This week with Brian 11 to 18 April 2024

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Your Local Area

Including another new low, a sleeping shareholder, nervous directors, smokescreens, Comrade Napoleon, the right stuff, a peculiar institution, lost money, two ways out, responsibility, ancient flowers, a life of leisure, election disinformation at work, another non-dividend, holding to account, a national issue, three Taylors, fighting ducks, nature recovery, the clock coming down the stairs, Brian Clough and solar eclipses.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (updated every Thursday evening).

If there’s anything you’d like to see covered for your area or anything that you’d like to add to something that we’ve covered already, drop me a line at brian@pennypost.org.uk

Further afield

The Post Office Inquiry continues and, once again, seemed to mark yet another new low for the PO and Team Vennells. She herself has been accused of making at least one untrue statement whilst at the helm, this being her claim that in every case of false accounting or theft, the courts had found in the Post Office’s favour. This is, the QC Jason Beer pointed out, not true. The statement was made in a letter to Oliver Letwin MP in 2012. Lord Arbuthnot, who was then an MP himself, was at the time campaigning on the matter but admitted to the enquiry that he took the statement at face value, believing that, as the BBC put it, public figures like Ms Vennells would tell the truth.

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• Sleeping shareholders

Another problem was that the government seemed very reluctant to get involved. In 2010, Alan Bates contacted the then Minister, current Lib Dem leader Ed Davey, and was “disappointed” – a word which is often used to conceal any number of more extreme reactions – that he had decided to adopt an “arms-length” approach to the PO. Bates recently told the Inquiry that his point was that the government was the sole shareholder in the PO and that shareholders traditionally had some interest in their investment.

In fairness to Ed Davey, no one in power was able to see through the Post Office’s lies at that time. The complainants were simply not believed and the Post Office mounted an effective smokescreen to ensure that this continued. Part of this was the above-mentioned assurances that all cases had gone in the PO’s favour – an easy statement to have checked had anyone in power doubted it – as well as the assertions to many postmasters that no one else had complained of a similar problem.

It’s true that shareholders have no direct influence over, nor responsibility for, the conduct of a business. However, this wasn’t just any old shareholder, nor any old business. The strange arrangement whereby the PO became a wholly-owned quango but with wide commercial freedom gave both parties exactly what they wanted.

The government was quit of an awkward thing to manage that increasingly existed in competition with private companies yet needed to be retained; while the Post Office management was able to indulge itself in all the illusions of a little empire which they had not been put to the trouble or expense of creating – protected by statute, hallowed by history and familiar to everyone in the country, though also suffering a death by a thousand cuts as a result of competition in most areas and rapidly changing communications technology.

• Nervous directors

If shareholders have no personal responsibility for the failures of the business, the directors certainly do. One obligation that directors have is to look after the interests of the shareholders: or “shareholder” in this case. Lying to them would not appear to pass this test, any more than would the lesser but related charge of throwing sand in their face.

Limited liability does not provide blanket protection. “If,” the website 1st Formations says, “you are guilty of negligence, wrongful or fraudulent trading, or engage in any other criminal acts in the course of carrying out your company-related duties, you can be held personally liable and may face prosecution.” It also goes on to list several other cases where directors can become personally responsible. These include

  • Misusing company funds,
  • Attempting to deceive shareholders and/or creditors by making false statements regarding the affairs of the company,
  • Manslaughter by gross negligence and
  • Discrimination and harassment offences.

All of the above points would seem to apply here. If, for example, the prosecutions and the resulting compensation do not qualify as “misusing company funds” then it’s hard to see what does.

As the company is owned by the government and as we elect the government, all of us therefore have a perfect right to be annoyed: and also, I’d suggest, to mount any civil actions against the then officers if the state does not itself act. If I were a director of the PO, or Fujitsu, when all this was going on I’d have a very good solicitor on speed-dial.

• Comrade Napoleon

Central to all of the Post Office’s behaviour seems to be an axiomatic assumption that Horizon could not in any circumstances be wrong. Paying upwards of £100m for something certainly sharpens your refusal to accept that matters could be otherwise. To even admit this possibility casts doubt on every stage from specification and procurement to implementation and to day-to-day operation. In at least one of these stages, every senior person was implicated. Of course they had to close ranks and circle the wagons when things went wrong. It’s what organisations do. That’s why they need to be watched.

In Animal Farm, Orwell had an even simpler mantra: “Comrade Napoleon is always right.” Whoever you’re working for or whatever system you’re living under, this is a deliciously straightforward message: until a Benjamin the donkey comes along…

• Mr Bates

Which leads us to the question of Alan Bates.

There seems to be a vacuum in public life for people with integrity, perseverance and focus who are able to pick a cause and stick to it , who find this more important than the fame it attracts and who are able to communicate effectively. It may be that he’s not quite the complete paragon he’s now seen as: but right now there seems little doubt that he’s on the right side, has done the right thing and is of the right stuff. Many others have, with much less cause, been honoured. Should such attributes be lost to the country?

Mr Bates reportedly turned down an MBE because Paula Vennells had the higher accolade of a CBE (she’s since been forced to hand it back). What other roles might he usefully fill, assuming he hasn’t had enough of it all?

The House of Lords is, as I’ve pointed out before, a deeply peculiar institution. When you look at the former politicians, diplomats and civil servants, political hangers-on, time-servers, greasy-pole dancers, party donors, hereditary peers and (most mystifyingly) bishops, you could be forgiven for digging out your left-wing T-shirts and advocating class war.

Another view is that the Lords seems at times to be a satisfyingly effective brake (if not a no-entry sign) on troublesome government legislation as well as being (though this article dates from 2013 and so may no longer be true) more ethnically diverse than the Commons. It also better reflects, in so far as the members express party allegiances, the way the country votes; the first-past-the-post system not always being a pure expression of the popular will. The one great thing that can be said in favour of it is perhaps that Nadine Dorries isn’t a member.

For better or worse, it’s there and likely to remain in its current form for some time. Plans for reform, which have failed so often before, don’t seem to be on the minds of either of the party leaders at present. Elevation by appointment thus remains a possibility. At present, few people would begrudge Mr Bates his ermine.

Members of the Lords are on average about 71 so, at 69, he would add a slight touch of youth. As a heterosexual, able-bodied white male he doesn’t tick any diversity boxes but then nor do, say, Zak Goldsmith or Ian Botham. What about it, Rishi? Could this be the gesture that could turn your party’s fortunes around?

Mind you, Alan Bates would probably refuse it until the fiasco was sorted out, in which case the offer may not be Sunak’s to make. He might refuse it anyway, claiming that he was just one of hundreds of victims. If so, he might be right. To join such a body, however useful much of its work might be, is to become to some extent institutionalised. The risk is becoming slightly drunk on power, immune from scrutiny and coerced into groupthink. All these evils are, after all, ones he has been battling against for the last twenty years.

• Water

To return to the question of Thames Water, which grows more acute each day, Richard Murphy in his Funding the Future blog was, on 7 April, quite unequivocal: “Thames Water is bust”, he writes, “and its shareholders need to accept that they have lost their money.” He suggests that both main parties are in the hands of “pro-market extremists”. Labour’s position, he argues, is that “it is quite impossible for the state to take on the debts of Thames Water and that the company must be returned to the private sector for these debts to be repaid, which can only happen at cost to consumers.”

This point of view is, he says wrong. “Both [parties] want to impose the cost of failed financial engineering on the people of this country when the reality is that they have a duty to acknowledge that this company has failed, that water privatisation has failed, that the sector can only work in the future under state control. In that case, they should be organising planned insolvencies under laws that recognise the economic reality of the financial failure that has happened, which those in place at present do not do because they are inherently biased in favour of the owners of capital in this sector.” He feels that nationalisation is the only solution and one which will in the long run come with a far better price tag.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, speaking on GB News last week, made a point that was, initially at least, similar: Thames Water should be allowed to fail. “Thames Water and its owners made dud investments…the shareholders should take the hit, not the consumer.” His solution, however, was rooted in the market: another company would emerge to take on the assets, the debts would be written off and all would be well.

When BT was nationalised in the ’80s I was, like many people of my age, outraged. I allowed myself to forget what an abominable service the company provided. I now see that this change was probably a good thing. The key point – which wasn’t clear to most of us at the time, brought up as we were on state monopolies – is that now I have a choice. I can switch suppliers tomorrow, just as I can my insurer, my bank or my swimming-pool membership.

Where this logic collapses, though, is where there is no choice. Water and railways are two great examples. I’m stuck with my suppliers due to where I live. Rail franchises have failed but the situation there is underpinned by the complex system that the tracks and the trains are run by different companies. With water, the situation is simpler. In neither case is there a true market but merely one which has been created by free-market extremists aided by city financiers and management consultants. Water privatisation has been a mistake: as both Richard Murphy and Jacob Rees-Mogg agree, TW’s main concern has been to pay large dividends to its shareholders. To consider allowing a new company to take over would merely be to postpone the day when the same thing happened again.

As Richard Murphy observes, “our politicians are obsessing about how to save financiers who were stupid with their funds from embarrassment. You cannot get a clearer indication of the failed priorities of all those at the top of our political system than that.”

• And finally

• The parents of a young man who shot dead four children during one of the USA’s recent gun-crime atrocities have been jailed for at least ten years by a court in Michigan. The accusation was that they should have known enough about his mental health to have taken action: on the other, it assumes that we all can view our children’s behaviour dispassionately. I’ve never been in a position when any of my sons have behaved in a way remotely matching Ethan Crumbley’s but it must give millions of US parents pause for thought. Might we expect a wave of denouncements to police forces completely unable to cope with the volume and nuances of the suspicions, much as apparently has happened with the hate-crime legislation in Scotland, so taking their eyes of perhaps more real threats? Certainly the law of unintended consequences is everywhere.

• On a happier note, as spring advances so the flowers are returning: some of them in pots in our conservatory which, at this time of year, is more like a greenhouse. This article in The Conversation suggests that they are “one of the most successful evolutionary organisms on the planet,” with a history that might date back over 130 million years. That seems to make them a better bet for longevity than Homo sapiens.

• Two recent stories in Private Eye caught my own eye recently. The first, from issue 1620 (p19) reported that Google has introduced a pilot AI scheme “in which a selection of (unnamed) publishers” will be given access to “experimental technology.” This has been designed “to help small local publishers produce high-quality journalism from public data sources like a local government’s public information office.”

This seems a reasonably accurate summary of what we try to do. I suppose I should be pleased: a life of leisure beckons as we could then produce ten times as much copy with minimal effort. However, I’m not pleased. Apart from getting things off high shelves and making kedgeree, this is about the only thing I can do reasonably well and I take a certain amount of pride in the time and effort it sometimes takes. Perhaps I’m just a boat beating against the current – of no more worth than were those typesetters and platemakers who, when I first entered the publishing world forty years ago, were shocked and ashamed to discover that the skills they’d spend so long acquiring had almost overnight been replaced by technology.

• The other, from Eye 1621 (p20) concerned the forthcoming Indian elections. It appears that the organisation Global Witness decided to test YouTube’s anti-disinformation processes by uploading 48 adverts in various languages, each of which was explicitly designed to offend rules regarding disinformation. “YouTube approved each without a hitch,” the Eye reports. With an election of our own coming up, can we expect anything better here?

The Guardian suggests that yet another wonderful Brexit non-dividend is about to be reaped, saying that “new post-Brexit UK border controls coming into force later this month will cost British businesses £2bn and fuel higher inflation.” It’s further suggested that this will disproportionately hit small businesses. Just remind me: why did we think this was such a good idea (well, by 52 to 48)? What freedoms that we did not already enjoy has this decision created or preserved? The main beneficiaries, yet again, seem to be the lawyers and consultants who have been ceaselessly chattering and scribbling away since 2016.

I’m reminded of Raymond Chandler’s observation about chess being “the greatest waste of human intelligence you could find outside an advertising agency”. Some advertising agency doubtless designed the “£350m a week” lie on the side of the London bus, even though its architect, Dominic Cummings, later admitted that the campaign had been won by lying. What a fiasco…

Across the area

• Held to account

In a column in a local newspaper, MP Laura Farris kicked off by saying that “sometimes a corporate scandal is too complicated to capture public attention” and cites the Post Office as “an obvious example.” What can she mean? Nobody can claim that the PO has failed to be front-page news in the last few months.

She then moves straight on to a totally separate point about people perhaps not knowing or understanding about Thames Water’s byzantine financial structure. It’s possible for something to capture the public imagination in a way that conceals all the essential details, a fact the politicians should know better than most. Look at Brexit. We were talking about that for years (still are) and yet it’s now perfectly clear that no one, from Cameron down, had the faintest idea what it was all about and what the likely results were.

The rest of her article is full of phrases such as “held to account”. “I placed huge pressure on them” and “no relaxation in the regulatory regime”. She describes, here and elsewhere, the action she’s taken to try to improve matters. I feel that local groups have done far more.

She adds that “a step change in investment” is needed for the future. What’s needed is nationalisation. She says that she doesn’t agree with this as the taxpayers “would have to pick up the bill.”

No they wouldn’t. What bill? If the company is insolvent then the shareholders and probably most of the creditors will lose their money and have to concede they made a bad investment. The government could issue some bonds but this would be cancelled out by the value of the asset it would pick up on its balance sheet. Also, this isn’t just any old business and any old assets, as mentioned above. This is a once in a generation opportunity to reclaim something that should never have been alienated in the first place.

Ah – I see now that she said she does not “currently” favour nationalisation. One never says never, particularly in politics and particularly in an election year. After all, it may yet become a plank of her party’s policy, strange though that might seem. I mean, why not try it? What have they got to lose?

• CIL again

As previously mentioned, the resolution of this long-running issue is likely to be announced and decided at the May meeting of WBC’s Executive. This should consider not only the officers’ report but also the structure and composition of the proposed appeals board. That’s in West Berkshire: what about elsewhere?

About three years ago, I made enquiries to see if there was evidence of similar problems in other districts. I spoke to some councillors involved with planning in three neighbouring areas but none was aware of any complaints. This proved very little, of course, as this survey only covered about one per cent of the country’s councils. More recently, however, other cases have started to emerge, thanks largely to the regular online activity of Maria Dobson, one of the victims of the process here in West Berkshire. I’ve been contacted by two of these people this morning, both from different parts of the country. It’s too early to say if this is genuinely a national issue but it’s starting to look like it.

As Jeff Brooks pointed out in his statement on the matter last month, the legislation seems to be poorly drafted. These like most regulations will allow of some flexibility in how they’re interpreted and enforced and it’s important to stress that the decision as to the precise policy is largely a political one, ie is a matter for the ruling group, not the officers. It’s also well recognised that councils face considerable financial pressures, and have done for some time. All of these would influence how the matter was handled in each case.

In light of the fact that the issue seems to be more widespread than first thought, on 11 April, Maria Dobson contacted Laura Farris MP to suggest that the matter be examined centrally. The issue has the potential of being a national scandal and, as such, is something that would be as well to address sooner rather than later.

• Flood grants

West Berkshire Council would like to remind everyone that many of the grants have timescales for applications to be made. One has now closed (business recovery grant) with others closing this month including Community Recovery Grant which closes at 5pm 12 April 2024 and Property Flood Resilience Repair Grant Scheme closing on 30 April 2024. The details of the grants are available on  Flood Grants – West Berkshire Council.

WBC has received a number of applications already but would like to ensure all who wish to apply have had the opportunity to do so – “so please do share this information within your community.” Any queries relating to these grants should be sent to floodgrants@westberks.gov.uk.

• Nature recovery

Berkshire’s six councils, led by the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, want your help in developing the Local Nature Recovery Strategy for Berkshire through workshops and a county-wide survey.

There’s an event at the Corn Exchange, Hungerford Town Hall on Tuesday 23 April from noon to 3pm, where you’ll have the opportunity to delve deeper into the project, learn how to support local nature initiatives, and share your valuable insights. Register your interest on EventBrite as spaces are limited. There will also be an online session on Tuesday, 30 April via Zoom for those who cannot attend in person. If you can’t make it on the day, complete the survey online.  Share your thoughts, ideas, and priorities until Tuesday 7 May. 

• Residents’ news

The latest Residents’ Bulletin from West Berkshire Council includes PCC elections, nature recovery, domestic abuse, careers, the Lido, flood grants, consultations, Let’s Get Active, an artisan fair and Ancient Egypt.

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.

Wiltshire Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by Wiltshire Council.

Click here for the latest news from Wiltshire Council.

Swindon 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 areaLambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area

• Other news

• Councillors have backed a motion at the recent Full Council meeting to give people who’ve been in care greater protection.

• A reminder that grants are available for those who’ve been affected by flooding.

• West Berkshire Council has backed a bid to pick litter from streets and public spaces and is calling for residents across West Berkshire to “show their pride in their community by taking part in the mass action litter pick.”

• The Let’s Get Active Fund (LGAF) is back, with £40,000 available to improve access to physical activities in West Berkshire.

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 animals of the week are the ducklings who’ve just popped out of their eggs on our stretch of the River Lambourn. Because of the wet weather the normally seasonal river has been flowing all winter, so the parents arrived about three months earlier than usual. They’ve spent most of it fighting.

• 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

• Time again for the Song of the Week. Another outing for the wonderful Microdisney whom, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’d never heard of before. Something about this song reminded me of the stuff that my friend Owen Jones produces for his band, Shakespeare and the Bible. I sent him the link with this thought and have just learned that a previous band of his, the Jazz Butcher, actually supported Microdisney way back when in Berlin. Clearly something good rubbed off. So, here’s the song in question: The Clock Comes Down the Stairs.

• So next is the Comedy Moment of the Week. Not comedy per se: but so many of Brian Clough’s pronouncements contained a strange kind of humour because of his extraordinary self-confidence. In this scene from the excellent The Damned United, Clough (Michael Sheen) explains some of the new facts of footballing life to Derby County Chairman Sam Longson (Jim Broadbent) in 1971. Derby went on to win the League that season, something they’d never done before, so Clough was right – as he so often was.

• And coming in in third place is the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: “There’s recently been a solar eclipse. Roughly how often do these happen?” Last week’s question was: “What is odd, and possibly unique, about the band Duran Duran?” The answer is that they had three members with the same surname – John, Roger and Andy Taylor – although none of them were related. (Yes, I know you could say the same about the Ramones but none of them were actually called “Ramone”, so that doesn’t count.)

For weekly news sections for Hungerford areaLambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area  please click on the appropriate link

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