Making An Offer They Cannot Refuse?

September 20 2023

On Monday the government finally came up with a “take it or leave itcompensation offer to the subpostmasters. £600,000. It was described by Kevin Hollinrake, Minister for Postal Affairs, as “providing a generous uplift” on compensation payments already made. Let’s see how generous it really is.

  • Some subpostmasters were convicted as long as 23 years ago, between 2000 – 2015, the majority in the earlier years. That is compensation of between £26,000 and £75,000 pa. The sums on offer are less than what they would have earned had they not been wrongly convicted.
  • It is an uplift only by reference to compensation payments described as inadequate and criticised by the Inquiry judge.
  • It takes no account of the losses suffered by those made bankrupt and those who lost homes and businesses.
  • Nor does it compensate for time spent in prison / injury to reputation and legal costs incurred in fighting criminal cases and appeals.
  • Will it be tax-free? One subpostmaster who managed to get compensation then found that much of it was taken away in taxation and payment of bankruptcy leaving him with so little he was unable to heat his home last winter. The structuring and tax treatment of compensation payments and how this has been misdescribed to subpostmasters has been one of the (many) criticisms made of one the Post Office’s many legal firms.
  • It is also unclear whether this is a floor – leaving some able to pursue the Post Office through the courts for more to reflect their actual losses. If this were the case, it might have some merit. If not, it is effectively presenting subpostmasters with Hobson’s choice: inadequate compensation or the prospect of spending more time and money trying to fight an organisation determined to do the minimum possible and unable (or unwilling) to comply with its legal requirements.
  • Above all, it is limited to those who manage to overturn their convictions in the courts. Note that the Post Office is still opposing many of these appeals, even where the evidence came from the Horizon system. This also excludes those who pleaded guilty because they felt unable to challenge the Horizon evidence and were unaware of the Post Office’s disclosure failings. Despite all the evidence about Horizon’s failings and unfitness for purpose, despite knowing – as the Minister put it – that Horizon data was “unreliable” (a gong please for the civil servant coming up with that description for data more accurately described as “untrue“), despite all the failings in its disclosure to defendants, the Post Office is still trying to argue its case.
  • Finally, compare it with the bonus of £485,000 the Post Office CEO recently received for one year, a part of which was for complying with the inquiry, a compliance which did not occur, infuriated the judge, was lied about in its accounts and signed off by the Board. This Board then commissioned a report which managed to say that everything was tickety-boo but, no, they could not identify any actual human being who had signed off or written the untrue statements in the accounts or explain how it was that the accounts misled this issue. Then it promised not to pay bonuses at all before admitting under cross-examination that this too was another lie – as all executives were in fact eligible for bonuses for complying with an inquiry necessitated by their previous wrongdoing.

The Minister insisted in Monday’s debate that the government wanted to ensure “swift and fair” compensation. Whatever this process can be described as, “swift and fair” is not it. The government presents itself as above the fray, generously funding the Post Office. In reality, the government has been responsible in a number of ways:

  • Its supervision of the Post Office and its management;
  • Its relationship with Horizon (the correspondence between Harriet Harman and Tony Blair about Horizon’s inadequacy at a very early stage is worth reading to see how early matters started to go wrong and how);
  • The failures of the criminal justice system; and
  • Its control over how the Post Office has responded to the miscarriages of justice and the government’s own inquiry.

The compensation offer came as a surprise on Monday. Why? Well, on Tuesday we had one of the Post Office auditors, Helen Rose, giving evidence. She audited one of the subpostmasters who reported problems with Horizon and sought help. This lady had no qualifications or training as an auditor; no training or experience as an investigator and no training on the Horizon system (that she could remember). She gave written evidence to the High Court supporting the case against the subpostmaster (despite her original report showing flaws in Horizon). From her evidence now it is clear that she left out key information, removed anything true which might have helped the defendant, put in incorrect information and inserted defamatory and untrue statements about the person being investigated. She signed it as true but accepted that it wasn’t. She could not, however, remember how this came about. She could not even remember whether she had been subject to a disciplinary process as a result of the suicide of a subpostmaster she had met and audited. This convenient memory loss is likely to be repeated during this phase as various professionals – from auditors to IT experts and lots and lots of lawyers – give evidence, as the evidence of today’s witness shows.

When hearing evidence like this from people plainly not up to their job, utterly careless of their obligations and seemingly lacking any sense of professionalism, I think of the words of one bereaved Aberfan mother listening to the evidence of NCB officials: –

What I heard there was very difficult for me to accept. Because most people who were brought to the stand seemed to think it was somebody else’s fault. Not theirs at all. I believe one of the engineers got on the stand and he didn’t seem to realise his dreadful part in this happening. And when I heard what he had to say it made me feel sick because it looked to me as though he couldn’t have cared less about what had happened on account of his neglect. It was a good thing that I wasn’t on the stand or wasn’t talking to him, you know, because I’d have floored him.

If we are ever to have a hope of preventing this or any injustice reoccurring, if we are ever to provide some justice to those so grievously harmed, those responsible need to be made accountable, to suffer consequences – and soon. If not, “flooring” them may be the only option. It feels like a vain plea. But I make it nonetheless.

Did You Really Mean To Say This?

September 13 2023

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.

So wrote Orwell in 1946.

Today has given us 2 examples of how language is used to obscure the indefensible. But not from the political world. For a change.

Example No 1

The  announcement by BP that its CEO, Bernard Looney, left because, when providing answers in an earlier investigation about his relationships with colleagues, “he now accepts that he was not fully transparent in his previous disclosures. He did not provide details of all relationships and accepts he was obligated to make more complete disclosure.

Not fully transparent”. In old money: “He lied”
“Obligated to make more complete disclosure.” = “He should have told us the whole story”

These carefully crafted phrases are now the latest in a sequence of phrases which all mean the same – in substance – but which increasingly try to avoid actually saying it.

  • It started with “lie”.
  • It then proceeded to “economical with the truth” (used in 1986 by the then Cabinet Secretary to Mrs Thatcher, Sir Robert Armstrong, in the British government’s doomed attempt to stop Spycatcher – Peter Wright’s colourable account of MI5’s activities – being published). This was greeted with well-deserved derision but at least had the merit of using the word “truth”.
  • Economical with the actualité” was then used by Alan Clark in the Matrix Churchill arms to Iraq trial in 1992. Quite why a Tory politician famous for telling his civil servants in Defence – presumably as a joke – that British missiles should be aimed at the real enemy, France (or so he records in his diaries) should dress up this phrase in French is not made clear. Unlike Mr Looney, though, Alan Clark was all too transparent, indecently so, about all his liaisons.
  • Clarification”: a simple word meaning, in reality, an admission that what was said before was completely untrue. Or that what is being said now is exactly the same as what you said before even though it is the complete opposite. Often used to “clarify” a “full and frank disclosure” which has turned out to be anything but.
  • Now we have not being “fully transparent”.

Example No 2

This letter from a recently retired consultant anaesthetist, Dr Peter Hilton was published in today’s Times, in response to this article yesterday about sexual harassment and rape within the surgical profession.

Sir, This “snowflake generation” of young doctors, largely female and selected on mainly academic excellence, clearly did not do their homework. Medical training and practice is brutal and demanding, with long hours, and bullying happens. Sexually inappropriate comments and actions do occur. It is stressful. All I can say is that if they want to make a success of this rewarding career then they should toughen up. Perhaps four A*s at A-level are not the answer to all the problems they will face.

There are – quite apart from the implication that stress explains sexual assault and bullying – a number of problems with the language used in this letter.

  • The female doctors “did not do their homework”. Quite what they were supposed to do is not explained. Imagine that last question from the interview panel: “Is there anything you’d like to ask us?” “Well, yes, there is, actually. How stressful is this job? I’d like to know how much sexual assault and sexually inappropriate comments I should expect?
  • The use of the word “inappropriate”. It is a word best used for minor social solecisms or impoliteness. Using it to describe behaviour amounting to crimes is a way of obscuring the truth, of diminishing the seriousness of what is happening, above all, of showing contempt for those to whom it is done.
  • The convenient use of the passive voice. “Bullying happens”. “Sexually inappropriate comments and actions do occur”. It just “happens” does it? A sort of ethereal bullying with no actors responsible for it, then. Bullying – like those “sexually inappropriate actions” – does not just occur or happen. It is done by people – often men or people in a position of power – to other people – often women or people lower down the hierarchy or younger or not in a position to resist. It is a choice by those doing it. It is – does this really need saying in 2023? – wrong.
  • Finally, the exhortation that “they should toughen up”. Ah yes, sexual assault as a character-building experience.

When language like this is chosen, it is designed to obscure some – usually pretty unpleasant – reality. But it is unintentionally revealing of the author.

What conclusions to draw?

Mr Looney will now be reflecting that, as so frequently happens, it is the cover up – not the misbehaviour – that gets you. He will realise that when asked questions in an investigation, it pays to be truthful in your replies.

The public are left no clearer as to what actually went wrong at BP. But that’s OK because BP has moved on, its announcement having been carefully finessed by lawyers and communications professionals.

The doctor’s letter will likely not have been, despite him being a published author (“It’s Been a Gas? The life of an Anaesthetist” – available online, 1-star rating, which seems all too appropriate for something written by an expert in rendering you unconscious).

Some free advice.

  • There are letters/emails you write, usually when irritated, angry, upset or just tired, especially late at night or when you’ve been very busy, which may perfectly express how you feel. Then.
  • But once written, you read (or get someone else to read) them and, having got all this off your chest, you go to bed. The following day you press the delete button.
  • If you absolutely have to send them, check with someone else how the letter comes across. You may – to be as charitable as possible – have not expressed yourself well.
  • If you send in haste, in fury, without a sense check, you will make a fool of yourself – or worse.

This was one of those letters.


Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash