Magazine article Public Finance

Leader of the PAC

Magazine article Public Finance

Leader of the PAC

Article excerpt

THERE'S A FRANKNESS about Labour MP Margaret Hodge, which has contributed to the ups and downs of her 40-year political career. She rose to the top of local government, leading the London Borough of Islington for ten years before becoming MP for Barking in 1994. She held ministerial posts for all but one of the 13 years that Labour was in power - taking a year out to care for her terminally ill husband.

But her stint as the first children's minister in the early 2000s was dogged by her response decades earlier to an inquiry into a child abuse scandal in Islington. As employment minister a few years later, she controversially suggested that former MG Rover workers could find jobs at Teseo. Then in 2006 her candid remarks about local racial tensions were blamed for helping the far-Right British National Party gain 12 seats during council elections in her constituency, making it the main opposition in the borough and prompting calls for her resignation.

But recent weeks have seen her win two very important, life-changing battles. First, she trounced the BNP in May's general election, doubling her majority and seeing off a high-profile challenge from leader Nick Griffin. Shortly after, she became the first elected chair of the Public Accounts Committee, claiming one of the most influential backbench roles in the Commons and beating off stiff competition from five other Labour MPs.

As she prepares to move into her new office, one of Westminster's finest, Hodge is still buoyant from the BNP triumph. 'Beating the BNP wasn't something we did in five minutes, it took us four years of dedicated endeavour... everything we did was about reconnecting mainstream politicians to local people,' she tells Public Finance.

Moreover, she claims that many of her critics now believe she was right all along - Labour had failed to deal with the local housing and employment problems created by huge, sudden influxes of immigrants. She feels a consensus has begun to emerge on her previously contentious view that economic migrants 'should have to put into the system' before they are entitled to 'rationed' public services such as social housing and benefits.

'There ought to be rules that reflect your link to your local community and the length of your residence in the local community before they can access what is a limited public good.... What tends to happen with quite a lot of the stuff I've said is that I've been a little bit before my time,' she says.

This straight-talking approach to such thorny issues positions her well for life as PAC chair, and Hodge cannot hide her excitement about her 'dream job' - albeit in Opposition. She describes her own credentials: 'I've always gone for consensus politics and persuasion rather than confrontation. It doesn't mean Fm not tough and not clear in what I think but I've always worked to try and bring people to that consensual view... Fm good at squirrelling away, Fm a person who wants to get things done.'

She also has no doubts about the scale of the challenge, describing it as 'relentless'. Her predecessor Edward Leigh revealed in March that the PAC took evidence on 420 separate government projects and programmes during his nine years at the helm. As spending cuts bite, demands will only intensify for the committee, expected to begin sitting in July.

The first task Hodge has set herself is a postmortem of the Labour government's public spending - something she is well aware might prove uncomfortable reading for the Labour Party. …

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