A Missed Opportunity

A Missed Opportunity

How long before action on the persecution of innocent sub-postmasters?

It is not easy for a Cabinet Minister to make a good impression or even achieve very much. Staying out of trouble is a high bar these days. Maybe much worthwhile work is being done behind the scenes without much, if any, publicity. Still, ambitious politicians need to make the best of whatever opportunities present themselves. So let’s look at one of those vying to be Tory party leader and PM barely a year ago: Kemi Badenoch.

Her main claim to fame was being willing to speak clearly on difficult topics such Critical Race Theory, the Equality Act and so on. All very well, at least for those caring about such topics. But a leader, let alone a PM, should not be a one-trick pony. So what has she done – and not done – as Minister for Business and Trade? It is not one of the traditional great Offices of State. But post-Brexit, business and trade matter. How else are we supposed to earn our living? Independent trade deals were supposed to be one of the great Brexit benefits. So one cheer for the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for a Trans-Pacific Partnership which the UK has just joined, even if its benefits for the UK are likely smaller than its name. And that’s it. So far. There has also been the EU (Retained Law) Bill where Badenoch bowed to reality and reduced the number of laws to be repealed to a (one hopes) manageable 800 rather than the 4,000 originally envisaged.

There is one problem sitting on her desk which Badenoch has avoided. It is the behaviour of the Post Office over Horizon and its persecution of innocent sub-postmasters. There is a public inquiry so there are good reasons why she might stay aloof until it has reported. But this is not good enough. On Monday, the inquiry judge asked the government to act on compensation. The inquiry is now having to deal with matters which do not simply relate to past events but to the Post Office’s willingness and ability to comply with the inquiry. There is a very real issue as to whether it is bothering to take the inquiry seriously or simply waving two fingers at it, whether it is refusing to comply with its disclosure obligations properly, instead awarding its Board bonuses for compliance which has not happened, lying and issuing misleading accounts. Whether through wilfulness or incompetence or a mixture of both, its attitude to – and behaviour at – a statutory inquiry is one of arrogance and contempt.

The Post Office is wholly owned by the government. Its Chairman and Board are appointed by the Business Secretary. Its failings do not simply relate to its abuse of the criminal justice system but include its commercial business behaviour: inept leadership, inadequate governance, woeful culture, dysfunctional contractual arrangements with service providers, no engaged shareholders and much else besides. All need addressing not just the miscarriages of justice. They will not be under the judicial inquiry’s limited Terms of Reference. Against this background, the Minister’s silence looks less like a desire not to interfere with a judicial process and more like indifference to one of the worst scandals in British business, as well as one of the worst miscarriages of justice. At worst, it suggests the non-compliance and obstruction has the Business Secretary’s tacit (maybe even explicit) approval.

What could she do differently? She could try to get approval for a comprehensive and timely compensation scheme, separate from the inquiry into what went wrong and why, as asked for by the Inquiry Chair. She could instruct the Board that no bonuses should be paid until the inquiry finished. She could appoint people to it with integrity and competence. She could insist that the Post Office take its legal obligations seriously. She could insist that it appoint people to key positions who are determined to assist the inquiry not obstruct it. She could do all this not just because it is the right thing to do but also knowing that it would do her political profile no end of good. If she succeeded in getting money out of the Treasury to pay compensation now (not when everyone has died), it would show her to be an effective political operator. It would give her a worthwhile achievement to set against the non-existent ones of her likely leadership rivals (Braverman, Mordaunt, Barclay). It would show her as someone on the side of the people (small businesses – once the party’s natural supporters) against those treating the public purse as a wallet to be raided for their personal benefit. It would distance her from previous leaders and make her look like a different sort of Tory, one who understands that the state and its institutions should act with integrity and that the party should be – and should be seen to be – on the side of those trying to do the right thing. Not on the side of the malefactors, the incompetents, the greedy and the self-interested.

None of this is easy. It might not work. But what good is a politician wanting to be leader who lacks courage or the desire to try and make things better? The Post Office scandal shows the British state at its worst – not on our side but only interested in denial, delay and indifference, only capable of incompetence, greed and malice, unconcerned about the human consequences of its actions. That view of the state is one which now – for very many voters – describes the Tory party – and many businesses (water companies, anyone?). Badenoch has an opportunity – a small one but an opportunity nonetheless – to start changing that, an absolute necessity if her party is to survive and thrive. She can find time to write letters to Ofsted on matters already being handled by the right authorities but ignores the potentially criminal behaviour and misuse of taxpayers’ money by an entity for which she is politically responsible to voters.

Meanwhile the inquiry is delayed. Again. Do not be surprised to find the Post Office’s disclosure failures used by Post Office and Fujitsu witnesses to justify their own failings. There will be a veritable tsunami of answers saying that “If only I’d have known this I’d have done something different” and a dearth of admissions that senior managers’ job is to ask probing questions. Do not be surprised to find no-one held accountable and no-one prosecuted. Do not be surprised to find some future Business Secretary read out some boiler plate apology with a pointless “learning lessons” section shoehorned in. As for Badenoch, she can join the list of Tory hopefuls with more ego than achievement to their name.


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