By Tony Collins
As ministers with the Post Office in your remit, you could change the lives of hundreds of families by setting up a judge-led inquiry. Or you could do what your predecessors did when faced with the Horizon scandal: shrug and side with the Post Office. For any minister who goes into politics to make a difference, this could be a career-defining decision .
Not all ministers are spokespeople for their departments. Now and again a minister will stand up to officials and go against what countless ministers have said before. That minister in 2011 was Liam Fox. His determination to put right a long-standing miscarriage of justice will not go down in history. It’s not even mentioned in his entry in Wikipedia. But he knows he changed, for at least a generation, the lives of two families.
John Cook and Mike Tapper lost their sons in a notorious helicopter crash on the Mull of Kintyre in 1994. Everyone on board died, including 25 senior police and intelligence officers. The RAF found the two pilots, Flight-Lieutenants Rick Cook and Jonathan Tapper, grossly negligent. But computer and other problems with the helicopter type, the Chinook Mk2, were hidden until, five years after the crash, Computer Weekly published a 145-page report “RAF Justice – How the Royal Air Force blamed two dead pilots and covered up problems with the Chinook’s computer system FADEC.” But the civil service and ministers still kept to the official line that the pilots were to blame. Even a cross-party House of Lords committee that was set up to investigate the crash had no influence. It questioned the two air marshals who had found the pilots grossly negligent. One of the air marshals came to the committee with slides to show how the pilots had failed to keep the helicopter and its passengers safe. The committee found that the RAF had not justified its case against the pilots. But its report and a similar one from the Public Accounts Committee on the Chinook Mk2’s ‘s flaws were to no avail. The Ministry of Defence repeated its line that there was no new evidence. For 16 years successive defence ministers and defence secretaries sided with the civil servants and RAF against the pilots. John Cook, father of pilot Rick, died before he saw the campaign’s conclusion.
It was not until Fox took over as defence secretary in 2010 that the official position began to change. He commissioned the first judge-led government investigation of the crash. It found that the defence establishment was wrong and the Cook and Tapper families were right. Fox could have left it at that: as yet another independent inquiry report that made no difference, albeit a judge-led one. But Fox went much further. He took on the defence establishment.
The formal finding against the pilots could be overturned only by the Defence Council, a formal body on which sit the country’s defence leaders including the Chief of the Defence Staff, senior officers from the Royal Navy, Army and RAF, the head of the MoD and the Defence Secretary. How he achieved it we do not know, but somehow Fox came out a closed-doors meeting of the Defence Council with the finding of gross negligence set aside. Subsequently, the Tapper and Cook families watched from the House of Commons gallery as Fox gave them an unequivocal apology. It mattered, because the pilots had young children who would now grow up with pride in their fathers who had died in the service of their country. Were it not for Fox, the civil service could today be asserting in their letters to the Cook and Tapper families that there was no new evidence and the pilots were to blame.
Boris Johnson supports a government inquiry into the Horizon scandal just as David Cameron supported a government inquiry into the blaming of the pilots for the Chinook crash. There is another common factor: the Horizon campaign for justice has the ardent support of Lord Arbuthnot who was a leading Parliamentary campaigner for the families of Rick Cook and Jonathan Tapper. Lord Arbuthnot knows he has right on his side now, as he did then. But that may not be enough.
The Post Office retains its power and has the full support of a civil service that, in relation to the Horizon litigation’s aftermath, does not see itself as an entrenched and uncaring bureaucracy.
Justice campaigners who call for a judge-led inquiry into the Horizon scandal have no support from the civil service and the Post Office who want only a “review”. That is why it falls to Paul Scully and Alok Sharma to make the difficult decision on whether to insist, as Fox did, for a judge-led investigation.
Lord Arbuthnot gives one reason for wanting a judge-led inquiry,
“We need an inquiry and, since the Post Office has repeatedly given inaccurate information including to me, it needs to be led by a judge.”
It is a difficult decision for Scully and Sharma to take because, just as the civil service and ministers held to the wrong official line for 16 years in the Cook and Tapper case, the Post Office and civil service will hold to the wrong official line indefinitely without a Fox-like intervention.
An insight into the Post Office’s attitude to a judge-led inquiry can be gained from its history of thin-skinned reactions to scrutiny and criticism: it sacked and criticised accountants Second Sight who were critical of Horizon and it spent hundreds of thousands of pounds trying to remove the judge in the High Court Horizon trials whose rulings had favoured sub-postmasters; its verbal attacks on its critics during the High Court hearings were harsh and it tried to prevent much of the other side’s evidence being heard in court. Since the litigation, the Post Office has apologised for past events only, not for its conduct, inaccurate statements and high spending during the High Court trials, all of which the judge criticised.
The civil service’s objections to a judge-led inquiry are likely to focus on three things: cost, a likely requirement to compromise necessary confidentiality and a possible awkward recommendation that government pays the legal and funding costs of sub-postmasters in their litigation against the Post Office.
These objections are one-sided. Put into context, a judge-led inquiry would cost less than 5% of the money the Post Office has spent on fighting sub-postmasters and settling the High Court litigation.
On confidentiality, it is true a judge-led inquiry would require an openness the civil service would find hard to accept, such as the disclosure of relevant internal emails. Scully’s department BEIS and HM Treasury’s UK Government Investments, as the body that provides a representative to sit on the Post Office board, would object to disclosing internal emails on public interest grounds. Officials often argue that what journalists call secrecy civil servants call a “safe space” to give candid advice to each other and to ministers in the interests of smooth government. But a lack of openness allowed the Horizon IT scandal to spread unchecked for more than a decade. Fujitsu, Horizon’s supplier, did not disclose problems with the system while sub-postmasters were prosecuted on the basis of Horizon’s stated resilience. The Post Office also did not disclose problems. It took High Court trials costing many tens of millions of pounds to establish the truth about Horizon’s flaws.
One indication of the Post Office’s attitude towards openness and scrutiny can be seen in its citing of the Official Secrets Act in its dealings with sub-postmasters, to the surprise of Sir Peter Fraser QC, the judge in the Horizon trials. It was understandable that General Post Office workers during the two world wars were required to sign the Official Secrets Act when they were involved in wireless communications and intelligence gathering. But the Act’s use in dealings with sub-postmasters who have complained about Horizon is, arguably, a matter for an inquiry judge.
On the civil service’s objections to paying the legal and funding costs of the sub-postmasters’ litigation against the Post Office, it was the dogged efforts of former sub-postmaster Alan Bates, his lead claimants and their legal team that led to the unearthing of what is being described as the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history.
It was this legal action that proved the Horizon faults and has led to reviews of more than 500 potentially unsafe criminal convictions. Boris Johnson has called the Post Office’s actions taken against sub-postmasters a scandal. He said he has met some of the victims. He is aware that being blamed for shortfalls shown on Horizon could lead to imprisonment, bankruptcy and suicide. But for Bates’ litigation, those 500 or more criminal convictions would not now be under review – a reason in itself to meet the litigation costs from public funds of Bates and the other sub-postmasters?
Without a judge-led inquiry, the spin will doubtless continue. The Post Office has announced that the High Court settlement of Bates’ group litigation was agreed by both sides. But Post Office officials know that sub-postmasters had no choice but to settle because of a risk their funding would otherwise run out, even though they had won every one of six judgements so far and seemed set to win all further judgements. The Post Office had no such funding risk: it could have walked out of the mediation with no consequences for any of its individuals. The sub-postmasters did not have the same freedom.
The result was that the Post Office succeeded in ending a legal case it was losing by paying the fees of lawyers and litigation funders and leaving the sub-postmasters, its legal opponents, out of pocket, some of them by hundreds of thousands of pounds.
As of now, five months after the litigation ended, the sub-postmasters remain punished and the Post Office unpunished.
Nobody outside the Post Office and civil service will think it right to abandon former sub-postmasters who have been through years of trauma, including a difficult High Court case and who, in the end, have performed a public service on an historic scale.
The Post Office remains fully in control: at no point in nearly 20 years of the scandal have ministers sided with sub-postmasters, as Fox sided with the Cook and Tapper families.
Scully and Sharma have it within them to break the mould. The easy option would be to shrug off calls for the accountability and scrutiny of a judge-led inquiry. Or they could stand up to their officials, their department and the civil service hierarchy including Downing Street officials who seem determined to undermine Boris Johnson’s commitment to “get to the bottom” of the scandal.
Justice for the families of Rick Cook and Jonathan Tapper was a long time in coming. But campaigners knew it would come eventually.
If this government decides merely to set up a safe “review”, it will set off more Parliamentary calls for a judge-led inquiry and sub-postmasters may have to wait for a new government and new ministers who have no equity in what has gone before.
But Scully and Sharma may want to right nearly two decades of wrongs during this Parliament. When, in the future, their Parliamentary careers end, they will then be able to feel quietly satisfied that they were able to make a difference. Such an opportunity does not present itself in every ministerial career.
One thing is certain: structural, fundamental and attitudinal change will never come to the Post Office however many new CEOs it has. As Alan Bates knows well, the Post Office has shown during the litigation and since that it will yield temporarily to weaker forces only when the law requires it.
Scully and Sharma do not have to give up supporting the Post Office or the civil service to side with sub-postmasters. But setting up a judge-led inquiry would require ministerial determination to make it happen. Paul Scully and Alok Sharma – your decision could have a deep and lasing effect on the lives of hundreds of families.