Why Mel Stride is the most inappropriate Treasury select committee chair in history
Even in the context of the parliamentary impasse surrounding Brexit, MPs have managed to cause shock and dismay by electing someone who must be the least appropriate candidate in history to chair a parliamentary select committee, writes Steve Packham, founder member of the Loan Charge Action Group.
Outside Westminster and Devon, Mel Stride MP is best known as the poster boy for the Loan Charge, a controversial policy that rips up the basic right of citizens to defend themselves against the taxman and has pushed people to take their own lives.
With over 250 MPs opposing the retrospective Loan Charge, it is hard to understand why so many voted for Mel. It seems that being “affable” and a “jolly nice bloke” is more important to many MPs than the suitability to what is a hugely important parliamentary job and also a paid role (Mel will pocket nearly £16,000 a year, on top of his MP’s salary).
Mel Stride was the minister who introduced the Loan Charge to parliament, giving MPs on the-then Finance Bill committee inadequate time and even less adequate information. He then became infamous for evading scrutiny and failing to give straight answers on this subject.
With the role of select committees being to scrutinise recent and current government decisions and policies, it is self-evidently inappropriate for a recent Treasury minister to be elected to chair the Treasury select committee – as Mr Stride has been, and worse still, a mere matter of months after leaving office.
But it is Mel Stride’s personal conduct over the Loan Charge that has rightly caused outrage, considering he flagrantly ignored parliamentary scrutiny and brazenly defied the will of MPs who called for a suspension and independent review (the review underway only happened after he left the Treasury).
In addition, Mel Stride refused four times to appear before the Economic Affairs Committee of the House of Lords. He was strongly criticised by the committee, which said he was not abiding by the ministerial code. Committee chair Lord Forsyth stated that Mr Stride had failed in his “first duty to parliament”.
Also at the time, fellow Conservative peer Baroness Noakes said: "It is little short of disgraceful for ministers to obstruct this House from holding the executive to account”. Convenor of the crossbench peers, Lord Judge, said Mel Stride had treated the committee with “a contemptuous disregard for serious issues”. Mr Stride also refused to give evidence to the Loan Charge APPG’s Loan Charge Review and was ‘empty-chaired’ as a result.
So, it is frankly extraordinary that someone who has shown such contempt for parliamentary scrutiny of government to now be in one the most important roles in delivering this.
Mel Stride continually misled MPs, consistently giving a false impression of the reality of the Loan Charge, of HMRC’s treatment of people and about action against promoters of loan schemes. He refused to answer a question three times live on BBC Money Box when interviewed by respected journalist Paul Lewis, who later dubbed Mr Stride ‘Misleader of the House’. The Loan Charge APPG was similarly damning, saying in their review: “Mel Stride has given partial and misleading answers to parliamentary questions” and “given deliberately misleading answers to journalists.”
The strong sense is that Mel Stride (and the-then chancellor Philip Hammond), did not really understand the Loan Charge when it was first suggested, with it being conceived as a way for HMRC to cover up their own failures. That is a failure of duty, but forgivable, whereas the systematic way Mr Stride then chose to deliberately mislead MPs and journalists is not.
Mel Stride’s appointment has also hurt the families of those who have tragically taken their own lives as a result the Loan Charge. In parliament, Mr Stride ignored every single mention of the suicides from colleagues on all sides of the House. Gayle, whose father took his own life last November due to the loan charge says: "Having heard Mel Stride's callous responses to anyone who mentioned the confirmed loan charge suicides, I cannot see how he can be trusted to be impartial when scrutinising HMRC about the loan charge." And the brother of a man who took his own life in September, again over the policy Mr Stride pushed through, says: "There is something wrong with the system, when the architect of something as controversial as the loan charge gets to scrutinise his own policy decisions".
Only a few days into the job and already Mel Stride has been slammed on social media for blocking journalists who dare to write about the Loan Charge, as well as blocking the brother of the suicide victim. As someone who is now supposed to be a champion of scrutiny, to be so unwilling to be scrutinised is a farce.
Mr Stride has said: “I want to reassure all MPs and members of the public that the Treasury Committee will hold the government fully to account without fear or favour”. Yet even if what seems like an innocuous quote, Mel Stride is cleverly using words to give the impression of being impartial, when he cannot be. For when it comes to the Loan Charge, it isn’t just “the government” that needs to be held to account, it’s Mel himself, and unless and until the Treasury committee actually investigate the role and conduct of Mel Stride when he was minister, then it cannot properly investigate the Loan Charge scandal and would be failing in its duty to parliament. So this needs properly scrutinising and it is fascinating to think that the Treasury select committee could, and indeed should, call its own chair to be a witness.
We may well not get to that remarkable possibility though, as with a general election seeming likely, Mel Stride could be in position as Treasury select committee chair for a similarly short time as he was leader of the House. We only hope that in a new parliament, MPs may show more sense when it comes to the next election for this important role.
If there is a general election, the message from thousands of contractors will be that they will only vote for MPs who will commit to end the Loan Charge scandal and to properly investigate the way this draconian policy was introduced and has been deliberately misrepresented – including investigating the role of the Loan Charge poster boy, Mel Stride, himself.