Did Margaret Hodge go too far on Monday? The chair of the Public Accounts Committee has been a pocket-sized folk hero for recession-hit Britain, battling against the arcane tax arrangements of some of the biggest companies operating in this country.
But the finger jabbing went into overdrive for the latest evidence-gathering on HSBC’s tax affairs. Locking horns with Rona Fairhead, a non-executive director at HSBC, Ms Hodge, 70, called for her head as chair of the BBC Trust.
“The grandstanding Queen of Mean,” one newspaper columnist said; “she has started to believe her own publicity”, summed up another, while the former Tory minister Sir Alan Duncan said Ms Hodge had been “abusive and bullying”.
The Labour MP’s response: “All I can tell you is you should see my Twitter feed and email. I think on the whole people like what we have done. That is the punters, rather than the commentators.”
She adds: “I lost my cool, I admit to that. But … if you are protecting licence fee payers’ money you need to demonstrate integrity and competence and I don’t think she [Ms Fairhead] had done that.”
The end is nigh for Ms Hodge’s reign. She could chair the PAC again if Labour did not win the election, but she is already surveying the Pugin-inspired walls of her Commons office, wondering where her picture will fit next to the men-only row of her predecessors.
“I won’t give up on this,” she vows of her crusade. Ms Hodge will fight her seat in Barking, of course, and then who knows? The firmest idea she has is to write a book about the past five years, with “some interesting chapters about tax but also to tell a few stories, so it can be both personal and public policy”.
Her route into exploring corporate tax affairs, avoidance and alleged evasion, was the PAC’s remit to probe the efficiency and effectiveness of HM Revenue & Customs.
“I think they’ve got better; let’s be positive,” she says, but wishes that the taxman’s budget was beefed up so it could litigate more often in a bid to capture some of the £34bn it says eludes state coffers every year.
“I don’t understand why they haven’t taken Google to court,” she says, exasperated. From a brown envelope she received concerning Goldman Sachs’ tax deal, everything mushroomed. There was a boycott of Starbucks lattes; she won a round of applause on entering the Commons tearoom after one particularly forceful interrogation.
“I’d love to say it was all planned and intended; it just happened,” she adds. Spurred on by a change in public attitudes, she would like to see far greater transparency in company dealings with the taxman, plus a simplification of the system.
“Every tax relief becomes an opportunity for tax avoidance. It is ridiculous we have over 1,100 tax reliefs.” And then there is the power of public procurement. Why not withdraw government contracts from any company found to be avoiding tax?
On some fronts, she ran out of time. “We haven’t yet touched the lawyers who play a very negative role in signing off aggressive tax avoidance schemes,” she says. “If you could create offences around all of these people you cut it very quickly.”
Experts' predictions for the general election
Experts' predictions for the general election
1/10 Andrew Hawkins (ComRes)
Just as the polls in 2010 pointed to no overall majority for any party, the overwhelming evidence points to Labour either being the largest party or getting a small majority, probably below 20. The Lib Dems and SNP should each win between 25 and 35 seats, with single-figure wins for both Ukip and the Greens.
2/10 Joe Twyman (YouGov)
I predict it will be close. I predict a few tremors, though earthquakes are unlikely. I predict the eventual winner may not be the direct result of public opinion, but instead the outcome of political negotiations. It’s too early to predict numbers given all the uncertainties surrounding (among other things) Ukip, the SNP and the Lib Dems. It is possible that it will be close between Conservative and Labour in terms of both votes and seats. The Lib Dems might retain 20-30 seats and the balance of power, despite small gains for the SNP, and at most half a dozen Ukip seats. Gun to my head? Labour minority government.
3/10 Ben Page (Ipsos MORI)
A mug’s game for this election months away, but my predictions in order of likelihood: most likely a hung parliament or coalition of some kind, closely followed by either a small Labour majority or an equally small Conservative majority. Given how close the parties are, the unknown performance of Ukip in key marginals, the effect of incumbency on Lib Dem losses, the final size of SNP surge and so on, to be more precise is simply foolish! Professor Tetlock, who found that forecasts by experts were only slightly better than throwing dice, weighs heavily upon me!
4/10 Rick Nye (Populus)
I can see a hung parliament, where Labour is the largest party in terms of seats – though not necessarily in terms of votes, with the Lib Dems having 30 seats or fewer, the SNP having up to 20 seats and Ukip having no more than five seats. In short, it’s going to get messy and stay messy for some time to come.
5/10 Nick Moon (GfK)
I can’t recall there ever being an election more difficult to predict than this one. I’m confident no party will have an overall majority, with the Tories probably the largest party but no single partner for a viable coalition, with the Lib Dems on 25 seats, the SNP 20, Ukip three, and the Greens one.
6/10 Damian Lyons Lowe (Survation)
We might have expected a workable Labour majority, were it not for the wild-card rise of the SNP in Scotland. Survation’s December Scottish polls suggest an almost complete wipeout by the SNP in Scotland and result in 40+ seat gains – mostly at Labour’s expense. My current predictions are: Labour the largest party by 40-50 seats over the Tories, no overall majority; Tories 235-255 seats; Lib Dems 20-30 seats; SNP 30-40 seats – maybe held back from potential support level by opposition incumbency and tactical voting by pro-unionist voters. Finally, Ukip, 5-10 wins from Conservatives, including Rochester and Clacton, and potentially a single Labour-seat surprise.
7/10 Michelle Harrison (TNS)
The battleground over the next three months is at the kitchen table – the difference between what the statistics tell us about the economy, the experience that Britons are having of managing their household budgets, and where – and if – they believe politics can make a difference. In this regard, the disconnect with the major political parties is more interesting than the horse race.
8/10 James Endersby (Opinium Research)
Our first poll for 2015 shows Labour one point ahead [see above], but polls four months out from an election are snapshots, not predictions. It would be extremely unwise for a pollster to make a firm prediction now. At the moment, Opinium’s estimate on polling day would be the Tories slightly ahead on vote share, but Labour slightly ahead on seats. These numbers are based on a uniform swing, with tweaks to Green and Ukip numbers based on local information: Labour 320 seats, Conservatives 271, Lib Dems 20, SNP 16, Plaid Cymru three, Greens two, Ukip four. A hung parliament with Labour potentially closer to a majority coalition than the Conservatives.
9/10 Martin Boon (ICM)
I’ve not recovered from the Scottish referendum campaign yet, and here we go with another wildcard strewn nail-biter. For me, Labour on 30 per cent will only fractionally nudge past their woeful 2010 showing – behind the Tories on 33 per cent – but enough to secure more seats (290 for Labour, 280 for the Tories) on boundary wackiness. The Lib Dems will secure 14 per cent of the vote and 35 seats; Ukip will also get 14 per cent, but that only gets them a couple of seats. As for Scotland, I’m bewildered, but as you asked I’ll say 30 seats for the SNP, which wipes out a breathing-space victory in seats for Labour.
10/10 Lord Ashcroft (Lord Ashcroft Polls)
Declined to take part. His spokeswoman said: “As he has said many times, his polls are snapshots not predictions.” Health warning: when The Independent on Sunday carried out a similar exercise in April 2010, at the start of that year’s election campaign, eight out of eight pollsters predicted a Conservative overall majority.
Last up to have a strip torn off, as it stands, is the former HMRC boss Dave Hartnett, who is giving evidence a week on Monday on HSBC, which is alleged to have colluded over tax evasion and avoidance by its customers. Not only was he in charge when a leaked list of 6,000 former clients of HSBC’s Swiss arm was handed over, but he later became an adviser to the bank on financial crime. Going back to that challenge on Ms Fairhead, something runs deeper, Ms Hodge explains.
“I am part of it, right. I am part of the establishment now and this tendency, if you are in there, if you are part of this magic establishment, whether it is business or government, you tend to think it’s ‘anything goes’, there is a different set of rules by which we have to play.
“You may argue I challenged her too hard but what I then think about is all my people in Barking who mostly pay their tax without ever thinking. It just feels that we mothball the establishment into a conspiracy of silence and we allow different standards.”
That answer makes it all the more surprising that the PAC hasn’t called Lord Green, HSBC’s former chairman who was appointed as a trade minister by David Cameron, to answer his critics over this scandal. Here, Hodge uncharacteristically clams up.
“That is just a committee decision,” she says, numerous times, on being pressed. “In the end, we do these things by consensus and the committee’s view was that they didn’t want to call Lord Green.”
Given her prominence, it is no surprise that critics have interrogated Ms Hodge’s background, which includes working for PwC (she was a public sector consultant, not a tax adviser), and the family steel firm Stemcor (the source of her independent wealth).
“My understanding is the company is in some difficulties at the moment. It’s out of our control but they have always paid tax properly. It would be completely hypocritical if it was otherwise, OK,” she laughs loudly. “Absolutely 100 per cent, I wouldn’t be a hypocrite.”
Despite her PAC activities, she says beating the British National Party leader Nick Griffin in the fight for her Barking seat in 2010 was “probably my most important political contribution”. That election battle was made all the more poignant given that Ms Hodge had lost her husband, Sir Henry, a few months previously.
“It was really hard. In fact, the easiest thing would have been to run away and I was quite tempted. I was already over 60, I could quite easily have changed my whole life. But because the battle was about the heart of my politics, the belief in equality, I couldn’t run away. I put my all into it.”Reuse content