It was Stuart Gulliver’s bad luck to be summoned before the Treasury committee last week. Margaret Hodge, chair of the public accounts committee, doesn’t take kindly to being upstaged by other committees and clearly felt that she should have had first dibs at the HSBC chief executive.
It was doubly bad luck for Gulliver that this could well be Hodge’s last committee as chair; if Labour have a majority at the next election, the Tories will insist on a Conservative chair. Even at her gentlest, Hodge is a ferocious interrogator; when she’s facing her swansong in front of a large audience that included the Argentine ambassador, she is merciless.
In front of the Treasury committee, Gulliver had picked his fingers to the bone. With no flesh left to pick, he kept his stumps firmly clasped together throughout. He looked and sounded like a man who expected the worst. Last week he had sounded defiant, unrepentant even. Before Hodge, his voice quavered. She has that effect on people.
“You got paid through a Panamanian account that had been set up by a man who managed accounts for Assad and Mugabe,” she observed. Gulliver prevaricated, saying that though it looked bad, it really, really wasn’t. Hodge unleashed her pet pitbull, Stephen Phillips, the Tory MP who could well have been in line to be the committee’s next chair had he not been earning so much as a QC. “We will get on a lot better if you answer questions directly,” Phillips snapped. “Why did you choose Panama?” “I didn’t choose Panama,” Gulliver said. Hodge and Phillips started laughing. As did everyone else.
Once Gulliver worked out that the quickest way out of this was to accept he was a fairly useless person, Hodge lost interest and turned her attentions to Chris Meares, the man who had been in charge of HSBC’s private banking arm while industrial scale tax evasion and money laundering was taking place. It was one of life’s more unequal contests. “I have never had my honesty and integrity questioned,” Meares squeaked.
That may be, but he was having his intelligence and competence questioned. Meares has the appearance of a nice-but-dim English character actor, a role he plays to the full. It had never occurred to him for a second that there was all this funny business taking place on his watch when profits in Switzerland jumped by more than 50% in a year. “Were you responsible? Yes or no,” asked Tort David Burrowes more than ten times. This was too tricky for Meares to answer.
Rona Fairhead, head of compliance at HSBC through “the difficult years” and now chair of the BBC Trust, had looked edgy at first but had begun to relax a little after escaping the committee’s attention for more than 45 minutes. Her sense of security was entirely misjudged; it turned out Hodge had merely been saving her best till last. “Laughable,” Hodge said in response to Fairhead’s attempts to convince the committee that the HSBC audit committee had been fit for purpose. “But we had policies and structures,” Fairhead insisted. This provoked yet more laughter. Even the Argentine ambassador smiled.
What the committee had to understand, Fairhead continued, was that people at her level at HSBC were paid – “compensated is the word we use,” Gulliver reminded her – to be actually personally responsible for anything and it was entirely unreasonable for anyone to expect her to know anything about anything. This was too much for Hodge. “Either you were naive or incompetent,” she declared. “Whichever it was, I think you should consider your position as chair of the BBC Trust.” Fairhead looked amazed. The £110K she gets for that is peanuts.
Gulliver misguidedly tried to come to her rescue. “What you have to realise,” he said. “Is that taking out £5m in cash isn’t necessarily a sign of tax evasion.” Of course not. It could also be a sign you were going to buy several kilos of smack. Only for personal consumption, of course: Gulliver only deals with very high net worth individuals. A session that had begun with Meares auditioning for Four Weddings and a Funeral had ended as Two Funerals and a Stay of Execution.
This article was written by John Crace, for theguardian.com on Monday 9th March 2015 20.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010