Margaret Hodge and the Commons’ PAC: Not heroes
Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home was on the Andrew Marr Show sofa and joined James Landale in doing the now obligatory obeisance to Margaret Hodge for her “brave” work as chairman of the House of Common’s Public Accounts Committee. This is all nonsense.
At an obvious theatrical level, Ms Hodge is a show-off, grandstanding in front of television cameras as she berates hapless victims who are constrained as she seems not to be by parliamentary courtesies. She shows all the nasty popinjay swagger of the populist with the bully-pulpit.
But the wrong she does is much greater than that. The point of Select Committees such as hers is that they hold the executive to account. And in Britain, the theory – often strained in reality, but worth something still – is that ministers are the lever through which Select Committees reach the executive.
Ms Hodge’s committee should indeed be challenging the poor tax record of corporations. She should first of all hammer at the ministers who drive the policy and run the machinery of tax-setting and collection. Failing that, and in emerging protocols, she should be reaching the bosses of government departments such as HMRC. She is prodding at this latter route, and may even be over-reaching herself, but the point is that her committee should certainly stop there.
It is a bad idea to have company bosses or other individuals hauled in front of Parliament as before a Star Chamber. Their job is to obey the law and answer public and journalistic inquiries, or have their PR firms do so. There is a cascade of reasons why this dispensation makes sense.
Firstly, Select Committees (and the Culture, Media and Sport Committee for one and the Treasury Committee for another) are political and therefore incline to the vulgar if given a chance. I mean they get distracted from serious work quite easily when showing off is in prospect. Secondly, they are not equipped to investigate the real world. Thirdly, they are not organised to be fair to their victims.
I have left the most important to last. All the time Select Committees spend haranguing business people they are not doing their absolutely essential work, for which they are uniquely empowered: this is to assume that lots of things which go wrong do so because some legislator or administrator in Westminster or Whitehall has not done as well as they might and Parliament is a good place to put it right. Only by this means, and beautifully by this means, can Parliament show that that it cares about delivering to constituents a worthwhile government machine.
To take the Starbucks case in point. In the degree to which the silly Ms Hodge got that firm to divvy up an ad hoc payment in a PR coup for them and her, she let government slip from its obligation to make a better set of formal arrangements. But then she seems to want to reduce government to theatrics.