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

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