By Tony Collins
Paula Vennells, Chief Executive of the Post Office, is due to answer MPs’ questions today on whether the PO’s Horizon system was partly responsible for ruining the lives of dozens of subpostmasters.
A hearing of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee will give MPs a chance to question Vennells directly rather than through a minister, as before.
At issue is the irreconcilable. On one side are PO officials who say the Horizon system has no systemic problems and has not been proven to have caused shortfalls in accounts that led to subpostmasters being accused of theft, fraud or false accounting.
Years after the discrepancies occurred it may be impossible to prove the existence – or absence – of any faults in the system at the time.
On the other side are more than 150 subpostmasters who are represented by Alan Bates, Chairman, Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance. They cannot prove that shortfalls shown on the Horizon system were not their fault.
In the middle are forensic accountants Second Sight who were called in by the Post Office to investigate possible miscarriages of justice. After Second Sight raised questions about Horizon’s possible fallibility, the PO criticised Second Sight’s findings.
A complicating factor is confidentiality. Under pressure from MPs, the PO set up a mediation scheme to adjudicate on individual cases. Several times the PO has invoked the need for confidentiality as a reason for not discussing reasons for the mediation scheme’s slow progress. The scheme was set up in August 2013 and is ongoing.
It’s unclear why there is a need for confidentiality given that subpostmasters have been willing to discuss their cases and prosecutions are in the public domain.
Labour MP Kevan Jones has called the ruin of many subpostmaster lives a national scandal. He told the House of Commons in December 2014:
“That more than 150 individual sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, who have worked tirelessly in their local communities, for decades in some cases, have suddenly all worked out that they can defraud the system is complete and utter nonsense.”
Witnesses at today’s hearing of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee are:
– Andy Furey, Assistant General Secretary, Communication Workers Union
– George Thomson, General Secretary, National Federation of SubPostmasters
– Alan Bates, Chairman, Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance
– Kay Linnell, Chartered Accountant, Kay Linnell & Co
– Paula Vennells, Chief Executive, Post Office Ltd
– Angela van den Bogerd, Head of Partnerships, Post Office Ltd
– Ian Henderson, forensic computing expert, Advances Forensics (Second Sight Ltd)
A Parliamentary campaign for justice for the postmasters has been led by MP James Arbuthnot. Referring to today’s hearing, Arbuthnot told Computer Weekly that at a select committee hearing people cannot avoid answering questions because the MPs will keep returning to the question until they are satisfied.
Nobody outside the Post Office believes the subpostmasters were guilty of taking money. But the subpostmasters are in no position to prove they didn’t.
It’s a seemingly irreconcilable situation, especially as the righting of miscarriages of justice will require “give” – possibly even compassion and humility – on the part of PO officials.
Regarding Kevan Jones’s comment, the Post Office has pointed out that a minority of cases in the Mediation Scheme involve criminal convictions, not 150. There were 150 applications to the Scheme and some of these have been resolved.
Private Eye on the Horizon controversy
Jailed and bankrupt because of “unfit” IT systems? What now?
Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance