David J Black: The mysterious invisibility of accountability
Melanie Phillips may not be everyone’s favourite journalist or radio opinion former but who could fail to share her astonishment in The Times at the outcome of one of the greatest corporate injustices of our time? Inexplicably, no-one, it seems, was responsible for the relentless persecution and unlawful imprisonment of 960 innocent sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses for embezzlement, fraud and wrongful accounting. The CEO of an enterprise is normally the designated ‘accountable officer’ though in the case of The Post Office Limited, a government owned so-called arms-length body, it is effectively an infra-state authority, thus some ministerial responsibility should apply.
In this case, disclosed in all its gruesome horror by Radio 4’s Nick Wallis, the degree to which Post Office CEO The Reverend Paula Vennells has escaped Scot-free (other than judiciously stepping aside with a useful £420,000 or thereby pay-off) from a litany of bankruptcies, suicides, divorces, homelessness, and ruined reputations which devastated the lives of many decent, ordinary people and their families is truly breathtaking.
The sum of £420,000 was probably just about enough to keep herself and hubby John, global vice president of digital technology specialists ABB, in the manner to which they are accustomed in their grade II listed 16th century Bedfordshire mansion, and if it wasn’t, then its just as well the lady’s a multi-tasker who can turn her hand to anything. Not only was she preaching in three parishes as an ordained priest, she was also, at various points, on the board of Hymns Ancient and Modern, a member of the C of E’s (don’t laugh) ethical investor advisory group, and an adviser to Downing Street; she was also raking in an extra £196,000 pa from her stint as chair of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust and a director of both Morrison’s and Dunelm.
It would be both irreverent and irrelevant to mention that in the USA many erring CEOs – for example Enron’s Jeff Skilling, sent down for 24 years – usually get more than a slight slap on the wrist for indulging in and then covering up dodgy shenanigans, yet this somehow fails to explain how it came about that the Reverend Vennells was invested in 2019 as a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Admittedly she wasn’t doing Jeff’s insider trading bit.
The honour seems to have been in recognition of her achievement in replacing the Post Office’s previous losses into a modest profit, though given that this was partly achieved by illegally and mendaciously extracting money by, at times, quasi-Stasi techniques from the nation’s sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses it does seem a bit off-colour in the circumstances, since the fault lay entirely with Fujitsi’s Horizon IT system and Mrs Vennell’s unshakeable faith in it.
The lady was not alone in these various travesties, it must be said, but she does exemplify a species we might describe as the British Teflonocracy, a privileged group easily identified by the fact that none of them must on any account be held responsible for any of the mayhem which follows in their incompetent wakes – something one might have thought unimaginable in our union of ancient nations which, for centuries, has at least aspired to operate within the framework of the rule of law.
It was Baroness Dido Harding, chair of something known hopefully as ‘NHS Improvement’, who fixed Paula up with a job at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust after the Post Office gig began to go pear shaped. That’s the same Dido who, after extracting herself from a chaotic embarrassment at TalkTalk, was put in charge of the Department of Health’s £37 billion (not a misprint!) ‘Track and Trace’ fiasco, adjudged by a scathing parliamentary cross-party report Coronavirus; Lessons learned to date, to be a catastrophic basket case after it signally failed to achieve its primary objective, viz. to avoid the need for a second national lockdown, thus saving the national economy.
We might recall that the first lockdown became a gruesome imbroglio after Jockey Club Steward Dido, appointed by fellow Jockey Club Steward Matt Hancock, Health Minister, allegedly lobbied like a wee ferret for the go-ahead of the horse-fancier’s fixture of the year, Cheltenham Festival. As a result Gloucestershire became a Covid hot spot, not forgetting the fact that with 20,000 of the 250,000 attending being Irish, and others being from the length and breadth of the UK, it was obviously the most brilliant superspreader event imaginable, even if the Racing Post did describe the entire disaster as “anecdotal”.
It should not be assumed that the Teflon elites are entirely players at the Court of King Boris, though Dido – the wife of a cabinet minister – certainly is. Long before Prime Minister Johnson was running all Englandshire and its Celtic provinces, though within the Cameron incumbency, the £100,000 per annum chairman of the Post Office was former civil service high-flyer Alice Perkins, also known as Mrs Jack Straw. The scandal may have been festering while she was in charge, but somehow she failed to notice it, for which oversight she later apologised. Then there’s the Reverend Vennell’s predecessor as CEO, Dame Moya Greene, former boss of Canada Post. She was appointed in 2010 but failed to do anything about the scandal despite being tipped off about it in 2011 when an IT audit found that the Horizon system had possible flaws.
It would be a mistake to think that the Teflon elites only thrive in the metropolitan fleshpots of the Thames Valley and its leafy environs. Some years ago your honest scrivener had some marginal connection with a vaudevillian farrago masquerading as a public inquiry into the record-breaking costs of the Scottish Parliament Building in which, ostensibly, “no stone was to be left unturned”. It soon became glaringly obvious, however, that the real purpose of the exercise was to (a) save the necks of certain senior civil servants at Victoria Quay, and (b) to deflect all blame from Tony, Peter, and the UK cabinet, which had commissioned the project and let the contracts before the Scottish parliament even existed. Surprise, surprise; it turned out that no-one was to blame.
These matters are always relegated to the status of water under the bridge, of course. We are urged to ‘learn lessons’ and move on. The one lesson we do learn from our mistakes, as Hegel noted, is that we learn nothing from our mistakes, though the moving on tends to be resorted to with alacrity.
Yet some matters never quite move on, and remain with us. I was reminded about this recently by a friend who referred to a series on medical orthodoxy I’d written for this very journal last year. That learned individual, who unfailingly knows whereof he speaks, claimed that I had made, or at least reported on, some very serious allegations indeed about a study called the PACE trial (or Pacing, Graded Activity, and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy; A Randomised Evaluation) into the debilitating illness, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS)
To recap, the PACE trial, published in 2011 and funded by the Department of Work and Pensions and the UK Medical Research Council among others, was, at £5 million, the most costly study of its kind ever undertaken in Britain. Publication in The Lancet was followed by an outcry from medical experts and patient advocacy groups sceptical of the methodology used by the trial’s authors.
Kelvin Hopkins MP put down several written questions which implied that fraud had been in play. The Medical Research Council, he suggested in 2015, should conduct an inquiry “into the management of the PACE trial to ascertain whether any fraudulent activity had occurred” and should “prevent the PACE trial researchers from being given further public research funding until an inquiry into further fraudulent activity - has been conducted”. Some weeks later in the House of Lords the Countess of Mar, a long time critic of the dominant ‘biopsychosocial model’ used in the treatment of ME/CFS, asked the Committee of Public Accounts to investigate the possible wrongful use of public funds for PACE, stating that the trial was “professional misconduct and/or fraud”.
In 2018 Carol Monaghan MP, leading a debate on the subject of in the House of Commons, referred to the PACE trial in what can only be described as unequivocal terms. “I think that when the full details of the trial become known, it will be considered one of the biggest medical scandals of the 21st century.”
All statements made within the Palace of Westminster, of course, have the benefit of parliamentary privilege, but by this time there were similar accusations flying around all over the place. In 2018 Dr Sarah Myhill, a long established critic of the biopsychosocial model and its psychiatrist advocates submitted a complaint to the General Medical Council asking that the authors of PACE be investigated for scientific and financial fraud by virtue of, inter alia, false representation, failure to disclose information, and abuse of dominant position. The GMC refused to accept the complaint.
It was put to me that writing a vaguely critical series about a matter which may, or may not, involve some measure of criminality simply wasn’t good enough on my part. If, as some alleged, a fraud had been committed by those engaged in the PACE trial, they should be charged in a properly constituted court of law. Apart from other considerations, if the accusers were mistaken, then those concerned were entitled to be cleared of any vexatious or unsubstantiated charges.
After all, it could be reasonably argued that if the PACE trials had indeed been conducted unlawfully, then the matter was potentially a good deal more serious that a Post Office scandal which, thanks to the insouciance of a Teflon elite, had ruined the lives of 960 innocent people, to the rightful indignation of Melanie Philips. There may be as many as 300,000 people in Britain as a whole suffering from ME/CFS, around 20,000 of them in Scotland. A significant number of them might, just conceivably, regard themselves as victims. Moreover, with the emergence of Long Covid, it seems possible that the number of those exhibiting symptoms of ME/CFS might double.
Then there was the not-so-small matter of a prima facie abuse of public revenues if, indeed, there had been any sort of falsification of results or other misconduct in the PACE trials. This would require an investigation by the UK Comptroller and Auditor General, as well as Audit Scotland, since the Office of the Scottish Government Chief Scientist provided £250,000 towards PACE.
In the event that any incident of professional misconduct had occurred which might, even in abstracto, be construed as fraudulent then, under the hallowed principle of fraus omnia corrumpit it would be customary to refer the matter ‘upstairs’ to England’s Crown Prosecution Service and Scotland’s Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. It was all very straightforward, really.
Taking that as a flea in the ear from my well-meaning friend I thought I should have another look at things, so I did. Oh dear! I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for part two if it’s full disclosure you’re after.
David Black’s forthcoming book The Great Psycho Heist. Is the ‘biggest medical scandal of the 21st century’ about to go viral in the wake of Long Covid? is currently in preparation.