Perkins Preview: what secrets will Lady Humphrey reveal?

Alice Perkins was Chairman of the Post Office for four years between 2011 and 2015. She got the job after a career spent in the civil service. One of the people who ostensibly worked for her during that period told me Perkins was “patronising… wooden and inarticulate”, complaining she “couldn’t connect with people at all… we used to see her about twice a year and she would give speeches that made you numb with boredom.”

This is exactly what you might expect from a career civil servant. It might serve to lower your expectations for the next two days of evidence, were it not for several tantalising snippets of information which have come out of the Inquiry in recent weeks.

Snippet One

We know for a fact that Perkins was horrified at the way the Post Office General Counsel Susan Crichton had gone about letting independent investigators Second Sight conduct an actual independent investigation into the Horizon system. This was not the way to do things at all. Perkins met with Crichton in 2013, after Second Sight had delivered their report and gave her what for, recording in a note:

“I understood that Second Sight’s investigation had to be independent but in the civil service there would have been someone marking it who was close to all the key people – Second Sight, James Arbuthnot, JFSA [Alan Bates’ Justice for Subpostmasters’ Alliance]) and knew what was going on between them.”

Commission an independent report by all means, but don’t let the investigators be truly independent. Mark them.

Snippet Two

Perkins’ comic book baddie persona took root with another dig at Susan Crichton when she told her CEO Paula Vennells (again in 2013) that Crichton “sees so much as beyond her control. That’s the problem. It’s her alibi.”


Snippet Three

Perkins’ knowledge of the civil service dark arts manifests most ludicrously at the hands of her lachrymotic CEO. On 30 Jan 2015 Paula Vennells was preparing for her appearance before the Business Select Committee. In what has become an infamous email, Vennells wrote to her underlings with concerns about remote access to the Horizon IT system:

“What is the true answer?” she asked. “I hope it is that we know this is not possible and that we are able to explain why that is. I need to say ‘no it is not possible’ and that we’re sure of this because of xxx and that we know this because we’ve had the system assured.”

Telling her colleagues of the “need” to say “no it is not possible” has been interpreted as an instruction to find a way for Vennells to tell parliament remote access is “not possible”. But not according to Paula Vennells.

On her first day of evidence to the Inquiry, Vennells (who had mystifyingly waited nine years to correct the record) told Jason Beer KC that the phrasing about her “need” was deliberate, because her boss, Alice Perkins had told her: “if you want to get the truth and a really clear answer from somebody, you should tell them what it is you want to say very clearly and then ask for the information that backs that up”.

Really, Paula?

A half-wit would clock this as nonsense. Vennells apparently didn’t. As members of the public gallery stifled sniggers, Jason Beer KC asked. “That’s an odd way of going about things, isn’t it? ‘I want to know the answer to the question. Here’s the answer to the question’.”

People began laughing, but Vennells stuck to her guns. She maintained the Perkins doctrine – telling people the answer you want to hear and then instructing them to find the information which backs that up – was legit corporate management practice. Not at all the sort of thing a semi-deranged dictator, or manipulative civil servant would demand.

More fool who?

This is what makes Perkins’ evidence over the next two days so interesting. Is she a gormless apparatchik or a mafia don? Which version of Perkins will turn up to the inquiry? The wooden and inarticulate guffler, or the smirking Machiavellian schemer?

Perkins’ likely claims of corporate propriety might be contradicted by contemporaneous evidence, but she is probably clever enough to have left very little trace. She certainly got out of the Post Office quickly enough.

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36 responses to “Perkins Preview: what secrets will Lady Humphrey reveal?”

  1. Stephen Phillips avatar
    Stephen Phillips

    I presume “Lady Humphrey” is a reference to her Mandarin origins via the “Yes, Minister” character “Sir Humphrey Appleby”?

    A bit obscure for younger readers? I am very much older but it took me some time to spot.

  2. I recall a few years ago there was a BBC series called “Back to the Floor”…whereby they took the boss /md etc and put him/her back on the shop/factory floor the see how the biz worked. One theme that came out with each episode was that the bosses had no idea of what happened at the “coal face”

    No doubt true of the post office board

  3. An independent review is commissioned on the back of pressure from MPs, and so must have a high profile within POL and certainly at the Board. The review is meant to conclude within a matter of weeks, but in fact takes much longer. However, the Board does not appear to be updated on progress – or lack of it – and seems not to be curious as to why the review has not been completed. Then, when the interim report is produced the Board is taken aback and the discussion at the Board Meeting in July 2013 is unstructured in part because the Chair leaves outside of the meeting the one person with the technical expertise that could help the Board navigate through the consequences of the interim report. More like “cock-up than conspiracy” but hardly speaks to Board effectiveness.

  4. Alice Perkins, referred to as AP on board minutes. Hmm. AP might also refer to “astonishingly pathetic”, “awful personality”, “avoidance purveyor”. Has she been on the Jarnail Singh course of how to conduct yourself in an enquiry? It would seem so.
    AP accepted no resonsibility for her actions (or lack of). If in doubt, blame others or feign memory loss.
    One would not wish her to be one’s mother-in-law………….

  5. Perkins’ unnecessary reminder to the Inquiry that she was ‘under oath’ and a ‘truthful person’ might well come back to bite her in days to come … if it hadn’t already by the end of the day. Given her establishment background and high level connections, as you’d expect, she’s a wily operator, but has the impossible task of squaring the circle. From her first day’s testimony it looks like she’s very comfortable with both Vennells and Crichton being her shields.

    1. Yes protesting too much. Close second was: in large organisations I believe in cockup rather than conspiracy. That’s right; get defence in early …

    2. I haven’t heard one person in this enquiry tell the truth. It’s been like listening to a child who’s lied about spilling the milk .

      My heart goes out to those post masters

  6. forensic accountant avatar
    forensic accountant

    I wryly note that so enthusiastically was the shredding and erasure operation conducted, that some information potentially useful to the gang to wriggle out of criminal liability has also been deleted.

    The irony of it.

  7. Is there a public petition to have her CBE removed 🤔

    1. Stephen Phillips avatar
      Stephen Phillips

      It’s not a CBE it’s a CB – Companion of the Bath – which is FAR more elevated.

    2. If not, there should be

    3. I was brought to believe that she had already given up the CBE .

  8. Our depressingly predictable hierachy are still in denial over just about every aspect of our lives. The Post Office scandal sits like an iceberg in a sea of lies with rival denials looming from the past. Contaminated blood, Thaldomide, Iraq. The public were kept in the dark and were told who could be trusted but there is another twist. Our doctors, clergy, politicians of all leanings, judges bankers and legal wranglers disgrace the public in a constant wave of skullduggery. I am not a reactionist but despair as to who I can honestly trust and just ask the question of What next? As an elderly person I do not expect to see the culmination of my fears but can only foresee conflict at its worst

    1. Heather Bowdidge avatar
      Heather Bowdidge

      Oh James that’s exactly how I feel I thought this country was the beating heart of democracy honesty and always felt it is the best country in the world. Seeing these characters give evidence and using my commonsense I can see my faith in these institutions, goernment, the judiciary, post office, nhs, HMRC, is completely misplaced. How sad I am.

  9. E&Y informed Perkins about Horizon issues and risks in 2011, and she did NOTHING.

    Chairperson? Perkins had the competence to arrange the chairs for a board meeting!

    1. She kept trying to deflect by saying it was an “audit risk” like it had nothing to do with actually operating the post office correctly. So ridiculous.

  10. Alleged self-defenstration is just one step from virtual autobus subjaculation in some regimes as the means to resolve such conflicts of evidence.
    I can’t recall the word that describes the process of doing one thing whilst simultaneously denying it.

  11. Another important point is that during the board meeting in which Susan Crichton was left outside, Alwen Lyons testified that: “I stood up and walked towards the door and was asked to hang on a minute” by Perkins. So Lyons statement is consistent with Vennells, ie they both thought that Crichton would be coming in to present the report to the board; but it was Perkins that blocked her because she wanted Crichton sacked.

    1. Ewan Campbell avatar

      This might just knock the ‘cock-up’ theory into touch.

      Who’d have thought?

      She seemed such an innocent creature.

      But hopelessly detached.

  12. Brian henderson avatar
    Brian henderson

    Nick Wallis

    The one group most likely to know (where the bodies are burried) is the Human Resources (HR) who would deal with any POL staff member that did raise alarms as whistleblower.

    The number of whistleblowers dealt with by HR over last 20 years is crucial to uncover.

    If zero, very odd.
    If not zero, there are a group of people who raised alarm and were processed and removed with NonDisclosureAgreements (NDA)…..

    It is possible Inqury will only speak to this potential group of whistleblowers…..
    if they voluntarily come forward. They may not beaware Inquiry undoes NDA gag orders?

    HR is the hidden executioners keeping all staff following like sheep, and removing wolves in sheep clothing

    Is any HR person being called to inquiry, we only aware of 1 Fujistsu public whistleblower
    And 1 public POL whistleblower…… but like iceberg the private whistleblowers are 10 times and could have stories to tell Inquiry…..

    Will it even know they exist?

    1. In other words they were gagged !

  13. Peter Burfitt avatar

    Morning All,

    Have any investigations / enquiries been made as to whether the senior management have had, I’d guess, multiple meetings to collate their defence / stories under the tutorage of senior counsel ? I’m pretty sure these would have been clandestine so perhaps difficult to establish, but it would be of great interest to the public if this could be confirmed and exposed. That would be conspiracy to deceive the Inquiry and the public and may constitute perjury.

    The entire rhetoric is SO off pat, everyone singing from exactly the same song sheet. So much so that the words and tune are indistinguishable between the witnesses. I wasn’t told, never saw this, I didn’t read all of it, it was someone else, not in my remit, obsessive buck passing. The old adage, if it’s too good to be true . . . . .

    To give them their due, they are all sticking to the script extremely well – particularly the I Don’t Recall lines. Reminds me of the swarthy villain in TV cop shows who, in the run down interview room, repeats endlessly – No Comment Gov.

    My abiding fear from this practiced and concerted effort is that no-one will ever actually go to court and be held responsible. No Comment Gov.

    Peter Burfitt

    1. The conspiracy to hide the truth began over 10 years ago. This “I don’t recall” was the end game defense the governance cabal was aiming for when they spent millions of pounds on lawyers year by year. Anyone with a hint of truthfulness were purged at POL and new hiring practices sought out mercenaries to prolong the obfuscation.

      1. Alan Cornforth avatar
        Alan Cornforth

        It is worth pointing out for balance that Alan Bates, in his witness statement, uses “cannot recall” or “do not recall” nine times and where his memory is positive he uses “I recall” on at least a dozen occasions. So, it is quite possible that this is a designated response that the Inquiry have indicated should be used and not just a blanket memory loss for anyone from the PO who is trying to hide the truth ?

    2. I agree with you. It seems that many of them accept they may be held liable for something or other, and occasionally indicate they’ve been slightly incompetent.
      I presume that’s in the hope that none of us notice the pattern of lack of professional curiosity and probing you’d expect from the top people, or that most of them did indeed appear to collude to stop the truth coming out.
      Plus records of what they wrote often mean apparently exactly the opposite of what they meant to say.

  14. Pete Mckenzie avatar

    The first 30 minutes of the inquiry show that I suspect “the Machiavellian schemer” has turned up and with 2 people lacking competence at the top of the organisation it is hardly surprising that this disaster occurred.

  15. Alan Cornforth avatar
    Alan Cornforth

    At any given moment of her questioning this morning. I expected Alice Perkins to reprimand Jason Beer and tell him to get on with it as she had a dinner party to get to!

  16. kirstie jenkins avatar
    kirstie jenkins

    “We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are”

    “The Post Office drove a very hard bargain on price, but took back on quality/assurance”.

    Was the conclusion therefore “We do not need to see things as they are if we can make SPMS contractually responsible for failures in the IT system”?

  17. Where there is a deep and entrenched view that nothing wrong, it becomes valid to make the request in this way. In effect ask why/how this view was justified in the past and cannot it continue to be the case. Does this position still stand up to an objective assessment. It forces people to revisit something that was taken for granted.

    Where still open-ended then it would be seen to be just tell me what I want to hear and gather the evidence to back this up.

    The former however requires a degree of maturity and integrity in the people involved. Some could just interprete it as meaning my boss just wants to keep the status quo and we have to simply go through the motions to be seen objective in the matter.

  18. Perkins is Mrs Jack Straw. Perhaps that explains how she got the gig.

    1. Stephen Phillips avatar
      Stephen Phillips

      Anyone know why Straw didn’t get a Peerage?

    2. Isn’t that just a bit counter-intuitive and what about the conflict of interest?

      Didn’t these manifest injustices overwhelmingly occur whilst Jack Straw was a leading member of the previous Labour government? In fact Straw was Secretary of State for Justice for three of those years.

      Why would the new incoming government want to reward someone intimately associated with its predecessor which had just been voted out of office departing with Liam Byrne’s famous ‘no money’ note.

      There’s obviously a reason but patronage? I wouldn’t be so sure about that.

      The Treasury wanting to keep the lid on things before the Royal Mail was flogged off, maybe.

  19. The very important questions
    How long before Sir Williams report is published after phase 5/6 finished?
    Following this when will proceedings for criminal.behaviour start?
    When will real financial redress for postmasters etc be made?

    In the meantime we listen to more amnestic guff

    1. won’t be until after phase 7. very end of this year or early next.

  20. “if you want to get the truth and a really clear answer from somebody, you should tell them what it is you want to say very clearly and then ask for the information that backs that up”.

    That sounds suspiciously like the Blair approach – I/we have determined the policy so now go and find the evidence to support it …. i.e. turning evidence-based policy into “policy-based evidence” as I termed it back then, though I’m sure it wasn’t original.

    So no real surprise there.

    1. Yes, they should learn about the scientific method, which includes “Look at the evidence and go wherever that evidence leads you, without prejudice”.

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