A public or Parliamentary inquiry into the implications of High Court rulings on the Post Office’s business could answer important outstanding questions.
Now that the Post Office has apologised and settled a long dispute with hundreds of former sub-postmasters over the Horizon IT system, the question can be asked: how did ministers and the civil service stand by and let the Post Office damage hundreds of lives?
Why have a public inquiry?
In its written statement for the opening of the “Common Issues” High Court trial, the Post Office warned of serious dire consequences to its business if it lost the case. The Post Office said that if the claimants (sub-postmasters) were right,
“this would have a very serious impact on Post Office and its ability to control its network throughout the UK”.
The Post Office also said,
“If the Claimants were right in the broad thrust of their case, this would represent an existential threat to Post Office’s ability to continue to carry on its business throughout the UK in the way it presently does.”
This raises a question of whether a public inquiry by MPs after the general election would be needed to look at i) what impact there will be on the Post Office and its ability to control its network throughout the UK and ii) in what way the judgement now represents an existential threat to the Post Office.
Further questions that could be put to an inquiry include:
- The legal proceedings contained what the judge called “very wide ranging and extremely serious allegations against the Post Office” which included unlawful treatment of former sub-postmasters leading to bankruptcy and imprisonment. What accountabilities will apply if it transpires the Post Office acted unlawfully?
- It is obvious to anyone who works in IT that no complex IT system is infallible but when the Post Office made its case repeatedly in public that sub-postmasters were wrong to blame Horizon, why did no minister or civil servant raise any effective challenge?
- The Appeal Court said the Post Office felt entitled to treat sub-postmasters in “capricious or arbitrary ways which would not be unfamiliar to a mid-Victorian factory-owner.” Do these criticisms represent a defining and irreversible culture of the Post Office and, if so, what are the implications for its future management and scrutiny by government?
- What are the implications of the dispute on the public funding of the Post Office?,
- Is the Post Office in a credible position to make referrals for possible prosecutions given the High Court’s criticisms of its conduct and wrong interpretations of the law?
- Why did it take a series of long and costly trials in the High Court for the Post Office to acknowledge – and then only tacitly – that hundreds of its former sub-postmasters were not incompetents, fraudsters or liars?
- Will the apologies make any difference to the attitude of senior people in the Post Office whose “entrenched” views were that claimants were either dishonest or wholly incompetent?
- Being 100% state-owned, the Post Office has a duty to protect public money and therefore needs robust systems, procedures and contracts in place. What do the High Court rulings say about the robustness of the Post Office’s Horizon system?
There are further questions to be asked. In its apologies the Post Office makes it clear it is referring to past actions in its relationship with sub-postmasters. But what of its own conduct in court this year?
Tim Parker, the Post Office’s chairman, referred to “the past” in his settlement statement…
“We accept that, in the past, we got things wrong in our dealings with a number of postmasters…”
The Post Office’s statement also referred to “the past” …
“The Post Office would like to express its gratitude to claimants, and particularly those who attended the mediation in person to share their experiences with us, for holding us to account in circumstances where, in the past, we have fallen short and we apologise to those affected.”
But the trial judge, Sir Peter Fraser QC, criticised the conduct of the Post Office this year. He questioned the truthfulness or accuracy of a succession of Post Office witnesses who gave evidence during the trial. He said of the Post Office’s most senior witness that she tried to mislead him. “… I find that she did not give me frank evidence, and sought to obfuscate matters, and mislead me.” Was this behaviour “in the past?”
Of another Post Office witness, the judge said, there was “something of an air of unreality about his evidence … I consider his evidence suffered from an overarching reluctance to provide accurate evidence, if that may assist the Claimants”.
The judge also found that a corporate website run by the National Federation of SubPostmasters, which is funded by the Post Office, was altered during the trial to “bolster the Post Office’s position”.
Other comments by the judge raise questions whether any new CEO, however competent and well-meaning, can change the culture of a public institution. Although the Post Office’s apologies relate to its relationship with sub-postmasters, the judge’s rulings this year went wider.
He referred to the Post Office’s appearing at times to “conduct itself as though it is answerable only to itself” which raises a further question about what happened to government and departmental scrutiny.
He also said the Post Office “has appeared determined to make this litigation, and therefore resolution of this intractable dispute, as difficult and expensive as it can”.
Congratulations to former sub-postmaster Alan Bates without whom the Post Office may still be wrongly making sub-postmasters pay for shortfalls shown on the Horizon system. It is astonishing that the Post Office was unable at the hearings to accept that he was telling the truth.
Indeed the judge commented on the truthworthiness of the sub-postmasters who gave evidence, although the Post Office had depicted several of them as liars.
How was it the judge was able to see the sub-postmasters who gave evidence in a totally different light to the Post Office?
The Post Office’s apologies are welcome. They are limited apologies however.
There are signs in them that, despite the best intentions of the new CEO, the institution and its culture is essentially unchanged by the litigation and settlement.
The Post Office’s statements do not in any way acknowledge its own conduct in court this year. Its statements yesterday are careful to refer to mistakes “in the past” and are careful to categorise these mistakes as referring to its relationship with sub-postmasters, not its conduct in court.
Truthfulness in court is surely the least one could expect of senior Post Office officials? The Post Office is, after all, an institution that can investigate and refer suspected criminal behaviour for possible prosecution.
The judge repeatedly criticised the Post Office for evidence that appeared to geared more to public relations than factual accuracy. Indeed the Post Office’s statements yesterday appear to be geared towards protecting its image. They imply that the settlement and apology put an end to actions “in the past”, as if the whole matter were now concluded.
It would be a tragedy for the families of those who have died and the former sub-postmasters who have lost their health, gone to prison and been ruined for nobody to held accountable. An inquiry could at least question former ministers, civil servants and Post Office executives, past and present.
The biggest unanswered question is how it was allowed to happen. The High Court rulings show, if nothing else, how a public institution can behave if it has no effective government scrutiny.
When a public institution acts as if it is unanswerable to nobody, its culture is more suited to an authoritarian or totalitarian regime.
Without accountability to come, the settlement means that the Post Office, being a public institution, has lost nothing and the former sub-postmasters have lost their livelihoods or worse. No amount of compensation will bring back their lost years.
Having suffered no personal loss or consequences for actions and behaviours and conduct, will the real winners of the Horizon IT dispute be the Post Office? It can afford to pay out any number of millions without worrying about shareholder confidence or going bust. An inquiry is vital for justice in the long term.
Vilified then vindicated – Computer Weekly’s blog on the settlement.
Thank you to Eleanor Shaikh for her research that established the formal and comprehensive responsibilities of ministers and civil servants to scrutinise the Post Office.
Thank you to Tim McCormack – @Jusmasel2015 – and Mark Baker – @CWUPostmaster .- for answering my questions, their blog posts and their commitment to achieving justice. A special thank you also to @nickwallis and Computer Weekly’s @Karlfl.