Margaret Hodge on inappropriate conversations and fingering civil servants

Birkbeck’s Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life hosted a very enjoyable seminar yesterday with the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Margaret Hodge.  The ‘conversation’ ranged widely, covering her transformation from loony left Islington councillor to her current role as defender of the taxpayer battling multinational tax dodgers (‘they love you now, said the chair Tony Wright, ‘but they used to hate you’).  It included her contest with Nick Griffin in Barking in 2010, an experience she claims has transformed the way she now does local politics, to make more of an effort to connect and engage.

There was, as you would expect, lots of her time chairing the PAC, a job a former chair David Davis once described as the ‘second best job in Opposition’.  She rejected the charge that she ‘grandstands’, although there was an acceptance that she does need to be high profile. As she put it: ‘I don’t grandstand, but… I have few other tools’.  But she’s aware that other select committee chairs get annoyed with the PAC for treading on their toes. Members of the PAC seem distinctly unbothered by this. ‘We can go anywhere’ one of them said.

She complained, as most select committee chairs do, about a lack of resource – although most other chairs would look enviously at the massive resource of the National Audit Office which backs up the PAC.  It took about a year for Hodge to establish a good working relationship with the NAO, who were not initially keen for her to investigate HMRC’s tax deals, for example.  She was full of praise for whistle-blowers and investigative journalists, who provided her with much of the material she needed; the Impetus for the tax-dodging inquiry came from an HMRC whistle-blower and a Reuter’s journalist. And she was full of praise for the work done on the issue by Private Eye.  Before each major evidence session, she spends lot of time MPs coordinate questioning by members of the committee. The BBC enquiry, for example, with multiple witnesses, would have been a ‘train crash’ otherwise.  In those sessions where that has not been done, the quality of questioning usually dropped.

She was less full of praise for civil servants, who ‘never become accountable for anything’.   She gave the example of a witness from HMRC, with whom the committee was getting nowhere, when one of the Conservatives on the committee (from her description, I assume Richard Bacon) had the idea to put him on oath.  The only problem was that it took Commons officials 20 minutes to find a bible.

On Universal Credit, she was exasperated: ‘I haven’t a clue who’s telling the truth’, and complained of ‘inappropriate’ conversations from both senior civil servants (trying to get her to blame ministers) and ministers (trying to get her to blame civil servants).  But a remark that Hodge should ‘finger’ the responsible civil servants proved too much for some in the audience, and giggles began to break out.