A Deceitful Strategy

June 1 2024

Part Two

Remember that interview question where you are asked to describe a weakness of yours and you have to find something to say which seems to answer while in reality complimenting yourself?

That was the approach adopted by Paula Vennells in her evidence to the Williams Inquiry. Yes – all these bad things happened which shouldn’t have; steps were not taken which should have been: questions were not asked which should have been; briefings, reports, documents and legal advice were not given to her and so, sadly, not read. But this was the way things were done in the Post Office, as if this entity had a mind of its own and paid no heed to the person appointed to run it, as if its chief executive had no authority to change anything nor ultimate responsibility for how it was run. She gave the impression of treating Post Office processes as if they were the equivalent of the laws of physics.

Look, she was saying, it was only her fault because she was a good person who “loved” the Post Office and was too “trusting”, apparently, of people (mainly lawyers and IT professionals) who did not tell her the truth. It was – in essence – the “I’m too stupid to be held responsible” defence. Pity the poor trusting CEO who did not understand IT and was unable to write an email asking for a briefing. (Quite why someone so ignorant of IT was put in charge of a company heavily reliant on IT systems is yet more proof that ignorance is no bar to promotion if you’re willing to shed all ethical and professional standards to achieve it while making sure to include the latest management buzz words in whatever flannel you utter.)

What made this approach risible was that barely had she started giving evidence than she undermined it with her own statements. Well before the first break on her first day, she stated that:

  • People sometimes criticised her because she was “too curious
  • She had a campaign saying that “Bad news is good news”. What bad news she did want to hear and why she never asked to be properly briefed was left hanging.

It was not just Vennells who adopted this strategy: so did her predecessors and Chairs of the Royal Mail / Post Office – Allan Leighton, Alan Cook, David Miller, David Smith, Sir Michael Hodgkinson – all of whom were also remarkably uncurious about what it did and seemingly unable to ask the simplest of questions, other than how much they would be paid for this passive “nothing to do with me, guv” approach to their responsibilities.

It is worth remembering that the bulk of the prosecutions happened while these people were in charge, long before Ms Vennells joined. Worth noting that concerns about what was happening to subpostmasters were being raised from 2000 onwards and were escalated to the then Chair, Allan Leighton, in August 2003. As Jason Beer KC put it, at this date –

many people had yet to be terminated, many people were yet to be prosecuted, many people were yet to be convicted and many people were yet to go to prison.” 

What Ms Vennells defence strategy also did is suggest that the worst miscarriage of justice in English history was simply an unfortunate by-product of having ineffective, but well-meaning, people in charge. It could have happened to anyone. None of it was the result of considered, deliberate actions and failures to act by them. If true, this would be bad enough.

But it is not true, is it? And the fact that it is still being put forward at this latest stage and after all that we’ve learnt is evidence that not only do these executives not grasp the enormity of what they have been responsible for but of their contempt for the entire inquiry process. (See also the tenor of their apologies.) It is an attempt to disguise the fact that what happened was the likely and predictable consequence of priorities chosen, of actions taken to implement those priorities and decisions about how those actions would be implemented.

What prompted those actions is the subject of Part Three.


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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