Belinda Cortes-Martin (Crowe): Sir Humphrey would be proud

Belinda Cortes-Martin had a dual role. Whilst she was supposedly heading up the Post Office’s Complaint and Mediation Scheme’s Working Group secretariat, supporting and answering to the Working Group’s independent Chair, Sir Anthony Hooper (a retired Court of Appeal judge), Cortes-Martin was also Programme Director for Project Sparrow, the top secret Post Office body set up to control the Complaint and Mediation Scheme (CMS), run by the Post Office CEO, Paula Vennells.

If you think I’m over-egging how secret Project Sparrow was, during the High Court litigation in 2018, the Post Office tried to claim the very word Sparrow was legally privileged and couldn’t be used in court, a concept Mr Justice Fraser said he was “struggling with”, despite letting it go. I am not sure even Second Sight or the Working Group knew of Project Sparrow’s existence. Cortes-Martin did, though.

It seems that whilst the Working Group may have thought of Cortes-Martin as, at most, a neutral party, she was, in fact a conduit of information from the Working Group (WG) back to the Project Sparrow gang (Bond Dickinson’s Andy Parsons, Vennells, Chris Aujard, Rodric Williams, Mark Davies and Angela van den Bogerd).

No authority

Today, BCM painted herself as someone with little or no authority. She didn’t read crucial documents, or when she did, she didn’t read them in a way which caused alarm bells to go off. Some documents she wrote meant something very different from the way they could be read. When caught on the hook she defaulted to claiming she was answering in the abstract [?] before delivering some fluent civil service guff which didn’t so much come across like a post-rationalisation exercise in justifying some dodgy-looking emails, but an active attempt to persuade the inquiry her emails were noble attempts to do the right thing when read from a possibly invented premise.

If you want to read the live tweets, collated with screenshots of a raft of documents, click here.

In many ways Cortes-Martin was one of the most dangerous witnesses because she was clearly very bright and very careful, a career civil servant from 1979 to 2011, eventually leaving as Information Director at the Ministry of Justice.

Flora Page

Although she seemed extremely reluctant to admit it, Cortes-Martin was working to remove Second Sight’s grip of the investigation from pretty much the moment she came on board. Barrister Flora Page took BCM to an email she wrote to Angela van den Bogerd on 22 October 2013, very shortly after Cortes-Martin began working on the CMS. In it she says:

“I said I would do a note about how to move to a place where Second Sight are able to leave the WG and allow Post Office to take over sole responsibility for [Horizon/Subpostmaster] investigations.”

Page notes she failed to mention this in her Witness Statement. “Did you forget about it?” she asked.
“I definitely didn’t recall it” replied Cortes-Martin.

On 9 April 2014, Andy Parsons from (later Womble) Bond Dickinson sent Cortes-Martin the first Clarke Advice. Barrister Emma Price asked her if she read it. Cortes-Martin told her:

“I have to assume I didn’t read it… The reason I don’t believe I saw this is that I did continue to insert into briefing comments about Post Office’s confidence in the safety of its prosecutions and I can’t imagine I would have done so, having read this.”

Cortes-Martin told Price that if she did see it, she would ask questions of Jarnail Singh, Andy Parsons and Chris Aujard. The Inquiry chair, Sir Wyn Williams wanted to know why she wouldn’t have told the Sir Anthony Hooper, a retired Court of Appeal Criminal Division judge, who she reported to on the Working Group. Cortes-Martin replied:

“All of the issues that arose in relation to Horizon or indeed prosecutions had a much wider application than just those cases in the scheme, so I think I would have wanted to understand the situation before I did anything wider. If I might take your point slightly further… if I had read this and asked questions and about it and was not satisfied with the response that I got, then I think Sir Anthony Hooper, as opposed to going to the WG is the person I would have discussed this with.”

Thankfully, Cortes-Martin didn’t read the Clarke Advice, so what she might have done was academic. Phew.

Following on from Cortes-Martin’s role in quietly trying to shepherd Second Sight out of the Post Office whilst supplying the Working Group on which Second Sight sat, we were shown an internal response to an email written in Jan 2014 by Cortes-Martin in which she said in CAPS:


Price wanted to know what Cortes-Martin meant by a desire to “fetter” Second Sight and the need to “consider carefully”. Cortes-Martin said:

“one doesn’t necessarily expect that some ten years later you’re going to be asking questions about it, so I acknowledge in this and other emails I have not chosen my words as I might have done, had I known this.”

Which appears to be acknowledging that if she thought anyone external would read her words, she would have tried to hide her true intentions. Then she came up with a piece of sophistry:

“What I’m saying here is there must be something that Second Sight has objected to that makes it look as if the Post Office is trying to fetter it and what I’m saying is, we need to think carefully about the extent to which we do that and actually it’s nothing more than that. So – don’t try to fetter Second Sight in a way that’s not appropriate, particularly in the light of what Sir Anthony Hooper said.”

Hmm. Judge for yourself.

Not satisfactory

Cortes-Martin was shown an email sent to her by Andy Parsons about the Helen Rose (HR) report which notes a clear issue with Horizon where it ascribes activities on the audit database to Subpostmasters when they are, in fact, generated by the system. Parsons says:

“our preferred approach is to try to down play the importance of the HR report in any POL [Post Office Ltd] Investigation Reports [for the CMS]. We recommend minimalising or ignoring entirely the HR Report when responding to CQRs [Case Review Questionnaires – applications to the scheme]”

Cortes-Martin did nothing about this, instead saying it was “a matter of regret, among many, if I may say so” that Parsons’ advice was “not satisfactory”. Cortes-Martin contended that if the HR report was “not important” that should have been “clearly stated” to an applicant. “I wish”, she said, “and indeed, on reflection, I should have challenged that.”

And this was the closest Cortes-Martin got to an admission of fault. When she was asked by Price what else she regretted, she replied:

“I regret not digging down deeper into some of the issues which clearly passed my desk. Had I done so, I might have asked more questions. I can’t guarantee, because this whole issue continued well after I left, that it would have made any difference. But it’s quite… looking at documents this far after the event, I’ve looked at a few and thought I could have done something differently with that… and I would say regretting being involved with it in any way at all is my biggest regret.”

I suspect she manages to sleep easily enough.

I am currently touring Post Office Scandal – the Inside Story until Thu 16 May 2024. There are six more dates remaining in Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire, Surrey and Essex. You can find the specific venues and timings here. All look likely to sell out except Swindon (Mon 13 May) which, for some reason is doing quite badly. If you can make it to the Wyvern Theatre in Swindon, I’d love to see you.

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24 responses to “Belinda Cortes-Martin (Crowe): Sir Humphrey would be proud”

  1. You’re right about Sir Humphrey! Joking aside, this was a trailer of the officialdom civil service under career civil servant Chair aka Mrs Jack Straw. The PO of course behaved appallingly …and was funded, enabled and supported by HMG. Ministers come and go; this was decades of officials.

  2. kathryn jones avatar
    kathryn jones

    BCM was a key participant on the leaked taped conversations. Any sympathy for her evaporates when you hear her tell Ian Henderson not to “be emotional” when he is talking about the impact on subpostmasters – grrrrr.

  3. I noted today that there was a section talking about liability. It was made clear that she was ensuring the position on any wrongful prosecutions.
    Where prosecutions were carried out by PO lawyers, then the PO would be liable. However as they were using external lawyers, then the external lawyers were liable – not the PO.
    So ensuring that the Post Office employees were covering their backs.

  4. Jane Stringer avatar
    Jane Stringer

    This woman’s delivery of her answers, was very much in the style of that awful Mandy Talbot!

  5. The most evasive person so far. I got the feeling even the clever but decent mannered Sir Wyn was getting rattled.

  6. No big guns present! Ed Henry, Sam Stien, Jason Beer all absent. Hope there has not been any recusal issues?

    Who really parachuted her in? To stop Second Sight and the mediation that would lead to payment of compensation. Best bit for me was Flora Page.

    Belinda was asked to check on Insurance cover. POL00198765 – Insurance for Individual Board Liability £60M. Were PO carrying sufficient insurance? How much would each SPM get if the pot shared is only £60M?

    If not properly insured, was it further motivation to keep the cover up going? If Insurance will not cover the compensation cost, government has to pick up the bill.

  7. Sue Sutcliffe avatar
    Sue Sutcliffe

    Another example of collective amnesia / selective memory. She makes out she didn’t take on board red flags being presented. She’s a clever woman who knows how to dodge or re-direct answers away from a position of blame using carefully structured use of the English language. Glad at least one of the Barristers managed to back her into a corner in the end.

    1. Steve Elliott avatar

      Another in a long line of very senior witnesses who are playing the old “but I was only the tea boy” card. Let’s see if a Jury falls for that

  8. With such an important matter I wish Emma Price would sharpen her pencil and emulate the enquiring ready to pounce chess playing tactics used by the other Barristers. I am sure she is capable , just needs that killer edge we see in Mr Beer and Mr Blake. Messrs Henry , Stein and Flora Page win Oscars for their deadly performances.

    1. I do not believe Emma Price would ever be up to the fight to breakdown the witness trying the can’t remember did not see or not my role game. Far too polite by nature. Reading emails fully also wastes time which is at the premium.

  9. She really had me convinced at first that she was different from many of the other evil people I have heard testify at this enquiry but as time went on I came to the conclusion that she must just be …. Mrs Jarnail Singh

  10. Thanks Nick for highlighting the important bits. I sat through the whole boring event but she cast a spell over me. As you say she’s one of the intelligent ones. She clearly knew very well that she was part of a cover up and was happy to be involved.
    Why wasn’t she asking why so many journalists and MP’s were querying Horizon. Given her civil service career she should have been all too clear about dodgy IT systems. Or is the career path of a senior civil servant based on covering things up?
    It’s plain to see that the Establishment has basically destroyed much ethical practice in the professions and public service. That probably happened a good 20 years ago to be fair. And it’s likely to get worse.

  11. avatar

    So economical with the truth….no empathy and doesn’t realise she’s part of the biggest coverup in UK history….
    Absolute waste of time…
    It might be better if these enquiries had some form of jury who can see through the deceit.

    1. Chair can see through a lot.

  12. She was not aware of what was going on and could not put 2 and 2 together, seems to be common theme. How can this be given her high level positions in charge. She also did not read many of the emails. One would think that reading the emails which were sent to her for a reason would be one way to stay abreast.

    The inquisitor was really toothless. Very polite and more interested in how she would appear in front of her peers. Did not want to put a foot wrong. Too self-conscience. Bring back Beer!

  13. Lizzie Cahill avatar

    Wow! I watched an hour or so of this today and toddled off to do something else…I thought ‘oh that poor woman, she’s been absolutely shafted and hung out to dry’…. Reading your post-match analysis Nick, how wrong could I be?! She knew exactly what she was doing right from the get-go. Just goes to show that the devil really is in the detail – anybody thinking they won’t bother watching the ‘little fish’ has got to seriously rethink. I was one of those and thanks to your blog, I’ve learnt my lesson. Cheers Nick…sending you another tenner… 😊

  14. BCM had an annoying body/vocal language of extending the last word of all her sentences, probably to allow her think and prolong her answers.
    This changed dramatically when she was put under pressure, some questions from the inquiry barrister but especially when being pressed by Ms Page, it was then her true character emerged.

  15. Sooner or later one of these automatons is going to be honest, speak in plain English and admit their part in the great Post Office embezzlement scandal – just to give them the advantage of surprise in the inquiry. No one would believe a word they said and hence they would probably get off scot free.

    Scot free has nothing to do with a former Met Police Officer, the Scots, nor their easily led prosecution service. The origin of scot free is apparently from the Old English scotfrēo (“scot-free; exempt from royal tax or imposts”), which presumably is from the Old Viking verb form, skjota, which has a secondary sense of “transfer pillage to another suspense account.”

    Today even the Viking goddess of the underworld couldn’t have done a better job in cremating the very soul of the English language and burying the truth to beyond the epistemological ducking and diving depths of even Sir Humphrey.

    A conscience must be a luxury traded to sell your soul to POL.

  16. From all the witness statements so far it looks like no one is to blame for anything.

  17. David Mercer avatar

    Glad you made it to the inquiry today, Nick. Another great report – thank you. Did anyone in positions of influence/responsibility at POL ever read their emails, let alone act on them? Or is this just more of the “I have no recollection” or “nothing to do with me” tale we’re seeing from all the witnesses in this phase?

  18. Alan Cornforth avatar
    Alan Cornforth

    Until Flora Page chipped in at the end I was literally falling asleep listening to the questions and testimony. Project Sparrow or Canary, Belinda wasn’t singing!

  19. Dione Johnson avatar
    Dione Johnson

    I hope to heaven that a large number of these former PO employees, lawyers, and advisers, will be prosecuted for conspiring to pervert the course of Justice. It is sickening that this horrifically mendacious group of people could have perpetrated, quite knowingly, such a revoltingly scandalous series of activities. I beg the Inquiry to be fearless and stern. The hundreds of small, powerless people who suffered so dreadfully must see that at long last, British Justice IS a reality, and that there truly are consequences of shamefully immoral and criminal behaviour in public office.

  20. Shaun Taylor avatar

    Basically just a nice little earner, stick to the party line, was she just another post box.

  21. Julian Max Hofmann avatar
    Julian Max Hofmann

    Flora Page definitely got under her skin.

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