This week with Brian 4 to 11 July 2024

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Your Local Area

Including a big beast, five former PMs, the Bruiser & Boffin Show, a can-do hairstyle, an away fixture, lots of lawyers, stopping the car, recusal refusal, truth and curiosity, unlimited fines, Gallic rules, a fall from grace, a flood of challenges, McCracken corner, library news, blitz chess, playing badly, an ancient pig, a long border, Lady Mondegreen, shake it and welcome to earth.

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

Finally, only a couple of days before the balloon went up, the Conservatives unleashed a big beast. Traditionally, election campaigns are fought with the incumbent PM shoulder-to-shoulder with well-known and loyal cabinet members. This hasn’t happened this time, partly because no cabinet member passes both, or indeed either, of these tests; also because many of Sunak’s top team are desperately kissing babies in their own constituencies. Sunak’s style of leadership, never particularly eye-catching, is ill-suited to an election fray. His default delivery style seems to be modelled on that of a tetchy bank manager explaining the terms and conditions of a mortgage. What’s needed is tub-thumping, barnstorming rhetoric that can make people rise up against a real or perceived enemy, or convince them they can fly.

[more below]

• A big beast

In the absence of any willing, available or recognisable cabinet ministers, former PMs might fit the bill…

  • John Major is now 80, an age which, as recent events in the USA have shown, might be considered too old for an election campaign. He also seems more interested in cricket and after-dinner speaking.
  • Then there’s Foreign Secretary David Cameron whose elevation to the peerage has left him not needing to worry about the vulgarities of elections. He’s been roped in by some Tory MPs, including ours in Newbury (in fairness, Cameron also has local connections) but hasn’t to my knowledge made many national interventions. He’s smooth and charming at close quarters, or so I’m told, but his big national campaign on Brexit hardly went to plan.
  • Theresa May can’t be called a natural orator, honourable and diligent though she seems to be. Nor has her support for Sunak been consistent or wholehearted, though she did turn out to support Laura Farris in Newbury. Her election record isn’t great, either.
  • The less said about Liz Truss the better.
  • So that whittles the list down to one. The saviour to whom Sunak has turned in his hour of need (or who has pushed himself forward unasked, you never can tell) is an unprincipled truth-dodging and lockdown-breaking priapic narcissist whom I would not trust to deliver a postal vote, never mind come to the rescue of a campaign; particularly as he generally acts more in line with his own ambitions than any wider interests. The Guardian described his recent campaign performance as “trashing what remains of the government’s legacy.” On the plus side, he’s a highly effective orator and a proven election-winner.

By emerging so late into the fray, Johnson can’t lose. If the Conservatives do as badly as predicted, he can shrug and say “well, you should never have got rid of me.” If they do better, he can claim this as a personal triumph and exact whatever terrible price the membership choses to pay.

If the Tories do flop, they’ll be shopping around for yet another new leader. I remember watching the US Capitol riots on TV in 2021 and saying to myself that at least that meant that Trump could never return to power. How wrong I was. Many might have felt that the lesser but more provable partygate fiasco would have provided a similar locked door. That could easily be blown out of the water as well. The thought of a post-election Conservative leadership battle involving Farage, Johnson and Braverman might once have seemed a grotesque prospect. Not any more.

• A can-do hairstyle

After the Bruiser and Boffin Show (starring George Thomson and Gareth Jenkins) at the PO Inquiry last week, 3 July saw the mood change. With his fashionably entrepreneurial spectacles and his spectacularly can-do hairstyle, Tim Parker (Chairman of the Post Office from 2015 to 2022) cut a far more urbane figure than those two, and one much more to the liking of Jason Beer & Co. For example, although he admitted he didn’t know much about the legal system he did not, as Gareth Jenkins had unwisely done, suggest that its technicalities and definitions were irrelevant.

Parker pretty quickly had a sense of what he was taking on at PO HQ in 2015. Within a week of his appointment, he was told by the then minister Baroness Neville-Rolfe about serious Horizon issues that needed looking into. This was a sign that the government, the PO’s only shareholder, was waking up to the idea that things were not going well. Neville-Rolfe suggested some sort of inquiry should be established but left the details to him.

Probably correctly, Parker took this as a direct instruction to act. The job of running an inquiry into how the Post Office had handled court cases which turned on IT issues was an immediate challenge as he was, on his own admission, an expert neither in conducting investigations, nor in the legal system, nor in computer technology nor in the labyrinthine ways of the Post Office. He therefore concluded that someone else was needed to do the work.

• An away fixture

Neville-Rolfe had suggested various types of experts including civil servants, management consultants and lawyers who might take the reins. Perhaps unfortunately, Parker chose the legal route, in the form of Jonathan Swift QC and his assistant. No reflection is intended on them: however, the result was that Parker was dealing with the sector with which he was probably least familiar. Another outcome was that the PO’s own lawyers were involved earlier and more directly than might otherwise have been the case. Tim Parker had, in short, elected to play an away fixture.

It seems that the process of the in-house legal team seeking to deflect, water-down or re-fashion the scope and nature of the inquiry started almost at once. The terms of reference, for instance, were subtly changed to concentrate more on the legal processes than the underlying problem. Various summaries were made and circulated which seemed neither candid nor complete. Several documents suggested Parker was being played or positioned to adopt a particular point of view. At one point he said that, in retrospect, he felt he had been used like a marionette.  This article in Legal Futures argued that the Swift Inquiry “was used to, and in some ways contributed to, a cover-up”.

In one minor but telling email comment from one of the PO legal team while the Inquiry was ongoing was that Baroness Neville-Rolfe had specified that this be chaired by a QC. She hadn’t, this just being one of the options she suggested. This points to a long-term and concerted attempt to rewrite history in a way which helped bolster “the general assumption that there were no system errors in Horizon” which Tim Parker claimed was the prevailing orthodoxy.

• Stop the car

In June 2016, the PO lawyers moved up another gear and decided that the Swift Inquiry should be stopped and its findings to date not made public, even to the PO board. Parker was presented by the PO’s General Counsel Jane Macleod with the news that powerful legal advice suggested that it should be, in effect, suppressed. The grounds were not explained to him (he should have asked) but were revealed at the Inquiry by some internal emails.

The reasons given seemed to have more to do with reputation than rectitude. There was the distinct impression that a position had been adopted and a powerful opinion then sought to support it. Call me a cynic if you like, but I suspect it would be possible to find a barrister who could argue that there was a case to be made for the fact that the sun rises in the west.

• Recusal refusal

By 2018 (when an unsuccessful attempt was made to strike out evidence in one case which the lawyers felt might be reputationally and legally difficult) and in 2019 (when another legal tactic, to have Justice Fraser recuse himself – ie remove himself from the role – also failed), Parker was starting to experience serious “unease” about the direction of travel. A new minister – part of a “revolving door” of appointments as he disparagingly but probably accurately put it – was now involved, although they were very new to the increasingly tangled mess. No particular progress was then made in resolving it.

Not being familiar with judicial recusal, I contacted The Law Society and the Courts and Tribunals Judiciary (both of whose press departments were exceedingly helpful) to see if there was any data on how frequently these requests were made and how often the judges as a result stood down.

At first glance it seems that these instances are not recorded nationally (much as I doubt there are records on how many jurors are Sagittarians or what percentage of judges are allergic to cats). One other person I spoke to suggested anecdotally that these requests happened in fewer than one per cent of cases and that recusal followed as a result about one in five times, either by the judge agreeing or following an appeal. We’re therefore talking about something that’s rare, but not vanishingly so.

Tim Parker’s unease about the tactic, which seems to have been shared by some of his colleagues, was that if the request was refused, the judge would hardly be better disposed towards the PO. Parker also told the Inquiry that he believed judges tended to know what they were doing and for a litigant to claim otherwise would risk further sullying the PO brand. By then, however, many must have realised that the reputational ship had long since sailed. What they were dealing with now was damage limitation.

As usual, the journalist Nick Wallis knows more about the matter than pretty much anyone else. You can read his account here of the advice given on the recusal issue by two QCs and the reactions of the PO’s legal team, in particular the then General Counsel Jane Macleod (who has decided to recuse herself from the Inquiry).

The fact that two QCs were invoked in this matter opens up yet another field of fire. These people don’t work for the minimum wage: so one’s tempted to ask how much all this advice was costing. The meter was by then starting to spin so fast that a couple more high-ticket invoices were probably felt to make no difference.

• Truth and curiosity

Whether Tim Parker could have done more in the last couple of years of his tenure to solve these issues remains in dispute. He’d already cut back his working hours at this poisoned chalice, prompting Sam Stein QC to suggest that his work had been part-time and his decisions part-baked, a claim Parker refuted. In reality, the matter had probably already passed the point where it could be resolved by any method short of the full-scale Inquiry we’re now witnessing.

Tim Parker expressed several difficulties that were now clearer to him. He was under-informed; there were other motives that underpinned some of the advice he received: he was, it was now clear to him, not always correctly briefed. “I took at face value,” he said, “what I thought was good advice from people who apparently were qualified to give it.” This remark was referring to the legal advice about not disclosing the results of the Swift Inquiry but could have been a general comment on much of what he said he was told.

These are perhaps fair points. They’re certainly familiar ones to anyone who’s watched the current Inquiry. The PO’s lawyers may have felt that the arrival of someone with a whiz-bang business reputation had the potential to be a dangerous Chair. Perhaps they felt that as he was only working one day a week, he only needed to be told 20% of what a full-timer might expect.

He also implied that everywhere else he’d worked he had been able to rely on the advice. That was perhaps because they were businesses that he was running and he knew a lot about what was going on there. With the Post Office, it was increasingly clear that he didn’t know nearly enough.

With that in mind, he none the less stands accused of a serious lack of curiosity. Anyone who finds the first thing they have to deal with in a new job is a ministerial suggestion that an inquiry be set up in an aspect of its business must be aware that they’ve not boarded a happy ship. Well-paid Chairs need to be able to ask awkward questions.

He said, for instance, that were he to have known some contextual information, such as that the average number of prosecutions had increased two and half-fold after the introduction of Horizon compared to before, he might have taken a different view. C’mon Tim: there was such a thing as the internet in 2015 and also people called researchers.

It must surely also have been clear to him that having the prospective head of an Inquiry briefed by the very in-house lawyers who were likely to be the subject of it was a mistake. A similar point was made last month by Jason Beer to Paula Vennells: you were sent an email suggesting that you were relying too much on information provided by close advisors; you then shared the email with them – can you see the problem here?

I think we’re all starting to see it now. With what results, time will tell. The Inquiry will continue its rock-lifting exercise for some time yet…

• Out for the count

As if local councils don’t have enough on their plates, some might stand accused of failing to get all the postal ballot and proxy voting forms distributed, something which some councils might ask Royal Mail; which is itself blaming the government. The Electoral Commission, as quoted on the BBC website, provided some advice for people whose forms have yet to arrive, including the less than helpful suggestion they could “hand in their completed form to their polling station on polling day.” As Jason Beer might have said, can you see the problem here?

There’s also the nerve-wracking issue for the Returning Officers (RO) – normally the CEOs of the local councils – who supervise the count and declare the result. There was a case during a local election here in West Berkshire about ten years ago when, due to the counters seemingly being inattentive or over-refreshed, the winning candidate in one ward received more votes than were actually cast in total.

Once the RO has announced the result, nothing short of an act of parliament can overturn it. This is therefore a probably unique example of someone who, by standing up in a town hall and reading some names and numbers off a piece of paper, is passing a law. One of the penalties for an RO getting something wrong is an “unlimited fine”, which ought to focus the mind. This article about our local RO, West Berkshire Council’s CEO Nigel Lynn, explains more about this role, whose duties will continue well into Friday 5 July. The general points apply to all of them.

It’s obviously inconceivable that in a mature democracy the loser might claim that the election had, as a result of voting or counting infractions, been “stolen” and spark an attack on the legislative building but it’s as well to be aware that this could happen. But not here. Or could it…?

• Entre-temps en France…

Our nearest neighbours are also grappling with democracy. Whereas the UK seems about to lurch to the centre, France seems about to lurch to the right. The relations between the two new governments are likely to be interesting, particularly in the area of immigration. At least the two countries are more or less equal in many ways, with almost identical populations and GNP, though France is a fair bit larger. The entente cordiale, if it still exists, is at least predicated on something approaching parity.

The same cannot be said for the so-called “special relationship” between the UK and the USA, which is also likely to be put to the test following the US elections. We like to believe that a common language gives us a special place in American affections and policy-making. Washington, on the other hand, probably views the UK as a cross between a colony, an offshore missile base and a theme park and generally conducts its dealings with the UK accordingly.

Back to France, although I’ve been there countless times I have only the haziest understanding of how its electoral system works. Having been brought up on our whack-a-mole first-past-the-post approach – which has the virtue of incredible simplicity – the Gallic system is more like a cross between the LBW law and Fermat’s last theorem.

Wikipedia defines the part of it currently taking place as follows: “The 577 members of the National Assembly are elected using a two-round system with single-member constituencies. To be elected in the first round, a candidate is required to secure an absolute majority of votes cast, and also to secure votes equal to at least 25% of eligible voters in their constituency. Should none of the candidates satisfy these conditions, a second round of voting ensues. Most constituencies proceed to a second round election. Only first-round candidates with the support of at least 12.5% of eligible voters are allowed to participate, but if only one candidate meets that standard the two candidates with the highest number of votes in the first round may continue to the second round. In the second round, the candidate with a plurality is elected.” I hope that’s cleared that up.

 • And finally…

• During the febrile pandemic days, Captain Tom Moore became a national treasure, raising nearly £40m for the NHS. The wheel of fortune now having turned with Shakespearean precision, his daughter and her husband now find themselves disbarred from being charity trustees for ten and eight years respectively.  You can read one version of this fall from grace here.

The BBC reports that water companies could face a “flood” of legal challenges over sewage discharges after a landmark Supreme Court ruling. On 2 July, “seven justices at the UK’s highest court ruled that the Manchester Ship Canal Company is able to sue United Utilities over the alleged release of raw sewage into the canal.”

• Even more complicated than the French electoral system (see above) is the game of chess: so congrats to Bodhana Sivanandan from Harrow who has been crowned best female player at the European blitz chess championships: aged eight, if you please.

• I feel sorry for Slovakia after they lost 2-1 to England, our spectacular equaliser from Mr Bellingham coming with almost the last kick of normal time. Three of my predictions – Spain, Germany and France – are still in the mix, the holders Italy having been beaten 2-0 by Switzerland in a match which, from what I saw of it, the Italians were lucky to get nil. The Swiss are next up for us. Unless England play a lot better than in the last four games I don’t hold out much hope. Mind you, they say that sign of a great team is that it can play badly and still win a tournament. We’ve seen a lot of the playing badly over last few decades: for the men’s team to win a tournament it would be pleasant change…

Across the area

• A thin week

This section normally contains news of initiatives and announcements from our local councils but for the last five weeks they’ve been forbidden from announcing anything that might confer a political advantage. In my view, an excess of caution has been applied to some of the issues that are embargoed until 10pm on 4 July but there you go. I’m assured that a number of press releases are throbbing at the kerb in the various authorities we cover and we’ll bring news of these next week.

I’m hoping that the imminent announcements relate to at least some of the followIng: WBC’s CIL charges; the actual football ground at Faraday Road and the theoretical one at Monks Lane , both in Newbury; the proposed social-housing developments at Chestnut Walk in Hungerford and Phoenix Court in Newbury; long-awaited repairs to Wantage’s Leisure Centre; and Readibus’ relationship with WBC. For this and more, watch this space.

• McCracken corner

A gentleman called Hamish McCracken has recently once again taken up his quill to write his latest communiqué to a local newspaper.

This repeats his familiar themes that all climate science is dominated by groupthink and has no scientific basis; that climate change, if is exists at all, has no effect on our changing weather; and that trying to do anything about it or looking at the alternatives are in any case pointless as they’re simply too expensive. 

How wonderful to have these points confirmed by such an objective source. There are now so many things I no longer have to worry about:

  • I can now take claims that there is no increase in rainfall, storms, wildfires or even potholes at face value and that climate change is just an ‘ideology” and ignore all the evidence that suggests otherwise.
  • If Mr McC is right, we can happily continue drilling and mining for coal, oil and gas at a rate of at least 15bn tonnes every year for the foreseeable future.
  • Nor do we need to give any mind to the fact that we are returning relatively large amounts of carbon to the atmosphere in just a couple of hundred years, even though it took took millions of years for this carbon to be removed from the atmosphere, such as during the Carboniferous period.
  • There’s no reason to be concerned about the increase in the energy of the sun (7% over a billion years at this stage of its cycle) that would make temperatures today much higher if atmospheric carbon returns to Carboniferous-period levels which we would find inhospitable.
  • Likewise, we can conveniently forget the evidence suggesting that climate change costs 1.1% of UK GDP and may increase to 3.3% by 2050; that net zero will cost less than 1% of UK’s GDP; that globally, climate change is already costing more than $7 trillion a year in subsidies and damages, about 8% of global GDP; and that by 2100, the destabilisation of our planet’s carbon cycle and its effects on climate and nature will result in 83 million early deaths, 2 billion (1 in 5) people displaced and one in 10 animals extinct.
  • I can also cease fretting about the problems caused by living in a world gripped by an out-of-date mind-set and the corrosive effect of money, big oil and big ags’ profits, the subsidy system and political funding.

Alternatively, as Ken Neal suggested last week, maybe we do need to move with the times and accept that the science part of the current climate-change problem was largely worked out in the 1950s and ’60s, as shown by the publication of Limits to Growth in 1972.

• Election news 

Click here for the latest Residents’ Bulletin from West Berkshire Council. This, however, covers nothing more than voting arrangements on 4 July. We include the link for this in the hope that, for once, we get this article published before 10pm on Thursday evening. [Which, please note, I accomplished…]

With the same aspiration in mind, here’s our Q&A with the candidates in the four constituencies that we cover. Even if you come to this – or we come to you – too late, it will be interesting to set the victors’ replies against what they or their party actually do in the next five years.

• Local libraries

Click here for the July 2024 Libraries newsletter from the West Berkshire Library Service. Items covered include the summer Reading Challenge, the West Berks Book Challenge, summer activities in your local library for children and adults, wellbeing classes, e-library books and useful links.

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

West Berkshire Libraries will through the Summer Reading Challenge be encouraging 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.

• 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 animal of the week is this pig, the painting of which on a cave wall in Sulawesi in Indonesia is reckoned to be 45,000 years old.

• 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 the vote is in for the Song of the Week. On Eeection day, or post-election day, what better than a bit of energetic, unprofound and engaging pop music? If you agree, try Shake It by Metro Station.

• And in second place comes the Comedy Moment of the Week. It’s Independence Day in the US of A today, an event which gave us the title of a nonsensically plotted, irritatingly patriotic but occasionally diverting movie which, one must concede, had some spectacular special effects. In this little clip, Will Smith has a close encounter with one of the tentacled baddies – Welcome to Earth.

• And, nearly losing its deposits the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: “With what country does France share its longest land border?” Last week’s question was: “Who or what is a Mondegreen?” It’s a word or phrase, generally from a poem or a song, which is mis-heard to give a different and perhaps better result. “Mondegreen” comes from mishearing a Scottish poem called The Bonnie Earl of Moray, four lines of which are: “Oh ye highlands and ye lowlands, oh where hae ye been? They have slain the Earl of Moray and laid him on the green.” Some people thought that two people hd in fact been slain: the Earl of Moray and someone called Lady Mondgreen. This already makes the story more interesting: one dead earl – well ,that happens; two people dead, however, is a crime wave. There are countless examples in song, where clarity can more easily be lost. Jimi Hendrix’s “Excuse me while I kiss the sky” (or is it “kiss this guy”?) in Purple Haze and the Bee Gees’ More Than a Woman which many hear as “bald-headed woman.” Once you’ve “heard” the wrong version it’s then almost impossible to hear the hear the correct one – proof if proof be needed, perhaps, that beauty, and truth, are in the ear of the beholder.

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 lin

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