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Oxford’s famous dictionary of the English language offers no suitable expression for being pelted with brickbats by the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). I therefore begin this piece by proposing a new entry for insertion somewhere between “marfan” - a hereditary disorder of connective tissue, and “margaric” - a fatty acid of animal origin. Aesthetically a little displeasing, but spiced with delicious significance, I believe the verb “to margarethodge”, has earned a place in the great archive of our native tongue. A full and precise definition of this neologism must await the considered reflections of an OED lexicographer. But in the meantime I offer the following working definition: “the act of browbeating individuals and organisations on the basis of questionable evidence, while enjoying the impunity afforded by parliamentary privilege”.
I am aware that my version fails to include the element of demagoguery that the verb embodies, but doubtless the OED will find a form of words that embraces its full meaning.
News junkies will have observed the new verb being put to energetic use in video clips of PAC sessions. They may even have applauded or at least been fascinated by the sight of business executives and government officials being margarethodged, a spectacle bearing more than a passing resemblance to a Salem witch trial or, perhaps more accurately, a hearing of the US Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations under the chairmanship of that great defender of freedom, Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Appearances before the PAC have not, so far, proved to be a matter of life or death as they were in Salem. Unlike the latter, however, where survival and even acquittal were possible albeit unlikely, margarethodgeing invariably ends with a down-turn of the magisterial thumb; and though the subsequent loss will not be of life, it might well be of reputation, and - if the PAC Chair had her way - sometimes of livelihood. Neither she nor the PAC, however, do seem to get their way, not at any rate when it comes to the big banks or the large-scale tax avoiders. Time and again the PAC entertains us with theatrical interrogations of the powerful only for us to learn subsequently that the consequences are zero. Rather than a forum of accountability, its sessions resemble a theatre of the absurd: lots of words, a modicum of drama, and a sense of meaninglessness.
Readers will have assumed correctly by now that I have a personal interest in this account. The modest company I ran until my retirement from business last summer, has recently been margethodged, along with some of its personnel. Here is the story.
Several years ago, after the company found itself obliged to cease working with a freelance consultant, anonymous “whistleblower” complaints about the firm and its operations began to circulate among clients, personnel, service providers, and various departments of government. The latter is important to the story because, like many businesses, the company receives a significant proportion of its turnover indirectly from government-funded programmes.
First department to react was Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) which launched an exhaustive investigation of the company’s tax affairs. Two years later, HMRC walked away after somewhat grumpily admitting that there was no case to answer. Next came Vince Cable’s Department of Business, Industry and Skills (BIS) which commissioned the Government Internal Audit Agency (GIAA) to conduct an investigation into the company’s activities. An auditor duly arrived and spent two days interviewing personnel and inspecting procedures and accounts, and then several months researching and writing his report. Apart from one minor criticism the auditor found nothing amiss and explicitly exonerated the company from the whistleblower’s main accusations which revolved round supposed conflicts of interest.
His report found its way to the National Audit Office (NAO). A few months later, the NAO mysteriously decided to reject the auditor’s findings in favour of a negative report that coincided with the whistleblower’s criticisms. This august body did not send another auditor to examine the reality on the ground, preferring instead to rely on one poorly contextualised item of data drawn from a national statistic. Their researchers did provide a draft copy of their report to the company; and they also engaged with company representatives in a conference call during which it emerged that the NAO had very little idea of how the business worked, or of the environment in which it operated. Some of the NAO’s misconceptions and manifest ignorance of basic facts were so glaring as to suggest - let us be kind - that it had been given insufficient time to conduct a proper analysis. Pressure to publish seems to have outweighed a proper respect for accuracy to such a degree that the NAO’s core function - to ensure value for money in regard to government expenditure - is nowhere addressed in the report. Both the phrase and the concept are notable only for their absence.
Predictably, a couple of weeks later, waving in one hand the NAO report and in the other, a letter from the whistleblower, Mrs Hodge led the PAC into action, cameras whirring, media on the alert for the sound of gunfire. Like all politicians, Mrs Hodge has learned the art of public performance. Her technique, however, relies on face-to-face confrontation, for which purpose she summoned a senior civil servant. In the subdued tones used by officials when confronted by powerful politicians, the bureaucrat made a heroic effort to assure Mrs Hodge that neither his department nor our company had done anything wrong. The company itself was evidently too insignificant to be invited to a hearing of which it was the subject, or even to be informed that a hearing was to take place. Small companies are doubtless unworthy of such courtesies, and it seems unlikely that Mrs Hodge has any interest in them except perhaps as whipping posts that she can belabour in the service of a more important agenda - though what that agenda might be is a matter of speculation.
Mrs Hodge’s performance was a tour de force. After a few brief references to the NAO report, she armed herself with the whistleblower’s accusations and fired them in a fusillade, pausing only to reload after each shot as if she were wielding a shotgun at a pheasant shoot. Each pull of the trigger unleashed a shocking detail made up, as we could have easily demonstrated, of cheap tat that wouldn’t survive a first laundering in the waters of truth. When her ammunition was exhausted, she withdrew a sabre from the depths of her indignation and, with a sweep of its blade, demanded that the company should cease operations forthwith.
An immediate closure would put over 50 full-time staff out of work, and seriously affect the income of several hundred others in an area of the country where not only is employment scarce but the sitting MP is a Tory. Heedless of the damage she may do to working people, Mrs Hodge may even perhaps take a degree of satisfaction from inflicting a wound on folk who, in her terms, helped to put Cameron in Number 10. At least until the forthcoming election, she is after all the Labour MP for Barking and Dagenham, one of the most deprived boroughs in the country and one which, despite her good offices, has apparently become rather more deprived during her tenure.
In contrast to the unenviable status of her constituency, Mrs Hodge - a shareholder of Stemcor, one of the largest privately-owned companies in the UK - may never have experienced anything remotely resembling long-term deprivation. Stemcor’s world-wide sales reportedly reached over £6 billion a few years ago; although a recent report in The Independent and in one of the trade journals, suggests that the family firm is in sick bay and currently occupied with flogging off chunks of the business to pay its debts.
The MP for Barking and Dagenham has been a member of parliament since 1994 and was a minister in both the Blair and Brown governments. As a loyal party hack, she voted strongly in favour of the Iraq War, and strongly against an investigation into that war. Maybe her concern for taxpayer’s money does not extend to spending billions on killing people in distant countries or examining the justification for doing so. Perhaps thoughtful independence in such complex matters is too much to expect of someone who, according to The Guardian, graduated from LSE with a rather modest third class degree. Most people would consider a third to be rather a poor return on the taxpayers’ funds needed to educate a student at a great seat of learning. Though that is probably all that is required of someone who, like Senator McCarthy, has found a way to hog the limelight by using parliamentary privilege to malign people with impunity; in other words to margarethodge them.
Careers founded on finger-pointing and the abuse of privilege can be short lived and, without wishing in any way to offer suggestions to the Barking and Dagenham electorate about their voting intentions, I think it safe to say that more than a few UK citizens would be heartily glad to see the back of Mrs Hodge.