The head of the BBC was urged to quit last night as she faced an angry grilling by MPs over her part-time role at HSBC. Rona Fairhead, chair of the BBC Trust, earns more than £500,000 in her job as a non-executive director at the bank, which has recently been rocked by allegations that it helped wealthy clients avoid billions of pounds at its bank’s division.
Appearing in front of the Commons public affairs committee yesterday, she was described as “incredibly naive or totally incompetent” by Margaret Hodge, chair of the committee. “I think you should consider your position and resign,” the veteran Labour MP said, who advised the Government to sack her if she decided to stay.
However Ms Fairhead insisted she was not made aware of any evidence of tax avoidance at the HSBC’s Swiss bank during her 10 years on the board and said “first and foremost the people who are most culpable are those people who evade taxes”, pointing the blame at “frontline” staff for breaching the bank’s policies. She insisted she had been “unyielding” in taking action against wrongdoing.
Ms Fairhead works the equivalent of one day a week at HSBC alongside her three-day-a-week job at the BBC, where she earns a £110,000 salary. She is also a non-executive director of Pepsi, where she works 25 days a year. The embattled BBC head insisted last week that she would prioritise her job at the BBC Trust over her other positions and said she was keeping her roles at HSBC and Pepsi “under review”.
In an angry exchange in front of the cameras, Ms Hodge, who has made a name for taking on powerful organisations over tax avoidance, said: “I want to come to you, Ms Fairhead, and I’m going to say something. It’s a bit unpleasant to say, and I’m just saying it as a licence fee payer. Having watched your performance this afternoon I’ve got to say this to you, that either you knew... or you didn’t know. And in that case you are either incredibly naive or totally incompetent.
“I don’t think that the record that you have shown in your performance here as a guardian of HSBC gives me the confidence that you should be the guardian of the BBC licence fee payers’ money. I really do think that you should consider your position and you should think about resigning and if not, I think the government should sack you.”
Fairhead hit back, saying she categorically denied she knew about tax avoidance at the bank. The 53-year-old became chair of the BBC Trust last September and recently took the unusual suggestion that the Trust be scrapped.
In a statement defending her, the BBC Trust said: “Rona Fairhead is committed to her role as Chairman of the BBC Trust, representing the interests of licence fee payers. As she has said before, the BBC is her main priority.”