This week with Brian 2 to 9 May 2024

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Your Local Area

Including mysterious politics, four football teams, West Lothian, a fire in the hold, 1066 and all that, defending the lawyers, legal stress, serious crimes, electioneering, being a Senator, Schrodinger’s leader, CIL o’clock, malaprop jelly, faith schools, bad blood, the biggest turnout, a repeat fixture and a rotten borough.

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

I don’t really understand Scottish politics and it appears that the former leader of the SNP Humza Yousaf doesn’t either. He recently tore up the Bute House agreement with the Greens and then seemed surprised when they got cross. More recently, his political sense of self-preservation rose to the fore and he sought to explain that “ending the Bute House agreement was the right thing to do for the party and the country, but I accept fully the manner in which it was done clearly caused upset.” In other words, the whole thing was just a presentational problem and possibly the Greens’ fault for being so thin-skinned.

[more below]

• West Lothian

I don’t have any particular view about the SNP, mainly because the main platform of their policy – independence – is one to which I’m almost wholly indifferent, as I suspect a lot of English people are. On balance, I’d say it’s probably a bad thing as it would cause more Brexit-style convulsions and, if successful, result in another hard-ish border in addition to the one between Northern Ireland and the Republic in the Irish Sea or wherever it is.

The advantages of independence seem to be mainly emotional. If any are economic, then Scotland’s advantage would presumably be England’s disadvantage so I can’t see there’s much in it for me. Anyway Scotland already has its own parliament, which is more than England does. In Europe, only the Vatican City shares this distinction.

In favour of independence is a solution to the so-called West Lothian question (at least as regards Scotland), whereby Welsh, North Irish and Scottish members can vote on matters that affect England but the reverse does not apply as regards matters reserved to the devolved assemblies. This is just one of many weird results of our four-in-one structure. The most obviously odd consequence is perhaps that the UK has only one seat at the UN but four different football teams.

• British?

When in, say, France, I describe myself as “English” rather than “British” as it’s more honest, though this sometimes takes a certain amount of time to explain the difference. To make the matter stranger still, until recently our cars had to have “GB” plates on them even though this is not an internationally recognised entity and even though it included Northern Ireland, which is not part of Great Britain (though it is of the UK, despite a good chunk of the population passionately wishing matters were otherwise).

And we haven’t even dealt with the tax havens of the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man (which are not part of either the UK or Great Britain) although when it suits them (say for defence) they behave as if they are. On reflection, Scotland’s relationship with us is perhaps neither the most contentious, nor the oddest.

The SNP is now in the process of electing a new leader who may or may not be able to re-ignite the desire for independence which seems currently only to be shared by about half the population: a dangerous and divisive proportion, as the Brexit referendum proved. There’s no reason to suppose that any vote, if the UK government allows it to happen at all, will be conducted with any more honesty than was the 2016 campaign which many felt marked a new low in our respect for politicians.

As for the general election, whenever that happens, the SNP is predicted to get only 19 seats (down from 48), a figure which could fall as low as six. In many ways this doesn’t matter as this is “only” the election for the UK’s national parliament.

More important will be the one for the Scottish Assembly, in which the SNP is currently a minority administration. This must happen by May 2026. If the SNP is forced out of power for the first time since 2007 then independence will not be a cause the Scottish government will support. The issue will smoulder on, however, like a fire deep in the hold of a ship: and, one fine day, it’ll be back.

• Independence

In 1066, William of Normandy conquered an English kingdom that was by the standards of the time exceptionally centralised and well-administered. None of the other current major European countries at that time existed at all or, in the case of France, did so only as a small area around Paris. Italy and Germany were only unified in the 19th century and, in the latter case, only re-unified in 1989.

All of them, however, for better or worse, created states with very few administrative anomalies. England, for all its history of central control, proved incapable of accomplishing anything more than a very imperfect and at times purely theoretical dominance over the other three states in the islands. Of these, Ireland undoubtably fared the worst from the relationship though since has exacted its revenge as a result of its EU membership.

I’m not making any claim about the desirability or otherwise of a completely unified set of countries: merely that, despite prodigious efforts, this never happened here and that this is unusual. The compromise arrived at was the United Kingdom which, as suggested above, is, thanks to Brexit and the calls for Scottish independence, at a point of acute contradiction. I don’t know what we can do about it. Nothing, probably. We’ll just keep muddling along. Just as long as we don’t have to have one football team I think most of us (except perhaps the SNP) could put up with another couple of centuries of edge and compromise.

• Lawyers

• The Post office Inquiry continues with the outcomes still not looking that great for the dysfunctional private company with its one shareholder (us). The breast-beating and expressions of regret continue alongside the catalogue of false assumptions and poor internal communications.

On 30 April I watched a bit of the evidence of Harry Bowyer, a former employee of Cartwright King solicitors which acted on behalf of the Post Office. The lawyers, along with everyone else, are being given quite a hard time by the Inquiry’s counsels. Is this fair?

Perhaps; perhaps not. My understanding is that if a lawyer takes instructions, they work on the assumption that they’ve been told all the necessary facts, or fears, and given all the relevant documents. It’s not practical nor in many cases necessary for them to engage in a forensic examination of all the planks of the case. This would take months or years and would probably involve employing consultants and experts. The legal system is protracted and costly enough as it is.

If doubts or cracks appear in the prosecution case, the lawyers may seek further assurances or evidence from the client. However, many of the ones that are now apparent have only become so because all the prosecutions are being looked at in hindsight and with the suspicion of a clear pattern of miscarriage of justice in mind. That would not have been clear to the lawyers at the time. They would have been, to the best of their abilities, working on a few ongoing cases on behalf of their client and not studying other prosecutions, nor past ones, if there were not good reasons to do so.

Some of the lawyers including Harry Bowyer have admitted that, with hindsight, they might have acted differently or refrained from acting at all, sooner than they did. Indeed, one email by Bowyer was cited which painted a picture of the massive problems that would engulf the PO were Horizon to be shown to be flawed: a prediction which he can perhaps be forgiven from pointing out has proved all too accurate.

Again, these are things that can clearly be seen now. Interrogating the lawyers about what they were told and disclosed is a vital part of the process. It shouldn’t, however, obscure the main culprits in this. These were the PO directors who instructed them, perhaps – though this is for the Inquiry to decide – on the basis of what were known or strongly suspected to be falsehoods.

The legal profession is an easy target for public indignation. However, in general lawyers only act as agents and representatives of their client. If the lawyers were misled, it’s the client that needs to take the rap. If knowingly wrong information were provided or known documents concealed and convictions resulted, those responsible would be guilty of perverting the course of justice. If untrue statements were made to an inquiry or a court, perjury is involved. These are not minor charges.

• Prosecutions

Even if no actual convictions result, more and more I am convinced that the full weight of the law needs to be brought to bear on anyone who is implicated in this. Actions have consequences. Being not very bright, badly advised or working in a dysfunctional organisation with poor internal governance are not defences. Were any cases to be mounted, the problem might be – as with Trump in New York – to find twelve people who’ve not already made up their minds.

That’s a problem for another day. However, it would be a shame if the Inquiry were seen as an end in itself, culminating in another establishment whitewash. Legal stress was, after all, what the postmasters were put through. If some of the PO’s top brass do find themselves in the dock, they may well be encountering the same highly skilled  prosecutors that they unleashed on their victims. It would be ironical if some of those were in fact the same lawyers. Given the rough ride some are being given at the Inquiry, they might welcome the opportunity of a bit of payback.

Another matter that this exposes is the danger of private criminal prosecutions, something that some of the PO directors were (staggeringly) unaware was even possible, still less happening on their watch. The CPS has all the tools and controls to mount effective prosecutions. Whether it has the funds is an easier one to address. If the CPS initiated all such prosecutions, it would be easier to see patterns which might incline the brakes to be applied. This should have been obvious to the PO, of course. Why it  continued to accelerate into the deepening fog for such a long time is the main issue that the Inquiry is trying to establish.

• And finally

The BBC reports that the union for senior civil servants is launching an unprecedented legal challenge to ministers’ Rwanda plan. “The FDA said it was intervening because it feared the scheme to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda could force officials to break the law.” It’s not going that smoothly, is it? This is a plan that a former Chancellor of the Exchequer said “wouldn’t work” as a deterrent. That former Chancellor is now the Prime Minister.

This article in The Guardian looks at the government’s proposed scrapping of the 50% cap on faith-school admissions with the result, Simon Jenkins argues, that “new faith-based schools – Anglican, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, whatever – can be as exclusive as they want.” The article also points to a recent survey by Populus which shows that 80% of the population are against religious discrimination in the provision of state education.

I’m certainly one of the 80. If parents want their children to be imbued with supernatural pre-occupations then there are plenty of other times and ways this can happen. I don’t see that the state should have to support this. Aside from any personal convictions, the main thing that schools need to do is to ensure that every pupil leaves with a good level of literacy and numeracy, something which currently is far from accomplished in every case. Leaving school with a good grounding in religious dogma is not an adequate substitute.

• The Post Office Inquiry is looking at serious problems that date back about 25 years but another inquiry, into the contaminated blood scandal, needs to cast its view back to the 1970s. The BBC reports here that there might finally be some light at the end of the tunnel: though the victims have heard that before, of course.

• This afternoon we walked round to our local polling station to vote in the Police and Crime Commissioner election. It would be wrong to say that the village hall was packed or a queue was forming outside. There weren’t even any dogs tied up outside, which is a photographic trope that every media group repeats at every election. The turnout tends to be far higher when the PPC elections co-incide with local elections (which in some districts they do, but not here in West Berkshire). We chatted to the presiding officers, who’d been there since about 6am, and confirmed that they couldn’t leave the building until 10pm. At least Priscilla’s Kitchen round the corner had been kind enough to send some cake round to them. Democracy certainly produces some long days. At least it was warm.

All of this reminded me of a piece of fiction I wrote a couple of years ago about a bizarre local Election Day that goes about as wrong as it possibly can do for the main participant: see A Rotten Borough here. Let’s hope nothing like that befalls our local office. If I start hearing fire engine sirens round about 9.30pm I’ll know that life has, once again, imitated art…

Across the area

• Take me to your leader

I’ve been aware for some time that Lee Dillon was already spinning a lot of plates. After his election triumph almost exactly twelve months ago, he temporarily stepped down as leader of WBC earlier this year, but retained his Executive role at WBC and his seat on both WBC and Thatcham Town Council. He also has a demanding job with Sovereign and three children under ten. This on its own, as I know from experience, is quite capable of taking up as much time as you can devote to it. Oh, I almost forgot – he’s also the parliamentary candidate for the Newbury constituency.

I therefore wasn’t surprised when I heard rumours that some plates might be put down. I was, however, very surprised by a singularly uninformative article on the BBC website earlier this week. This tells us that “He took a sabbatical from the role in January but remained on the council’s executive. He has now fully quit.” Fully quit what? Is this actually a story about his having given up some vice?

There are a number of things he could have “quit”: his nominal position of leader-on sabbatical; his portfolio role for Public Safety; his seat on WBC; or his seat on Thatcham TC. The article didn’t make this clear. One phone call, however, did.

It seems that, at present at least, he’s only giving up the first of these. Jeff Brooks has been the Acting Leader for several months and this position is likely to be confirmed at WBC’s annual meeting on 9 May. I’m unaware of any other hats in the ring. If the local Lib Dems want to look like the national Conservatives, then having three leaders in a few months would be a good place to start. I suspect they don’t.

Assuming Jeff Brooks gets the nod, this will regularise a faintly ambiguous position of having two, as it were, Schrodinger’s Leaders: Lee Dillon (who was Leader but also not Leader); and Jeff Brooks (who was not Leader but also Acting Leader).

What seems more surprising is that it’s possible Lee Dillon might retain his portfolio role. If clearing the decks for his seat at Westminster is the aim – as I understand it to be – then ceasing to be the official Leader (on sabbatical) isn’t really going to change anything. However, the portfolio role could, with one Hainaut-type incident, one horrible train crash or one AWE indecent, suddenly become a 24-hour thing. Surely that’s what needs to go. Anyway, we all hope – Lee Dillon perhaps most of all – that such a contingency doesn’t arise. All will be clearer after the meeting on 9 May.

• CIL o’clock

Another imminent WBC meeting will take place on 16 May when the Executive meets to consider two matters, amongst many others. The first is the report from the officers into the changes that will be made to the issues surrounding CIL charges. The second is the composition and remit of the appeal panel set up to look at complaints against historical problems with the system.

Anyone unfamiliar with the issue could look at the text of the complete statement made by WBC’s Acting leader Jeff Brooks on 14 March. Three weeks later, the statement was selectively quoted as breaking news in a newspaper and you can read my observations on that here (scroll down to “A late blast”).

It’s possible that the second matter could be called in by the opposition with the matter then being referred to the Scrutiny Commission. This will further delay the justice that the victims have waited so long for. Unless there’s something very seriously wrong with the way that the panel has been set up, it’s impossible to see what advantage might be conferred on anyone who chooses to slow the process down as it will only lead to more time to reflect on which administration was responsible for the problem.

• Sewage concerns

A statement issued by West Berkshire Council on 30 April said that it “will be conducting additional site visits across the district this week as part of a continuing response to concerns raised about the public being exposed to sewage and other debris. The concerns have been shared online and in correspondence direct to the Council.”

This appears to be in direct response to a statement issued by Newbury Town Councillor Steve Masters who last week urged WBC to take “decisive action” against Thames Water for polluting our communities. You can see the full text in the 25 April column of our Newbury Area Weekly News section. In this, he pointed out that “local councils have an obligation to issue an abatement notice, notwithstanding any powers that any other regulators may have. There is legal precedent, namely Regina v Carrick District Council ex parte Shelley dated 3 April 1996.”

“Since the flooding started in January,” WBC’s statement continued, “a significant number of site visits have been conducted. West Berkshire Council is continuing to discuss these with Thames Water. The site visits this week will involve officers from both the Environmental Health and Highways teams who will conduct full assessments of the situation at each location. Part of that visit will include an assessment of whether any statutory nuisance exists.

Jon Winstanley, WBC’s Service Director (Environment), added that the Council “understands residents’ concerns and frustration about sewage and litter in our rivers” and that it “remained committed to resolving these ongoing issues through dialogue with Thames Water. We are also exploring all options and will be visiting all effected sites this week to carry out assessments of whether there is statutory nuisance that we can address using powers open to the Council.”

In response to some questions from Penny Post, a spokesperson for WBC said that action already taken included portals for residents in Great Shefford, West Ilsley and Burghfield, warning signs on roads where there was sewage, installing temporary lights and signage to allow Thames Water’s tankering operations and clearing blockages on roads where sewer flooding was taking place. There was also one location where TW’s tankers had caused damage to the road which is being taken up with the water company. It was said that at least was something that WBC would want to charge TW for but it’s less clear if this would apply to the other items.

The spokesperson also confirmed that six other sites would be visited this week, ie these should have been attended to by the time you read this.

It’s obviously good to know that these clean-ups are happening but this is essentially reactive work. Councillor Masters’ main point was whether WBC was planning to take proactive legal action, something that Jon Winstanley suggested was being considered. On asking about this, I was told that WBC was “hoping to have an update on this next week. Options will depend on our assessments and a further review of the powers which are open to us.” We look forward to learning what these conclusions are: as will Steve Masters; and all those whose lives have been affected by the problem.

• Malaprop jelly

An article on a local website recently compared Thames Water’s (TW’s) attempts to deal with sewage complaints in Hampstead Norreys as being akin to the Post Office’s tactics for bringing the postmasters to their knees – “you’re the only ones complaining.” This is certainly an accusation I’ve heard from others.

Hampstead Norreys’ ward member, Carolyne Culver, has (as have many others) been tireless in her pressure on TW and also trying to provide practical remedies for those affected. The article gave a few quotes from her. One of these jarred when I first read it last week and did so again when I re-read it today. This was that “trying to get an answer from Thames Water is like ‘throwing jelly at a wall’.”

I’ve talked to Carolyne Culver many times, as I have to most other WBC councillors past and present. This didn’t seem to be out of her lexicon. The phrase one would have expected is “nailing jelly to the wall”: an awful cliché describing an impossible task akin to the equally awful “like herding cats”. She’s not given to clichés. What “throwing jelly at a wall” means I can’t begin to guess. Does it stick? Not having tried, I don’t know. The reader is confused by the malapropism. Or was it perhaps an attempt by the author to try to inject a fresh new idiom by paraphrasing what Councillor Culver has said, if she did? if so, it didn’t work because the phrase didn’t make any sense.

Moving on to more important matters, residents in Hampstead Norreys and other areas in the Ridgeway ward can be confident that their ward member is doing the best they can to represent their concerns about sewage. I hope, and believe, that the same can be said about ward members in other areas. They are, however, dealing with three large organisations – Thames Water, the Environment Agency and West Berkshire Council – whose actions do not always seem to be perfectly co-ordinated. Your word members will continue to fight the fight on this point. As for what they plan to do with any jelly, you’ll have to ask them.

• Residents’ news

The latest Residents’ Bulletin from West Berkshire Council includes sewage concerns (see also above), pavement resurfacing, Kennet Valley Primary School, Walnut Close, A4 improvements, Theale’s 20mph limit, public meetings, water-quality monitoring, councillors needed in Speen and bank-holiday opening times for pharmacies.

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

• West Berkshire Museum is “delighted to announce the acquisition of two contemporary art sculptures. These represent ‘Greenham Peace Women‘ and were created as part of the 2021 project ‘Peace Camp’, led by artist Jemima Brown. Read more here.

• 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.

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

• The animal of the week is this beautiful hoopoe which, having overshot its migratory path from Africa to Europe, popped in a back garden in Norfolk recently. Crazy name, crazy hairstyle.

• 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

• So we arrive at the Song of the Week. There are some elections today, 2 May, so let’s have Electioneering by Radiohead.

• meaning that next is the Comedy Moment of the Week. And still on that theme, here’s a brief video from US comedian Jenny Gorelick as to why she should be a Senator.

• Which only leaves us with the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: The largest turnout at the UK general election was in the constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone in 1931 – what percentage of population there voted? Last week’s question was One aspect of this year’s FA Cup Final hasn’t happened since 1885: what is it? The answer is that it’s a repeat fixture from the previous season, which has only happened once before. Manchester City beat Manchester United in last year’s final and the same two will meet again the year, hopefully with the same result.

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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