MPs who are holding an inquiry into the Post Office Horizon IT scandal have dropped plans to cross question the Post Office’s current and former CEOs and a senior executive of Fujitsu.
It’s a blow to campaigners for justice who are concerned that nobody has been held to account for what is being described as one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British history. The scandal might have claimed more than 1,000 former sub-postmasters as victims. The Post Office prosecuted an unknown number of sub-postmasters over money shown as missing on an untrustworthy Horizon branch accounting system.
Now MPs on the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy committee will have no opportunity during their current Horizon inquiry to cross question Nick Read, the Post Office’s CEO. MPs had been expected to question him on Zoom or similar video conference system.
Read has not at any time faced cross questioning on his public statements over the scandal.
The committee has also dropped plans to cross question Read’s predecessor Paula Vennells, Post Office CEO from 2012 to 2019. Instead, the committee has given Vennells, Read and the Post Office’s Horizon system supplier Fujitsu a set of written questions to be answered by 16 June.
But former sub-postmaster Alan Bates, whose successful group litigation in the High Court against the Post Office exposed numerous flaws in the Horizon system, says he fully expects the written answers to be “crafted and polished by a team of lawyers” and may say little.
It has further emerged that the committee has no plans to cross question any civil servants from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy which was responsible for overseeing the Post Office. The Department’s ministers and civil servants allowed the Horizon scandal to continue unchecked for more than a decade. They rejected repeated warnings about Horizon’s flaws from MPs whose constituents were among the Post Office’s victims.
Bates has set up a crowdfunding campaign to hold the department for BEIS to account for its failed oversight of the Post Office. The campaign has a one-month deadline to raise funds for a QC’s formal complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman. It has so far raised about a third of the target £98,000.
Sub-postmasters lost their freedom, livelihoods, houses, marriages, life savings and sometimes their lives because the Post Office held them liable for money shown as missing on Horizon. But while prosecuting sub-postmasters, the Post Office kept it a secret from defence lawyers that some Fujitsu IT engineers could remotely access sub-postmasters’ branch Horizon systems and, without their knowledge, change code for software maintenance reasons. These changes could, potentially, show phantom shortfalls that the Post Office could demand that sub-postmasters make good.
In a Panorama documentary “Scandal at the Post Office”, which was broadcast on Monday, Vennells appears to hang up the phone on reporter Nick Wallis when he begins asking her a question about remote access…
Wallis: “Hello Ms Vennells. This is Nick Wallis from the Panorama programme. This conversation is being filmed. I’d like to ask you some questions about your tenure as Chief Executive of the Post Office.”
Vennells, “I am sorry Nick. I have already given a statement to the programme. Thank you.”
Wallis: “I would like to ask you why the Post Office knew about remote access to the Horizon system …” The phone line appears to go dead after Wallis’ words “remote access”.
Wallis then says to the camera, “This is one of the biggest frustrations about covering this story for so long: the consistent refusal of the chief executive and people at the top to answer serious questions about what’s been happening. I think the sub-postmasters deserve better than that.”
No media interviews
Vennells did not answer any of Panorama’s questions and Nick Read has given no media interviews on the Horizon scandal since he took over from Vennells in September last year.
When Campaign4Change asked the Post Office this week why Read has given no media interviews on Horizon, it referred us to a statement on its website.
Campaign4Change also asked MP Darren Jones, chairman of the BEIS committee, why its MPs have dropped their plan to question Nick Read on his written answers, at least during the committee’s current Horizon inquiry.
We put it to Jones that some people may see the role of the BEIS committee as providing accountability. We said that some people may not understand why the committee has decided to give the Post Office an opportunity to answer written questions and not face questions on its answers. We added that Sir Peter Fraser QC, the judge in the Horizon litigation, had commented a number of times on deficiencies in the Post Office’s written and verbal responses to the High Court.
Jones replied, “The Committee’s evidence session on 24 March on the Post Office and Horizon with Post Office Ltd CEO, Nick Read, the former CEO, Paula Vennells, and Fujitsu had been scheduled for Tuesday 24th March but was postponed due to the Covid-19 lockdown. Given the importance of issues around Horizon, the Committee was keen to follow up to ask questions of the Post Office Ltd and Fujitsu. While we have no immediate plans to hold further public hearing, we shall be publishing the responses of the Post Office Ltd and Fujitsu and deciding how to follow up with recommendations for Government on any issues raised.”
He added, “Sub-postmasters deserve justice. It’s important the Post Office Ltd and the Government genuinely learn the lessons from this scandal and take the actions necessary to ensure this kind of mistreatment of dedicated sub-postmasters and postal staff can never arise again.”
We also asked Jones whether he fully endorses a letter by Rachel Reeves, his predecessor, to Boris Johnson in March 2020. The letter called for a full independent inquiry into the Horizon scandal, the Department for BEIS having committed only to an independent “review”.
Jones replied, “The previous Chair, Rachel Reeves, wrote to the Prime Minister about his apparent commitment to a public inquiry and, as a Committee, we will consider how to follow up on this issue.”
Alan Bates was particularly concerned that officials at the Department for BEIS are not giving evidence to the committee on the Horizon scandal. “Hopefully,” said Bates, “we will have an opportunity to address that through the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s investigation should we manage to find the funding to pursue this route.”
MP Karl Turner told Monday evening’s BBC Panorama why he wants a judge-led inquiry into the Horizon scandal. “People went to prison. Peoples’ livelioods were lost and some of the victims ended their lives. That is enough for a judge-led public inquiry.”
Lord Arbuthnot, former Conservative defence minister, who has campaigned for justice for sub-postmasters for nearly 10 years, told Panorama there has been a Post Office cover-up that is probably still going on.
He said, “I have never heard of anything like it at all where a government-owned organisation attacked, on the basis of false evidence, the integrity of so many pillars of the community. It is a quite extraordinary story.”
Wallis: “Has there been a cover-up?“
Lord Arbuthnot: “I believe there has been. It’s probably still going on.”
Seema Misra, a former sub-postmistress who was jailed on the basis of money shown as missing on Horizon, told the programme that the Post Office had been “lying from the start”. Another Post Office Horizon victim Janet Skinner, who was given a nine-month prison sentence, questioned how injustices can happen without anyone being held accountable.
Wallis ended the programme saying, “A much-loved institution has become a national disgrace. Hundreds of lives have been shattered by the scandal at the Post Office.”
The power of Parliamentary committees lies in their ability to cross question witnesses. Sometimes the witnesses’ answers – or non answers – attract TV, radio and newspaper coverage that holds the witnesses to account.
At one point the Public Accounts Committee MPs made a civil service lawyer appearing before them swear an oath to tell the truth after he gave a series of unhelpful answers.
Why then has the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy committee forfeited its big chance to cross question, on Zoom if necessary, Nick Read, Paula Vennells and a senior Fujitsu executive?
Governments all but ignore reports of House of Commons committees. Civil servants can write Government replies to select committee reports almost with their eyes closed. It is the committee’s cross questioning of witnesses that matters.
The BEIS committee has asked some good questions of Read, Vennells and Fujtsu’s legal head. But imagine a QC in a High Court civil case saying to someone in the witness box, “Now be prepared please … I am about to ask you a series tricky questions for which I will require written answers in about two weeks time.”
Read, Vennells and Fujitsu may give open, candid and direct answers to the committee’s written questions. But if the answers are unhelpful, the committee’s MPs, by allowing their key witnesses to avoid cross questioning, will have, in essence, brought their Horizon inquiry to a premature end, thus deepening the Horizon scandal.
Tomorrow: What Alan Bates would have wanted the committee to ask the Post Office.