Public Accounts Committee meetings, which are chaired by Labour MP Margaret Hodge, have a reputation for producing monumental spats. Today’s hearing over the HSBC's alleged involvement in tax evasion was no different.
MPs were visibly delighted to have the chance to drag HSBC’s chief exec Stuart Gulliver, the former head of its private banking division Chris Meares and its non-exec director and former head of its audit committee Rona Fairhead, over the coals.
The trio repeatedly denied any knowledge of wrongdoing, but for politicians less than two months away from an election, there are few targets worth having a pop at more than a banker – especially one suspected of involvement in fiddling taxes for the rich.
‘Either you knew, and that’s illegal, or you didn’t know and you should have done, ‘ Hodge repeatedly said to Fairhead, who is also chair of the BBC Trust.
‘I don’t think that the record that you have shown in your performance here as a guardian of HSBC gives me the confidence that you should be the guardian of the BBC licence fee payers’ money. I really think that you should consider your position and you should think about resigning and if not, I think the government should sack you.’ Ouch.
Tory MP Stephen Hammond said he thought this comment was ‘unfair’, but added that he thought Meares was a ‘wholly unreliable witness’, provoking a look of bewilderment from the banker.
Gulliver for his part admitted that his own personal tax affairs – a complex structure involving an account in Switzerland and a shell company in Panama - had caused reputational damage to the bank ‘in some quarters’, but insisted he was still the right person to lead HSBC.