By Tony Collins
A succession of ministerial speeches which were drafted by civil servants in response to the Post Office IT controversy, use a consistent form of words when attributing blame. On one interpretation, the form of words suggest that victims of the scandal – sub-postmasters – may be the cause of their own misfortunes.
Campaigning sub-postmasters, led by Alan Bates, exposed the scandal that was unwittingly or wittingly concealed for nearly 20 years by parts of the civil service and successive ministers. It was sub-postmasters who brought litigation that cost the Post Office more than £100m in costs and settlement. And it was sub-postmasters whose enduring dispute with the Post Office over faults in its Horizon system has brought the institution into disrepute and embarrassed parts of the civil service that allowed what MP Andrew Mitchell this week called a “monstrous injustice”.
Are civil servants, through their minister, therefore blaming the scandal on the litigation and Horizon dispute which sub-postmasters instigated?
Below are six potentially contentious ministerial statements, over a period of six months, which have a consistent form of words when attributing blame. Ministerial speeches and statements are usually drafted by civil servants who are likely to be very careful in their choice of words. Each ministerial statement appears to suggest that the cause of the ruined lives of sub-postmasters was not the Post Office which wrongly prosecuted sub-postmasters and confiscated their homes, businesses and cars on the basis of computer-generated shortfalls that did not actually exist. Instead, the statements appear to blame sub-postmasters for bringing the litigation and disputing Horizon’s robustness. The emphasis in the minister’s statements is mine.
March 2020 – ministerial statement
“It is impossible to ignore the financial and emotional suffering that the Horizon litigation process has caused for affected postmasters and their families.” [My emphasis]
June 2020 – ministerial statement
“It’s impossible to ignore the negative impact that the Horizon dispute and court case has had on effective postmasters’ lives, their livelihoods, their financial situation, their reputations and for some, their physical and mental health”.
June 2020 – Ministerial announcement of review into Horizon
“The Horizon dispute and court case has had a devastating impact on the lives of many postmasters.”
June 2020 – Ministerial announcement
“The longstanding dispute and subsequent trials relating to the Post Office Horizon IT system have had a hugely negative impact on affected postmasters and their families…”
September 2020 – ministerial announcement
The Horizon dispute had a hugely damaging effect on the lives of postmasters and their families, and its repercussions are still being felt today.
October 2020 – Ministerial statement, House of Commons
“The Government recognise that the Horizon dispute has had a hugely damaging effect on the lives of affected postmasters and their families, and its repercussions are still being felt today.”
No ministers, in their remarks on the scandal, have disowned the Post Office’s misleading and inaccurate statements to the High Court last year, or the Post Office’s decision to try and remove the judge managing the case, or the stepping-up of the Post Office’s part in the litigation after a lost judgment in March 2019
About 550 sub-postmasters sued the Post Office to prove that the institution’s Horizon accounting system, built and run by Fujitsu, was to blame for balance shortfalls for which they were held liable. Sub-postmasters won the case in December 2019. The judge in the case, Mr Justice Fraser, found that Horizon had numerous bugs, errors and defects and that sub-postmasters were wrongly blamed for shortfalls shown on Horizon. Hundreds of sub-postmasters might have been wrongly prosecuted on the basis of evidence from a flawed Horizon system. More than 2,200 sub-postmasters might have paid the Post Office for Horizon-generated shortfalls that did not actually exist.
The scandal has left the civil service with the job of drafting ministerial speeches for Horizon debates in the House of Lords and House of Commons and also drafting Parliamentary answers to some difficult written questions that are presented to officials almost daily.
Ministers and the civil service lost the High Court case too. It was not just the Post Office. Do civil servants, consciously or unconsciously, therefore hold a grudge against those who defeated them to expose the breadth and depth of the Horizon scandal?
Indeed, there is little or nothing that ministers or officials have said or done, since Horizon went live in 1999, that has ended up of benefit to sub-postmasters who have complained about Horizon.
In recent months, the civil service has written conspicuously narrow terms of reference for a government “inquiry” into Horizon. The terms specifically exclude the two most controversial aspects of the scandal: how up to 900 questionable prosecutions based on evidence from a flawed computer system came about and why the Post Office’s payment to settle the litigation left the litigants with huge losses from the scandal. In many cases the losses of Horizon victims run into hundreds of thousands of pounds.
But ministers and civil servants continue to reject sub-postmasters’ every request, including requests for a statutory public inquiry into what campaigning peer Lord Arbuthnot has called a “national outrage”. Ministers have also refused to pay postmasters their £46m litigation costs. In contrast, ministers and civil servants continue to give unequivocal support to the current Post Office board, as have their predecessors.
How will victims of the scandal ever recover their losses if parts of government hold a grudge against them?
Government digs in heels over Post Office Horizon IT scandal – Computer Weekly.