By Josh May

30 Sep 2015

From crowdsourcing to the use of apps, Meg Hillier is determined to transform the Public Accounts Committee into a “digitally-savvy” body that reaches out to taxpayers. The new chair speaks to Josh May

Meg Hillier has a tough decision to make. The wall of her new office is so crowded with portraits of illustrious previous occupants that somebody will have to make way for her immediate predecessor Margaret Hodge.

These visible reminders of the prestige of the chairmanship of the Public Accounts Committee are not lost on Hillier. “I’ve got a lot to live up to,” she says. It is a daunting task to step into those shoes but Hillier is equipped with a blend of new ideas, the experience of having served on the committee in the last parliament, and a clear mission statement.

“Oftentimes in public service people think of public money and, actually, there’s no such thing as public money or government money; it’s taxpayers’ money,” she says. Shortly afterwards, she falls into her own trap when she utters the prohibited phrase “public money” – only to immediately correct herself.

More on PAC
Quizzing the inquisitor: the Margaret Hodge interview
Meg Hillier to succeed Margaret Hodge as Public Accounts Committee chair
PAC to the future? Labour MPs Gisela Stuart, Helen Goodman & Meg Hillier on the race to be the next Margaret Hodge

But back to that mission statement: “My constituents are hawking out their taxes honestly and straightforwardly in most cases and they are penny-pinching themselves at home so it’s important we penny-pinch, if you like, in government... Every time you save a pound of the taxpayer’s money, you’ve got that pound to spend on something better.”

Sitting on the committee for the last four years has given the Labour MP, who was a minister under Gordon Brown and in the shadow Cabinet for a year under Ed Miliband, clarity on where she thinks it can improve. One change she wants is a greater focus on the “user perspective” rather than “silos” of individual programmes. As an example, Hillier cites the high incidence of people with mental health problems in her Hackney constituency.

“They’re passing through different bits of the health system, they’re often in the employment system and they’re going through different bits of that, other bits of the benefits system, but as they pass through often the joining-up between the agencies isn’t very good. Their experience, therefore, is not great, but also it can cost the taxpayer a lot of money.”

Throughout the interview, Hillier returns to life outside of Parliament; references to the voters who chose her as their MP or, before, as their councillor underpin her plans for the PAC. Just as she uses her own constituency experiences, she wants to encourage colleagues across the House do the same to shape the PAC: “There are 649 other MPs, a few of them tied up in government but the rest, really, are a resource and I really, really want to tap into that.” Hillier believes MPs can help to bridge the “long way” between those in charge of programmes or spending decisions in Whitehall and the consequences at local level. “If something’s arisen I can quickly get a very quick litmus test view from them about whether it’s worth us pursuing and, when we are pursuing something, to get their input,” she explains.

When MPs fall short, though, Hillier wants to go directly to the people. “We can be a good filter, MPs, but it may be that I need to get out there and crowdsource among the public a bit more... what is it that matters to people out there? Is it what matters to us?... The thing about crowdsourcing and things as well is you don’t always just listen to the loudest voices; sometimes the one expert can be as valuable as thousands of people all saying the same thing.”

How would such aspirations be put into practice? Hillier looks to technology and sets the goal of making PAC the “most digitally-savvy committee that we can be”.

“Watch this space on that,” she teases. “We’re starting with just trying to communicate with MPs as clearly as possible, telegraphing, flagging up things in advance, telling people after the event what’s happened so there’s follow-through so they know when a report has come out that might be of interest to them or their constituency. But then we need to do that much more with the public.”

This interest in technology again is linked back to her constituency, which includes the ‘Silicon Roundabout’ start-up hub of Shoreditch. As a member of the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy in the last parliament, she is convinced that there is scope for it to make a real change.

“Everyone’s creating some interesting app or product that will open things up. Everything from applying to university to looking for a cleaner, I’ve met entrepreneurs who are setting up platforms to make those things easier so all we need is something similar for parliament.”

'A rock star on tax'

Better use of technology and a more “user-focused” approach, then, are two areas earmarked for change. But she is proud of the committee’s achievements in the last parliament, when it gained a fearsome reputation built in no small part on the combative attitude of Hodge towards witnesses when she felt they were cheating the public. Hodge memorably told a Google executive their company did “do evil” through its tax arrangements.

Hillier, perhaps less outspoken than her predecessor, nonetheless seems ready to open fire if the occasion arises. “People should pay their tax; companies should pay their tax – absolutely no doubt about it,” she says. “Small businesses and my constituents are paying their tax so the big corporations shouldn’t get away from it.”

And would she be prepared to tell a senior executive of a multinational corporation that they “do evil”? “I will wait to see who’s in front of us and what they’ve done,” she replies. “I haven’t got a set agenda to go and name and nobble any particular company at this stage because that would be inappropriate. But I will follow that tax pound wherever it takes me and, if money is not being paid into the Exchequer, I want to know why, because my constituents want to know why.”

She is full of praise for her predecessor, whom she describes as a “rock star on tax” and a “force of nature”. “The thing that Margaret did so effectively was to really channel the ordinary taxpayer’s point of view in committees. So sometimes people [would say] we made rude comments; no, actually, she was doing what taxpayers wanted,” Hillier argues.
“She pushed the boundaries where some people may have been, perhaps, more squeamish and said ‘well, there aren’t procedures that allow this’, but procedures can sometimes get in the way of delivering what the taxpayers need.”

This admiration is not exclusive to Hillier; Hodge was made a Dame of the British Empire in the dissolution honours list and Hillier reveals that one unnamed Tory MP featured pictures of Hodge on his election leaflets. That cross-party pride in the committee’s work is something that Hillier is determined to replicate as she points out that hers is one of only two select committees comprising Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and namechecks some of her colleagues.

The furore incubated by PAC on tax dodging coincided with the coalition government making the issue one of its priorities on the global stage. A G8 summit resulted in a declaration to “change rules that let companies shift their profits across borders to avoid taxes”. Hillier has no doubt that Hodge’s tenacity was a key factor in the crackdown. “Government has really addressed this issue – it’s begun to, anyway – quicker than it would have done without her,” she says.

As well as the multinationals, HMRC came in for some pretty rough treatment at the hands of Hodge, who once criticised the department as “pathetic” for not being tough enough on abuses of the system. One argument often offered in mitigation is that pressure on HMRC to get value for money means some cases end up being – from a financial perspective at least – not worth pursuing in the courts. Hillier, though, argues that even if the sums do not necessarily add up, some test cases have to be made as a deterrent to others.

“Sometimes you do need to show examples,” she says. “So if somebody’s not doing something, actually things like prosecutions make a difference. If somebody thinks they’re going to be prosecuted, they’ll be very much more careful; if they just get a slap on the wrist and a slight fine, they won’t necessarily be so careful...

“You’ve got to pursue the people who are not playing by the rules and make examples of some of them in order to make sure that the people who are playing by the rules know that it’s worthwhile.”

One suggestion that has been floated by, among others, Jeremy Corbyn’s team during the Labour leadership contest (which was still ongoing at the time of the interview), has been to hire more HMRC staff on the basis that the extra revenue would more than make up for cost. Is there a case for this? “Yes, I think there is,” she answers.

“As a committee we’re pretty sympathetic to them getting more staff compared with other departments.”

But she adds: “It’s not all about bodies; it’s also about intelligence and how they do it.”

'You have to be in power to deliver'

Another “running theme”, in Hillier’s words, of the committee’s work in the last parliament was outsourcing of public services. While she does not expect the shift towards private companies to stop, she does want to see Freedom of Information apply to those carrying out public contracts and admits to being “annoyed” by the different standards.

“It stems from some personal experiences I’ve had when I was a carer, through when I was a councillor... my job as chair is to follow that taxpayers’ pound right the way through. It goes from government to a government agency to a private contractor; it’s still taxpayers’ money and they’re delivering on behalf of the taxpayer so they need to be held to account for that.”

Unlike some of her colleagues who claimed during the Labour leadership election never to have met him, Hillier served as a councillor in Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency for a decade from 1994. He was an “old familiar face” around the Houses of Parliament when she first became an MP in 2005, she says. And she recalls with some affection a crucial ward by-election from her council days where Labour saw off the Liberal Democrats by just three votes.

“Jeremy and I were shoulder-to-shoulder in that campaign every step of the way to get those three votes to hold that seat... When it came to the crunch and we went to the campaign we worked very well together.”

Hillier says Corbyn’s commitment to the Labour cause cannot be called into question. “He was an agent in Haringey and he has the Labour party really running through him. One thing about Jeremy is he may have had interesting bedfellows along the way but he’s always been Labour.”

Despite their personal history, Hillier did not nominate Corbyn, or anybody else initially, for the leadership (she ended up endorsing Yvette Cooper). She took a differing view in 2010, when she nominated Diane Abbott so that the other Hackney MP could be the “grit in the oyster” of the election contest.

Several of her parliamentary colleagues nominated Corbyn for the same reason this time, so where does Hillier stand on the ideological purity versus electoral compromise debate which flared up over the summer? “I am realistic enough to know that you have to actually be in power to deliver,” she says, using the last Labour government’s home improvement scheme as an example.

Hillier’s views have always been guided by the principle of getting the best for her constituents. As the head of one of parliament’s most powerful bodies, she now has the challenge of getting the best for all taxpayers. 

Read the most recent articles written by Josh May - Think tank calls for new cross-departmental drive to boost social mobility

Share this page