This Week with Brian
Your Local Area
Including emergency legislation, political timing, the laws of cricket, waiting for the doorbell, a mafia gangster, two publications, two by-elections, two battles, seven best moments, Kim’s chicken farm, £65bn, ¢25m, no challenge, after the deluge, mousekeeping in Wales, blinded by the sun and a new capital.
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The scandal of the Postmasters entered a new phase after an ITV drama provoked a flood of media coverage and no end of soul-searching and hand-wringing by politicians, culminating in an announcement by Sunak at PMQs on 10 January that “emergency legislation” would be introduced to “swiftly exonerate and compensate victims.” Anyone would think that this was a breaking scandal, the facts of which had previously been unknown. Suddenly everyone in Westminster and Fleet Street was falling over themselves to say how they’ve been on the case, following the story and generally trying to get the right result, despite the fact that none of this has produced any results.
The only two media organisations which can can claim full credit for this seem to be Computer Weekly (CW), which broke the story in 2008, and Private Eye (PE), whose coverage started soon afterwards. Both have continued their reporting ever since. Two articles out of the hundreds the two publications have written are worth singling out. Justice Lost in the Post (May 2020) is an in-depth look at the fiasco by regular PE contributor Richard Brooks and Nick Wallis, who wrote one of the first CW stories on the matter; and Post Office Horizon scandal explained (January 2024) by CW’s Karl Flinders, another writer who has kept the flame burning.
Both these, and many articles, paint a picture of the Post Office as an alarmingly dysfunctional organisation with a culture of astonishing arrogance, manipulativeness and mendacity for which the traditional accusation of “corporate defensiveness” seems woefully inadequate. The Home Office displayed much the same heel-digging instincts during the unravelling of the Windrush scandal.
Hats off to both of these magazines: also to the producers of the ITV programme Mr Bates v the Post Office. Many might wonder why fifteen years of serious journalism was unable to accomplish what one four-part TV series did. The answer is that although without the TV series there would have been no result, without the journalism there would have been no TV series.
Without the courage and tenacity of the hundreds of Postmasters, of course, neither of these things would have happened either.
Sunak’s announcement of legislation seems to be an act political expediency. Governments have the power to legislate and to do so shows they’re serious about an issue. Dangerous dogs, cross-channel boats, anti-social behaviour – if there’s a problem, simply pass a law. The trick is to time it so that the lustre will not have been dulled, or the measure not shown to have failed, by the time the next election comes round. With one to be declared before the end of the year, a law exonerating the Postmasters would seem to be perfectly timed.
There is, however, a massive problem with the course of action the government has chosen. Although everyone in power (past or present) has been at pains to say that the situation is unprecedented and exceptional, a dangerous precedent has been established. The executive (by announcing the legislation) and the legislature (by passing it) can now over-ride the work of the judiciary. I’m no expert in the law, or anything in particular, but it seems to me that there’s a better way.
As I understand matters, the courts have the power to quash previous decisions – the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court exist for perhaps no other purpose. As long as the Post Office can be convinced to say that it would mount no defence against any such action, the judicial system has the power to nullify all the convictions. As there seems to be no evidence that the courts erred by bringing the verdicts they did (based on the evidence put before them), they presumably have the power to say that all these convictions are now unsafe as a result of information that has subsequently emerged. This would avoid any interference in the separation of powers.
This could also deal with the fact that a few cases did seem to involve genuine fraud. All of these can be re-started – there’s no statute of limitations for such charges – but perhaps there’s a case for a bit of legislation to say that in this case these must be lodged within twelve months. The Post Office has had twenty years in some cases to assess the issues so can hardly claim that this doesn’t give enough time. It could also be argued that such a trial would be prejudiced in the defendants’ favour by the current publicity. So be it: it was the Post Office that caused this problem. A few people may escape rightful prosecution as a result but that’s surely the better outcome.
The laws of cricket might be useful to cite here, by which the batter is given the benefit of the doubt. This is also, I believe, a principle of English law, though the law risks becoming a side-show in what has now turned into a political initiative.
In my naivety, I’d always assumed that criminal cases could only be launched by the Crown Prosecution Service. It appears that anyone can do this, but the CPS has the right to take over (and thus kill) prosecutions with which it’s unhappy. The PO launched all of the Postmaster cases, which then became trapped in a kind of echo-chamber which admitted of no outside influence.
One thing that seems worth changing is to require that every criminal case be initiated by, or have the approval of, the CPS in the first place (the only exception would be where this is against someone from the CPS, in which case some other body would have to get involved – a detail, I think). The CPS is, or should be, a dispassionate organisation that will not only look at the issues, including the public interest, on its merits but also – and this seems to have been entirely lacking in the PO prosecutions – ensure that any concerns that arise from one case are disclosed to those involved in similar ones.
For this to happen, the CPS would need to be properly funded to give it some teeth. (The same could be said of the Environment Agency which is also an arbiter of what should and should not be prosecuted. It could be argued that, in their very different ways, the Post Office and companies like Thames Water have been allowed to get away with having the world seen their way.)
Paula Vennells this week agreed to hand back her CBE, awarded in the first place for God knows what. There are plenty of other Post Office grandees, past and present, who might also be concerned about the recent tide of public and political opinions. Private Eye’s Justice Lost in the Post mentioned former Chairs Tim Parker and Alice Perkins and “independent” directors including Ken McCall and Carla Stent. Aside from other concerns, I wonder if any of these stopped to wonder what had gone so wrong with the Post Office’s selection procedures that suddenly it found it was employing hundreds or perhaps thousands of corrupt Postmasters.
One should not, of course, forget Fujitsu, the software company responsible for Horizon. Computer Weekly reported that one of Fujitsu’s software designers had said as far back as 2001 that everyone there knew Horizon “was a sack of shit” and that bugs were being discovered “in their thousands.” None of these at the top could possibly have been unaware that something was seriously wrong with it, particularly after the company’s underwhelming performance with the NHS IT project. Richard Christou, CEO from 2000 to 2004, and his “equally bungling successors” including David Courtley, Roger Gilbert and Michael Keegan are therefore among those who might be trembling every time the doorbell rings.
As for the politicians, words fail me. A good deal of empty lip service is now being paid, saying that they have “followed the Post Office scandal closely and began raising the issue in the House of Commons from” whenever. All the problems with the prosecutions have been known for many years, particularly to any who chose to take an interest. More specific charges can be laid against some: Justice Lost in the Post names several ministers who “failed to properly examine the unfurling public scandal while holding the postal services brief.”
Meanwhile, the public enquiry continues. On 11 January, former PO investigator Stephen Bradshaw was in the hot seat, where he put in an astonishingly poor performance. He admitted he wasn’t technically minded and accepted assurances from higher up that all was well. He also admitted he had signed a witness statement in 2012, every word of which had been written by the PO’s lawyers.
For an investigator, he displayed a staggering lack of curiosity, or even interest, in what was really going on. He was also forced to defend himself against allegations that he was a liar and a bully and that he and his colleagues had behaved like a cross between mafia gangsters and 1970s TV police detectives.
Shortly after Bradshaw’s testimony, the above-mentioned journalist Nick Wallis described him as “one of the worst investigators in history” who was also “working for one of the worst investigation outfits in history.” He added that “the way he comes across in these transcripts and the quality of his investigations is why we are dealing with this scandal.” The more one looks at the story, the worse it seems to be.
It might be too much to expect that prosecutions of those who were complicit or in dereliction of supervisory duty will follow. Sunak’s all-encompassing statement on 10 January is intended to give him the credit for identifying, and parliament the credit for resolving, the scandal. This sidelines and undermines the judiciary and perhaps takes the heat off the pursuit of the real criminals in this affair.
• And finally…
• There are two more by-elections for the government to look forward to: voters will go the polls on 15 February in Wellingborough (to find a successor for Peter Bone who has fallen foul of a sexual misconduct scandal) and in Kingswood. This has been caused not by public disgrace or humiliation as have the other recent resignations but by the resignation of Chris Skidmore as a result of his disenchantment with the government’s energy plans. The Tory majorities are 18,500 and 11,000 respectively: neither of which might, on recent form, be nearly large enough.
• The HS2 fiasco continues to deliver fresh horror stories. Although Birmingham City Council says that it will “provide significant extra capacity for passengers and freight within the UK and to continental Europe, along with other significant predicted national and local economic benefits that will come from sharing some of the South East’s wealth”, the company’s boss has recently said that just this bit will cost £65bn: and that’s without linking it to Manchester, which I thought was the whole point. Why was it not started from north to south?
• If you’re Austrian, you may be interested to learn that an Austro-German heiress is setting up a citizens group to decide how she should give away much of the fortune she inherited from her grandmother. Marlene Engelhorn wants fifty Austrians to determine how €25m of her inheritance should be redistributed. “I have inherited a fortune, and therefore power, without having done anything for it.” She wouldn’t last long in the House of Lords.
• No one seems to know when Kim Jong Un, the leader of secretive North Korea, was born, though 8 January 1983 seems to be the world media’s best guess. He was photographed on this day visiting a battery chicken farm and seemingly laughing at its inmates: an entirely appropriate way of celebrating his time ruling North Korea, many of whose inhabitants probably identify with the chickens; although the chickens might have got the better deal…
Across the area
• No challenge
Not particularly to anyone’s surprise, West Berkshire Council has decided that it will not challenge the decision by Whitehall to force it to adopt the local plan prepared by the previous administration. As I’ve mentioned before, the main point of contention was the allocation of at least 1,500 homes between Thatcham and Bucklebury. WBC had until 12 January to prove that exceptional circumstances would justify demanding that the plan be withdrawn but has decided that this battle is not worth fighting. Attention will now turn to the Planning Inspector’s examination of the plan, at which interested parties will be able to have their say.
At the risk of repeating what I’ve said before on this, it’s worth noting that this stand-off between the government and WBC only arose because the previous administration submitted the plan just before the election. The decision to proceed with it also changes nothing about the massive problems the scheme faces. Not the least of these is finding a way for up to four developers to work harmoniously, something which proved impossible with Sandleford. It also does nothing to address the almost total lack of supporting infrastructure. The eye-catching comparison (which is completely correct if 2,500 homes are built there, as may happen) is that this is like bolting a town the size of Hungerford onto the edge of Thatcham. This would, however, be without any of the leisure, transport, medical, sporting or other facilities that Hungerford enjoys.
• After the deluge
The following section appeared in the most recent WBC Residents’ Bulletin which we reproduce here verbatim. Many of the general points apply equally to other districts.
“Our teams have been busy dealing with the aftermath of Storm Henk and the subsequent flooding. We have been working with our partners to organise road closures, revised pick-ups for waste, and transport for carers to ensure the most vulnerable in our communities are protected. In short, we’re making sure that where people need to do things, they’re able to.
“We’ve also been working collaboratively with our neighbouring councils, Environment Agency, Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue, Thames Valley Police, NHS, UK Health Security Agency and Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs to coordinate a multi agency response to the floods.
“The heavy rain has left many local roads and footpaths flooded and has caused road closures all across the district. If you must travel, check your route before you go and travel with care. If you see a ‘Road Closed’ sign, please don’t remove it or attempt to drive through that area as any bow waves created can flood properties and there is a risk that your car will lose traction. Remember, just 30 cm of fast moving water can move your car.
“There has also been major disruption to local railway services. Check with your provider before you travel as many services from local stations have been impacted.
“We also ask that you please avoid walking down canal paths or flooded towpaths as even shallow moving water can knock you off your feet. Floodwater can may contain heavy debris, sharp objects, open manhole covers, sewage and chemicals therefore you should keep your family and pets away from this. Please wash your hands if you’ve been in contact with flood water which may contain toxic substances.
“We’ve been receiving lots of questions about sandbags. We don’t usually provide these to individual properties. For more information please see our sandbag policy.
“You can learn more about how to prepare for and deal with flooding here. You can also check for flood alerts online and sign up to receive flood warnings for your area. Finally, please report any problems for our teams to address here.”
• Rural prosperity
As mentioned last week, West Berkshire Council has announced that it has been awarded nearly £600,000 under the government’s Levelling Up scheme with about half of this (£297,994) being distributed across rural areas. This provides “an opportunity for local small rural businesses to apply for funding to support capital initiatives.” The funding will be allocated over two financial years, “with £99,498 being provided in 2023-24, and a further £198,495 in 2024-25. The business grants will range between £10,000 to £40,000 and will be awarded to businesses on a rolling basis over the lifetime of the scheme.”
For more information, including on how businesses can apply for grants, click here.
• Phone upgrades
West Berkshire Council will be upgrading its phone system on 16 January. On that day, there may be some disruption to normal service on all our external lines that could last up to two hours. This will happen at some point between 10am and 1pm. If you cannot contact WBC on the usual number, please try the temporary number on 0333 996 5560. For any flood related enquiries, please use 0333 996 5561.
• Residents’ news
The latest Residents’ Bulletin from West Berkshire Council includes flooding advice (see above), cold weather advice, careers, a phone-system upgrade, Ticehurst’s MUGA, school attendance, the Pang Valley Flood Forum, consultations, wellbeing bags, Their Finest Hour Digital collections, volunteering and Covid and flu jabs.
• News from your local councils
Most of the councils in the area we cover are single-tier with one municipal authority. The arrangements in Oxfordshire are different, with a County Council which is sub-divided into six district councils, of which the Vale of White Horse is one. In these two-tier authorities, the county and district have different responsibilities. In all cases, parish and town councils provide the first and most immediately accessible tier of local government.
West Berkshire Council
• Click here for details of all current consultations being run by West Berkshire Council.
• Click here to sign up to all or any of the wide range of newsletters produced by West Berkshire Council.
• Click here to see the latest West Berkshire Council Residents’ Bulletin (generally produced every week).
• Click here for the latest news from West Berkshire Council.
Vale of White Horse Council
• Click here for details of all current consultations being run by the Vale Council.
• Click here for latest news from the Vale Council.
• Click here for the South and Vale Business Support Newsletter archive (newsletters are generally produced each week).
• Click here to sign up to any of the newsletters produced by the Vale’s parent authority, Oxfordshire County Council.
• Click here for details of all current consultations being run by Wiltshire Council.
• Click here for the latest news from Wiltshire Council.
• Click here for details of all current consultations being run by Swindon Council.
• Click here for the latest news from Swindon Council.
Parish and town councils
• Please see the News from your local council section in the respective weekly news columns (these also contain a wide range of other news stories and information on activities, events and local appeals and campaigns): Hungerford area; Lambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area.
• Other news
• West Berkshire Council has announced a “comprehensive support package for residents facing winter challenges.”
• The Council looks back at some of its highlights from 2023.
• More information on the town-centre strategies in Newbury, Thatcham and Hungerford can be found here.
• More information on community warm spaces in West Berkshire can be found here.
• The government has announced that the Single Fare Cap Scheme has now been extended to 31 December 2024. The scheme provides affordable bus travel for everyone across England, allowing passengers to travel at any time of the day for £2 (£4 return). The list of participating operators in West Berkshire can be found here.
• Click here for information about help available with the cost of living crisis in West Berkshire, the Vale and Wiltshire.
• Please click here for information about what local councils are doing to help support refugees from Ukraine and how you can help.
• The animal of the week is this mouse which has been caught on camera tidying up objects in a man shed in Builth Wells in Wales.
• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently: see the various news area sections (links above) for further details.
The quiz, the sketch and the song
• Here we arrive at the Song of the Week. Thanks to Prof JC for suggesting this rather pleasing ditty which I wasn’t familiar with: Blinded by the Sun by The Seahorses.
• Which means that next comes the Comedy Moment of the Week. Here are seven of Stephen Fry’s best moments from QI to enjoy, including exploding custard, a laser pen and a dancing robot.
• Which only leaves the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Nusantara will become the capital of what country in August? Last week’s question was: What happened in successive years in Wash Common and in Speen, both in (or very close to) Newbury? The answer is the two battles of Newbury during the Civil War, on 20 September 1643 and 27 October 1644.
For weekly news sections for Hungerford area; Lambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area please click on the appropriate links.