Multi-Decade Outsourcing Boom Comes to Sticky End in the UK

After scandals, collapses, and the government’s off-balance-sheet debt.

By Don Quijones, Spain, UK, & Mexico, editor at WOLF STREET.

The United Kingdom, widely considered to be the birthplace of the modern incarnation of the public-private partnership (PPP), in which private firms are contracted to complete and manage public projects, could be one of the first countries to jettison the model.

The collapse in January of 200-year old UK infrastructure group Carillion, whose outsized role in delivering public services earned it the moniker “the company that runs Britain,” has fueled concerns that other big outsourcing groups could soon follow in its doomed footsteps.

Last week the CEO of Interserve, another large outsourcing group, revealed that the government has given the firm a red rating as a strategic supplier, meaning it has “significant material concerns” about the company’s finances.

Fears are growing that Carillion was not a one-off episode but rather the swan song of a deeply flawed and dying business model. Those fears were hardly assuaged by the release this week of a damning parliamentary report into the UK government’s practice of outsourcing public projects through so-called Private Finance Initiatives (PFIs).

PFI deals were invented in 1992 by the Conservative government and then enthusiastically rolled out by the subsequent Labour government. The schemes usually involved large-scale public buildings such as new schools and hospitals which were previously funded by the UK Treasury. Under PFI they were put out to tender with bids invited from developers who put up the investment to build new schools, hospitals or other schemes and then leased them back.

In theory, for a public body to use PFI, or PF2 as the latest iteration of the financing scheme is termed, Treasury rules require it to demonstrate that this financing route provides better value for money than conventional government procurement. In practice, neither the Treasury nor individual government departments have developed any effective means to assess the actual value for money of PFI projects.

“After more than 25 years since the first PFI contracts, the Treasury has not attempted to quantify the benefits of using PFI,” the report states. “This is despite the Treasury telling the previous Committee in 2011 that it would introduce benefits realisation assessment into its value for money guidance, for PFI projects that are underway.”

When the Committee asked whether the benefits of PFI have justified the higher financing costs, the Treasury said (emphasis added) that this was “an impossible question to answer”, because it “did not have the facts needed.” Considering the Treasury has recruited just one member of staff, “pretty much on a full-time basis,” to look across all 700 projects in the PFI portfolio “and see what data exists,” those facts are unlikely to materialize any time soon.

The Treasury’s incapacity to measure the actual benefits of PFI should be of grave concern to British taxpayers given that the interest rate of private-sector debt — these projects are debt financed — can be as much as 2 to 3.75 percentage points higher than the cost of government borrowing. Even if the government doesn’t enter into any new PFI-type deals, it will pay private companies £199 billion, including interest, between April 2017 until the 2040s for existing deals, in addition to some £110 billion already paid. That’s for 700 projects worth around £60 billion.

British taxpayers could clearly “get a much better deal,” the report concludes. For the UK Treasury, which manages (a term I use loosely) British taxpayer funds, the main benefit of PFI is that it allows ministers to harness big sums of private capital to invest in public projects, such as new schools and hospitals, without paying any money up front — and thus keeping the level of current public debt lower than it would otherwise be. This is off-balance-sheet financing.

“Current accounting rules create incentives for public bodies to use PFI for reasons other than value for money, and these incentives remain under PF2,” the report notes. “Under national accounting rules, most PFI debt is recorded off balance sheet and excluded from public debt calculations, which is advantageous for the Treasury.” In 2011 the Parliamentary Treasury Select Committee urged the Treasury to bring PFI onto the balance sheet, thus “ensuring that PFI is not used to circumvent departmental budget limits.” It was ignored.

In other words, much like Enron and other doomed companies and banks, the British government continues to use financial chicanery to keep many of its current liabilities off balance sheet. It’s also awarding well-connected businesses ludicrously lucrative public works contracts that provide scant value to British taxpayers:

“Shareholders in the M25 PFI deal made estimated returns over an eight-year period equivalent to 31% a year when selling their stake in the project. In written evidence, Professor Dexter Whitfeld, Director of the European Services Strategy Unit, told us that returns to investors in excess of 25% are not uncommon in PFI projects.”

Even if a project fails, it must be paid for in full. Liverpool City Council is paying £4 million a year for an empty school. The flawed deal will see over £55 million of taxpayer funds wasted since the school became empty in 2014.

If a developer doesn’t want to hold on to an asset, there’s always the option of “flipping,” or selling on to some other investor, invariably one based in a tax haven, so not even UK corporation tax is paid on the profits. Offshore funds have bought up about half of the equity in PFI and PF2 projects. The Committee raised this issue during the recent inquiry, to which the Treasury responded that “public procurement rules prevent discrimination against non-UK domiciled companies and investors.”

As the Committee says, the deal is clearly not working for British taxpayers. There is a bright side, however: Even the UK government appears to be losing faith in the model it spawned, at the behest of big business and big finance, 26 years ago. The number of projects being launched through PFI has plummeted from a peak of over 60 projects to no new PF2 contracts at all in the last two years. But even if the UK’s love affair with PFI is coming to an end, it’s likely to be a bitter one, what with £199 billion still outstanding. By Don Quijones.

The “oligarchy” of four audit firms controls the standard-setters, ensuring rules of the game suit it. The long reach of the bean counters also extends deep into the heart of government. Read…  Big Four Audit “Oligarchy” Comes under Scrutiny in the UK after Corporate Surprise Collapses

Enjoy reading WOLF STREET and want to support it? You can donate. I appreciate it immensely. Click on the beer and iced-tea mug to find out how:

Would you like to be notified via email when WOLF STREET publishes a new article? Sign up here.

  46 comments for “Multi-Decade Outsourcing Boom Comes to Sticky End in the UK

  1. Auld Kodjer says:

    From: “The Empire on which the sun never sets”.

    To: The (financially engineered) empire on which the light never shines.

    • Caliban says:

      It would appear to have been nothing more than massive schemes to skim public funds out of the Treasury through Corporate pass-through vehicles acting as a version of financial Potemkin villages in collusion with the big accounting firms. But, then I’m naturally suspicious and paranoid individual. Maybe those are all just examples of innocent incompetence after all

      • Caliban says:

        Always follow the money!

        I would bet good money that if the U.K. Authorities put some forensic accountants to following the money they’d find a lot of their politicians with fat bank accounts in the Cayman Islands and other off-shore banking hidey holes.

        But, like I wrote above I’m a suspicious and paranoid individual. So it’s possible that it could all be ordinary run-of-the-mill incompetence.

        Maniacal laughter follows.

    • George McDuffee says:

      Good one!

    • R Davis says:

      That which goes up
      And therefore it must also come down
      Did so.

  2. Justme says:

    Margaret Thatcher is sleeping soundly in her grave, no doubt.

    • James Levy says:

      Two hundred years ago the Treasury and the Admiralty were THE model bureaucracies on this planet. They had managed the finances and the strategy that brought Napoleon down. They would do the same in World War I, and contribute mightily to the outcome of World War II. It would appear that all that expertise and institutional memory have been flushed down the drain by neoliberal dunderheads and ideologues. Sic itur gloria mundi.

      • Paulo says:

        re: “could be one of the first countries to jettison the model.”

        Good for them. It was a scam rip off hiding behind ideaology to hide the balance sheet. I’m sure many conservative supporters got rich from it.

        I know several people who work for our BC Govt, and one Fed employee. They are extremely hardworking, committed, and always do their best. Over the years it has really pissed me off to hear people complain about ‘lazy Govt workers’ when it just isn’t true. Perhaps those same folks go in to their Govt office seeking service with a mighty shoulder chip and bad manners. It’s kind of like getting into a coppers face and telling him/her that they work for YOU. :-)

        They privatised Dept of Highways here in BC and the only difference that I can see is the trucks are yellow instead of orange.

        • alex in san jose AKA digital Detroit says:

          Paulo – Agree. I’ve dealt with the DMV in California, and suchlike agencies elsewhere and it’s been consistently good. At times, excellent. I’ve been a seller on Ebay for 20 years now and I’ve been extremely impressed with the US Postal Service for all of this time. All of this government stuff; just no problems. I’ve been in traffic court, been in more serious court, just no problems.

          At least in my experience, *speaking as a white person on the mainland US* you have to be a real dick for the government, cops, etc to be a dick to you.

          Hence, I find it hard to rationalize why so many of my fellow white mainland-dwellers are so anti-gov’t. Things are stacked in our favor and have been for a long time.

          Yet I’ve seen it; seen people milk a ticket into a felony for failure-to-appear, heard people talk about spending 40 days in jail because they got caught driving on a suspended license. You’ve got to work at it to get bad treatment because frankly they don’t want to send you to jail if they can avoid it.

          My survivalist buddy out in the rurals had someone complain about his set-up and I’ve told him more than once: Get your residents there to each chip in, and rent a couple of porta-johns and put ’em out by front where they’re easy to see from the street. Document it all, and go to a city council meeting and say, “Hey, here’s what I’ve done; I know I’ve got a bunch of people living on my place with no actual toilets, but it’s there or they’ll be on your streets”. Make ’em a deal. But nope, he thinks the anti-white-guy SWAT team will get called on him or something.

          If you’re ever in need of a laugh, look up stuff like “sovereign citizens getting owned” on YouTube.

        • Anon2017 says:

          The Province of Ontario refinanced its newly completed multi-lane Highway 407 in the late 1990’s for a quick infusion of cash. It resulted in high tolls for motorists for decades to come. The locals hate it and continue to sit in bumper to bumper traffic on Highway 401 a few miles to the south to avoid the tolls.

          The province’s financial chicanery was based on an earlier toll highway built in Orange County, CA. The San Joaquin toll road’s projections never materialized, and its revenue bonds had to be refinanced twice and its final maturities extended. Among the few winners in this fiasco were the owners of the small amount of junior lien bonds. At the time of the first refinancing, they were escrowed to maturity in US government securities, going from non-rated junk bonds to AAA.

      • peter says:

        I’m afraid James Levy it was not neo liberals who bought it in, but the conservative government under Mrs T who were far from liberal. And the only way they managed to beat Napoleon financially was by introducing income tax at a penny in the pound to pay for the war and as “a temporary measure”! Well shows how much we can trust politicians doesn’t it? I believe that war might just be over by now?

        • ewmayer says:

          Peter, you appear to misapprehend the concept of neoliberalism – it is an economic philosophy which has nothing to do with the usual liberal/conservative partisan classifications. In the US every presidential administration starting with Carter (who was actually quite the little union-buster, though Reagan took it to the next level) has been staunchly neoliberal. Why do you think the likes of elite financial crooks and the famous economists’ on their payrolls, the likes of Greenspan/Rubin/Summers/etc in the US, have been doing their thing in a manner which spans multiple presidential administrations from both parties? Because the democrat/republican and liberal/conservative labels are just meant to distract the Deplorables from the realization that there is just one party of Big Money which is busily immiserating and debt-enslaving them.

          Neoliberalism’s core tenet is laissez-faire for the oligarchy, i.e. free rein for the global mobile-capitalist looter elite class. Naked Capitalism’s Lambert Strether cites its two fundamental pillars thusly:

          1. Because Markets;
          2. [To the bottom 90%] Go Die.

          Similarly but in foreign-policy terms, ‘neocon’ long ago lost any reliable major-party association. In the US every president starting with Reagan was – in actions if not in rhetoric – a hardcore neocon, happily spreading Imperialist regime change, chaos and slaughter all around the globe. The only difference between the so-called liberal/conservative wings of the singular War Party is the language they use to lie the country into war – the conservative-wing neocons like to use “axis of evil”-style rhetoric, whereas the liberals prefer “spreading democracy” and “responsible to protect” some propaganda-promoted “oppressed group”.

          But even those latter distinctions are getting blurred, so for instance in the US we have the ‘liberal democrats’ working furiously to gin up Cold War 2.0 via a classic McCarthyite smear campaign, because [a] it’s good for business in the MIC and [b] Hillary – herself a classic neolibcon, in bed with Wall Street and a huge warmonger – was the most qualified candidate ever, no way she could have lost because of her dismal more-of-the-same policies and giant middle-finger-giving to the neoliberalism-devastated Deplorables in flyover country, so obviously it had to be an evil conspiracy by – ta da! – a country the MIC would love to paint as The Enemy, because all these ‘little wars’ around the world lack the kind of Big Platform Enemy which serves as the true financial bonanza the Big War business class and the MSM pundit class paid to shill for it both crave.

        • c_heale says:

          Thatcher’s policies were in the main neoliberal. Neoliberals are not traditional conservatives. They follow the Chicago school of neoclassical economics of which Milton Friedman is perhaps the most famous.

    • Mike G says:

      PF2 achieved its goals — looting the public treasury for the benefit of crony insiders, which was the aim all along. This was Ideological Privatization, implemented blindly without regard for whether each project was of financial benefit to the country.

  3. raxadian says:

    Replace the word “Boom” with Scam.

    Because it really was one.

    To sum t up:

    State hired company X to do some work.

    Comoany X had no real workers or staff at all, it hired another company, let’s call it Y, to do the job.

    And that was in the cases things went well.

    Let’s not me even start with the cases were they used the Gig economy as workers….

    Want more details? Look in the Guardian (UK) website. There are a few articles about that.

  4. California Bob says:

    Aren’t these–PPIs–what the Trump administration is proposing for the US infrastructure rebuild? Because they worked so well in GB and elsewhere?

    • Wolf Richter says:

      Look at our private prisons. They’ve been around for years. They’re expensive for the government and terrible — because now there’s a big-fat corporate lobby that wants the government to produce as many detainees and prisoners as possible. Playing out right now before our eyes.

      • kitten lopez says:

        (wow. regardless of this site, YOU are not just a “money” guy.)

    • Paulo says:

      Hey, all those border service agencies hauling the kids away and caging them up in Texas right now are private contractors/agencies. Do you think they might be political donors as well? They would have had to have them in place before the policy was implemented. I’m pretty sure they wern’t in the phone book.

      That might be a good story for another day…when the latest dust settles.

  5. Sporkfed says:

    And yesterday the Trump admistration proposed privatizing the Postal Service. The profitable parts will be sold off for pennies on the dollar and the liabilities shifted to the taxpayer and postal employees. Our world is being looted by crony capitalists.

    • Kaz Augustin says:

      The United States isn’t “the world”…thank goodness.

    • Ambrose Bierce says:

      I used to be a PO believer, but no more. They are the antithesis of a smart corporation. I sent a priority to Pittsburg CA, and they sent it to Pittsburgh, PA. I tried to mail a package in a wine box, which they have some arcane rule against, (check the ratings) and rejected it, so I painted the box and that really got them buzzing. The admins at the the local office have no authority, if there is a problem they all put their heads together and ask, what will they do with this in Dallas? Nobody knows. They do allow you to ship Media, but read the rules, only an attorney could love, and they can open it. Most people don’t ship anything important in the mail anyway, and if you want to mail some weed to your cousin in NJ, try UPS

    • QQQBall says:

      Read The Shock Doctrine. When the next crisis hits it will be austerity and privatization; privatization and austerity. Its already happened and happening in the USA. The USA is a series of control-frauds; citizens are being looted. I actually found The Shock Doctrine boring – the template is followed in country after country. PFI , PFI-2, PFI-Infinity are simply asset-stripping ploys, much like the impact of TARP, QE, etc. Its taking time to play-out here.

      Mail should be delivered maybe twice a week and residents should be able to deny bulk mail service. I get almost NOTHING I need through the physical mail box, most via email. I am not tree-hugger, but seems a waste of resources to ship bulk mail that goes straight in the trash bin.

  6. Kk says:

    We all live in our own worlds, think of the small child in the Texas cage and the new world they are living in?

  7. MC01 says:

    There’s a thing I hope the people here will help me understand.
    On paper these outsourcing groups like Carillion have excellent returns: in short they should be able not merely to stand on their own legs but be profitable as well. If they manage to sell their PFI/PF2 shares those returns can become even fatter.

    Yet all these outsourcing groups are either effectively insolvent (as Carillion turned out to be) or are in financial dire straits. Why?
    What went wrong in what was potentially one of the safest and most profitable business models in the world?

    Interserve has not been exactly forthcoming on why HM Government is so concerned about their ability to deliver the services they were contracted to deliver, so I can only surmise Interserve has very serious financial issues, the kind that may result in vendors and contractors to stop providing goods and services.
    Again, how did this come to pass?

    • Steve clayton says:

      Being involved in public sector tenders in the past, you’re are always measured on how financially sound you are. Something went badly wrong with Carillion lol. Ref PFI a massive scandal, especially the offshoring of a lot of these projects.

    • Kent says:

      I work as a senior manager in a largish county in Florida. And I’ll take the side of the private company on this question. We don’t outsource much in quantity, but we do in dollars. If you are going to win a long-term contract, you have to be willing to take a loss for a couple of years. Then you find out why the government is outsourcing the program in the first place: the costs of meeting what the citizens actually want are greater than the government entity can afford. But the contract for the private company requires them to meet that need. And they can’t do it profitably either.

      • MC01 says:

        There have been cases in which that happened, such as the fiasco of the National Physical Laboratory which lost the private companies which built and ran it £100 million (in 2004 money) in just six years, but generally speaking it seems that either no costs-benefits analysis are done or British bureaucracy does what it has long done: it operates in mysterious ways.

        It’s invariably impossible to find out why a NHS trust, HM Prison Service or the Ministry of Defense chose a PFI over a traditional procurement process. “An impossible question to answer”, as HM Treasury told the House Committee which inquired whether or not the system was financially worth it.

        • Tom Welsh says:

          On the contrary, I think it is glaringly obvious. It means that the current government has to pay much less, and someone in the future will have to pay a great deal more; but as that someone is not a member of the government that makes the deal, its leaders don’t care.

          As Louis XIV is said to have remarked, “Apres moi, le deluge”. Or, in demotic English, “I got mine, Jack; screw you”.

    • MD says:


      Loading up on debt to pump stock price and pay higher dividends demanded by large investment funds who’ll dump their stock wholesale if they don’t ‘play the game’.

      I.e. ‘The markets’ sorting everything out for us…taking the profits, then dumping the [much-hated and criticized] state (ie the taxpayer) with the remains of the hollowed-out, debt-ridden company.

      Trebles all round!

      • MC01 says:

        The Business and Work and Pensions Select Committees summoned several of Carillion’s executives to be questioned.
        In their report the Chairs called these people “a series of delusional characters” who blamed their firm’s collapse on anything from “the business culture of the Middle East” to “professional designers of concrete beams” and obviously “Brexit”, the most abused excuse to come along since “The dog ate my homework”.
        The Big Four Auditing Firms were spared the indignity of having their executives directly questioned, but were required to send several hundreds of pages worth of documents to the Committees. Unsurprisingly, the Chairs called the audits “a colossal waste of time and money, fit only to provide false assurance to investors, workers and the public.” Both Deloitte and KPMG escaped retribution, as usual, but not the indignity of that time-honored tradition of British politics: being made fun of by MP’s.

        Still nobody has been able to explain where Carillion’s revenue stream went (executive compensations do not count) and how they could rack up such impressive debts without anybody noticing anything for years.

    • R Davis says:

      Is it that their books are cooked to begin with ??

      The/a Public Service run by a/the government does not work … period.
      The personnel are wrapped in swaddling cloth & remain that way, till they pass to the other side & in their wake they leave a system that resembles a moth eaten sack cloth.
      To my mind, privatisation is the only way.
      Is it that there are way to many loopholes that allow fraud ??
      Because that is what cooked books amount to.

      In Australia, we the people, financially support the ABC network to the tune of at least $1 billion per annum.
      I have listened to the ABC since I was 16 years old – 51 years.
      I wrote a polite, but derogatory comment about Sir Rupert Murdoch & my comments were blocked.
      Really !!
      I now campaign to have them shut down.
      One can move a mountain.
      It will happen.
      The government wants to be rid of them, but they are afraid to shut them down.
      Mainstream media network’s hassel the government to shut them down to lessen competition.
      I want the $1 billion plus it costs to run them wiped off the books & the monies spent in a more productive direction.
      Only that there are too many loopholes, otherwise the private system works.

      • MC01 says:

        Deloitte and KPMG, the usual suspects, were involved in the Carillion fiasco as I mentioned previously. The Select Committees concluded these auditors had merely provided “false assurance to investors, workers and the public”.
        The amazing thing is not so much that these auditing firms help the Carillion’s of this world to hide their financial situation, but that so far the usually garrulous EU Commissions have turned the other way, possibly because the Big Four Accounting Firms of which Deloitte and KPMG are core members helped Greece hide the true state of their finances back in 2002-3, with full backing and blessing from those who first sold Greece battle tanks, escavators and luxury cars by the shipload and scooped up high yield securities and then pretended to be shocked when they learned it was all a Potemkin village.

  8. Surf@jm says:

    Government……..Thy name is corruption…..

    Why didn`t Shakespeare think of that?……

    • MD says:

      “Even if a project fails, it must be paid for in full. Liverpool City Council is paying £4 million a year for an empty school. The flawed deal will see over £55 million of taxpayer funds wasted since the school became empty in 2014”

      Quite astonishing.

      Neolieralism – not just a bankrupt ideology, but one which literally bankrupts nations too. All in the name of ‘stockholder returns’ – as if this were the apogee of human endeavour.

      Still – it appears to be full steam ahead for the project! Let’s increase that wealth divide! Because as Maggie said – TINA [There Is No Alternative]. Apparently.

      • QQQBall says:


        This is not conservative or liberal, it is control-fraud. In USA, how is it that the rating agencies and auditors did not get sued to extinction in the aftermath of the GFC; their executives avoided perp-walks and prison time? You see the same here in this case with auditors. Part of the fraud is perpetrated via divide and conquer as well as shock events which create fear and drive people to gubbermint to “save them”, which in-turn leads to more and greater schemes and asset-stripping. Blaming liberals or conservatives is part of teh script/template.

      • Steve clayton says:

        MD, my local hospital was built for a cost of £300m pounds. It will cost 2.1 billion pounds in repayments through PFI. Thats some mortgage.

  9. Mean Chicken says:

    To me it’s bizarre that central governments borrow money without regard for covering those debts with tax receipts.

    • John Taylor says:

      That’s sarcasm, right?

    • Tom Welsh says:

      That, sadly, is a standard result of all democratic systems (including our Western pseudo-democracy).

      No politician or party can be lected without outdoing its rivals in promises of public spending. Hence any politician or party that limits their promises to the possible or honest will ever be elected. Instead, the most profligate and irresponsible spenders are alwys put in power.

      They spend as if there is no tomorrow – because, in political terms, there actually is no tomorrow for them (in the sense of a day of reckoning). No matter how disgracefully irresponsible a politician’s behaviour in power, once retired he is beyond reproach and beyond the reach of the law.

      Why? Because, of course, their successors in government don’t want to set a precedent. If they prosecute their predecessors, they will be more likely to be prosecuted themselves when they leave office.

      Look at all recent (since, say, 1920) US presidents, and all British PMs and chancellors, and tell me that isn’t the plain truth.

      It’s one of the most powerful arguments for monarchies and dictators that they, at least, remain in office and must be answerable for their decisions. Mr Putin or Mr Xi is answerable to his citizens for the results of a long period of continuous power. So it is in their interests to do the best in the long term, as well as the short.

      • Tom Welsh says:

        “The state—or, to make the matter more concrete, the government—consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have, taking one with another, no special talent for the business of government; they have only a talent for getting and holding office. Their principal device to that end is to search out groups who pant and pine for something they can’t get, and to promise to give it to them. Nine times out of ten that promise is worth nothing. The tenth time it is made good by looting A to satisfy B. In other words, government is a broker in pillage, and every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods”.

        – H. L. Mencken, “Sham Battle”, Baltimore Evening Sun, October 26, 1936 (included in “A Carnival of Buncombe” edited by Malcolm Moos)

  10. R Davis says:

    Interesting article – Aletho news – WHO Disproves Claims of Polio Returns in Venezuela.

    How is BigPharma doing ?? – financially.
    Are vital medical & healthcare supplies being deliberately withheld from the people of Venezuela – to force the government to implement compulsory vaccination of its population ??

  11. Tom Welsh says:

    “The United Kingdom, widely considered to be the birthplace of the modern incarnation of the public-private partnership (PPP), in which private firms are contracted to complete and manage public projects, could be one of the first countries to jettison the model”.

    That’s only to be expected – the UK was first to adopt PPP, so it has been the first to see the full ghastly results. Or, rather, the first country in which government officials are no longer able to cover up the ghastly results.

Comments are closed.