Andreas Whittam Smith: Familiar ploys that are used to avoid taking responsibility

'Reading papers is part of what managers, supervisors and board members are paid to do'
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The Independent Online

As we live in a society where people rarely accept responsibility for their own errors, thank goodness for enquiries, court actions and the like. They are powerful cleansing agents. They dissolve the usual excuses, whether they be those put forward by the social workers of three London boroughs who could have halted the torturing to death of Victoria Climbie, or by the investment managers of the Unilever pension fund whose failures will ultimately be visited upon retired workers, or by the directors of the Equitable who lost part of their customers' savings. These three very different cases come at a time, too, when the political system shows itself incapable of keeping public life honest.

In two of these episodes, the reasons for failure included not reading the relevant documents and I would be surprised if the same factor was not present in the third. A key manager in Haringey social services, Angella Mairs, whose job was to supervise the social worker in charge of the Victoria Climbie case, admitted under cross examination last week that she had not read the case notes in the file she had been given, not even skimmed through them to identify any potential problems. Then during the civil action between Unilever and its pension fund managers, it emerged that Wendy Mayall, the Unilever executive charged with overseeing the investment managers, had not looked at the crucial performance report and had only "cast an eye over it".

Why does this happen? The explanation, surely, goes beyond not wishing to read what you don't want to learn. Sometimes office culture is hostile to people who read everything; there isn't time, it is thought, and it is unduly conscientious to "wade through" a whole file. Sometimes, too, the stuff is genuinely difficult to understand. Documents on risk analysis written by investment managers are a case in point. Unless one has been trained in probability theory, one has to ask a lot of questions before the significant points become clear. And that is why, I guess, that the Equitable directors didn't read crucial documents. They will have been written by actuaries in a language that is almost impenetrable to outsiders. Nonetheless, reading the papers is part of what managers, supervisors and board members alike are paid to do. If you don't understand, ask questions. And if you still don't understand, get the document rewritten.

In the Climbie and Equitable disasters, despite the huge differences between them in every way, one of the chief excuses offered is precisely the same: we did everything by the book. For the Climbie enquiry, it is one of three main responses, along with "it wasn't my job" and "we didn't have the resources". The phrase is: "that was the accepted procedure". The explanation offered by the directors of The Equitable is that what happened was anyway "an accident" and that the directors obtained professional advice and followed it. One of the longest serving directors, Peter Martin, said last week that he did not accept any blame for the events.

The fault here is something as simple as a lack of common sense. When accepted procedures are being followed, or professional advice is received, there is a step to be taken that is often missed out: to ask whether the result accords with common sense. Ninety nine times out of a hundred, the result will be positive. But every now and again there will be a mismatch. The result will be a nonsense. It may be that the professional advisors were asked the wrong question. Or, on further consideration, the subject was beyond their expertise. Or, in the case of accepted procedures, that they have become outdated.

There is a further factor. It is "the old boy network", though it could be just as easily the "sisterhood". In declining to stand trial in New York, for instance, the former chairman of Christie's, Sir Anthony Tennant, who was charged with fixing prices in collusion with Sotheby's, declared his innocence and stated that the good opinion of his friends was all that mattered. The judgement of the network – Eton, Trinity College, Cambridge and the Scots Guards were Sir Anthony's training grounds – is the supreme court.

Laudable in many ways though such sentiments are, they have this danger. They lead to the attitude that we are all good chaps – or long suffering social workers – and one doesn't question each other too closely when working together. These cosy habits are a feature of the City of London, and, I dare say, of social services departments. Again, I shall be surprised if they do not make an appearance in the results of the enquiries into the Equitable debacle.

Better than an official inquiry is court action. It looks as if the old directors of Equitable are to be sued for negligence. Whatever the result of the action, if it occurs, it will have a salutary impact. Company directors, for example, would start to do all their reading, they would get used to challenging professional advice and they would become a bit cynical about the "old boys".