Ever since Margaret Hodge took over the chairmanship of the Public Accounts Committee, its evidence sessions have become rather lively: more like a fearsome grilling from the headmistress than a slow-moving chinwag with a group of MPs hoping for the next division bell. Hodge was on terrifying form today as senior officials from HMRC sat down to take evidence. She directed her teacherly wrath in particular at Lin Homer, chief executive and permanent secretary of HMRC, who gave the bulk of the evidence on the department’s work in tackling tax avoidance.
Homer appeared rather shell-shocked by the onslaught, like a pupil trying to explain why she wasn’t wearing a tie and had rolled her skirt. Hodge was angry, not just on her own account, but on behalf of the whole school, which was being let down. ‘You are giving a mixed message if I may say so, because there is a mood of anger out there,’ she said, fixing Homer with a gimlet eye. ‘[Small businesses] feel that they are hassled by you, that if they don’t pay their tax… that you may get an agency to come and get the money from them, whereas if you are a big company, you might be invited in for a cup of coffee with HMRC.’
Hodge was, like all truly terrifying headmistresses, quite right: voters are annoyed by the relative ease with which firms like Starbucks can pay so little tax while small businesses are chased to the ends of the earth to pay theirs. And judging by this evidence session, a coffee with Lin Homer wouldn’t rank in a list of Top Ten Terrifying Experiences for a finance director of a multinational company. But Hodge carried on a bit too far. A little later in the hearing, she started grilling Homer about whether HMRC was using debt collection agencies to chase down big businesses as well as small firms.