Conflicts of interest

Conflicts of interest

At the heart of most scandals is a conflict of interest, often more than one, which has been allowed to develop, not mitigated or managed, or simply ignored. Being able to recognise these is essential to good public administration. It is essential to good legislation (a header could be written about the policy corruption inherent in governments funding lobby groups to promote policies the government wants, then consulting with only these groups who, unsurprisingly, agree wholeheartedly with the policies suggested. Scotland seems peculiarly prone to this form of cronyism.)

It is essential to good corporate governance. Many of the finance sector’s problems came from multiple conflicts of interest. Little wonder financial regulators spent so much time after it insisting on properly stringent conflicts of interest policies. If you have weak guardrails, maintaining good – or even broadly acceptable – conduct is much harder. Ethical blindness develops. Before you know it, you have a culture like that at the Post Office where investigators received bonuses for how much money they recovered from postmasters, regardless of any other considerations.

So I was intrigued to see on the the Post Office’s website this information about one of its recently appointed Board members. In March 2023 it appointed Simon Jeffreys as a non-Executive Director and Chair of the Audit, Risk and Compliance Committee. It states that he is also “Chair of the Audit and Risk Committees of Emerging Markets Investment Trust plc, SimCorp A/S, a listed Danish financial services software company, and the Crown Prosecution Service.

The Crown Prosecution Service?

On the CPS’s website in the section marked “The CPS Board” it says Mr Jeffreys is a non-executive director and
the Chair of the CPS Audit and Risk Assurance Committee. He was appointed in December 2018. It goes on: “Outside of the CPS he chairs the boards of Aon UK and Henderson International Income Trust.” No mention of his role as Chair of the Post Office’s Audit, Risk and Compliance Committee.

Why not? Surely the CPS website has been updated since March 2023 when Mr Jeffreys joined the Post Office’s Board. Why, yes, it has: to reflect the appointment of Stephen Parkinson as the new DPP in November 2023. So why is Mr Jeffrey’s role with the Post Office not mentioned? Mr Jeffreys has not hidden it. It is on his LinkedIn profile. Surely the CPS has not forgotten this or tried to hide it? It has been told, hasn’t it? And approved it?

This is not just a bit of admin. It matters. Why? Given:

  • the possibility of prosecutions arising from the Horizon matter and the Williams Inquiry, whether of current or past Post Office staff or the Post Office as a corporate body;
  • the CPS has reportedly instructed Tom Little KC to advise on this;
  • the possibility of breaches of S.21 of the Inquiries Act in relation to the Post Office’s continuing disclosure failings in the Williams Inquiry, breaches which are criminal offences;
  • the Post Office having a history in this matter of aggressively challenging those authorities which seek to hold it to account (see its failed attempt to get the judge ruling against it in the Bates litigation to withdraw on the grounds of perceived bias – yes, bias – every scandal needs its ironic moment);
  • these are risks the Post Office faces and, therefore, something the Post Office’s Audit, Risk and Compliance Committee, which Mr Jeffreys chairs, will surely need to be briefed on and consider; and
  • the separate obligations the members of the CPS Board have – and regardless of how impeccable Mr Jeffreys’ professional conduct may be ….

How can it be appropriate for Mr Jeffreys to be on the Board of both entities and Chair of their respective Risk and Audit Committees?

There is no suggestion at all that Mr Jeffreys has been involved or in any of the matters which might be the subject of prosecutions. Nor that he is doing or might be doing something unlawful. The problem is that it creates the perception of a potential conflict of interest. It may create an actual conflict of interest in future. But even the existence of a perception of a conflict of interest should have made all those involved realise that this appointment was unwise. What was the CPS thinking when (if?) it approved it? The Post Office and the CPS should consider whether he can continue in either or both of these roles.

One other point. Look at how many other roles these directors have, important ones too. They do not have day-to-day operational responsibility but these supervisory committees matter. They are meant to be one way in which tough external scrutiny is applied, challenge made, questions asked. They require consideration, time and attention. The papers need careful reading, often between the lines. When challenged at a June 2023 Business Select Committee about the directors’ bonuses (specifically, the misleading statements made about these being approved by the judge heading the public inquiry) the Post Office’s current Chair, Henry Staunton, replied: “No Board member is going to read every page of a 200 page report” (see the answer to question 55, page 15).

No, chum: that’s precisely what they are paid to do. If directors want the money and glory, they should do the work. It is precisely this culture of entitlement – what Matthew Syed calls a “cultural pathology” in his blistering Sunday Times article – which allows bad behaviour to flourish, stops questions being asked, inhibits challenge or just basic curiosity, treats these jobs as comfortable, well-rewarded sinecures for a parade of part-timers, rather than necessary controls. It was Mr Staunton’s predecessor, Tim Parker, Chair 2015 – 2022, who thought he need only spend one and a half days a week on this job. This was during the time when much of the most egregious behaviour for which Ms Vennells is now being blamed occurred. Perhaps he was too busy with one of his other jobs, Chair of HM Courts and Tribunals Service, part of the Ministry of Justice (“ensuring justice for everyone” its mission statement). How did that job go, Tim?

That was then. The Williams Inquiry may get to the bottom of what went on. But now the CPS and the Post Office should think again. As always, the question to be asked is not: “Is this legal?” But: “Is it wise?”


Comments are closed.