By Tony Collins
Today Tom Brown is destitute. He lost his home, his businesses, his reputation and £500,000, because the publicly-owned Post Office made him pay for non-existent shortfalls shown on its Horizon system.
Yesterday, in a Commons debate on the Post Office Horizon IT scandal, Brown’s campaigning MP Kevan Jones set out Brown’s plight as an example of the misery caused by the Horizon IT scandal.
But the new business minister Paul Scully said nothing about compensating Brown or hundreds of other victims of the Horizon system’s phantom shortfalls.
Instead Scully offered the possibility of an inquiry – with no assurance it would be independent of his department BEIS – and also offered Jones some reassuring words.
He said he will more closely monitor the Post Office and a representative of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will continue to challenge the Post Office on its corporate governance and strategy. He said the Post Office has a new CEO and two new non-executive directors.
But MPs criticisms of the Post Office yesterday raised questions about the institution’s attitudes and behaviours that are not confined to the board.
It appears that Post Office auditors were comfortable accusing Brown of being a criminal when the Post Office given him an award for valour after he fended off a knifeman wearing a Halloween mask.
Tory MP Jerome Mayhew, a former barrister, told the minister of the aggression of Post Office auditors who interviewed his constituent Siobhan Sayer, a sub-postmistress who had trouble with Horizon balances.
When she asked for help, three Post Office auditors arrived. They suspended her, accused her of theft, searched her house, asked her where she had hidden the money and “interrogated her to such an extent that it stopped only when she physically collapsed”.
The Post Office prosecuted her for theft and for false accounting. She did 200 hours of community service, was shamed in her community, ostracised by her friends, and her mental and emotional health was affected. “That is the consequence of the actions and inactions of the Post Office and its servant, Fujitsu,” said Mayhew.
Many other former sub-postmasters had similar experiences with Post Office auditors and managers – which raises questions about whether board-level changes will alter attitudes and behaviour within the institution’s middle and senior management.
MPs yesterday said that the Post Office was denying Horizon was at fault and was continuing to blame sub-postmasters until the point of the mediation settlement in December 2019.
Until then, the Post Office was on record as having described some of the former sub-postmasters who took part in a group litigation against the Post Office as criminals and liars.
Is it likely any of these views will have changed within the Post Office simply because of a settlement at mediation?
Paul Scully has a particularly difficult job as the new business minister in charge of the Post Office. He is caught between the former sub-postmasters who want accountability and fair compensation and his civil servants who are more comfortable with an offering of platitudes such as closer monitoring, better governance and lessons learned.
The two sides are poles apart. Scully is in the middle. Yesterday he read parts of his civil service brief and described the Post Office shortcomings as in the “past” but it was clear he sympathised with the former sub-postmasters.
In his new job, he doesn’t need the support of former sub-postmasters but he does need the unequivocal support of his civil servants. He is trying to get on with both sides.
But platitudes, a non-independent inquiry, a new Post Office CEO and two new non-executive director on the Post Office will make little difference. The problem nobody can solve is an institutional arrogance built on a culture of secrecy, denial and a deep resentment of criticism and critics.
How will the minister and new Post Office CEO be able tackle institutional problems as profound as those referred to by MPs yesterday?
These are some comments of MPs in yesterday’s debate:
- The Government appear to be content to act as the Post Office’s parliamentary organ, claiming that the December settlement was the end of the matter. Nothing could be further from the truth for the people who are still fighting for justice, and that is why we need a judge-led independent inquiry to take place as soon as feasibly possible.
- The Post Office knew all along that the Horizon system was flawed.
- One cover up after another. The Post Office was still denying that there was a problem with Horizon when it went into court; indeed, its consistent approach has been to deny any type of liability.
- Fujitsu, the Horizon system’s supplier, was as “guilty of cover up as the Post Office”. Fujitsu knew that there were glitches in Horizon.
- Victims of the scandal were failed by the courts as well as the Post Office and Fujitsu. The courts found in favour of the Post Office even though it had not properly evidenced its case.
- “What has to happen now is that a scheme has to be set up to compensate individuals properly” – Kevan Jones.
- “Tom Brown should be enjoying a happy, well-funded retirement, but he is not. He is …living in social housing with his son, and that is not his fault; it is down to people such as Paula Vennells (ex Post Office CEO) and the board at the Post Office, and the failure and cover-ups that have been perpetrated by individuals. The Government, who should have stood up for him, have turned a blind eye …” –Jones
- MPs have had people in their constituency surgeries who have been in tears because of the way the Post Office has treated them. “They have been diligent public servants for many years, and it is intolerable that they have ended up in this situation.” – Martin Vickers.
- “Ministers have tried to wash their hands of it. They stood back when clear injustices were being ignored.” – Vickers.
- A litany of maladministration at the very least. “Have any individuals at management level in either at Post Office Ltd or Fujitsu ever been held accountable for this?” asked MP John Spellar. The complete opposite, replied Kevan Jones.
- “We are unable, as parliamentarians, to scrutinise the Post Office…trying to scrutinise the Post Office and get it to account … is virtually impossible. When I have asked parliamentary questions, they are referred to the Post Office. ” – Jones.
- David Linden, Why was £100m of public money spent defending the High Court case [brought by former sub-postmasters] when it was clear that the Post Office “had no business continuing to prosecute innocent people?
- Jones, “I respect those who have religious faith … but the way that (Paula Vennells, a priest) has treated these people cannot be described as very Christian. She certainly would not pass the good Samaritan test, given the way she has ignored their pleas. I hope she thinks about people like Tom [Tom Brown], who have lost their livelihoods and are now living in social housing because of her actions. It angers me that these individuals have gone scot-free, and they need to be answerable for their action.”
- The role of ministers including Jo Swinson, Claire Perry and Kelly Tolhurst: “They all completely believed what they were being told by the Post Office, never asked any questions about how public money was being spent and allowed the Post Office to continue what it has been doing.”
- Dame Diana Johnson, “… this issue about MPs not being able to find out what happened. In the Hillsborough inquiry, the Bishop of Liverpool talked about the ‘patronising disposition of unaccountable power’. This is a classic case of exactly that.”
- Dame Johnson, “I also want to put on the record how grateful my constituent Janet Skinner is that MPs such as [Kevan Jones] and others have pursued this matter for many years to try to get justice for the people involved.”
- “The National Federation of SubPostmasters needs winding up now. It is not independent, nobody joins it—sub-postmasters are auto-enrolled. It is basically an arm of the Post Office and is paid for by the Post Office.” – Jones.
- The right of the Post Office to take forward its own prosecutions needs to be removed… When Tom Brown asked whether he could get the police or the Crown Prosecution Service involved in looking at the evidence against him, he was told no, said Jones.
- “… we need to expose who did what … what I would argue was criminal activity took place. People have to be prosecuted. Given their involvement, they certainly need to be removed from any public bodies on which they currently serve.” – Jones.
- … given the tyrannical conduct of the Post Office over the years, it [Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance] had no alternative but to seek litigation.” – Martin Vickers.
- “Scores of postmasters contacted the Post Office to tell it of discrepancies. They were not trying to hide them. Their actions were hardly those of someone deliberately engaging in fraudulent activity.” – Vickers.
- “… it is staggering that Fujitsu could access a sub-postmaster’s account without his or her knowledge. That left it wide open—though one hopes that this was not the case—to others to interfere with the account entries.” – Vickers.
- Karl Turner, “… a few days ago I received some startling documents. In 2006, a sub-postmaster was prosecuted. I have documents showing discussions between lawyers within the Post Office conceding that there was no theft, no dishonesty, no fraud and no false accounting in this case, yet she was prosecuted. It is utterly disgusting. When this person found out that these documents existed, because they had been leaked to her, she asked the Post Office whether they would produce the documents to the Criminal Cases Review Commission and she was met with aggression the likes of which I have never seen. She was told that these documents were privileged and that if they were leaked she could be in serious trouble. There was bullying, aggression, and constant lies from the very beginning—lie after lie after lie.”
- Turner, “… senior officials in the Post Office and Fujitsu did everything they possibly could to protect themselves. They knew. Let us be absolutely clear about that. They knew that there were victims who might go to prison—or who had already gone, at that point. It is utterly disgusting.”
- Lucy Allan, “I too have a constituent … who was 18 years old and was sent to Holloway for six months, accused of theft and failing to apologise to the grannies she was supposed to have stolen from. She has not had her name cleared. She has been waiting five years for the Criminal Cases Review Commission to do that.”
- Turner, “The Post Office was believed. The lies that Ministers, officials and everyone else were told along the line were believed as well. That is why only a judge-led inquiry can possibly sort this out. We need to know who knew what, what they knew, when they knew it and why they acted as they did.”
- David Jones, “If it had not been for his [Alan Bates, former sub-postmaster who led a group litigation against the Post Office] tenacity and that of others, the consequences would have been that the wrongdoings of the Post Office and Fujitsu would have gone undetected and the reputations of many hundreds of completely decent, innocent people would have been completely destroyed without any hope of being repaired.”
- David Jones, “It is … a credit to Mr Nick Read, the new chief executive of the Post Office, that his intervention helped achieve a settlement to the legal dispute last December, but that settlement cannot be the end of the matter. The Government cannot simply regard the settlement as putting the Horizon issue to bed…. after costs are taken into account, the settlement sums for those 500-plus litigants will be paltry. The Government have a duty to further compensate the sub-postmasters who have been so appallingly treated by a Government-owned company.”
- David Jones, “… the deplorable conduct of those responsible for the direction of the Post Office, including non-executive directors appointed by the Government…”
- Bambos Charalambous, “While after the trial the Post Office chairman conceded that it had got things wrong in the past, the fact was that the Post Office fought the action until the bitter end, and that speaks volumes.”
- Kevin Hollinrake, “why have the courts not stood up for these people … the courts are structurally biased in favour of large, trusted brands. That cannot be right. I was always brought up to believe that everybody could get justice …There is a structural imbalance between a sub-postmaster or mistress when they go to the courts and the phalanx of lawyers provided by the Post Office. The courts are used to suppress the truth, and that cannot be right. There have been 110 prosecutions. Back in 2007, in the case of the Post Office Ltd v. Lee Castleton, Judge Havery found that there was irrefutable evidence against Mr Castleton, despite the fact that there was no evidence…We must ask questions of the system: of the Post Office, of course, about who knew what and when—I support the calls for a public inquiry and proper compensation …”
- Chi Onwurah, “Speaking as a former software engineer myself, I am upset and truly disappointed at the way in which technology has been used as an instrument of torture. An IT deployment of this kind—one of the most expensive in the history of the United Kingdom—should have had users and people at its heart. It should not have been turned into a living nightmare—a living nightmare that continues for many sub-postmasters to this day.”
- Paul Scully, business minister, “We have talked about the independent review, which the Prime Minister mentioned a couple of weeks ago. We are looking at the best way to do it. There will be a further announcement as soon as possible in the very near future…”
BBC Panorama – Scandal at the Post Office, presented by journalist Nick Wallis on Monday 23 March.
Yesterday’s Commons debate – Parliamentary TV