By Tony Collins
The Sunday Mirror published a story yesterday (at the top of page 4) on a threatened boycott of the public inquiry into the Post Office IT scandal.
The piece was by the paper’s consumer correspondent Stephen Hayward, who has written a number of stories on the scandal. It says victims of the scandal are angry the inquiry will not look at compensation or the Government’s role. It quotes Alan Bates, founder of the Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance.
“As things stand, it’s unlikely we will engage with the inquiry.”
Last Friday, Bates sent an email to Alliance members saying that financial redress for the group is still excluded from the inquiry’s terms of reference and “with that exclusion in place there is absolutely no benefit to the group in taking part”.
The inquiry’s terms of reference specifically rule out any consideration of the £58m the group received in settlement of its High Court litigation which exposed the scandal. The settlement left those in the 555-strong group with an average of only £20,000 each after costs were paid. Many members of the group lost hundreds of thousands of pounds after the Post Office wrongly held them liable for supposed losses shown on the Post Office and Fujitsu’s Horizon system.
The business department BEIS, which funds and oversees the Post Office, set the inquiry’s terms of reference which raises the question of whether it has a conflict of interest.
BEIS’s critics say the Department could have stopped the scandal long before it devastated hundreds of lives. The Department’s mandate required that it intervene at the Post Office in certain circumstances but it failed to step in. The scandal led to more than 700 sub-postmasters being convicted on the basis of questionable Horizon “evidence”. The inquiry’s terms of reference are focused on Horizon IT and not on failings within government, Whitehall or the criminal justice system.
The Bates 555 have filed a complaint against BEIS with the Parliamentary Ombudsman. The group accuses the department of maladministration
List of issues
Although the inquiry’s terms of reference are currently fixed and represent a “boundary”, Wyn WIlliams, the government-appointed chairman of the inquiry, is to publish a “list of issues” to be investigated. These are expected to be published in September. It is unclear how this list could include any earnest consideration of compensation when the terms of reference specifically rule out discussion of the settlement deal.
Bates’ email to Alliance members says that until the list of issues is finalised in September “we still won’t have a final position about the Inquiry”.
He says it is “really important for as many people as possible to sign up for Core Participant status and we will wait to see the finalised list of issues”. He adds, “However should they fail to take on board our key requirement that matters pertaining to financial redress be part of the Inquiry, then we’ll be providing a form we can each send to Sir Wyn to withdraw from being a Core Participant. And be assured that if we do that, there are others and organisations from outside the group who have made it clear to me that they too would act similarly.”
Bates is right to be sceptical. The government and Whitehall officials have given the inquiry narrow terms of reference in which the focus is on the failings of a computer system, not compensation to victims or human failings within successive governments or the business department.
Government ministers have given the impression that if they could explain the Post Office IT scandal by sending a computer system to prison and thus avoid any human culpabilities, they would. One of the inquiry’s main objectives is to establish a clear account of “the implementation and failings of Horizon over its lifecycle”. The inquiry’s latest statement appears to have an emphasis on identifying poor “decision-making processes” rather than the humans who made decisions that ruined sub-postmasters’ lives.
Wyn Williams, the inquiry’s chairman, is a respected retired judge. But he may struggle to change perceptions that the government and Whitehall have set up the inquiry to be of little value other than demonstrate a dutiful response to the scandal. There is also scepticism among some sub-postmasters about whether the inquiry is completely independent of government.
The government set up inquiry, is paying for it and has restricted its terms of reference. It appointed the chairman and assessors and is providing the secretariat. The inquiry is based at the HQ of BEIS, which is the government department most heavily implicated in the scandal. Government ministers have powers to limit what information is given to the inquiry.
Perhaps the inquiry will end up criticising the Post Office’s former CEO Paula Vennells and Horizon’s supplier Fujitsu. But Vennells and Fujitsu seem to be the only names on the government’s unofficial list of acceptable candidates for criticism.
Any sign that the inquiry is likely to make any real difference to anyone or anything has yet to emerge.