This week with Brian 23 to 30 May 2024

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Your Local Area

Including E-day approaches, Mr Toad, a possible onion, corporate memory, fortified positions, a call to the cloth, blood, cornerstones, reputation, character, worse news brewing, five non-payers, oozing class, clamping down, here’s hoping, CIL reforms, another leaflet, periodic cicadas, Dear God, two family Oscars, two elections and a prank call.

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

So now it’s official: E-Day is 4 July. The timing wasn’t propitious, with the PM standing outside Number Ten in the pouring rain, his voice fighting with D:Ream’s Things Can Only Get Better blasting out from beyond the Downing Street gates, which was adopted as one of Blair’s anthems in ’97. The week has also seen the decades-overdue apology about the blood scandal, the appearance of Paula Vennells at the PO Office Inquiry and the announcement of proposed eye-watering hikes in water bills – all good examples of just how badly things can go wrong when the state fails to keep a grip on matters it has, one way or another, outsourced. It must be pointed out that no other governments, during the long years these fiascos have been fermenting, emerge from them with much credit either.

[more below]

• Timing

As for the timing, Sunak had always said that his “working assumption” – a phrase that suggested someone else was deciding the matter – was that the election would be in the second half of the year. Most were expecting October or November: he certainly had us all properly fooled. Perhaps he is even now giggling to himself at his cleverness, like Mr Toad. The middle of the year is 2 July so he’s made it, just. So, that’s the first election promise kept.

The month is a tad unusual. There’s only been one election in July or August since the 1890s. Sunak won’t want to be reminded of this exception as it was Atlee’s Labour landslide in 1945. Is this break with tradition the bold stroke of the new politics that he’s been trying to convince us he’s capable of? An honoured promise and a broken mould in one announcement: talk about hitting the ground running.

Catching up in the polls might be rather harder. Most show Labour with a percentage lead in the late teens or early twenties, a situation that’s remained largely unchanged during Sunak’s period of office. The argument in favour of waiting was that things might get better and in favour of going earlier that they might get worse.

No spectacular progress has been made on his five key pledges, or at least not any that the government can in all honesty claim credit for. Inflation, for instance, has indeed fallen but this has far more to do with the (independent) Bank of England and global energy and commodity prices. None the less, we can expect to see this card played quite a few times. On other pledges, such as hospital waiting lists (which he claimed were undermined by industrial action) we might be hearing rather less.

• Inquiry

The PO Inquiry unveiled its star turn this week, former CEO Paula Vennells. Her testimony on 22 May started off with a media frenzy as she got out of her car outside the hearing and built up from that. What followed included forensic questions, frequently long-winded answers and a few smoking guns. There was even a moment of Shakespearian pathetic fallacy when a leaking ceiling echoed the tears which the former PO supremo shed more than once: perhaps, or perhaps not, in response to inhaling a peeled onion cunningly concealed in the orange ruff that she wore around her neck.

Her performance was a notch up from some of her hopeless, hapless colleagues such as Jamail Singh (the senior lawyer who claimed not to have known how to save a computer file) or the investigator Elaine Cottam (who was so confused by the first question in her witness statement, “please describe your professional background”, that she was unable to answer it).

Despite being better than them, Vennells was pretty unconvincing. Her habit of answering questions in a lengthy and multi-pointed way would have been worthy of a second-rate politician: what was more alarming, though perhaps not surprising to many, was her lack of curiosity about some of the major aspects of the business she ran between 2012 and 2019, many of which were directly relevant to the matter in hand.

She was, for instance, for a long time completely unaware of the existence of a PO investigations team (which, as it employed about a hundred people, must have made some kind of mark in the accounts, if nothing else). Nor did she, and so many others, know that the PO could and did launch its own prosecutions. One might have thought that the increasingly regular appearance of the PO in court crossing swords with its own contractors might have made someone wonder rather earlier than they did how this had come about.

As for the troubled history of Horizon, her complete ignorance of this when she joined was put down to “a lack or corporate memory”, whatever that means. Even I knew that the thing had had a difficult birth and that one of its clients, the Department of Work and Pensions, had pulled out before the launch. Jason Beer KC politely pointed out that the Inquiry had not had any trouble in getting access to hundreds of documents on the subject. Her management-speak evasion being so swiftly undermined, she floundered around for a bit but didn’t really address the question.

Even more damaging was the text exchange earlier this year with Maya Greene, her opposite number at Royal Mail, who as good as accused her of lying.

She was also accused of asking leading questions to her staff in order to get the answers she wanted; having a convenient memory which clearly recalled conversations which reflected well on the PO but doing less well with ones that did not; and frequently having to admit that things that she’d written had been poorly phrased.

Retreats, and interrogations, often involve pulling back to a series of fortified positions. The PO position, as Vennells tried to articulate it, was that Horizon is now seen to be the problem. Jason Beer pressed her to move one step further and admit that, though this might have been the trigger, the real problem was the attitude and culture of the organisation over which she presided. This was a jump she found hard to make.

There seem to be two main planks in her defence (for it’s impossible to ignore the possibility that statements made here might re-surface in a criminal prosecution). The first is that the PO had defective systems of reporting and structure, not helped by the divorce from Royal Mail in 2012. However, many of her comments made her seem like a perplexed management consultant confronted with problems in someone else’s business rather than a leader who had the power to do anything about them.

The second is a classic shield: “I didn’t know”. The suggestion was made that there had been a conspiracy to deny her information, which she refuted as being “far-fetched”. None the less, there seemed much that she hadn’t been told (or had conveniently forgotten).

What’s more, her lack of curiosity and passive acceptance of what Jason Beer called the “folklore” of false Post Office maxims such as “we always win our cases”, “remote access is not possible” and “Horizon is perfect” – which read like something out of Animal Farm – are bewildering coming from a CEO. This led to her giving false information to a Commons Select Committee, something which should have very serious consequences.

Her willingness to accept received wisdom and her casuistical and distracting answers to difficult questions would seem to make her ideally suited to being an Anglican priest, a position she once held; or Bishop of London, for which she was considered in 2017. At least in those roles she would have been grappling with issues that were of no particular importance to most people. Meanwhile, back in the real world, her testimony thus far suggests that she’s either lying or incompetent: or, perhaps, both.

• Blood

This is, of course, an even worse scandal and one which has been around for over twice as long as the 25 years of the PO debacle. Tens of thousands were infected in the ’70s and ’80s and thousands died. Sir Brian Langstaff’s report castigated successive governments (particularly Margaret Thatcher’s), the civil service, the NHS and several specific individuals and hospital trusts: a fairly comprehensive roll-call.

As Private Eye 1624 points out on p7, Langstaff’s irritation with the delays in the process would have been compounded by his having been been lead Counsel in the Bristol Royal Infirmary Inquiry in 2001. This recommended that compensation should be dealt with administratively without apportioning individual or corporate blame, which could be followed up later through judicial processes. This was, the Eye reports, “ignored” by the then Labour government. Were it not to have been, the cost and trauma that are only now becoming apparent would have been greatly reduced.

Taken together with the PO Inquiry (as yet unfinished), these are hideous indictments of some of the cornerstones of national life. It was suggested by some after the blood report was published that the problem was money. That may have been the case at the start: but both issues are, particularly once the cover-ups started, much more about reputation.

In pursuing this, many of the people and organisations displayed a lack of character. That is who you really are: reputation is merely how others see you. Reputation can be created and maintained (and destroyed) by smoke and mirrors; character is immutable. Reputation is the fickle valuation of the stock market or opinion poll rather than character’s solid worth. Character also involves doing the right thing when no one’s looking.

Sadly, people who’re capable of turning on the charm when there’s an audience tend to thrive. The flip-side of this is that, when matters unravel, you dig your heels in like mad and concoct all manner of justifications as to why the reputation of the organisation – and, by association, of you – is worth more than any injustices or collateral damage that might affect others. I refer again to the chilling comment made by the Post Office’s Patrick Bourke to Paula Vennells in 2015, which I quoted last week, that “the potential unsafe convictions of sub-postmasters “pales into insignificance to the bigger, social, mission of the Post Office”.

It’s often said that it’s not the crime but the cover-ups that cause the problem. There’s a point in any crisis beyond which an apology becomes massively more difficult. Unfortunately in most cases this is only realised too late.

Adrian Abbs, the West Berkshire Councillor who’s standing as an Independent candidate in Reading West and Mid Berkshire, suggested on 21 May that “Paula Vennells and the Post Office scandal is a clear example of someone who needs to admit they made a mistake. It’s the same with those who covered up the infected blood scandal and, more locally, those responsible for CIL demands that had no merit.”

With that I agree. However, he goes on to say that this suggests that “party politics is broken.” This is far from being a trait of politicians. It’s something we see from everyone who wields power and who, as importantly, has a reputation they wish to defend, personal or corporate. Given human nature this seems a difficult one to change, particularly when it involves people or organisations that regard themselves as above censure.

Perhaps the best we can hope for is that these two sharp lessons have put other bodies on notice that the truth can be squeezed out of any situation, given the will to do so. It would also be a good thing if less than 25, or 55 years, elapsed the next time before this happened.

• And finally

• Worse news for the Post Office may be brewing. This video interview suggests that other transactions unconnected with Horizon, involving ATMs and pension payment amongst others, may also have been responsible for a number of unsafe convictions.

• What do the USA, Japan, India, Nigeria and China have in common? The answer is that they’re in the top five positions for the recently announced roll of shame group of diplomats in London who have close to £50m owing in unpaid congestion charges in the capital. TfL has stressed that as this is a charge and not a tax, diplomats are not immune from paying it. The US Embassy asserts otherwise and that it’s a tax. More lawyers needed here…

• Although I’m not a Liverpool fan, fond farewells to Jürgen Klopp from English football, a man who (in his second language) oozed class and humour from every pore. While with the beautiful game, congrats also to Bayer Leverkusen for having lived down their “neverkusen” tag and going a whole Bundesliga season undefeated, in the process condemning the easy-to-dislike Bayern Munich to finishing third in what until the last day seemed like a two-horse race; to Atalanta, for having been the first team to beat Leverkusen this season, in the Europa League Final on 22 May; and finally to Hamburg’s buccaneering pirates, St Pauli, whose achievement in winning the Bundesliga 2 Penny Post’s Hamburg correspondent Owen Jones celebrates in this separate post.

• Sunak’s claim that inflation has fallen (even though his government has had virtually nothing to do with this) will have taken a bit of a knock from the latest demands from the water companies for some pretty tasty price hikes over the next five years. According the BBC, the lowest demand is from South Staffs and Cambridge which “only” wants 24%. At the other end of the scale is Southern which is proposing almost to double its charges. Thames Water, the water and sewage supplier of obligation rather than choice to most of our readers, comes in in second place with a proposed 59% uplift.

• I was very gratified to read that the Vatican proposes to “tighten rules on supernatural phenomena.” Well, about time, I thought. Top of the list has got to be transubstantiation, the “miracle” whereby the priest transforms bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ,. It seems, however, that the proposals are of more limited intent, focussing merely on over-zealous claims about stigmata and miracles. Oh well, it’s a start.

• So as the general election kicks off, here’s hoping for a campaign in which the issues are debates in a spirit of mutual tolerance and respect, where political literature doesn’t masquerade as something else like fake local newspapers and where the candidates bother to check some of the claims they’re making against basic standards of accuracy before uttering or publishing them. Stop laughing at the back…

Across the area

• A look at the leaflets

This week, my gaze turns towards the most recent leaflet produced by Adrian Abbs who’s standing as an Independent in the new Reading West and Mid Berkshire constituency. I’ve only seen the digital version but it appears to be A3. Given the amount of text in contains, it needs to be at least that size.

The problem for an independent is that not only are leaflets with snappy messages needed but also something like a manifesto. Most people know what the main parties stand for on the major issues. With independents, they don’t. This document is more of a manifesto than a leaflet.

Adrian Abbs is not standing on any particular local issue, as Richard Taylor did in Kidderminster, but is instead drawing attention to a number of matters which he feels the main parties and their MPs are not adequately addressing. These include energy, housing, transport, sewage, the environment and education. He makes a number of good specific points (including regarding environmental-impact labels, land-value reform and changing the responsibility for social-care provision). Others are more general statements or aspirations with which few people would disagree. Whether these amount to a unified message is another matter.

The two slogans he uses are “bringing my business career to politics” and “party politics are not working.” Applying private-sector approaches to the vastly different machinery of politics is not always possible, or perhaps desirable, though real-world experience is always useful. As to the second sentiment, many would go along with that. All of the laudable aims of being available, responsive and representative of the area’s needs are ones that anyone standing for office would assert. Whether Adrian Abbs is more likely to provide these than can someone from an established party is for the voters to decide on 4 July.

• CIL

As regular readers will know, I’ve covered for many years what might be described as the over-zealous policies with regard to the enforcement and collection of Community Infrastructure Levy charges in West Berkshire. The incoming Lib Dem administration made lancing this boil a campaign pledge. The then Acting Leader Jeff Brooks made a statement before the Executive meeting on 14 March which you can read in full here

In this he said that “I have instructed officers to bring a report to the next meeting of this Executive to ensure that no further demands will be made of householders who simply want to extend or re-develop their homes. By the next Executive meeting we will have published a process whereby any householders who have undertaken development that has become CIL liable due to mistakes they may have made following the process will be able to apply to a panel of members and Officers at this Council to have their CIL charges reviewed, and to have these repaid or cancelled wherever it is appropriate to do so.”

This report has been prepared and was discussed at the meeting of the Executive on 23 May. You can see a video of the event by clicking here. You can read the report in the agenda papers here (pp69 to 78). Following this (pp81-107) is, as Appendix 1, the report into the “customer journey” through the process conducted by POS Enterprises.

As we’ve reported, for some this journey has been decidedly bumpy. POS looks at this in some detail, including drawing comparisons with how other planning authorities handle matters. POS stressed (1.8) that it had “found no evidence that [WBC] had gone beyond [its] legal powers” . However, various recommendations clearly suggest where the system in the past has been failing. These suggestions include “a more constructive engagement” with applicants, offering “clear and well signposted advice” and ensuring a “more transparent and customer-friendly approach”.

In 6.2, POS goes on to look at the main areas of complaint, which were:

  • A general lack of customer awareness;
  • Inflexibility of approach with regards to information requirements;
  • Delays in responding to customers;
  • The general tone of communication both in face to face and written interactions.

In all of these, it found areas which could be improved.

It will probably never be known (though efforts have been made to establish this) how much money has been spent by WBC on dealing with the issues arising from these cases, particularly the two high-profile ones in Upper Lambourn and Kintbury. It’s not impossible that this would exceed the sums being claimed (even though one has now been written off and, hopefully, the other refunded).

In 1.9, POS goes a step further and suggests that “having a more customer friendly approach to CIL should not have a significant impact on the Council’s CIL revenue. Many of the householder applications which are currently processed through the system involve a considerable workload but produce little or no income.”

POS also notes, in 6.23, that WBC had received three times more complaints (fifteen) than any other authority it had looked at. It suggested that media coverage may have played a part but that “the general tone of the authority’s response to concerns may also have been a contributing factor.”

Only “may have been”? Really? This the root of the issue and what the reports are trying to address. Hopefully this will now happen. One of the recommendations in the officers’ report (2 (d)) is for the establishment of a panel to conduct reviews of problematic cases. I understand that this should start its work next month.

• The pre-election calm

Now that the election has started, the government and councils will soon be constrained by what’s known the period of “heightened sensitivity” (known in the past, and informally now, as “purdah”). The Commons Library describes this as “a time when governments, ministers and civil servants will exercise caution in making announcements or decisions that might have an effect on the election campaign. The exact period depends on the type of election. The pre-election period for the UK and devolved governments and their civil servants is not set out in law but is governed by conventions.”

In 2019, this period started 25 working days before polling day: if followed this time (4 July), “purdah” will being on 30 May. This remains to be confirmed. Local councils are also bound by this. We might therefore expect to see in the next few days a raft of announcements of the kind that would be risky to make thereafter, followed by comparative silence. The silence will not, of course, be shared by those campaigning for our votes, nor by media organisations which are commenting on this: quite the reverse…

• Residents’ news

Click here for the latest Residents’ Bulletin from West Berkshire Council.

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 Council has announced that Stagecoach is adding more bus journeys to the route connecting Newbury and Basingstoke. Service 32, formerly known as The Link, will now operate on Sundays/bank holidays for the first time, with extended evening hours Monday to Saturday, and additional peak time options on weekdays.

• West Berkshire Council has been rated as “Good” for its performance in ensuring people have access to adult social care and support following a recent assessment by the Care Quality Commission (CQC).

Click here for a statement from West Berkshire Council concerning its recent peer review.

• West Berkshire Council is continuing to assist the local community through the Household Support Fund until autumn 2024. The funding “aims to support households who would otherwise struggle to meet essential housing costs to help them with living costs.” Read more here.

• The examination of West Berkshire Council’s local plan is now under way. Click here for more information about this including (in annexe A) the day-by-day timetable. You can also click here to see the recordings of the sessions (these were briefly unavailable earlier this week but I’m now assured that these have returned and will remain).

Information here from West Berkshire Council about Foster-care Fortnight (13 to 26 May).

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

The animal of the week are these billions of periodic cicadas in the USA which can spend up to 17 years living underground before coming out to mate. Wouldn’t suit me but there are plenty of them so I guess it works for them.

• 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

• And so raise your glasses for the Song of the Week. Here’s another one from Swindon’s finest, XTC: Dear God.

• Allowed by three cheers for the Comedy Moment of the Week. A classy scene from a classy film involving two classy actors: a prank call from The Big Sleep.

• And finally a round of applause for the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: What was odd about the UK general elections in 1951 and February 1974? Last week’s question was: What unique distinction does John Huston have (it’s to do with Oscars)? The answer is that he directed both his father and his daughter to best-acting Oscars: Walter Huston for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in 1948; and Angelica Huston for Prizzi’s Honour in 1985.

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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Covering: Newbury, Thatcham, Hungerford, Marlborough, Wantage, Lambourn, Compton, Swindon & Theale