By Tony Collins
Boris Johnson agreed in February to an “inquiry” over what he called a “scandal” and a “disaster” that has befallen many Post Office workers. But civil servants and their ministers want only a “review”. Since Johnson’s promise, the scandal has deepened with the Daily Mail revealing that another 500 criminal convictions – nine times more than thought – may be unsafe. MPs and peers are likely to see this as reinforcing the need for a judge-scandalled inquiry. In contrast, civil servants, in their recent letters to former sub-postmasters, appear to see the whole matter as passé. But journalist Nick Wallis reported recently on a case that suggests the Post Office’ s controversial approaches and attitudes to sub-postmasters who have inexplicable shortfalls on the Horizon computer system continue. Even so, civil service leaders seem to want to put the Horizon affair into a black sack labelled “historical issues”, courier it off to a state-appointed review panel and archive the published “lessons learned” report as soon as practicable. But the scandal is now described as the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history. Campaigners will not be content with a review that doesn’t allow for witnesses to be cross examined or the full conduct of the Post Office to be challenged. The stage appears set for a new and prolonged dispute. On one side are campaigners who perhaps include Boris Johnson. On the other side are civil servants and their ministers. When, as expected, business minister Paul Scully announces the commissioning of an independent review, not a judge-led inquiry, the Post Office and some senior civil servants may cheer quietly but campaigners will ask what happened to justice and accountability. Is part 2 of the Horizon IT scandal about to begin?
Boris Johnson told MPs in February he has met some of the victims of the Post Office IT scandal. He was aware it had caused bankruptcies, imprisonment and suicide.
Asked by Labour MP Kate Osborne if he would commit to an “independent inquiry”, he said,
“I am happy to commit to getting to the bottom of the matter in the way that she recommends.”
But business minister Paul Scully, who represents the Post Office in Parliament, has referred to Boris Johnson as wanting a “review”. At no point has Scully’s department BEIS committed to an inquiry.
Scully told the Commons,
“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.”
Scully used the “review” word again – not inquiry – when replying to a tweet by Nichola Arch, a former sub-postmistress who is one of the Post Office’s Horizon victims. Arch had tweeted that Scully, after a debate on Horizon in the Commons, was a “complete coward”. Scully tweeted in reply,
“Sorry you felt that way. Hoping to get more details of a meaningful review as soon as possible.”
Scully has repeated the “review” word in recent correspondence.
Inquiry v Review – phase 2 of the Horizon scandal?
On the “meaningful review” side are civil servants at Downing Street, the business department BEIS, the Post Office, business ministers Paul Scully and Martin Callanan who represent the Post Office in Parliament and their boss business secretary Alok Sharma.
But a review may be the civil service’s equivalent of throwing a beach ball directly into the hands of a four year-old on a windless day: all being well the outcome is predictable.
An independent review has no cross examination of civil servants or other witnesses, no forced disclosure of emails, letters and internal assessments, no identification of individuals involved in the scandal and perhaps most important of all, no asking of questions the Post Office would be unhappy to answer: a review is collegiate and consensual in civil service tradition. Therefore there would be no summing up by each side of their case and no judge to weigh up the conflicting evidence and reach a conclusion.
Old and new
Recommendations of a review panel are likely to be, in the main, unchallenging and abstract. Their wording would be in keeping with the terms of reference which could be along the lines of “To review the lessons learned from the introduction of the Post Office Horizon system, in terms of past dealings with sub-postmasters.”
Indeed, in their speeches this year on the Horizon affair, ministers have spoken in vague terms about what changes are underway: a strengthened relationship with postmasters and the taking on board of lessons learned.
It may of note that at no time has Scully described the Horizon affair as a “scandal ” – the word used by Boris Johnson. Scully suggested in one speech on Horizon that the litigation process (which sub-postmasters launched against the Post Office) had caused an impact on sub-postmasters.
Summing up the government’s reaction to a debate in the House of Commons on Horizon, he told MPs
“It is impossible to ignore the impact that the litigation process has had on the affected postmasters and their families.”
It seems particularly important to civil servants that, in terms of public perception, the Post Office’s conduct is divided into old and new: it was the old regime that was responsible for wrongly blaming sub-postmasters for money shown on the Horizon system as missing. The new regime under its CEO Nick Read who j0ined in September last year is seen in Whitehall as having a caring, modernising culture of reform and self-improvement; it is clearing up a long-ago mess for which nobody today can be held responsible.
Indeed, official apologies from the Post Office and its ministers for the Horizon affair have been confined to “past” shortcomings only.
The official line is that Horizon has been, in recent years, relatively robust, that the litigation between former sub-postmasters and the Post Office has been settled successfully with the agreement of both sides and the Post Office’s new CEO makes all the difference.
Asked in the Commons in March by campaigning MP Karl Turner about whether the minister supported a judge-led inquiry, Scully replied, “We will certainly look at how we can keep the Post Office on its toes in future and at how to look back to learn the lessons …”
Scully has range of job responsibilities at BEIS including the Post Office. The Horizon scandal puts him in a difficult position: he is the Parliamentary spokesman for the Post Office and BEIS who would be the two main subjects of any inquiry. He has no obligation to represent former sub-postmasters and indeed could decide to do nothing about the Horizon affair but he has ruled this out. He told the House of Commons, in a debate on the Horizon matter, “I will not wash my hands of it.”
Fujitsu, the supplier of Horizon, is unlikely to participate in any review or inquiry as it may be the subject of a police investigation. The judge in the Horizon litigation having said he was referring Fujitsu to the director of public prosecutions.
Addressing a packed courtroom last year, the judge, Mr Justice Fraser QC, expressed his “very grave concerns” about the evidence given by employees of Fujitsu. Such evidence had been given in the Crown court, in actions brought by the Post Office, as well as the High Court, he said.
Review no-go areas?
Likely no-go areas for any review include the question of why the Post Office would be any different in its dealings with a non-statutory review than in its dealings with the High Court which, the judge found, were nether open nor impartial. The Post Office wanted evidence withheld, and what it said in evidence was, in part, wrong, inaccurate, inconsistent and out of context.
Another possible “no-go” question for a review is whether the civil service and its ministers, in holding nobody to account for the Horizon scandal, are ending a clear message to hundreds of publicly-owned organisations not to worry if their actions cause bankruptcies, imprisonment and suicide.
A petition calling for a judicial inquiry, which has been signed by more than 5,300 people and has the support of more than 100 MPs, has been handed in to Downing Street. The petition was started by Christopher Head, a former sub-postmaster who lost about £100,000 in the scandal.
Head’s petition was clear in calling for a judicial inquiry. It did not ask for a review.
Tomorrow – questions a review may avoid.
To anyone who didn’t get to the shops, Private Eye’s superb piece of investigative journalism “Justice Lost in the Post“, written by Nick Wallis and Richard Brooks, is available to buy online here.
A thorough investigation of a Horizon bug that can affect Horizon balances in a local branch, possibly the result of intermittent hardware problems – Tim McCormack, Problems with POL blog.
Chirag’s story – Nick Wallis’ blog