By Tony Collins
Yesterday the Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg was asked when he will set aside time for a debate on calls by MPs for a judge-led inquiry into the Post Office IT scandal.
The question was put by Valerie Vaz, a solicitor and Shadow Leader of the Commons.
Mogg replied, “On EDM [Early Day Motion] 593 and the Horizon scandal, there is no worse scandal than imprisoning people or unjustly taking away their livelihoods when they are accused of crimes that they did not commit. The seriousness of what the right hon. Lady has raised is well known, and again it shows how the procedures of this House may be used to right wrongs – historical role of redress of grievance.”
Rees-Mogg’s concern about the scandal was in sharp contrast to the comments of Business Secretary Alok Sharma who rejected MPs’ calls for a judge-led inquiry. Although Sharma was not in post until February this year, sub-postmasters regard his Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy [BEIS] as implicated in the scandal.
Sharma told MPs on the BEIS committee yesterday that there would be a review to be set up by September at the latest. He rejected a judge-led inquiry as taking too long. But sub-postmasters who have waited 20 years for justice would not know why there was now a rush to administer what civil servants perceive – but not sub-postmasters – as justice.
Jacob Rees-Mogg was impressive in saying much about the scandal in few words. He showed a genuine concern for the sub-postmasters.
In contrast, Sharma sounded less than fascinated by the whole matter when he appeared before MPs on the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy committee.
Asked one or two questions by committee MPs who were also less than fascinated, Sharma appeared to read from a briefing note which seemed to make no mention of an apology to hundreds of wrongly prosecuted sub-postmasters. Nor did he express any regrets about all the sub-postmasters jailed on the basis of data derived from a flawed computer system. And no mention or suggestion that there had been any miscarriages of justice.
He did not use the word “scandal” or imply that he considered it an appropriate word. His colleague Paul Scully hasn’t used the word “scandal” either.
Sharma did, however, comment on what others are calling a scandal (including Boris Johnson). Sharma said, “Obviously there is a lot of interest in this.”
He said the chair of a non-statutory review at which nobody would be obliged to attend would be appointed soon.
Few would be surprised – and this is pure speculation – that civil servants have yet to finish drafting the review report’s conclusions and recommendations. Would a chair then be appointed to approve the draft report?
Sharma did not say as much but his tone and manner seemed to say: “We are absolutely committed to getting this whole thing over as quickly as possible.”
His colleague Paul Scully MP would be talking to the National Federation of Sub-postmasters about taking part in the review. Perhaps nobody had briefed Sharma that the Federation is funded by the Post Office. A High Court judgement last year said the Federation was not independent of the Post Office. Would anyone potentially important be attending the review?
Sub-postmasters listening to Sharma smiled when he answered a question by saying civil servants would not be compelled to attend but “I would have thought that the moral presssure to come forward and give evidence would I hope ensure that people came forward in good faith and talk to this inquiry.”
“Moral pressure” and “good faith” seem odd expressions to use in the context of innocent people being jailed. Jacob Rees-Mogg gets it. Sharma and Scully don’t.
Urgent crowdfunding appeal for a Parliamentary Ombudsman inquiry into the role of the Department for BEIS [Sharma’s department] in the Post Office scandal.