What are Ministers for?

What are Ministers for?

A key issue in the Post Office (“PO”) scandal is what the government, was doing – or not – while it happened. It is not within the inquiry’s scope, that being written by politicians and civil servants whose behaviour, or that of their predecessors, would otherwise be uncomfortably scrutinised. Let’s look anyway.

The self-image of publicly owned entities is exemplified by the National Coal Board. Miners proudly held signs saying collieries were now managed ‘On Behalf Of The People‘. Alas, when the people’s interests clashed with those of the institution, when its wilful negligence killed the people’s children, guess whose interests came first? What is astonishing about the response to Aberfan was that, even when the PM said publicly the tip should go, the government refused to pay in full. The families had to contribute. It took 41 years before that money was fully repaid. This was only one of the many instances of a callous disregard for the interests of the people, both before and after the tragedy. A lovely slogan turned out to be an empty promise at precisely the time it should have meant something.

The events comprising the PO scandal started in the late 1990’s. Prosecutions/civil proceedings began in 1999 until 2015. Litigation and appeals started in 2009. The Williams Inquiry announced in February 2020 became statutory in June 2021. During this time, the PO has been publicly owned, first as part of Royal Mail then, since 2012, as a separate company, wholly owned and financed by the government. It has a Board and Chair. It publishes accounts. The government claims it operated “as an independent, commercial business within the strategic parameters set by government.” Recollections may vary.

Despite having all the structures of a company – including large salaries and bonuses for its directors – it had none of the constraints or scrutiny which public companies face: no analysts questioning its management, reviewing its accounts, no shareholders able to express views at public meetings or privately or show their displeasure by selling shares. No regulator either. It had all the advantages with none of the downsides. Worse: it had privileges other companies do not – its own internal investigators able to investigate and prosecute with few of the legal requirements or training expected of the CPS or police. 

What of politicians? How did they exercise oversight? Did they exercise any? Since 1998 the Business Ministers were Mandelson, Hewitt, Alan Johnson (ex-postman), Mandelson (again), and a further 9 since 2010: Cable, Javid, Clark, Leadsom, Sharma, Kwarteng, Dorries, Donelan, Badenoch. Since 2010 Ministers with specific responsibility for postal affairs were: Davey, Lamb, Swinson, Jenny Willott, Swinson (again), Margot James, Andrew Griffiths, Kelly Tolhurst, Paul Scully, Kevin Hollinrake. A carousel of people scarcely known in their own households let alone the wider public, in office for too short a time to get to grips with their responsibilities. 

But they had civil servants and a director on the PO’s Board. So what, as reportedly asked by a child seeing Gladstone make an interminable speech, are these people for? What questions were Ministers and civil servants asking? Did they think to question, for instance: (1) the wisdom of allowing the PO to investigate and prosecute its own cases? Or (2) how the new IT system was being commissioned, what independent testing and auditing there was? These are not hindsight questions. The CPS was created in 1986 in part to avoid an obvious conflict of interest in having the police investigate and prosecute cases. Did no-one ask why the PO should have powers denied the police? Did no-one wonder whether the PO’s structure created an obvious conflict of interest which could be open to abuse? Did no-one ask how that conflict was going to be managed or mitigated? When prosecutions started happening did no-one (the law officers even) wonder what was going on? The government claimed in 2020 that it “not play a day-to-day role in the litigation or on the contractual and operational matters that were at the heart of it.” – a claim contradicted by the evidence given to the Business Select Committee about the close working relationship between the PO’s Board, the government-appointed director and the Business Department.

Nor have government IT failings been unprecedented. Rather, they are the norm, as endless MP and NAO reports have said. Yet, despite Harman raising concerns with Blair about Horizon failings in 1998, him saying in Parliament in 2000 “When we came to office, there was probably no greater shambles than the Horizon project”, endless Computer Weekly reports describing multiple problems, all these Ministers and civil servants missed or turned a blind eye to what was happening, accepting the assurances given by people with every financial/reputational interest in replying: “Nothing to see here, guv”. Can so many senior/apparently intelligent people be so lacking in basic scepticism or curiosity? At best they interpreted an arm’s length relationship with a company as a reason to ask no probing questions at all. At worst, it was – and is – culpable negligence. They may as well have been replaced by a cardboard cut-out of Mr Pangloss.

One MP – James Arbuthnot – did spot the two key issues:

(1) the unreliability of computer systems;

(2) the tendency of institutions to deny problems and blame individuals to save their reputations.

He did so because of his previous experience with the 1994 Mull of Kintyre Chinook helicopter crash. He did what ought to be done as a matter of course but too often isn’t. He read across from his knowledge of that matter, realising that the same system failures and human misbehaviours can and do happen in different sectors. It is one vital step which ought to be done at the end of every investigation. There is, however, no institutional capacity, structure or willingness to do this within one institution (see endless reports about the police and NHS) let alone across sectors. 

This is not just a historical matter. There will likely be more state owned bodies under Labour: a “GB Energy” company, for a start. The PO is only one of many state owned bodies failing in ways causing harm to people in whose interests they are meant to act. This is not an argument for privatisation (private monopolies with weak regulators are hardly an example to emulate). The issue is not ownership. It is how government entities are governed, controlled and kept up to high professional standards. It is how governments avoid creating conflicts of interest or manage them properly, if unavoidable.  It is how their Boards and managers are made meaningfully accountable. 

What we have instead is an unholy trinity of false economies, second-rate, unprofessional staff and weak or non-existent supervision and oversight. Only when the matter goes “Splat!” do we then roll out the best lawyers money can buy, embark on gold-plated, fantastically detailed, interminably long inquiries and produce splendid reports few read and even fewer act on. This is, bluntly, arse about face. We have a state congratulating itself on its magnificent reports while ignoring any meaningful steps to get things right from the start, resolve problems early or put matters right. The government announced this week it won’t even take steps to accelerate the appeals process despite its own Compensation Advisory Board stating “the justice system itself is called into question in the current circumstances“. It will do nothing. There are no signs that Labour even understands the problem let alone knows what to do about it. But backroom as good governance and accountability may seem, they are nonetheless one of the next government’s vital tasks. 


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