Paula Vennells at the Post Office Inquiry: Former boss is a symbol of how the managerial class has betrayed ordinary people

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Paula Vennells goes before the Post Office inquiry today. She stands as a symbol of managerial class arrogance and ignorance

Paula Vennells goes before the Post Office inquiry today.

Despite the rage across swathes of the country, despite the ITV drama of Mr Bates, and despite the government having to pass laws to exonerate the innocent postmasters convicted under her regime, we’ve heard… not much from her yet. When she handed back her CBE in January, she issued a (carefully legally worded) statement which said she had “listened” to subpostmasters and that she was “truly sorry for the devastation caused to the sub-postmasters and their families, whose lives were torn apart by being wrongly accused and wrongly prosecuted as a result of the Horizon system”.

What do you notice there? Well, the opposite of any mea culpa, instead shifting the blame entirely on to computers, and not to any management decision. 

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And this was brass-necked stuff, coming as it among plenty of testimony from the ongoing inquiry that Post Office bigwigs had “unhealthy view of subpostmasters” because they thought they were protecting public money (this from Susan Crichton, the Post Office’s former general counsel, at the end of last month. She told the inquiry that lawyers had not stopped to ask themselves “should we be doing this?”).

So far, so well-trodden. But in the context of the Infected Blood Inquiry, which reported this week, an unpleasant trend emerges. 

It is heartbreaking to read the testimonies of those infected with hepatitis and HIV - and those left behind mourning their loved ones - but what makes it worse is that they were not listened to. The fact that the scandal happened is a tragedy. It could have been avoided but it happened. But what is unforgiveable is that, is that the report found that there was a “pervasive” cover-up to hide the truth. Deliberate attempts were made to conceal the disaster, including evidence of Whitehall officials destroying documents. It should not take the victims of a scandal such as this to be the ones who are responsible for ensuring justice.

And turn the clock back a few years to Hillsborough, and the long campaign by families. Look at Gosport War Memorial Hospital in Hampshire, where more than 450 of patients were found to have died after being given opiates “inappropriately” and yet still, despite a bishop-led inquiry and several police investigations, not one person has yet been charged with administering drugs. This started in the 1990s and we’re still at the stage of “identifying suspects”.  The children of those who died in this scandal are themselves beginning to die without seeing anyone held accountable.

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What’s the theme behind this? It’s not that British institutions themselves are rotten. The NHS, the Post Office et al can still be something to be proud of. It’s that ordinary people, you and I, are suffering, and the establishment is, if not covering up, then turning a deaf ear.

It’s the takeover by management-think. It’s, crucially and sometimes tragically, the arrogance that says those in a managerial position somehow always know better those on the ground. It allows boards and committees to make decisions that cut against what should be the purpose of an institution. This is another of the evils of excessive executive pay - not only does it breed inequality but it can allow some people to believe that because they are paid so much they must be infallible. 

And there are lessons to be learned at all levels. If you run a shop, listen to the bloke who’s on your till. If you run a cafe, listen to the waitress who serves people. Don’t be blinded by arrogance or fear, because as we have seen this week, that way tragedy lies.

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