By Tony Collins
Former subpostmaster Alan Bates, who spearheaded legal action against the Post Office over its Horizon IT system, told MPs on Tuesday that the Post Office is “rotten underneath” and will not change without a judge-led inquiry.
Horizon victims Wendy Buffrey and Tracey Felstead also called for a judge-led inquiry at a hearing of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy committee.
The committee had its first hearing this week on the Post Office Horizon controversy. At its second hearing on 24 March, its MPs are expected to question the Post Office’s CEO Nick Read, the former CEO, Paula Vennells, Fujitsu, a business minister and a representative from UK Government Investments which has a place on the Post Office board.
The scandal is, in part, over the Post Office’s decision to dismiss unjustly hundreds of business people who ran local post offices. They were dismissed because of shortfalls shown on the Horizon branch accounting system which had many hidden defects.
While keeping faults hidden, the Post Office, pursued sub-postmasters for supposed debts based on “evidence” from Horizon. Dozens of sub-postmasters were prosecuted on the basis of Horizon evidence and many made bankrupt. Hundreds of lives were ruined.
Since a judge’s scathing criticism of the Post Office in rulings last year, the Post Office and Martin Callanan, a business minister in the House of Lords, have said lessons will be learnt but Bates said he has “yet to be convinced things will change at the Post Office”.
He said the Post Office has promised to change its ways many times before but “it never happens”.
Bates said he had spoken briefly to Nick Read who took over the job as Post Office CEO in September last year. Bates said he wished Read well but described him to the BEIS committee as “very much like a new coat on old paintwork”. He added that the wood underneath is “rotten” and called for a judge-led inquiry to “get to the bottom of things”.
Bates might have been referring, in part, to some of those within the corporate Post Office who chased sub-postmasters for questionable shortfalls and took legal actions against them.
Also giving evidence to MPs were Andy Furey of the Communication Workers Union and chartered accountants from 2nd Sight whom the Post Office paid to investigate sub-postmaster complaints. The Post Office dismissed 2nd Sight after their interim findings criticised aspects of the Horizon system.
What the witnesses told MPs indicates that many questions over the scandal remain unanswered:
- Who on the Post Office board agreed to spend an estimated £100m or more, over time, on avoidable legal costs to fight the claims of sub-postmasters?
- Does the civil service have a conflict of interest in deciding whether to support a judge-led inquiry, given that a judge may criticise officials for being a party to, or turning a blind eye, to the Horizon scandal as it unfolded?
- Does the Horizon IT scandal continue? It emerges that the Post Office maintains control over, and is dealing in secret with, an unknown number of sub-postmasters who were not part of Alan Bates’ High Court litigation but who have experienced problems with Horizon, including shortfalls. The Post Office has made no commitment to paying them compensation or returning their losses.
- Why have people not been held to account although it is months since a High Court ruling was scathing in its criticism of the Post Office’s conduct and costs during the litigation, its dealings with sub-postmasters, the inaccuracy of corporate statements to the media and Parliament and the withholding of relevant evidence from the court?
- Could sub-postmasters continue to be blamed for shortfalls they know nothing about if nothing fundamentally changes?
- Will the minutes of Post Office board meetings be published to enable scrutiny of the costly and a futile decision last year to try and remove the judge in the Horizon IT litigation?
- Will those minutes, if published, reveal whether the civil service has been a party to Post Office board’s decisions?
- In any dispute between he civil service and MPs, including Boris Johnson, over whether to hold a judge-led inquiry, who would win?
Asked whether the Post Office’s compensation of £57.75m to former sub-postmasters represented justice., Furey replied “Absolutely not.”
He said it is “so important to get a judge-led inquiry”.” He added that the vast majority of people operating local Post Office “want to provide a fabulous community service and are part of the fabric of society”. But when money went missing, the Post Office’s position was to “presume the sub-postmasters were guilty”.
He said the culture of the Post Office was to defend Horizon at all costs. “From the outset they could not have a position where Horizon could be questionable because that would jeopardise its business plan, its operating model and its ability to make profits”. After accusing local businessmen and women of taking money that had been shown as shortfalls on Horizon, the Post Office escorted them out of their buildings and told them they could not visit their own post offices again even if their homes were above or at the back of them.
“This is a national scandal,” Furey told MPs, adding, “It has impacted on peoples’ reputations and the Post Office needs to be held to account”. What is known about the scandal today has emerged only because of the litigation brought about by Alan Bates and other claimants, he said.
“The PO should hide its head in shame.”
Chartered accountant Ron Warmington of 2nd sight said his company only agreed to accept a contract with the Post Office to investigate the complaints of sub-postmasters on the basis that it wanted to establish the truth,
But the Post Office withheld information. “Frankly,” he said, “it was one of the worst and most difficult investigations I have ever carried out in terms of the client relationship.”
BBC Panorama is due to broadcast a documentary on the Horizon scandal on 23 March – how the Post Office covered up evidence of miscarriages of justice.
Alan Bates called during the hearing for the “dead wood” within the Post Office to be cleared out. He referred to people who “knew the truth” but carried on with the actions against sub-postmasters.
But clearing out dead wood is not going to happen: the civil service and the Post Office do not want accountability or a judge-led inquiry.
Boris Johnson has suggested that he supports an inquiry but it is likely the civil service will have the final say.
Antony Jay, co-writer of “Yes minister”, said one thing he had learned in researching the TV series was that the civil service was the “real government”. .
He told the Daily Telegraph that, deep in their hearts, most politicians respected civil servants but “deep in their hearts most civil servants despised politicians”. He said,
“After researching and writing 44 episodes and a play, I find government much easier to understand by looking at ministers as public relations consultants to the real government – which is, of course, the Civil Service.”
Which raises the question: why would the civil service want a judge-led inquiry? By funding and sanctioning Post Office actions that led to the scandal, the civil service has much to lose by any inquiry and nothing to gain.
Indeed it is clear it failed in its role of scrutinising, challenging and not accepting at face value what it was told by the Post Office.
A judge-led inquiry may still happen though, if MPs, peers, committees and Parliament generally, keep campaigning for one.
Clearly, for the victims of the scandal, what the Post Office has done and what the state has sanctioned, knowingly or not, can never be undone. But not having an inquiry, not paying fair compensation, not holding people to account and offering up a plate of platitudes instead makes things much worse.
As things stand, officials and business ministers seem happy to accept 20 years of injustice and hundreds of lives ruined in order to protect a public institution and the civil service.
Today, across the world, the UK has a reputation for justice and a sometimes grudging fairness. But the more the state tolerates the damage caused by the Horizon scandal, the more it openly and fragrantly repudiates those virtues of justice and fairness.