After Margaret Hodge MP humiliated HSBC’s top brass in a Public Accounts Committee hearing, some politicians and commentators would rather close ranks in defence of the establishment than support those who hold the powerful to account.
By at least one count, Margaret Hodge‘s tenure as chair of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee has been a complete failure.
Back in 2011, in a speech to the Institute for Government, the MP for Barking outlined her vision of how the committee should conduct its business as Britain entered the age of austerity under the Conservative-LibDem coalition government. Among her priorities at that time – a less confrontational approach to witnesses:
In her speech (approximately 10 minutes into the above video), Margaret Hodge said:
“So we are trying to change the style of engagement, so that we can strengthen the impact of our findings. I don’t think it helps anyone to use committee hearings as a theatrical exercise in public humiliation. That doesn’t mean we are less tough. It doesn’t mean we are less rigorous in holding public servants to public account. It doesn’t mean we are less incisive and hard-hitting in our findings and recommendations.
But we do want to emphasise learning and capacity improvement. We want the hearings to be constructive exchanges, not defensive appearances, because in that atmosphere we are more likely to identify what’s really going wrong and we are more likely to be able to articulate good and practical recommendations for change”.
What a difference four years makes.
But having witnessed Margaret Hodge’s systematic dismantling and belittling of top executives from scandal-plagued bank HSBC, called to appear before the PAC, one cannot help admiring the Labour MP for her U-turn.
The video makes for painful viewing:
While John Crace’s sketch in the Guardian paints a vivid picture of the proceedings:
Rona Fairhead, head of compliance at HSBC through “the difficult years” and now chair of the BBC Trust, had looked edgy at first but had begun to relax a little after escaping the committee’s attention for more than 45 minutes. Her sense of security was entirely misjudged; it turned out Hodge had merely been saving her best till last. “Laughable,” Hodge said in response to Fairhead’s attempts to convince the committee that the HSBC audit committee had been fit for purpose. “But we had policies and structures,” Fairhead insisted. This provoked yet more laughter. Even the Argentinian ambassador smiled.
What the committee had to understand, Fairhead continued, was that people at her level at HSBC were paid far too much – “compensated is the word we use,” Gulliver reminded her – to be actually personally responsible for anything and it was entirely unreasonable for anyone to expect her to know anything about anything. This was too much for Hodge. “Either you were naive or incompetent,” she declared. “Whichever it was, I think you should consider your position as chair of the BBC Trust.” Fairhead looked amazed. The £110K she gets for that is peanuts.
Sometimes, it turns out, it is quite good to see confrontation at Westminster. Especially when the antagonist is on the side of the people for a change, rather than acting as a megaphone for those with power and influence.
But it seems that not everyone agrees with the Margaret Hodge approach to holding the powerful to account. In fact, there is a growing, tremulous chorus of protests accusing Hodge of “abusive and bullying” tactics.
The Guardian reports that Conservative ex-minister Sir Alan Duncan took the extraordinary step of writing to Hodge, accusing her of bringing Parliament “into disrepute”:
Duncan – who has been a longstanding critic of Hodge’s combative style at the helm of the public spending watchdog – said she was guilty of straying beyond the committee’s remit and indulging in “inappropriate grandstanding”.
Duncan, a former oil trader – who served as international development minister from 2010 until last year – told her there was “no greater an example of this than your insulting and offensive performance yesterday”.
She had launched an “utterly contemptible attack on Rona Fairhead in her capacity as chair of the BBC Trust, which you speciously linked to her former role in HSBC”, he wrote. Fairhead was chair of HSBC’s audit committee until 2010.
“You maligned her reputation and suitability for her current role at the BBC and called on her to resign or be sacked,” Duncan wrote “This is inexcusable. You were rude, abusive and bullying in a manner which brings your committee and the proceedings of the house into disrepute,” he told her.
Also riding to the defence of Rona Fairhead and HSBC is Brendan O’Neill, writing in The Spectator:
It was like a Twittermob made flesh, with Hodge and her MP footsoldiers melodramatically mocking those arranged before them. Rona Fairhead, the chairwoman of the BBC Trust who previously chaired HSBC’s audit committee, really got it in the neck. When she insisted she knew nothing about the tax shenanigans at HSBC, a virtually spluttering Hodge declared ‘I don’t believe you’ and then suggested Fairhead should resign from the Beeb because ‘I don’t think… you should be the guardian of the BBC licence fee payers’ money’. And if she refuses to fall on her, or rather on Hodge’s, sword, then she should be sacked, insisted a now quite emotional Hodge.
To which the only appropriate response is: Who the hell does Hodge think she is? She doesn’t believe Fairhead’s claims and therefore Fairhead should be chucked out of her job? Did we all just die and wake up in the 15th century? Perhaps the purification committee should have dusted down an old ducking stool and bobbed Rona in the Thames a few times — that would have given as reliable a reading of her guilt or innocence as Hodge’s instincts, feelings, mystical powers of deduction.
These are risible attempts to paint anyone attempting to hold powerful establishment figures to account as a British version of Senator Joseph McCarthy. But the fundamental difference between the Public Accounts Committee under Hodge’s direction and the House Un-American Activities Committee under McCarthy is that in his paranoia, Senator McCarthy picked on the weak and the powerless in pursuit of imagined treason and personal vendettas. Margaret Hodge, on the other hand, pursues people in positions of power and influence, who have presided over bureaucratic failures and overspends in the public sector, and gross failings or abuses of power in the private sector.
One can disagree with Margaret Hodge’s politics, and even squirm at her occasional failure to think through an issue before launching into an attack, but the people with whom she does battle – ultimately on our behalf, it should be pointed out – almost always occupy very high office within the civil service, or well-remunerated roles in private industry. If someone whose labour is nominally “worth” upwards of £500,000 a year wilts under the pressure of intense but legitimate questioning as easily as HSBC’s Rona Fairhead, then perhaps they are significantly overvalued in the labour market.
Besides which, in an age characterised by disdain for politicians and cynicism about our ability to hold the rich and powerful to any kind of account, we need to be encouraging our MPs to be a little more like Margaret Hodge, not criticising them for ruffling the feathers of establishment figures too accustomed to quiet deference and fawning respect.
Imagine if Parliament’s oversight of the intelligence services, our relationship with the EU or our grossly misspent international aid budget was as fiercely forensic as Margaret Hodge’s work on the Public Affairs Committee. If there were more Margaret Hodges in Westminster, perhaps we could still email each other without fear of illegal government surveillance, we would have German levels of influence within Europe and countries such as India might think about tackling poverty before being given funds to pursue a vanity space programme. In short, everyone in a position of power and privilege – and those who administer the public purse – would be far better behaved.
Too often, Westminster gives off an impression of club-like bonhomie, with the peoples’ elected representatives in Parliament having more in common and showing more sympathy toward the people they should be holding to account than the people whom they are supposed to serve as MP. The revolving door between Parliament and coveted “consulting” or lobbying jobs only makes this impression more acute.
One does not have to agree with Margaret Hodge’s political views – and this blog disagrees vehemently on most issues – to appreciate the important work that she and other like-minded MPs do in holding to account some of the most overpaid and over-privileged figures in British public life.
And if Westminster is serious about restoring its standing with the British people, it would not hurt if a few more MPs conducted themselves like Margaret Hodge.