By Tony Collins
Yesterday in the House of Commons, MPs debated whether the Post Office Horizon IT scandal ought to be the subject of an independent “review” or an independent judge-led inquiry.
MPs of all parties were adamant they wanted a judge-led inquiry and the minister insisted on a “review”.
Perhaps the difference between a judge-led inquiry and a review is simply explained in the following imaginary episode of Yes Minister…
Hacker (Sitting behind his desk): “What are we going to do Sir Humphrey? They all seem to want a judge-led inquiry. We don’t want one of those do we?
Sir Humphrey (Standing in front of the desk): Absolutely not.
Hacker: Why not?
Sir Humphrey: Because judge-led inquiries are not what we do.
Hacker: But people want accountability. They want heads to roll. (Looking down with lowered voice). Mine perhaps. They say we’re implicated in this, scandal. The least we can do is have a judge-led inquiry. Surely?
Sir Humphrey: Actually minister there’s a way of dealing with these things that’s much more … (smiles, with emphasis) reassuring.
Sir Humphrey: We have a “review“. That’s the way to deal with these things.
Hacker: What’s the difference? Judge-led inquiry or review. They’re the same thing aren’t they?
Sir Humphrey: Yes minister. In everything except the detail.
Hacker: What do you mean?
Sir Humphrey: Well a judge-led inquiry may want to talk to you.
Hacker: (with alarm) Me?
Sir Humphrey: Yes and possibly … us.
Hacker: We can’t have that!
Sir Humphrey: Quite.
Hacker: But won’t people object to a review? It doesn’t sound like it’s going to get to the bottom of this; they’re calling it the biggest scandal of modern times.
Sir Humphrey: We call it an independent review.
Hacker: What’s independent about it?
Sir Humphrey. We appoint the chair.
Hacker: But isn’t an independent chair the same as a judge?
Sir Humphrey: Judges have a habit of wanting the facts. They like documents. Letters. Internal confidential reports. That sort of thing. They may even want evidence on oath.
Hacker: But doesn’t the chair of a review?
Sir Humphrey: That’s the beauty of a review. It takes the facts we already know, everything that’s already known and, well … reviews it.
Hacker: Well what’s the point of a review then?
Sir Humphrey (stroking his chin, contemplative): Exactly. (Looks at his feet, almost under his breath). Yes, what is the point.
Hacker: (triumphant) A review it shall be!
Sir Humphrey: (reluctantly) Yes, Minister
Now the serious bit … Alan Bates, founder of Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance wants donations to hold the civil service to account over the Horizon IT scandal. The Ombudsman can recommend that proper compensation be paid to victims of the scandal. Bates seeks to raise £98,000 in the next three weeks to fund a complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman. Any investigation by the Ombudsman is likely to offset the friendly pointlessness of a civil service-ordered “review”.