The Heart of the Matter

April 13 2024


Senator Howard Baker’s question: “What did the President know and when did he know it?” went to the heart of the Watergate scandal. But it was another question, asked almost as an aside, which provided the damning evidence: the question to Alexander Butterfield, a Nixon aide, about whether, in addition to the taped instructions given by Nixon to his secretary every evening, there were other recording devices in the White House. That “yes” and the content of those tapes provided the evidence that the conspiracy went right to the top and right from the start.

Something similar seems to be happening now in the Post Office Inquiry with the release of numerous recordings, involving conversations between the external investigators, Second Sight, and the Post Office’s General Counsels, Susan Crichton and, later Chris Aujard. Much of the focus has been on what they show about Paula Vennells’ knowledge of Horizon’s failings and its consequences for subpostmasters, contrary to what she later claimed to a Parliamentary Select Committee.

With all the focus on Vennells, her Chairs, Alice Perkins and Tim Parker and the lawyers, we are in danger of ignoring two important areas of interest.

(1) Ignoring the role of those who were in charge long before Ms Vennells became CEO. They were told very specifically of the problems. I have written more here about what Allan Leighton, Chair in 2003 was told by Alan Bates. Mr Bates was also telling others in the Post Office from 2000 onwards. Alas, there are none so deaf as those that don’t want to hear.
(2)  Not asking questions of those further up the chain of command: those who held the purse strings, who owned the company – the government – which had a director representing its interests on the Board.

Some Questions

– How far were the Board’s actions – and failures to act – influenced by the government’s push to make Royal Mail profitable and ready for privatisation?

Remember: by the time of privatisation the majority of the prosecutions, the miscarriages of justice had happened. The Post Office was still part of Royal Mail. The evidence of Sir Michael Hodgkinson this week made it clear that the Post Office was still relying on committees of the Royal Mail Board to do detailed consideration of matters which the Board should have been considering (though how effective this was is open to question). Those in charge of Royal Mail were ultimately responsible.

– Did the Board fail to act because it did not know or want to know?

– Or did it act in the way it did – which looks remarkably like an attempt to cover up what had been happening – because that was what its owner, the government, wanted?

– Is it plausible that Parker, Vennells and others would have acted as they did – from the statements made to Parliament, the instructions to lawyers in relation to the Bates litigation, the evidence given to the court, the decisions made about what not to reveal, the decision to try and get Mr Justice Fraser removed from the case, the involvement of a senior retired Supreme Court judge in that failed venture and so on – if they hadn’t been confident that the government had their backs?

– Was this really a rogue organisation which misled its owners or kept them in the dark throughout this 20 year period while nonetheless managing to persuade it to provide ever increasing amounts of money to fight the subpostmasters and defend it in Parliament?

– And, if so, what does that say about the governance – the competence, curiosity and integrity – of the Business Department and its Ministers over this period?

– Or is it possible that the government, that Ministers and civil servants in the Business Department and elsewhere (remember the Post Office’s Chair, Tim Parker, was also Chair of the Courts and Tribunals Service at the same time as he was authorising his lawyers to try and get the judge thrown off a case involving a company he chaired) knew about – and may have been actively involved in or tacitly or explicitly approved of – the cover up of the miscarriages of justice?

That last is the question which now needs answering. Not avoiding by blaming the whole farrago on Vennells and others, however blameworthy they may be.

A troubling, current, conflict of interest

I have written elsewhere about some odd conflicts of interest which appear not to have troubled the government despite the obviously concerning issues raised. One in particular seems ever more untenable.

How can one of the Post Office’s Board directors also be on the Board of the Crown Prosecution Service, chairing the Risk and Audit Committees of both bodies, given the very real prospect of the former’s ex and current employees being investigated and possibly prosecuted by the latter?

– How can the Business Department and the Ministry of Justice possibly think this is right? Or wise?

– How can they not see that it creates, at best, the perception of a potential conflict of interest and may create an actual conflict of interest in future?

Unless they don’t care? And why might that be?

Will the Williams Inquiry get to the bottom of this? Unlikely. Unless the executives and lawyers now being held out to dry decide to talk freely. What the Business Department was doing, what it knew, what it approved, what it turned a blind eye to, what civil servants knew, what Ministers were or were not told are not within the Terms of Reference. Unsurprisingly.

But we need to know because, bad as this scandal is on the evidence we have seen so far, it would be infinitely worse if it were the government which was in part responsible for the miscarriages of justice and their cover up.

50 years on from Watergate the key question for the government remains: What did it know? When did it know it?

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