Judge in Horizon IT case to give a book-length judgement – and that’s just the first of four trials

By Tony Collins

Paid by partly out of public money, a judgement nearly double the length of a typical book is expected tomorrow on the Horizon High Court case.

Journalist Nick Wallis who is covering the High Court trial with crowdfunding, says the judgement is expected to be about 180,000 words. [A typical book length is much less, about 100,000 words. ]

The judgement relates only to the first of four High Court trials that focus on the Fujitsu-built Horizon accounting system used by the Post Office.

The length of the judgement is a reminder of the huge costs of the case, which could run into tens of millions of pounds. The publicly-owned Post Office could have avoided the hearings by settling with the sub-postmasters.

More than 550 sub-postmasters are suing the Post Office in a case that is, in essence, about whether sub-postmasters were responsible for losses shown on a robust Horizon system or whether the losses were not real and were generated by an imperfect system.

The Post Office has held the sub-postmasters responsible and is defending the integrity of Horizon. The sub-postmasters are seeking compensation for lives ruined because they say the Post Office required them to make good losses that were not real.

Don’t use our money for Horizon case, says BEIS

Meanwhile the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, which is responsible for the Post Office, has sought an assurance from the Post Office’s CEO Paula Vennells that departmental funds meant for transformation and business investment will not be used on the Horizon litigation.

The BEIS’s top civil servant goes further: he requires regular written assurances that BEIS funding will be used for the intended purposes only.

The Post Office has set aside at least £5m for the defence of the Horizon case and it concedes in its accounts that the costs could be much higher.

A letter from Alex Chisholm, civil service head of the department, to Vennells, has been disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act to campaigner Tim McCormack.

Chisholm’s letter reminds Vennells  that the minister expects funding to be used prudently and efficiently. Chisholm’s letter in January 2019 says,

“… UKGI [UK Government Investments] have communicated to your team the requirement that BEIS funding [is] only to be used against those projects which are related to transformation or approved investment activities.”

Vennells replied giving this assurance. The following is an extract from Chisholm’s letter, which is partly redacted,

“As you will be aware, the Minister wrote to Tim Parker [Post Office chairman] on 20 December 2017 to set out the basis for providing transformation funding to Post Office and her expectations on how this was to be used.

“The Minister emphasised the need for funding to be used prudently and efficiently in accordance with the objectives of the three-year strategic plan whilst recognising the need for some flexibility for a commercial business engaged in investment projects.

“In your recent request, you indicated you intended to use BEIS funds for non-transformation related spend spcificially in relation to the ongoing Horizon litigation.

“I understand that this is now no longer the case and UKGI [UK Government Investments] have communicated to your team the requirement that BEIS funding is]only to be used against those projects which are related to transformation or approved investment activities.

“As Principal Accounting Officer, I am personally responsible for ensuring the department has a high standard of governance and exercises effective controls over the management of resources, including those through its partner organisations.

“So that I may have ongoing assurance that BEIS funds entrusted to Post Office are being used as the Minister intended, please can you confirm this on a quarterly basis in arrears. UKGI [UK Government Investments] will provide you with further details on the exact wording and format for how this assurance is to be provided.”

Alex Chisholm

Comment:

The letter from Post Office’s “parent” department BEIS offers no support for the Post Office’s defence of the Horizon litigation. Indeed BEIS’s letter could be seen as suggesting that the litigation would not be a prudent use of BEIS’s public money.

If the Post Office’s defence of the litigation is not supported by its own parent organisation, who is supporting the Post Office’s spending of millions on the Horizon case?

Nobody. Except the Post Office and its lawyers.

Certainly not the public nor the media. The Financial Times, Daily Mail, Telegraph, Times and BBC’s Panorama and The One Show have published or broadcast items on the Horizon dispute that will not enhance the Post Office’s image and reputation.

Indeed the Post Office’s determination to continue its defence could be having the effect of a reverse advertising campaign. Would any corporation want to spend millions of pounds on a campaign to harm its image and reputation?

The longer this High Court case continues – and it could continue for years with appeals – the more it may harm the Post Office’s image. It may even prove increasingly difficult for the Post Office to find business people willing to take over local Post Office branches when they come up for sale.

Who would be ideologically motivated to run a village Post Office if the corporate Post Office image is not what it was?

The big question that remains unanswered is: do Post Office directors have the wherewithal to change course in this litigation and settle? Such a change would require humility and humanity.

A big ask?

Nick Wallis’s coverage of the case

Karl Flinders’ coverage

Campaigner Tim McCormack’s coverage

Businessman whose wife died from overdose joins legal action against the Post Office

4 responses to “Judge in Horizon IT case to give a book-length judgement – and that’s just the first of four trials

  1. I’ve been following this upsetting case since the TV programme some years ago and am so grateful to both you and Nick Wallis for your reporting and analysis.

    I imagine it is very difficult for an established bureaucracy, like the Post Office, to have the capability to do anything other than continually repeat what it does every day, however unsuccessfully.

    It seems that the Post Office HQ is like all of our troublesome institutions that operate organisationally as a rigid, top-down, one way only structure. They are so conditioned to think that they and their approach are correct, that they encase themselves in their beliefs even, and especially, when evidence suggests otherwise.

    As I must have said before, third-rate people can manage any operation successfully when conditions remain the same. It’s when problems arise that first-rate people are needed to immediately recognise and accept the new reality, investigate, analyse and then apply solutions.

    Thus far, I have seen the sub-postmasters as being largely first-rate whilst the PO HQ staff shamefully lacking, even unaware that they are lacking.

    This whole charade is a treasury of lessons for the whole of government and for all monopolistic concerns. I do hope this helps the public realise how disasters occur and how the innocent can be punished in order to protect the dishonourable.

    And, as you say, the PO, entombed in their limitations can’t seem to see, that they are advertising to the world just what chumps they are — sceptres in the hands of fools.

    I do hope for everyone’s sake, particularly the sub-postmasters, that the PO does settle. The PO HQ staff will still get their pensions and perks, and the public will have largely forgotten about this disgraceful episode and go back to thinking of the PO as a vital, honest, reliable and cosy community asset

    As always, thanks, Tony.

    Like

    • Thank you Zara. As you say there is a treasury of lessons for an institution to learn. But I am not sure institutions ever learn lessons. Indeed the PO’s institutional culture seems to be that there are no lessons that need to be learned.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Tony This is a great piece and I want to share and publicise it but I would be really grateful if you could remove the word campaigning in relation to my activities as a journalist. I have fought to be as objective as possible throughout my reporting of this litigation and have only used my judgment to offer comment when it is backed up by self-evident facts.  I am very concerned about being described as a campaigning journalist is because it could cause my main source of income – broadcast journalism – to dry up completely. They only want objective journalists and i strive to be objective in all my reporting. Indeed I might be in contempt if I wasn’t. I would be most grateful if you could adjust your post so I can link to it. It is a great piece. NVia mobile. 

    Like

    • My apologies Nick. Your coverage of the Post Office Horizon case has always been factual and fair to both sides. I can say exactly the same for the broadcast pieces I have seen of yours. Thank you for the comprehensiveness of your Horizon coverage. Reading your reports is the next best thing to being in the courtroom. Tony.

      Liked by 1 person

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