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Margaret Hodge, The Queen Of Committees: I Have More Power Now Than As A Minister

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"An influential committee of MPs has said" is one of the most overused phrases by political reporters in Westminster. There are over 20 Commons select committees tasked with holding government to account, but their influence is often exaggerated.

One committee that actually does make waves in the media, ruffles feathers in Whitehall and forces governments to think again is the public accounts committee (PAC). Described by professor Peter Hennessy as “the queen of the select committees" the PAC has taken over the limelight occupied by the culture committee last year in the wake of the hacking scandal.

Under the chairmanship of Barking MP Margaret Hodge, named "inquisitor of the year" by the Spectator, it has leveraged both its public evidence sessions and frenetic ability to produce reports to push government to crack down on tax avoidance and tear apart Iain Duncan Smith's flagship Work Programme.

Some committees are sharply divided down party lines or suffer from a lack of interest. At a recent meeting of one, at which the county's top civil servant enjoyed a rather friendly chat rather than a grilling, one MP spent the entire session tapping away at his iPad.

However Hodge says her committee, which is made up of eight Conservatives, five Labour MPs and one Lib Dem is a "great team" that is "passionately committed" to its work.

"We have been more effective as a committee in influencing the government on policy than I often sometimes think I was when I was a government minister," the former children's minister tells HuffPost UK.

But other committees must have a good team ethic as well? Hodge puts part of the effectiveness of the PAC down to the fact their reports are often based on National Audit Office data. "That gives us a very firm grounding on fact and discovery."

However the tax avoidance issue, which saw the PAC grill executives from Google, Amazon and Starbucks was more about capturing the "mood of the moment".

Subjected to a withering examination by the committee that saw the witnesses shamed on TV by Hodge's combative colleagues, Starbucks agreed to pay more corporation tax. "That's the most ridiculous answer I have heard in months on this committee, it's just pathetic," one MP exclaimed as he roasted a coffee kingpin.

The session saw Hodge at her abrasive, hectoring best."You come to us with absolutely no information, what's your job?" she snapped at one senior corporate executive. "What are you hiding? What do you take us for?"

Hodge's harassing of ministers, civil servants and corporations earned her a spot in the BBC's recent list of the most powerful 100 women in the UK - the only backbench MP to make the cut.

She says of the tax avoidance inquiry: "We didn’t deliberately set out make this a big issue for the committee. It became one and I think we shone a light on issues that people weren’t aware of."

But it is not just the high profile televised evidence session that drive the debate. More often than not it is the volume of reports produced that draw attention. Hodge's committee has published nine reports in February alone including investigations into the BBC, development aid and Northern Rock. By contrast the Treasury committee has published one and the work and pensions committee has produced three.

Since becoming the chair of the committee in June 2010, Hodge has also had more than a few run-ins with the civil service, infamously forcing one HMRC official to swear an oath on a Bible while giving evidence after the committee became frustrated at his refusal to answer questions. The incident promoted the then cabinet secretary, Lord O'Donnell, to write to the committee complaining about how it treated civil servants. The country's top civil servants were "really annoyed", Hodge wryly observes.

However she says she prefers to keep the power in her pocket rather than force witnesses to swear an oath as is done in US Senate hearings. "I've always bee against turning them into quasi interrogations, the moment you put them on oath lawyers get inovled and people shut up and it becomes less of a conversation."

Hodge also exercised her power to compel witnesses to give evidence after she felt the former permanent secretary of the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs was trying to wriggle out of a grilling. The committee, examining failures in the Rural Payments Agency, had wanted to summon Dame Helen Ghosh, who had since moved to the Home Office.

"They wanted to send us the new permanent secretary," Hodge recalls. "I asked them twice or three times and she refused so I ordered her to come, I have used that power to order people."

Hodge's approach is summed up by this simply analysis of witnesses: "People are expected to tell the truth and be open with the committee. Quite often they are not."

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