This week with Brian 27 June to 4 July 2024

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Your Local Area

Including public dissection, no posters, no wins, a self-appointed mission, an inexpert witness, a feeding frenzy, homes policies, an embarrassing joint venture, Winston speaks, tactical voting, a plea bargain, full facts, dodgy stats, a PPE bonfire, a purdah problem, presidential football, 180,000 bees, climate ambassadors, summer reading, voter ID, over 18 hours, a mondegreen, the death of Stalin, Andrew Neil and five years.

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

It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but I find the Post Office Inquiry fairly compulsive viewing. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I set an alarm clock to alert me to the start of the sessions or have posters of Jason Beer on my study wall: but there is something compelling about watching in action people who do this kind of dissection for a living. It’s more like test cricket than T20. The moments of drama are there but they’re chiefly within the context of the game rather than thud-crash sixes or splattered wickets every few minutes; more like A Dance to the Music of Time than Robert Ludlum; more like John Cage than Def Leppard. These fanciful comparisons dispensed with, the last few days have seen a couple of long-awaited characters having their time in the witness box.

[more below]

• Guns blazing

Most of the people summoned so far have cooked up dishes involving some or all of regret, confusion, ignorance, stupidity, lack of curiosity and tearfulness. The only exceptions that I’ve seen, as mentioned last week, was team Second Sight which offered a bracing dose of reality.

A bracing response of a different kind from anything seen so far was, late last week, provided by George Thomson, the former leader of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters (NFSP). There were no tears or apologies from him. He came out swinging and punching and throughout his testimony presented the kind of defence of brand PO and brand Horizon that none of the Post Office or Fujitsu employees came close to matching. This was, let us not forget, the man who between 2007 and 2018 led the union that was meant to be looking after the interests of the postmasters.

The accusation has long been that the NFSP was more concerned with protecting the company on which the postmasters’ contracts depended than with them. This didn’t really seem to be his primary concern but it was clearly one he took to like a Dobermann to an escaped felon. He repeated several times the points that fraud happens; that it had happened before Horizon; that temptation for postmasters is everywhere; Horizon was and is basically great; and that if the PO was allowed to fail then we all go bango.

None of the barristers who questioned him made much of a dent in his colossal sense of self-appointed mission. None managed to land any punches to make the point that this wasn’t his job, although they might have been forced to admit that no one has defended the Post Office half as vehemently as he did.

His points may have carried more weight – but here I’m being subjective – if he hadn’t come across as such a deeply unpleasant man. He seemed to be aware of this and didn’t give a damn. You have to accord someone some grudging respect for manning the guns when all his superior officers had fled.

• An inexpert witness

This week it was the turn of Gareth Jenkins, Fujitsu’s “Distinguished Engineer” as his employers dubbed him, who had been one of the curators of the unquiet Horizon beast. From the testimony I saw – even a super-fan can’t watch every moment of every gig – the main debate seemed to be about his status as an expert witness. This phrase cropped up at least thirty times on 25 June alone and probably rather more than this during his time at Fujitsu.

I have never been called as an expert witness and it’s very hard to imagine that this will ever happen. I’m expert in nothing at all, except perhaps myself: and there are many days when I’d doubt even this. I have no legal training and have never appeared in court in any capacity, except once as an onlooker. Most of what I know about the legal system has come to me through courtroom dramas and the Rumple stories. Even so, I am aware that the phrase “expert witness” has a specific legal meaning. I couldn’t until a few weeks ago have told you what it was. This is one definition.

The two key points here seem to be that, first, the expert witness will provide “truthful, impartial and independent opinions whether or not these opinions favour your case:” and, secondly, that their primary duty is to the court, not to whoever happens to be paying the expert’s fees or for whom the expert happens to work.

For Gareth Jenkins, however, the matter was far simpler. He had been called as a witness; he was an expert on Horizon. That was simply all there was to it.

With a sense of mounting exasperation and bemusement that he was professional enough to conceal, Jason Beer QC led Jenkins through various documents he had received which referred to the terms or which set out the responsibilities incumbent on such a witness.

Did he not read these? No, he generally replied.

Why not?

Either, the unwitting expert witness replied, because he didn’t think they applied to him as he hadn’t originated them or because he was far more interested in the technical information and all the “legal niceties” as he put it at one point didn’t seem important. I’m just a boffin, your honour. Anything else is just not important. That was his story and he stuck to it.

This summary from Post Office Scandal suggests a breath-taking and almost autistic indifference to the role of expert witness and, indeed, to anything which concerned anyone else. Obligations he might have had, duties to the court, the necessity of reading documents which included caveats about his role, moral or ethical considerations about the consequences of his testimony – all were as nothing compared to his own narrow definitions of his duty. Is it any wonder that the Post Office and Fujitsu continued with him as an “expert witness”, as Jenkins defined it?

Several times he was asked if he’d been given any guidance by Fujitsu or the Post Office in the role. He always that he had received nothing, save on one occasion when he said that a lawyer from the PO had said little more than “tell the truth.”

That was, Jenkins said primly, what I always do anyway. Jason Beer, clearly seething inwardly at this disregard for one of the basic tenets of his profession, took a breath and moved on to the next question.

The problem, of course, is that Fujitsu’s or the Post Office’s “truth” was not the same as that of the court’s. Truth there is a slippery and multi-faceted thing that may (or may not) emerge from contested proceedings: but it’s certainly not the view of one person who clearly has skin in the game through his employment status. I don’t know which I find the more surprising: neither the PO nor Fujitsu telling Gareth Jenkins what the job involved; his not having the curiosity to find out; or the legal system’s acceptance of such an expert witness without verifying that they knew what was involved. No one seems to come out of this very well.

Jenkins also seemed to think that it was fine that the PO lawyers would change his testimony to provide a less embarrassing version of events for the Post Office way back in 2006 (removing the phrase “system error” – had this staying in, it would have changed everything). He didn’t seem to find this at all odd. What he would not put up with, however, was any change to his technical information. He continued to play the part of the slightly bemused IT nerd right up until this week.

Both Thomson and Jenkins admitted that they now saw matters slightly differently than they did at the time but that they had been misled: not the first time we’ve heard that claim. Despite that, they seemed not at all interested, despite the increasing media attention and relentless prosecutions, in considering any other point of view apart from those provided by the demi-gods running Fujitsu or the Post Office or by their own pre-exiting prejudices.

• Place your bets

I’m starting to lose count of the number of MPs, aides and policemen who placed bets on the election, including by at least two candidates betting against themselves. (This perhaps isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Back in the late ’80s a friend and I, irritated that Liverpool were winning pretty much anything, placed a bet on them to win the league at the start of the season: they won and so did we. I think that was the last time I bet on anything.)

The whole thing seems to have turned into a bit of a feeding frenzy with some of these claims (essentially amounting to insider trading) being more serious than others. One Cabinet Minister, Alister Jack,, first said he’d won £2,100 from betting on the election date and then said that this was a joke. I know Scottish Tories can’t have much to laugh about at present but this seems a bit desperate. Then it transpired he’d actually placed three bets in March. None of these are being investigated by the Gambling Commission, though others are.

The embarrassment is partly because of the allegations of misusing privileged information but also because, for some people, the idea of politicians gambling on such matters at such a time looks at best frivolous and at worst rather louche, like being very drunk in the members’ bar, nipping out for a fag, putting your hand on someone’s knee or being caught speeding. Fifty years ago, none of these would have been considered particularly bad form for our rulers. Now they are.

Also, in many ways it was a bet they couldn’t win. Get it wrong and they look uninformed. Get it right and they look corrupt. 

• Homes

Private Eye 1626 (p14) suggests that “if you want more homes, this seems to be the election for you.” The three main parties are promising 1.5m new ones in England (Labour), 1.6m (Tory) and 1.9m across the UK. None of these claims seem to address how this is going to happen. The Conservative pledge is exactly the same as the current 300,000 a year, which it has come nowhere close to hitting  – that barrier was last broken in 1977 (and in all but one of the sixteen years before then).

One revealing aspect of the above-referenced Statistica table is the steep decline in homes built by local authorities: in 1977, the number constructed by this sector was only slightly fewer than the total homes built in 2022 when the local-authority figure was vanishingly small.

This seems like a good area in which the numbers to be increased, certainly for affordable homes. The problem is that most authorities now lack the in-house skills. Many, such as Lambeth, have come financially unstuck as a result of grandiose social-housing schemes that went hideously wrong.

Here in West Berkshire we have our own example, in the shape of a wretched and embarrassing joint venture between the Council and Sovereign Housing which has for eight years been aspiring to develop two sites in Hungerford and Newbury to create around 55 new social-rent homes. So far not one has even been started.

The Eye also looks at the promises for affordable homes. It reports that the Lib Dems and the Greens have promised 150,000 a year: labour is less precise, promising “the biggest increase in social and affordable housing in a generation.” This would involve improving on the 61,000-odd on average that have been built in the last two years in England. The article ruefully concludes by saying that “there is little yet to suggest that this pledge can be fulfilled.”

The planning system is often held up to be the obstacle of progress in this area. Free developers from the dead hand of minimal control and Whitehall red tape, the argument runs, and all will be resolved. Let the market speak. The private sector is very good at creating large homes (and also studio flats through permitted development rights): it’s the ones in the middle that it doesn’t find profitable; and even less so if it needs to sell 30 or 40% of these to a housing association at what it may claim – often successfully – are unviable low rates.

Developers are, however, private companies and take a lot of risks. They are answerable to their shareholders and do not exist to execute government policy. As I’ve suggested before, the situation is akin to that of a shopkeeper being called up by Sunak and being told that from now on they have to sell to 30 0r 40% of their customers at cost. “If you want to that,” the reply might be, “open your own shop.”

But the problem lies further back than this, in the value of the land. Tony Vickers is a West Berkshire Council Lib Dem member and former planning portfolio holder, most of whose working life has been spent working in this area. In this article from January 2024, he pointed out that values can rise by as much as a hundred times (as it did at Sandleford in Newbury) as soon as planning permission is obtained on former agricultural land.

“There is,” he suggests, “little wrong with the current planning system that wouldn’t be solved by reform of the land market.” The current situation allows landowners to take no risks but reap huge profits as a result of having done nothing more than hang on to their asset. Nothing, however, seems to be proposed to remedy this.

He cites another source in evidence of his thesis. “It is the mother of all monopolies. Roads are made, streets are made, services are improved…[yet] all the while the landlord sits still. Every one of those improvements is affected by the labour and cost of other people and the taxpayers. To not one of these improvements does the land monopolist contribute, and yet, by every one of them the value of his land is enhanced.”

Who is this dangerous leftie, this scourge of traditional British landowning values? Atlee? Foot? Corbyn? In fact it’s Winston Churchill.

• Vote climate

The organisation Vote Climate has come up with an interesting take on how we might cast our votes on 4 July. The impact of climate climate change and the benefits of pursuing net zero appear to have been under-stressed by many of the parties and, compared to economic growth, the NHS and national security, have not featured that prominently.

The quaint vagaries of our electoral system mean that several million votes for one party could easily produce no Westminster seats if these are spread equally around the country. Only by concentrating support in particular areas can any minority parties hope to prosper.

At the 2019 general election, a vote for the Conservatives was about 22 times more likely to produce the desired result than a vote for the Greens. The idea that the popular vote should be used to elect at least some and preferably all of the members of the House of Lords is so obvious that it seems not even to have been considered.

Armed with this information, the idea of tactical voting becomes relevant. Vote Climate has looked at every constituency and, on the basis on national policies and on the likelihood of victory, suggested for whom you should vote. The first answer is always the Greens, based on all the constituencies I’ve looked at. The second suggests in most cases the “least bad” alternative based on the prospects of success.

 • And finally…

Julian Assange has finally managed to escape the persecution by, or the justified interest of, the US justice system, depending on your point of view, after a bit of diplomatic-brokered plea-bargaining in the Northern Mariana Islands. Opinions differ as to whether he’s a saint or a sinner, a protector of free speech or a traitor, a principled campaigner or an opportunist. All of these, perhaps.

• I’m happy to draw you attention to Full Fact’s analysis of the latest Sunak v Starmer debate (which I didn’t watch): click here for FF’s thoughts.

• Proof if proof be needed that statistics can be used in very unscrupulous ways emerged today when BBC Verify had a look at some online ads from the Conservatives about state pensions. These claimed that Labour had raised the state pension by 75p whereas they had overseen a rise of about £3,700. The problems with this was this it sought to equate one week’s rise with fourteen years’. It seems that the annual average rises were 3.5% under Labour and 4% under the Tories – not quite such a big deal.

• Another junior doctors’ strike is about to start and will run for most of the days until the election. The BMA has said that “even at this late stage Mr Sunak has the opportunity to show that he cares about the NHS and its workers. It is finally time for him to make a concrete commitment to restore doctors’ pay.” The trouble is, I don’t think he can. Even if he were minded to, the act of wading in to settle a pay dispute in which the government is a partner would offend the rules and conventions of pre-election sensitivity (formerly known as Purdah – which prevents governments from making policy announcements which might confer political advantage: as this surely would. A bad move, I think, if the strike is designed to produce immediate results.

• If you wanted to pick up £1.4bn-worth of unused PPE equipment, classic pandemic vintage, then you’re too late as it’s already been destroyed.

• The Euros haven’t been the procession for England – inexplicably installed as favourites by many punters – that many hoped for, although topping the group and the prospect of a winnable last-16 tie against Slovakia is not that shabby. The less said about Scotland’s campaign the better. England seem to have placed a vast amount of faith in Jude Bellingham, already a true great of the game but who can, at 20, hardly carry the whole national expectation on his back. In short, he seems to be asked to fight a presidential-style campaign, just like poor old Rishi. England’s odds are a lot better than the Conservatives’. Can either of them pull it off? I wouldn’t bet on it…

Across the area

• Climate ambassadors

West Berkshire Council reports that the Climate Ambassadors Scheme, supported by Department for Education, is recruiting volunteers.

“The scheme mobilises and supports educational settings in England to act on climate change with the help of skilled volunteers. Climate Ambassadors from across the private, public and charity sectors provide settings with free, tailored guidance to progress their Climate Action Plans, wherever they are on their sustainability journey.

“The scheme is recruiting volunteers to put their sustainability expertise to work. Haven’t worked in an education setting (nursery, school or college) before? Not to worry, all volunteers will receive training on Climate Action Plans and advice on applying their knowledge and skills in an education setting.

“Discover more and learn how you can get involved here or by emailing climateambassadors_se@reading.ac.uk.

• Summer reading challenge

West Berkshire Libraries will be challenging primary age children to read up to six library books and to collect free incentives from their local library for their achievements as they read, with medals and certificates for everyone who completes the challenge.

From 1 July, children aged 4-11 years can visit a library to sign up for the free Summer Reading Challenge. The theme of this year’s challenge is Marvellous Makers, which is all about creativity. It aims to fire up children’s imaginations, unleash storytelling and inspire their own creativity through the power of reading. There will also be a mini-challenge for pre-school children and one for the grown-ups too. More information is available here.

• Election details

The following information was supplied by West Berkshire Council. However, much of this refers to national laws and so is equally applicable wherever you live.

The deadlines for registering to vote and for applying for postal votes, authority certificates and proxy votes have now passed.

This will be the first general election where voters are required to show photo ID. Information on accepted forms of photo ID can be found on the Electoral Commission website where you can also apply for a free Voter Authority Certificate if you don’t have another acceptable document to show.

It will also be the first time residents elect Members of Parliament for the new constituencies of Newbury, and Reading West and Mid Berkshire. We’ll be administering the elections for both constituencies.

Your polling station may have changed since you last voted so please check the venue on your polling card or check it online nearer to polling day. Polling stations will be open on Thursday 4 July from 7am to 10pm.

  • Click here for an article in which we talk to Nigel Lynn, West Berkshire Council’s CEO, about the duties, responsibilities and headaches of being a Returning Officer, a job he’s fulfilling for both the Newbury and the Reading West and Mid Berkshire constituencies.
  • Click here for fifteen questions from the candidates (all bar four of them, who haven’t bothered to get back to us) in the four constituencies which we cover: Newbury, Reading West and Mid Berkshire, East Wiltshire and Didcot and Wantage.

• 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

Armed Forces Day takes place on Saturday 29 June 2024. Click here for more information on how this will be celebrated across West Berkshire.

• 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).

The animals of the week are the estimated 180,000 bees that were this week found living above a spare bedroom in Inverness.

• 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 here’s my vote for the Song of the Week. Three reasons for picking this song. First, because it happens to refer to the election cycle. Second, because it has a warning about about the fact that end of the world might be round the corner. Third, because it’s by David Bowie. Add them all together and you get Five Years.

• And now for the Comedy Moment of the Week. The Death of Stalin is a very classy film and here’s a short one-minute clip which, as well as giving a good flavour of the movie, probably also catches the air of sycophancy, paranoia and naked ambition which prevailed in the USSR in 1953 – No, let us go first. I’d also also like to to propose something sent by Simon Pike from Thatcham, a strange novelty-curiosity from 2005 featuring the unlikely comedic figure of Andrew Neil.

• And finally, for the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: “Who or what is a Mondegreen?” Last week’s question was: The summer solstice took place on 20 June. How many hours of daylight were there  in London on that day? The answer is 18 hours and 32 minutes. The nights are drawing in now…

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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One Response

  1. Good to see you covering the Post Office enquiry so tenaciously and thoroughly, as opposed to mainstream news which has ‘moved on’ from this dreadful case. Well done, as ever, for a witty and insightful column, I always look forward to reading it.

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