By Tony Collins
Business ministers have repeatedly used the word “independent” to describe their planned review of the Post Office Horizon IT scandal.
In the space of 15 minutes, Lords business minister Martin Callanan, in a debate on the scandal last week, used the word “independent” eight times when referring to the review.
But, as it is being boycotted by some of its main potential participants, including the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, the review now largely comprises the Post Office itself and three organisations with which it has financial relationships: its Horizon supplier Fujitsu, the National Federation of SubPostmasters (which receives funding from the Post Office] and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (which provides the Post Office with hundreds of millions of pounds in public funding and is supposed to scrutinise its work).
Far from looking rigorously independent, the review could be said to resemble a Post Office self-help group.
More than 60 MPs, groups of peers, the Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance, forensic accountants Second Sight and the CWU union which represents sub-postmasters, will continue to campaign for a judge-led public inquiry into what is being described as one of the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history.
They say a judge is needed to hold the Post Office to account. When sub-postmasters led by former sub-postmaster Alan Bates successfully sued the Post Office in a group litigation to expose the flaws in Horizon, even the High Court judge in the case struggled at times to obtain full, accurate and truthful evidence from the Post Office.
In the government’s voluntary review of the scandal, the chair would be without the statutory power and authority of the High Court and would be unlikely therefore to be able to require the Post Office to tell the whole truth and disclose all relevant evidence.
For nearly 10 years the Post Office wrongly held sub-postmasters liable for money shown as missing on its flawed Horizon computer system. The Post Office insisted Horizon was robust and covered up its bugs and weaknesses. Hundreds of sub-postmasters were affected by the scandal. Some lost their businesses, life savings, liberty, reputations and health.
It’s unclear how well the business minister Callanan was briefed for last week’s Lords debate on the Horizon scandal.
He told peers that the findings outlined throughout the High Court Horizon judgment provided an extensive insight into what went wrong at the Post Office including an independent judicial view of “all the facts that all sides were looking for”.
But the Post Office, which was the defendant in the case, had fought and lost a costly legal attempt to stop subpostmasters setting up a High Court Group Litigation Order against the Post Office.
In addition, the Post Office fought and lost a bid to stop sub-postmasters presenting a range of evidence that the judge ruled as relevant in the case. The Post Office also tried to remove the judge and criticised many of his findings. The judge found that the Post Office “resisted timely resolution of this Group Litigation whenever it can…”
If a privately-owned company had behaved as the Post Office has behaved, forcing its franchisees to pay large sums of money because a flawed computer system was generating phantom shortfalls, would the authorities confine their response to a lessons-learning review?
An independent review is a classic Sir Humphrey riposte to demands for a judge-led public inquiry. Sir Humphrey knows that such review reports are destined for the archive almost as soon as they are published.
But the momentum in Parliament is for a judge-led inquiry.
Peer group pressure?
One reason business ministers in successive governments have always sided with the Post Office and not the sub-postmasters might be because ministers do not talk regularly to victims of the scandal but have routine meetings with senior officials at the Post Office and senior civil servants at the business department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
The solution therefore may be then for the current business ministers Paul Scully and Martin Callanan to put aside two hours to listen in full to journalist Nick Wallis’ extraordinary BBC R4 documentary The Great Post Office Trial.
Maybe then the ministers would start demanding a judge-led inquiry.
In case they don’t, please donate to this crowdfunding appeal to raise money for a case to be made to the Parliamentary Ombudsman for an investigation into maladministration by the Department of Energy, Business and Industrial Strategy. The Department for BEIS was in denial for nearly 10 years over the Horizon scandal.
Donate here – Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance appeal
Nick Wallis’ 10-part BBC Radio 4 The Great Post Office Trial. The series is a momentous achievement by any documentary standards.
Family of man who killed himself after being wrongly accused of theft demand Post Office bosses are held accountable
Post Office Horizon victims keep up pressure on government – Karl Flinders, Computer Weekly.