider let alone implement. In 2014, US and UK troops are expected to leave and it is there will be a major exodus of the brightest and best as the Taliban threat grows.

Sophia Swire has been working in Afghanistan for some time to improve the lives of those working to make the most of their lives. I met her at Global Witness – an anti-corruption NGO – when she was working with the World Bank. The Future Brilliance task is to develop young Afghans to benefit from the huge potential that their natural resources offer them by building their skills and business base within a code of ethics and good governance.  The US and UK are now working to provide financing in the next two years to help this process before they pullout – to work to get traction amongst the people who have been traumatised by the Taliban and by war and, to an extent, by aid programmes.

What is clear is that the country is also beset by corruption and a weariness that people struggle to shake off. This weariness is because the various governing classes, whether politicians, tribal chiefs or Taliban, have a view of leadership that we find out of date. There is no equality of concern. Concern is primarily for those already in leadership positions and a country that develops this manner of leadership will not break out from its current trauma.

Beyond this, of course, Afghanistan has a view of women (in general) that we see as 16th Century. Religion-blamed customs keep women from education and business in most cases. Like Malala, the young girl shot by terrorists in Pakistan, young women struggle to be allowed any freedoms – whether for the right to be educated or to enter into business. Again, customs deny equal concern for its citizens.

As A C Grayling highlighted in his book “Liberty in the age of Terror”, in the West, we have fought hard for centuries to secure basic human freedoms such as those enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In this country, we have witnessed the strain that terrorism has wrought as freedoms have been whittled away for the cause of security. But, human rights have to be based on equal concern for all. In a world that is now so interlinked, it is impossible to close our eyes at the problems in other countries. To a large extent, their problems are ours. Terrorism affects us in the UK in heavier security that reduces our freedoms. It is better to also work towards improvements in those countries where terrorism is bred. Acknowledgement human rights and of economic improvement are crucial not via handouts and aid (except in emergencies) but through the use of focused assistance to bolster the ability to help themselves and to relentlessly work to rid the country of corruption.

To succeed, government has to show equal concern for all its citizens – to provide the fair start – and it has to start with education (both boys and girls) and lead into business and wider, governmental responsibilities.

In the UK, education for all must be an equal concern as we struggle to get our worst schools anywhere near the level of acceptability. The same struggle (but, with horrendous consequences of failure) exists in countries like Afghanistan. “Equal concern is the sovereign virtue of political community: without it government is only tyranny.”  Whether in education at home or in the fight against terrorism abroad, the same ethical principle is true. In the global economy, it is essential that everyone has “a fair start in making something of their lives.”