Margaret Hodge shrugs off “tax prat" line

Interview with the PAC chairman.

It’s been an interesting year for tax, and in particular the debate about where the line is drawn between legitimate tax planning and aggressive avoidance. The focus on whether everyone is contributing their fair share is a consequence of austerity and is being played out all around the world, where every pound, dollar and euro of income is more valuable than ever.

In the UK, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), the body responsible for shining a light into the murkier corners of government finance and making sure taxpayers get value for money, has been at the heart of this debate. The current chairman of the committee is Lady Margaret Hodge. Lady Hodge (the title comes from her second husband) is proud of the PAC’s work on tax, a project it kicked off after a whistleblower reported a so-called sweetheart deal between Goldman Sachs and HMRC. In getting the committee to focus on the issue, Hodge has turned tax into something of a personal crusade.

In the process she rounded on tax advisors, including accountants and lawyers, who devise tax-minimising schemes. The PAC hauled the top tax partners at the Big Four in for a challenging session. In the process she has earned the ire of parts of the profession. Taxation dubbed her its “Tax Prat of the Year”, in a cover story that challenged almost every aspect of the PAC’s report.

Sitting in her Westminster office, Hodge shrugs off the “tax prat” line and claims she doesn’t have a view about the accountancy profession as a whole. “There are people who do a good, honest job. But there is a divide. There are others, in accountancy and the legal profession, who take a different view to mine about the role of tax in society.”

Anyone who has followed the work of the PAC, or indeed who has followed Hodge’s career, won’t be surprised to hear her mount a passionate defence of the positive redistributive role of tax.

“There is a civic duty on all of us to contribute according to our means to the common good,” she says. “In very practical ways all your readers want a public transport system that works and want the realm defended and so on. Even if you can manage on your own and don’t need the support of the state, there are all sorts of things you want from the state and there is a moral imperative to pay a fair contribution to society.

"I know there are people who don’t think that way, I just disagree with them.”

Hodge admits the PAC stumbled onto tax avoidance as an area for investigation, but she is clear why it has become such a defining issue.

“The reason it’s become a big issue is because we’re living in hard times and everyone is feeling the pinch. People want to know everyone is paying a fair share. And it is about fairness. There are those who see tax as just a legal obligation, but I don’t agree. There are legal obligations, but they arise out of a civic duty.”

The rest of this interview can be read on economia.

Margaret Hodge MP. Photograph: Getty Images

This is a news story from economia.

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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.