Public Accounts Committee: The bear pit isn't about to become more forgiving

Margaret Hodge has morphed into middle-aged Tory MP Stephen Phillips

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When Margaret Hodge stood down as chairman of Parliament’s powerful Public Accounts Committee, tax dodgers, tax collectors and the Sir Humphreys who wastefully spend our money exhaled a collective sigh of relief.

No more would they have to put up with the “blessed Margaret” castigating them in front of the cameras. No more would they have to respond to the committee’s excoriating reports and the media coverage they generated.

And at the outset of the committee’s questioning of Lin Homer, head of HMRC, the witness may have thought she was about to get away without any censure for dreadful customer service or failing to crack down on tax-dodgers – something that would never have happened under Ms Hodge.

The new committee chairman, Meg Hillier, went out of her way to be nice and smiley. “You do get plaudits from this committee,” she told her.

Under gentle questioning from the Conservative MP David Mowat, she airily dismissed HMRC’s failure to answer any more than 39 per cent of customer calls in less than five minutes as a “technological challenge”.

But Ms Homer may have relaxed too soon, because Ms Hodge seems to have Doctor Who-style powers of regeneration after all. The Labour member for Barking has morphed into a middle-aged Tory MP called Stephen Phillips. Just as it seemed as if the forces of evil bureaucracy were about to prevail, he struck.

“I know we always concentrate on the bad… but I want to ask about the tax gap and compliance revenue,” he began.

While Ms Hodge’s technique was to do irritated, infuriated, angry and plain rude all within the same sentence, Mr Phillips adopted a slightly different approach. He did dismissive, patronising and disdainful – a combination which was just as, if not more, effective.

“We have limited time and we will all get on a lot better if you just answer the question I’m asking,” he reprimanded her at one point.

In retaliation, Ms Homer used her own “patronising” weapon by attempting to explain the difference between tax evasion and avoidance. But Mr Phillips was having none of it. “I’m aware of that,” he spat back, cutting off her off.

Meg Hillier maybe be no Margaret Hodge, but thanks to the Conservative MP for Sleaford, the Public Accounts Committee bear pit is not about to become any more forgiving.