Incredulity at the Post Office's governance failures

21 May 2024

GGI's CEO Andrew Corbett-Nolan has been watching the Post Office Inquiry with a growing sense of disbelief

The daily evidence sessions at the Post Office Inquiry make compelling viewing to all of us involved in public sector governance.

Though the issues involved are complex, a very simple picture is emerging of a phase of incompetence followed by a period of groupthink. This manifested itself as increasingly absurd denial, quickly leaching into lying and then cover-up. Throughout all of this totally innocent victims were bankrupted, ruined and even sent to prison. They were in turns vilified and ignored. Even now most have no clear legal resolution or financial restitution. It is quite simply the UK’s most significant failure of corporate governance.

The Post Office’s governance did not save the sub-post masters and mistresses from lives wrecked, and now the directors and senior staff are being exposed and humiliated for their incompetence and, quite obviously in some cases, their dishonesty. It is probable that crimes such as perjury, malicious prosecution and misfeasance in office have been committed and there is the very real prospect of prison ahead for some senior staff.

Already the two women who have become lightning rods for outrage (Vennels and Van den Bogerd) have been tried in the court of public opinion and rendered unemployable. Given the press coverage and social media interest, I doubt they feel personally safe.

The internet is full of videos of various barristers exposing the incompetence and mendacity of Post Office staff (the legal team in particular) – google ‘Big Fat Lie’ and high on the ranking will be various videos of Jason ‘Death Stare’ Beer KC demolishing Jarnail Singh, the senior lawyer in charge of prosecutions.

Jaw-dropping revelations

How should the board have been aware that they were presiding over what is technically called ‘an utter shit-show’?

When one Post Office chief executive admitted it was only three years into his tenure that he was aware that the Post Office actually prosecuted people, how were board members to know the measure of the incompetence and dishonesty of their staff?

Sticking with Mr. Singh, non-executive jaws must have been dropping on hearing that the lawyer in charge of their prosecutions was in fact a conveyance lawyer who had no criminal law experience outside his current employment, and who ran his own private legal practice on the side. However, all board members would have been amply sighted on the £298 million spent on legal fees and would have both seen their chief executive appear before various Parliamentary Committees and had access to Private Eye’s very comprehensive coverage of the affair.

But in the knowledge of all this, one non-executive (Tom Cooper) is quoted in Private Eye as stating in 2018 when Vennells got her CBE ‘Paula thoroughly deserves the recognition’, reflecting her success in turning financial results around, whatever the consequences for sub-postmasters. Audit Committee Chair Carla Stent said ‘Congratulations Paula – truly well deserved!’

Ignorance is dangerous

Again and again the inquiry has heard how little the board actually knew about the organisation over which they presided. The phrase ‘professional curiosity’ has been surfaced in the litany of non-executive director ineptitude. The plausibility was never tested of the Post Office suddenly recruiting 900 ‘bent’ posties, commissioning a flawless IT system that uniquely in IT history had ‘no back door’ and the payment of a bonus to an executive in the year a High Court Judge found her to have deliberately mislead the court.

The explanation for this last point, given by the then finance director, was that the Post Office leadership thought, against the evidence, the judge to be biased and so the bonus was merited. This was the same leadership who signed up to a legal strategy of ‘outspending claimants’ until they were forced to submit.

As late as 2023 the non-executive chair of the remuneration committee had to apologise to parliament again on the issue of executive bonuses with overpayments to the then chief executive, and for how this was presented in the annual accounts.

There seems no identifiable examples in the decade-and-a-half of governance failure where the Post Office board managed to give even slight pause to what is described as the most significant failure in British justice in history. The obvious preoccupation bias of leadership of protecting the brand of the Post Office against any criticism, the inability to question what now seems absurd and obvious failings and the gob-smacking disinterest in the organisation over which the board presided should worry us all.

No doubt non-executives were proud to join the Post Office board and were motivated to do a good job. Now finding themselves pilloried for their incompetence and failure must be painful. But not half as painful as imprisonment for a crime that was never committed.

Meet the author: Andrew Corbett-Nolan

Chief Executive

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Prepared by GGI Development and Research LLP for the Good Governance Institute.

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