Carillion’s collapse was capitalism in action. Profits are the reward for taking risks, and sometimes the risks materialise. Carillion’s problem was not that its profits were too high, but that they were too low when things started to go wrong. In a free-market system, it’s that simple.
Except that it isn’t quite that simple in this case, because much of Carillion’s work was for the government: building roads and hospitals, running prisons, providing school meals. Whitehall didn’t want the company to go bust, so bunged it a few new contracts when it was already in trouble in the hope that something would turn up. Instead, Carillion staggered on for six months as a zombie company before the banks pulled the plug.
What’s more, the directors of the company took steps to shield themselves from financial risk. The Institute of Directors – which strongly believes in free markets and the profit motive – described a 2016 change to pay policy that made it harder to claw back bonuses as “highly inappropriate”, which of course it was. The company’s workforce, its subcontractors and its pensioners have not been so fortunate.
PFI has been an attempt to prove that it is possible to get world-class public services on the cheap. This is a delusion
Jeremy Corbyn says the demise of Carillion is a watershed moment, and he could well be right. The reputation of business is already at a low ebb and the Carillion saga has everything to get the public fired up: mismanagement, dividends for shareholders and boardroom fat-cattery leading to job losses, pension cuts and more expensive public services. Voter resistance to local councils taking previously outsourced services back in house is likely to be minimal.
The time has come to have a hard look at the private finance deals that have been the vehicle of political choice for delivering infrastructure projects – and, increasingly, public services – for the past quarter of a century. Public-private partnerships started as an accounting wheeze in John Major’s government when it needed a way to prevent spending on capital investment boosting high borrowing built up in the early 90s recession.
But the Conservatives became less wedded to them when an improving economy led to an improvement in the public finances as the 90s wore on. It was Labour’s arrival in office in 1997 that gave private finance a new lease of life. Gordon Brown, Tony Blair’s chancellor, pledged to stick to the tough spending targets inherited from the Tories for two years, but still needed to find a way of building the new schools and hospitals promised in opposition. PFI (the private finance initiative ) – under which the private sector would pay for a new project up front and be paid back by the government over the coming decades – was the answer.
PFI, essentially a live-now pay-later approach, was always an expensive way to fund infrastructure, and the private sector did well out of them.
Life became a lot tougher after 2010, when the coalition government decided its first priority was to reduce a budget deficit at 10% of GDP. Spending on infrastructure was cut, and private sector contractors such as Carillion found Whitehall more miserly when negotiating contracts. Local government, which bore the brunt of government spending cuts, came under pressure to outsource services to save money.
Austerity and PFI was an unhappy marriage. To be sure, taxpayers saved money by getting the private sector to provide services more cheaply. But savings came at a price. Prisoners turned up late for court appearances; schools were built to a lower specification; PFI contractors cut corners to save money whenever they could because the bids put in to win contracts were barely enough to cover their costs. This was a race to the bottom, and Carillion won it.
George Osborne, who masterminded the coalition’s austerity strategy, says the problem was a failure to use more small- and medium-sized companies instead of relying on the big beasts. This is absurd: only large outfits could contemplate taking on large PFI contracts. And in many cases, multifaceted companies such as Carillion used profits from one sector to subsidise losses elsewhere in their portfolios.
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There are lessons to be learned from Carillion’s collapse, but the idea that SMEs should be building billion-pound hospitals is not one of them. Lesson one is that governments can have austerity or they can have PFI, but not both together. For the past eight years, it has been possible for the state to borrow for long periods at historically low interest rates. This would have been – and still is – a more cost-effective way of financing big infrastructure projects.
Lesson two is that the state is not well equipped to manage big infrastructure projects. There are plenty of examples – the abandonment of the NHS IT project at a cost of £12bn, for example – of official incompetence. Whitehall’s handling of Carillion has left a lot to be desired. No matter what Labour says, the private sector will inevitably have a big role in the delivery of major projects. Even under a Corbyn-led government, there would inevitably be a role for it.
Given that, lesson three is the need to rethink company law. Trade unions felt the full force of the law when they were deemed to have acted badly in the late 70s and 80s; a similar approach for corporate wrongdoing is long overdue. It might simply mean enforcing existing laws more strongly, but the step that would send a shiver through boardrooms would be the end of limited liability for directors of limited companies. Limited liability is supposed to encourage entrepreneurship. In Carillion’s case it seems to have created moral hazard.
The final lesson is for the public. PFI has been an attempt to prove that it is possible to get world-class public services on the cheap. This is a delusion. If we want world-class public services, one way or another they will have to be paid for.
• Larry Elliott is the Guardian’s economics editor