By Tony Collins
The letters raise more questions than they answer – which was expected. But what is less clear is why the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy committee of MPs missed an opportunity to question the CEOs on Zoom.
The committee gave Covid as the reason for not questioning Read and Vennells. But the committee has declined to say why it did not question them on Zoom. Parliamentary debates were being held on Zoom in April.
The same committee of MPs missed two opportunities last year to ask the Post Office why it was spending tens of millions of pounds in the High Court defending Horizon when the system was known to have fundamental weaknesses and bugs.
The committee’s failures raise questions of whether its MPs have been too willing to defer to civil servants and business ministers who could have stopped the scandal in 2011 but didn’t.
By that time, concerns about Horizon were being raised by former Defence minister James (now Lord) Arbuthnot. Computer Weekly broke news of the Horizon scandal in 2009.
Since the year 2000 hundreds of sub-postmasters have had their lives ruined by being forced to pay the Post Office tens of thousands of pounds shown on a faulty Horizon system as missing but which was not missing. The Post Office has still not returned much of the money it wrongly acquired from sub-postmasters. And sub-postmasters who were wrongly prosecuted over the “missing” money have still not had their criminal convictions quashed.
Vennells was CEO from 2012 to 2019 and Read took over from her last September. Their letters gave replies to the BEIS committee’s written questions about the Post Office Horizon IT scandal.
Journalist Nick Wallis, in his analysis of Vennells’ letter, raises many questions about her replies, all of which are likely to remain unanswered.
Read’s letter also raises more questions than it answers.
Read says the Post Office accepts that it “got some things wrong in the past”.
Had MPs been able to challenge him on Zoom, they could have asked whether the ruin of hundreds of lives and at least one suicide – that of sub-postmaster Martin Griffiths who died after the Post Office put him under pressure to pay money wrongly shown on Horizon as missing – is given due concern by Read’s statement, “We accept we got some things wrong in the past”.
And does Read’s statement cover the Post Office’s not handing over evidence at the theft trial of pregnant sub-postmistress Seema Misra that could have helped her avoid jail and prove her innocence? The withheld evidence was of a bug in Horizon that made money at branch level “simply disappear”. The evidence was revealed in Nick Wallis’ BBC Panorama documentary The Great Post Office Trial.
The committee’s first question to Read was when the Post Office had identified a major problem with Horizon and what was its nature.
Read’s answer gave no specific date or year or what the major problem was. He said,
“The extent of issues became apparent to Post Office during the Group Litigation and is set out in the High Court judgment .which found that the potential for bugs to affect branch balances in historical versions of Horizon was greater than Post Office believed”.
Had MPs been able to question him on Zoom, they could have asked whether in fact the Post Office has known of serious and widespread Horizon problems for nearly 10 years.
He could, further, have been asked why board advice in 2016 was that Horizon was not fit for purpose but still directors went into a litigation costing tens of millions of pounds in defence of Horizon’s robustness.
Read could also have been asked why the Post Office was content to fund an arguably hopeless litigation but not content to pay back in full the money the Post Office had wrongly acquired from Horizon scandal victims.
Some of Read’s answers suggested he could not speak for the period before he joined as CEO in September 2019. On Zoom, however, MPs could have asked him why, if he could not speak for the 20-year period before he joined in September 2019, there was any point in the committee’s questioning him at all about the Horizon scandal.
Another of the questions the committee asked Read was when the Post Office became aware that local Horizon terminals could be accessed centrally and altered. He gave an indirect reply.
He said, “I first became aware of the position as found by the High Court when the Horizon judgment was handed down (December 2019). As I was not involved at the time, I do not wish to speculate how Post Office’s knowledge of remote access issues evolved over time.”
Again, if interviewed on Zoom, he could have been asked about a “management letter” to Post Office directors in 2011, from c0nsultants Ernst & Young, which referred to the issue of remote access to branch Horizon systems. The letter said Ernst and Young has “again identified” weaknesses in the Horizon system and it warned that staff at Horizon supplier Fujitsu have “unrestricted access” to sub-postmaster accounts that “may lead to the processing of unauthorised or erroneous transactions”. [Source BBC Panorama’s The Great Office Scandal].
Why then did the Post Office continue to prosecute, make people bankrupt and remove their livelihoods when it was known that Horizon could be to blame?
Read’s letter also said that the High Court judgement “did not determine whether bugs, errors or defects did in fact cause shortfalls in the individual claimants’ accounts but it found that they had the potential to create apparent discrepancies in postmasters’ branch accounts”.
This may be incorrect. The judgement said,
“It was possible for bugs, errors or defects of the nature alleged by the claimants to have the potential both (a) to cause apparent or alleged discrepancies or shortfalls relating to Subpostmasters’ branch accounts or transactions, and also (b) to undermine the reliability of Horizon accurately to process and to record transactions as alleged by the claimants.
“Further, all the evidence in the Horizon Issues trial shows not only was there the potential for this to occur, but it actually has happened, and on numerous occasions…”
Read also referred in his letter to openness and transparency but has given no media interviews on the Horizon scandal.
The unchallenged letters to the committee from Read and Vennells may, for the victims of the Horizon scandal, have made things worse.
It was always known that the committee could ask tough questions of Read, Vennells and Fujitsu but for what purpose if MPs were not going to be able to ask follow up questions?
Those whom Horizon victims already regard as largely unaccountable have now been able to make their own points to MPs.
It is still open to the committee in its report to criticise the contents of the letters. But select committee reports are usually quickly forgotten.
The committee ought not to have deferred to the Post Office, civil servants and ministers. Instead it ought to be acting as advocates in Parliament for the scandal’s victims. The committee could have tried to stop the scandal years ago.
Perhaps the most disappointingly predictable letter was from the business minister Paul Scully. His formulaic paragraphs to the committee were almost identical to what he has said in Parliamentary debates on the scandal.
It is easy to be reminded of the electronic message inside some greetings cards. Every time you open the card you get the same automated message.
Indeed, in all of Scully comments, speeches and written replies about the scandal, he has said nothing of which the Post Office would disapprove. But he does not seem to mind antagonising victims by repeatedly referring to the need for an independent review and not a judge-led inquiry.
The letters published yesterday, particularly Scully’s, are a reminder that former sub-postmasters will not move forwards in their campaign for justice by relying in any way on ministers, civil servants or the BEIS committee.
Paula Vennells breaks her silence – Nick Wallis