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.”
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?