By Tony Collins
Alan Bates first wrote to Computer Weekly in 2004, at the start of what would become an extraordinary campaign to expose the full truth about problems with the Post Office Horizon system.
He said in his 2004 letter that, as a sub-postmaster, he had complained to the Post Office about its Horizon computer system and the response each time was to launch a review. The reviews led nowhere and the Post Office terminated his contract.
He said, “We have lost our investment and livelihood by daring to raise questions over a computer system we had thrust upon us …”
Bates had asked the Post Office, in vain, if he could see the Horizon data that was underpinning the allegation against him that money was missing. But he found at the time – and since – that the Post Office was avoiding straight answers to his questions and was secretive.
“Even when very simple and straightforward questions are presented to them via my MP they have sidestepped them,” said Bates in 2004.
A minister had looked into his complaints and “could find nothing wrong”. In a portentous remark, Bates said in his letter, “I fully expect it to take a number of years to bring Post Office Ltd to account for what they have done to us, but we are determined to do it.”
Countless Horizon reviews
As in Bates’ case, hundreds of other indvidual Post Office reviews into Horizon complaints over more than a decade were of no advantage to sub-postmasters. In 2015, a minister ordered a review of Horizon complaints. It was overseen by a QC and also led nowhere.
Separately the Post Office commissioned forensic accountants Second Sight to conduct an independent review into sub-postmasters’ concerns about Horizon. Even though the Post Office didn’t provide the information Second Sight had requested, its investigation still uncovered flaws in the system – whereupon it was sacked.
Now hundreds more reviews of Horizon are planned. In April 2020, the Post Office told journalist Nick Wallis that it was carrying out reviews on 500 potentially unsafe prosecutions of sub-postmasters. The prosecutions were based on questionable Horizon data. Then the Post Office said it had found a further 400 potentially unsafe prosecutions to review – 900 in total. Each case is being reviewed individually.
They describe it as independent but it has much less credibility in the eyes of sub-postmasters than Second Sight’s investigation in 2015 which involved all relevant parties, particularly victims of the scandal. In contrast, the main participants in Scully and Sharma’s planned review are the Post Office and three organisations with which it has financial relationships: Fujitsu, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the National Federation of Sub-postmasters.
Fujitsu receives Post Office funds to fix bugs and for other work on the Horizon system. The Department for BEIS gives the Post Office hundreds of millions of pounds in public money for investment. The National Federation of Sub-postmasters receives funding from the Post Office. A High Court judge said last year the Federation was not independent of the Post Office.
Not taking part in ministerial review because they regard it as pointless are Second Sight and the 557-strong Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance, led by Bates, which won a High Court case last year against the Post Office. The case proved that Horizon had numerous faults and that the Post Office had wrongly held sub-postmasters liable for missing amounts shown on the system.
With or without the scandal’s victims, Scully and Sharma’s review may start in the next few weeks. The review is described as “anaemic” by former defence minister Lord Arbuthnot, who has campaigned for justice for sub-postmasters since 2010. He told Computer Weekly’s Karl Flinders that the planned review “fails to ask the right questions and is aimed at hiding the truth rather than ‘getting to the bottom of it’, as the Prime Minister promised.”
Many peers and 74 MPs together with the Communication Workers Union, which represents sub-postmasters, the Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance, and many other campaigners for justice are calling for a judge-led inquiry into the Horizon scandal.
That Scully and Sharma have refused repeatedly to commission one gives grounds for sceptics to suggest that ministers prefer another review because of their proven history of going nowhere.
The Post Office conducted hundreds of individual reviews of sub-postmaster complaints about Horizon before going on to make accusations against them in the civil courts and lay charges against them in the criminal courts. Now it plans hundreds more reviews. But for what purpose?
The ministerial review in particular seems a reminder of Franz Kafka’s novel, The Castle, in which villagers hold their local officials in high regard but nobody knows what they do, least of all the officials. The main job of the officials appears to be to guard the interests of distant masters; and the more pointless their other work, the more it is valued. It is a world in which the innocent cannot be pardoned until they have established their guilt.
The review being commissioned by Scully and Sharma is to address the Post Office scandal but it will not consider the two most mportant matters: amounts of compensation and the clearing of names of those wrongly accused and prosecuted.
Indeed compensation and the wrongful accusations and prosecutions are specifically excluded from the review’s remit. Instead, its terms of reference seem as abstract as anything from the pages of Kafka’s books. The review will identify key lessons to be learned, ensure moves are in the right direction, make concrete changes, draw on evidence, listen to those affected, facilitate good progress on cultural and organisation change, materially improve relationships and put in place controls.
It is not even clear that the review’s final report will be published in full, though this may not be a problem if nobody wants to read it.
But why are there any reviews at all?
In High Court judgements on the Horizon litigation last year the judge, Mr Justice Fraser, could not have been clearer: Horizon had numerous flaws that on numerous occasions had altered balances on branch post office Horizon systems. This alone undermined every accusation in civil courts and every prosecution where the courtroom evidence was based on data from the flawed horizon system.
But the judgement went further. It found that Horizon had a “back door” through which IT engineers at Fujitsu, Horizon’s supplier, could alter branch post office accounts without the knowledge of subpostmasters.
Therefore, if system flaws did not affect the balances of branch post office accounts, the figures could have been altered by a Fujitsu engineer who was working remotely trying to fix bugs.
This unlimited remote access to branch accounts and the numerous flaws in Horizon create infinite doubt. It means that, where the Post Office had been unable to find any evidence of personal gain – and it tried hard in very case – the sub-postmasters who had complained to the Horizon helpline of inexplicable shortfalls and had subsequently been accused in the civil and criminal courts of taking money shown on Horizon as missing, ought now to be in the clear.
A mass clearing of names and compensation?
Others who ought to be in the clear are sub-postmasters prosecuted for false accounting where, without personal financial gain, they had reset the system balance to zero after a flawed Horizon system had shown an inexplicable discrepancy.
Also, anyone accused of theft solely on the basis of Horizon data but just before the trial agreed to a guilty plea on a lesser charge because otherwise they feared going to prison, ought to be cleared without further delay.
In the unlikely event this mass clearing of names absolves one or two bad apples, this is a small price for society to pay for clearing the names of hundreds, and potentially more than 1,000 sub-posmasters who have been horribly – and in some cases tragically – caught up in what is being described as the widest miscarriage of justice in British legal history.
It is surely better to let two rotten apples escape the barrel than keep the remaining 1,000 good ones rotting inside.
If the Post Office opposes a mass clearing of names, it has, arguably, through its aggressive, oppressive and peremptory conduct and lack of truthfulness as set out in the High Court judgements, forfeited any moral or ethical right to challenge a single accusation, prosecution or conviction that was based on data from the flawed Horizon system.
What the High Court judgement also ought to mean is that – without further ado – compensation is paid to all sub-postmasters who had put in their own money, sometimes tens of thousands of pounds, to reset their inexplicable Horizon balances to zero on the basis that, if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be able to open their post office the next day.
Why reviews galore?
A review implies the arguments are finely balanced. They are not. Mr Justice Fraser’s findings were unequivocal: Horizon’s numerous flaws altered branch post office balances on numerous occasions. Therefore every conviction based on Horizon data where there is no clear wrongdoing for personal gain does not need an individual review. The only questions are when and how quickly the convictions are overturned and the amounts in each case of compensation.
If any review is based on the possibility that Horizon might have been working properly at the time and date in question it is a deepening of the Horizon scandal. For the judge made it clear that management information and record-keeping were poor. Nobody can know today for certain how an enormously complex and flawed system – and one that was not under the direct control of the Post Office – was performing on a certain day and at a certain time, years ago.
There is therefore no need for a single further case review. It is hard to see what can be accomplished by any more reviews unless they are to delay payments of compensation.
There is, however, a need for stand-alone inquiries into the conduct, decisions and trutfulness of particular Post Office managers, investigators, auditors and prosecutors.
It is the Post Office’s credibilty that now in question. Mr Justice Fraser referred to the Post Office’s occupying a parallel world. He mentioned the Post Office’s bare assertions and denials that ignore what has actually occurred. Its approach was the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the earth is flat. He doubted the truthfulness of some its witnesses and some of its written evidence.
The judge made no such criticims of sub-postmasters – the opposite, in fact. He noted the honesty and truthfulness of the evidence they gave him.
Why then, seven months since the judgement, haven’t the 1,000-plus victims of Horizon all been cleared, proper compensation paid and investigations begun into the actions, decisions and truthfulness of particular Post Office managers, auditors, investgators, prosecutors and the board?
Such investigations into Post Office managers and directors would be far more relevant to the public conscience and trust in government and its institutions than seemingly endless reviews into sub-postmasters. The £100m High Court judgements last year established the honesty and credibility and integrity of sub-postmasters. They did not establish the honesty, credibility or integrity of anyone at the Post Office, and certainly not its board.
It is telling that when the Post Office’s credibility was tested by a third party, the Crown Prosecution Service, it did not go well. The CPS replied to a freedom of information request by Dr Minh Alexander, who writes about the Post Office scandal on her blog “Alexander’s Excavations”. She had asked whether the CPS had taken over any private prosecution by the Post Office. [Before 2015, the Post Office took its own decisions to prosecute and prosecuted directly in court, usually without involving the CPS at any stage.] The CPS replied in March 2020 that, although its list may not be complete, it recorded having taken over two private prosecutions by the Post Office and discontinued both of them.
It may also be telling that when litigation funders Therium considered Bates’ case against the Post Office, it decided to risk tens of millions of pounds to fund his action against the Post Office. Why had Therium been able to see the strength of the sub-postmasters’ case but not the Post Office which lost £43m defending Horizon and its contracts with sub-postmasters?
Ministers say the Post Office is a changed organisation under a CEO Nick Read who joined in September last year. But the reforming Post Office has not yet publicly cleared any individual wrongly- accused sub-postmaster – and it has taken a position that the litigation last year did not clear, individually, any of the 557 sub-postmasters involved in the case.
Indeed, it was only last year that the Post Office referred in court to sub-postmasters as thieves and liars. Can a large organisation change its attitudes and culture with 12 months because a different CEO has been appointed?
What is clear is that the Post Office today is fully supported by business ministers and civil servants. They have said not a word in criticism of the current administration. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that there are hundreds of new reviews, on top of hundreds of past reviews, of sub-postmasters’ cases but Whitehall has launched no investigation into the actions or inaction of past and present ministers, senior BEIS civil servants or anyone at the Post Office.
Who is in control? It has never been the sub-postmasters.
The protection of citizens?
The first duty of any government is to protect its citizens from harm. It s not the duty of an arm of government to put innocent hard-working people in prison, destroy their livelihoods and inflict a harm on them and their families that can never be measured in cash or human terms. Tracy Felstead was only 19 when a Post Office prosecution put her in prison. Now in her thirties, she has gone through her adult life with a criminal record she did not deserve. Seven months after Horizon judgements that undermined every prosecution based on Horizon data, she is still not in the clear.
People who put almost everything they had into their branch post offices and who would now have expected to be comfortable in retirement have been left cheated, defeated and penniless. Julian Wilson died waiting for justice. And Scully and Sharma believe that what’s needed is a lessons-learning review.
Reviews, hundreds of them and the promise of more reviews to check the validity of previous reviews, are for the world of satire and Kafkaesque novels. In the real world, government has it within its power to do something unprecedented for victims of the Horizon scandal: accept one of their requests.
They have requested a judge-led inquiry which Scully and Sharma have refused. But more senior ministers, judging by their comments on the scandal, are likely to have a greater empathy with wronged sub-postmasters, including Commons’ leader Jacob Rees-Mogg and the prime minister Boris Johnson.
It is to be hoped that Rees-Mogg and Johnson will scrap the Scully/Sharma review and order a judge-led inquiry. Not one sub-postmaster wants a review. Rees-Mogg and Johnson will, no doubt understand this.
Right on his side
Having raised £46m for a successful High Court action against the Post Office, Alan Bates has now succeeded in raising more than £100,000 for legal support, including a QC, to make a formal complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman of maldaminstration by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy whose civil servants could have stopped the scandal in 2011 had they trusted what sub-postmasters and their constituency MPs said about Horizon rather than the Post Office.
Bates has been proved right to seek justice by bypassing business ministers, civil servants and the Post Office. But even he would probably not have realised, when he was writing to Computer Weekly in 2004 about the futility of Horizon reviews, that, 16 years later, there would be more reviews than ever. What is there to review? A flawed computer system’s output measured against the lives and integrity of hard working business men and women?h
Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson – your intervention in favour of a judge-led inquiry is needed desperately. And, by the way, can you please stop the reviews of sub-postmasters and start the talks on compensation and a mass clearing of names.
The Post Office responded to my questions on its reviews here.
My articles on the scandal owe much to the work and research of Nick Wallis, Karl Flinders, Tim McCormack, Mark Baker, Eleanor Shaikh, Stephen Mason and Richard Brooks. Thank you to campaigner Dr Minh Alexander whose FOI request is referred in this article. I am also grateful to campaignerDavid Orrwho has emailed links I would not otherwise have seen. And a special thank you of course to Alan Bates.