History does not repeat. It rhymes.

May 30 2024

This is the first of three articles reflecting on the evidence given by Paula Vennells and others in the Williams Inquiry.

Part One

Listening to Ms Vennells and other Post Office witnesses at the Williams Inquiry, I was reminded of the Report of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, published in June 2013. This was at the same time that – at the latest – Vennells and others became aware of the likely miscarriages of justice which had occurred and embarked on a series of steps which sought to keep this knowledge from anyone outside a small Post Office circle for the best part of the next 8 years.

This passage, in particular, resonated: –

One of the most dismal features of the banking industry to emerge from our evidence was the striking limitation on the sense of personal responsibility and accountability of the leaders within the industry for the widespread failings and abuses over which they presided. Ignorance was offered as the main excuse. It was not always accidental. Those who should have been exercising supervisory or leadership roles benefited from an accountability firewall between themselves and individual misconduct, and demonstrated poor, perhaps deliberately poor, understanding of the front line. Senior executives were aware that they would not be punished for what they could not see and promptly donned the blindfolds. Where they could not claim ignorance, they fell back on the claim that everyone was party to a decision, so that no individual could be held squarely to blame.

[Emphasis in bold added – paragraph 14 of the Conclusions and Recommendations section]

Substitute “Post Office” for “banking industry” and this passage pretty accurately describes the evidence heard by the Williams Inquiry.

What is striking is how much of finance’s worst behaviours was copied. For instance:

  • the conflicts of interest – bonuses for criminal investigators based on how much they recovered from subpostmasters;
  • a bonus culture unrelated to employees’ conduct. See, for instance, the bonus awarded to a senior employee despite being described by a High Court judge as having sought to “mislead” him (Angela van den Bogerd);
  • failing to investigate misconduct (by Angela van den Bogerd);
  • ignorance of the front line (not knowing that the Post Office prosecuted staff despite having an 100 strong investigation team, whose budget was presumably signed off at a senior level);
  • complicated and poorly understood reporting lines, which diffused responsibility, ensured that emails were sent to many people with no-one having sight of the whole issue and no-one clearly responsible for taking action and seeing matters through. Too many quite senior employees felt able to say that they thought something was someone else’s job with the result that no-one actually did anything effective.

What has worsened has been the behaviour of the lawyers, both internal and external. In 2013 the Parliamentary Commission could write this:

The professions may not be paragons, but they do at least espouse a strong duty of trust, both towards clients and towards upholding the reputation of the profession as a whole.

Oh dear! The lawyers’ conduct has been one of the very worst aspects of this affair. The arrogance of Jane McLeod, General Counsel during the Bates litigation, in refusing to attend the Inquiry, sums up the disregard which the lawyers showed for their professional and ethical duties. Lawyers need to have a keen sense of what it is their clients want. But ethical and professional standards mean understanding the difference between giving clients what they want and what the courts / the law / the interests of justice require. Clients need to be told hard truths by their lawyers, even if they may not want this.

If, as Ms Vennells claimed, lawyers were not telling her information she needed to know, it was either because they knew she did not want to know or because they knew (or did not care) that what they and the Post Office were doing was wrong and were trying to give her/the Board some sort of deniability which, coupled with legal privilege, would keep the whole mess under wraps. That some of them are still in position and dealing with the compensation schemes for the people their actions harmed is both insulting and yet another conflict of interest.

It is perhaps unsurprising to find the same sort of behaviour in the Post Office as was prevalent in finance around the same time. There was a widespread belief that if only state owned organisations could adopt the apparently superior practices of – and hire people from – the private sector all would be well. Instead, we got the worst of both worlds. Many of the senior Post Office executives who have given evidence could, with the right suits and haircuts, make a passable impression of the sort of British Leyland managers who appeared so often on TV screens in the 1970’s to explain why the companies they purported to run were so awful and why, nonetheless, yet more government money was needed to keep them going. They too were good at blaming everyone except themselves.

And, as in finance, there was a failure to understand risk and manage it effectively: a failure of both the executives and the in-house and external lawyers. The ignorance shown at all levels of the Post Office of its prosecutorial role, even that it had it, what this required and the risks associated with getting it wrong is astonishing.

If true.

More likely is that they did know of its role but thought it unimportant, something the investigators could be left to get on with with barely any supervision, a hangover from its old-fashioned past and less exciting than the new future flogging financial products through an IT system they did not understand but whose mantra – “Horizon is robust” – they chanted at every opportunity like a child reciting the catechism.

Believing what you would like to be true is a fatal error. It is one which cost the finance sector dearly. It is one which has cost the Post Office. It is one which will cost taxpayers. It is one which has cost its subpostmasters very dearly indeed. It is one which many of its senior executives still seem intent on making, as I explore in Part Two.


Photo by Johnny Briggs on Unsplash


May 23 2024

Why asking questions properly matters.

1. Why?
Those who have attended any of my talks may remember me saying that the most dangerous word in the English language is “Why?”. Dangerous because it so often exposes those who have no answer or whose answer would make them look a fool. Or worse.

For proof of how devastating this little word can be in the right hands and used at the right time, look no further than the last 5 minutes on the first day of Paula Vennells’ evidence to the Williams Inquiry – here. (Or from 2 hours, 3 minutes in here.) The judge’s lead in and timing are impeccable. And deadly.

If you do not ask this question yourself, you risk finding yourself on the receiving end.

2. Don’t prejudge the answer.

Ask an open question. For instance: “Does this system permit remote access? In what circumstances?” and so on. Keep on going until you’ve understood all the possible permutations. If you say “I want this answer.” you cannot rely on what you will be told because it will simply echo what you’ve already made clear you want. Whether through fear of saying something people don’t want to hear, a desire to please the boss, laziness (“this’ll do“) or just the effect of believing what fits your – or others’ – preconception, you quickly cross the line into faith rather than evidence-based conclusions.

3. Ask the obvious

“Horizon is robust.” It was the Post Office’s catechism, recited at every possible opportunity, an expression of faith in a system which could not possibly be admitted to be less than perfect.

Why did no-one ever ask two obvious questions and test the answers: –

– What do you mean by “robust“?
– What’s your basis for saying so? Or even “Why do you say so?”

That word again. Why? We should use it more often than we do.

Justice Delayed ….

May 19 2024

This week, according to this report in the Sunday Times, the government will finally announce payment of compensation to the victims and their families of the blood contamination scandal. The scandal started in the 1970’s. Three-quarters of the victims are dead. No-one has been held accountable. Other countries facing the same issue have managed to pay compensation and hold some of those responsible accountable. Inordinate delays after scandals seem to be an example of British exceptionalism at its worst. Given the glacial progress of the British state when it comes to acknowledging, let alone remedying its failures, the subpostmasters can – presumably – expect proper compensation sometime in the 2050’s.

The report by retired judge, Sir Brian Langstaff, will detail the how’s and why’s in excruciating and painful detail. We can add this report to many similar others about the NHS. Take these, for example:

– the Francis Report into the Mid-Staffordshire Trust.

– Northwick Park Hospital: 2 inquiries into maternal deaths 2002 – 2005, then baby deaths. Its maternity unit was described in 2020 as “a risk to patient safety“.

– Morecambe Bay: deaths of babies in its maternity unit between 2004 – 2013. James Titcombe, whose son, Joshua, died because of inadequate care, is the Alan Bates of this scandal, having campaigned tirelessly since on patient safety.

– Shrewsbury and Telford: a 2017 inquiry described care so poor that 15 women and 40 babies died.

– East Kent Hospitals: serial failings here – a damning 2016 inquiry leading to 23 recommendations, only 2 of which were implemented; 24 maternity investigations from 2018 onwards; a prosecution in 2021 for serious failures in care leading to the death of a week old baby. Over a 4-year period 130 babies suffered brain damage as a result of poor birth care.

– Nottingham University Trust: between 2010 – 2020 babies suffered brain damage or still births; mothers and babies died with the unit described as “chaotic” and “dangerous“. An independent review has been established.

– And, finally, an All Party Parliamentary Report on Birth Trauma, published last week, stated that good care for pregnant women “is the exception rather than the rule“. Remarkably, this report was not the lead story in newspapers.

Columns will be written about how it is that such negligence, malpractice, cruelty and indifference can happen in a seemingly civilised society in the late 20th and early 21st century. It is the right question but put the wrong way round. Why wouldn’t these behaviours be found among people who consider themselves professional and civilised?

As CS Lewis put it:

“The greatest evil is not now done in those “sordid dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.”

It is easy to be cruel to someone when they are only a name on a document, simply the object of a process.

We can see the truth of this every day in the Post Office Inquiry. The only change to C S Lewis’s aperçu is that women have shown themselves to be quite as capable as men of these failings. Jane McLeod, the former General Counsel at the time of the Bates litigation, which blew open the whole scandal despite the Post Office’s expensive and extensive efforts to suppress it, has added cowardice to the list of misbehaviours highly trained, well-remunerated professionals (with a Code of Conduct whose spirit they are meant to follow) are capable of.

There are common themes which are found in all such scandals, whether in the NHS or the Post Office or any organisation you care to name: organisations and managers who find it hard to take criticism or learn lessons or listen to whistleblowers, who become obstinately wedded to one view, regardless of the evidence and who become defensive when challenged, whether from arrogance or a belief that because their purpose is noble, so must the practice be. Add to this, indifference to the human beings the organisation deals with – often seen as a nuisance, unjustified grumblers, on the make or simply obstacles to be processed and got out of the way.

Alisdair Cameron, the Post Office’s CFO, described this attitude well in a November 2020 document entitled “What Went Wrong”. He added:

We should have been tackling these issues 10 years ago.”

This is a statement which can be safely said to apply to pretty much every scandal you’ve ever heard of, those you haven’t and those yet to come.

Theresa May, who set up the blood contamination inquiry in 2017, said this:

“I think what you get is a sense that it is more important to maintain the institution as a blameless institution than it is to accept a mistake and to look for the truth, the justice and accept the mistake. And the problem is, of course, with that it means that when the truth does come out, the institution looks even worse.”

Quite. Sir Wyn Williams could do no worse than use that as the opening paragraph of his report, when he finally comes to write it.


Photo by Hush Naidoo Jade Photography on Unsplash