Margaret Hodge after her victory in Barking in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Margaret Hodge against the world

Caroline Crampton speaks to Margaret Hodge about the Google, the BNP and the "loony left".

Margaret Hodge is very sure of what she is trying to do. “I want to change the world,” she tells me over a mug of tea in the front room of her home in Islington. She is deadly serious.

As the chair of the House of Commons public accounts committee (PAC), Hodge is in a good position to realise her ambition. The PAC’s dry, procedural-sounding remit to examine “the accounts showing the appropriation of the sums granted to parliament to meet the public expenditure” gives her latitude to investigate every aspect of our government’s finances. When she speaks, everyone from Google executives to the BBC’s senior management pays attention.

Hodge is the committee’s first female chair, as well as the first to be elected, rather than appointed. Although she was a minister for 11 of the 13 years of Labour government under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, she feels that what she does now has a greater impact. Issues such as tax avoidance by companies including Starbucks, Google and Amazon and, more recently, the pay-offs for BBC executives have resonated with the public.

She works hard – particularly since the loss of her husband, Henry, to cancer in 2009. “I’m on my own now, so that’s become a way of managing my life, focusing my life. I put a lot of work in.”

Hodge has recently enjoyed a surge in popularity, yet she cannot escape the legacy of her time as a minister – the first report the PAC published under her leadership looked at the failings of a welfare-to-work programme that she had helped to design.

Taking on Labour’s failures isn’t new to her. At the 2010 general election, she fought the “Battle for Barking” against the BNP (the party’s leader, Nick Griffin, stood against her). “I really think they [the BNP] had a chance of taking over the council and taking my seat . . . The underlying issue was Labour’s failure to connect with people on local concerns. We looked inwards; we didn’t look outwards.”

Hodge went on to double her majority in Barking; the BNP lost all 12 of its seats on the council. The answer to the kind of concerns that led to Griffin’s popularity, she says, is to focus on fairness. “If you’re coming in as an economic migrant, you’ve got to work your time, you’ve got to earn your rights, and I think people get that, whatever your race. For instance, access to social housing ought to be based on how long you’ve lived in the area, not just your need. When I first said that in 2008, it was very controversial but that’s the way you deal with racism.”

The role of PAC chair has freed her from party politics. Though still a Labour MP, she no longer attends Parliamentary Labour Party meetings and relishes the freedom to speak her mind. Once, during a committee hearing, she threw Google’s corporate motto – “Don’t be evil” – back in its executives’ faces, declaring, “I think that you do do evil.” This outspokenness isn’t new. “I say it as it is. That’s the joy of being my age [she is 69]. I’m not trying to climb any greasy pole any more. It always used to get me into trouble but now, in this new role, it’s a positive.”

Would she ever consider returning to the front bench? “I don’t think so. I’ve got lots of ambition . . . but I don’t think I could go back to that. Your life has to move forward.” Hodge speaks proudly of her socialism – formed, she says, by her background as an immigrant Jew, which had always made her feel like an outsider. Her family came to Britain in 1949 from Egypt, where increasing Arab-Jewish tensions after the creation of Israel made it difficult to stay. Laughing, she says of her father: “If he was alive today, I think he would be completely gobsmacked by me being such a member of the establishment.”

Before she entered parliament in 1994, Hodge worked for a decade as the leader of Islington Council. She and her Labour colleagues were nicknamed the “loony left”. Her handling of a child abuse case at a council care home (for which she has since apologised) is what her tenure there is principally remembered for, but she feels that a lot of the council’s other work has “stood the test of time”.

“We did a whole load of stuff around the equalities agenda that was thought to be off the wall at the time and which is now absolutely mainstream. We invented Sure Start [in Islington] . . . We worked on maternity rights, which were terrible at the time. All this stuff about one-stop shops for services – we created them.”

She has a long political career behind her but Margaret Hodge isn’t done yet. She will be standing again in 2015 and says: “We’ll just have to see what the electorate does.”

After all this time, has she worked out how to change the world? She smiles. “I haven’t got an answer but I’ve got a question,” she says.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.