Waste of public money and adventures in foreign journalism – an evening at the Edinburgh Book Festival

Jim Naughtie introduces Margaret Hodge

My spiritual home in August is usually Charlotte Square in Edinburgh at the heart of the Edinburgh Book Festival.

This year, I didn’t manage to get there at all until the very last night.

I showed up at 6pm after work without much hope of getting tickets for anything at that late stage. How wrong could I be?

I managed to buy returned tickets for both Margaret Hodge, the former Chair of the Public Accounts Committee and the amazing foreign correspondent John Simpson.

Margaret Hodge was there to talk about her book, Called to Account, and she  told us about an encounter with her predecessor just after she was elected PAC Chair. David Davis, before he became a fully paid up member of the establishment,  told her to go after Vodaphone on tax.

Keen to track down evidence of a deal between HMRC and the corporate giant, she summoned a senior HMRC official who denied everything. A suggestion from a committee colleague that the official be put on oath led to a 20 minute hunt for a Bible.

She outlined a few areas where public money could be better spent. The MOD apparently spends a fortune on polo lessons. That’s the charging around on horses clunking balls with mallets, not the mint with the hole.

A telling moment was when she changed her mind on the Private Finance Initiative which her party saddled us with. She thought they were a good idea but now sees them as a complete con, with NHS trusts having to pay off their debt before they pay a single doctor.

The revolving door between government and the big financial firms continues to be a problem. She cited the issue of a adviser from one of the big accountancy firms who worked in the Treasury for a while writing laws on tax relief which he  then went back and advised people how to get round.

In questions she affirmed her continuing opposition to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.

Next up was John Simpson. My first memory of him is watching him read the 9 o’clock News about the Llandudno Liberal Assembly, you know, the one where David Steel told them to “go back to your constituencies and prepare for Government” in 1981. Since then, I’ve watched him report on many wars.

So what was the worst year he can remember in his long career? This last one in Britain. He described the Brexit stuff as our darkest hour and talked about how nasty the country had become with so much abuse of people online and in real life.

His book, We chose to speak of war and strife, tells his own story as well of those of other distinguished foreign correspondents. He talked about Clare Hollingsworth and Martha Gellhorn, clearly strong inspirations for  his own work. Hollingworth was the journalist who first saw German tanks invading Poland in 1939. She died earlier this year at 105.

One of the questions he got was about the gender pay gap at the BBC which he answered with quite a lot of class. He was pretty defensive of his employer of half a century, highlighting the agenda of those who would do down the BBC, but recognised that it was a problem without harsh criticism.

Spotted in the audience, amongst many other journalists, was BBC Scotland’s fabulous political editor Brian Taylor, who was, like Simpson, clad in a light coloured suit.

The event was chaired by his former BBC Colleague Allan Little who, amongst many other things, is the Book Festival Chair. He and Simpson reminisced about the first Gulf War in 1991 when they were both headed to Iraq. The night before in Jordan, they were deciding what alcohol to bring in with them and Little steered his older colleague away from the Campari towards the single malt.

Of course the events did their job and I bought both books. It was slightly surreal after spending an hour listening to stories about war zones to walk to the station to the sound of the end of festival fireworks.

 

 

 

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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4 Comments

  • When Labour introduced PFIs they were very difficult to understand let alone discuss on the doorstep. Yet bad decisions taken then left us paying for the consequences over decades. Not unlike the present threat to the country which David Davis is organizing for us …

  • A telling moment was when she changed her mind on the Private Finance Initiative which her party saddled us with. She thought they were a good idea but now sees them as a complete con, ……..In questions she affirmed her continuing opposition to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party………

    But didn’t Jeremy Corbyn oppose PFI agreements from day one calling them a con?

  • The Vodaphone tax thing is an interesting one, because many public sector organisations use them for staff mobile phones, and mobile telemetry. Couldn’t we find a way to say that not paying proper tax is a reason to be excluded from public sector procurement?

  • David Evershed 3rd Sep '17 - 10:58am

    Margaret Hodge always fails to recognise that it is MPs who set the tax laws, not the companies who pay tax nor HM Revenue and Customs who she criticises.

    If MPs want to base Corporation Tax on company turnover instead of profit then they should change the law – rather than complain that large turnover companies with small profits don’t pay much tax.

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