By Tony Collins
The Government is spending £1.6m on lawyers to defend its role in the Post Office scandal that has left hundreds fighting for compensation, says the Sunday Mirror.
The paper’s consumer correspondent Stephen Hayward, who has written several pieces on the scandal, said in his article yesterday,
“More than 700 sub-postmasters were wrongly prosecuted for theft and false accounting between 1999 and 2015 – and some were even jailed. In reality the “losses” were caused by a faulty computer system.
“The Government is hiring top legal firm Eversheds Sutherland to represent it at a public inquiry.
“Campaigner Alan Bates said: “It’s an outrage. The Government should … admit their wrongdoing instead of throwing money at lawyers.”
“But UK Government Investments [which represents government interests on the Post Office board] said the lawyers were hired to meet inquiry ‘requirements’.”
Bates is right. If government has any spare money – which clearly it does if it can afford £1.6m for Eversheds Sutherland – it ought to be sharing it with the Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance. It could put any spare legal cash towards paying back money its publicly-owned Post Office wrongly demanded from hundreds of the Alliance’s sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses.
The government has not paid them a penny. All the group’s members have received is an average of £20,000 each directly from the Post Office – which doesn’t cover money the Post Office made them pay to cover spurious Horizon “losses”. Proper compensation for lives ruined by wrongful conviction or bankruptcy remains nowhere in sight.
Indeed, government ministers and Whitehall officials have been consistently indifferent throughout the scandal. From January 2000, when the Post Office, HM Treasury and other parts of Whitehall welcomed delivery of a £1bn faulty Horizon system from Fujitsu, any wrongdoing has been somebody else’s fault.
Even after the Bates 555 defeated the Post Office in the High Court and proved Horizon’s faults and weaknesses, as well as a Whitehall and institutional cover-up, government ministers and Whitehall officials acted as if they hadn’t known. See no evil. Hear no evil. It was a scandal that happened elsewhere and didn’t involve them.
Where they have been remarkably painstaking, however, is in ensuring the public inquiry into Horizon has narrow terms of reference that marginalise the role of government ministers and Whitehall officials. As a further measure of self-protection, the government is paying £1.6m for one of the world’s top ten legal firms. The contract will last until December 2023.
If openness and transparency were the priority – which history shows it isn’t – Whitehall officials could answer the inquiry’s questions directly. Senior civil servants already draft Parliamentary answers and write annual and other reports. They do not need a top firm of lawyers for that.
The inquiry is different, however. It may mean independent scrutiny. There may be requests for emails, memos, correspondence, internal reports and minutes of board and committee meetings. But Whitehall has ensured, in writing the rules for statutory inquiries, that there are several grounds for withholding evidence, such as legal privilege and the need for confidentiality in the national interest. Is this one reason for paying £1.6m to hire top lawyers?
Government and Whitehall have form when it comes to self-protection at public inquiries. The most in-depth look at how the government machine works was the Scott inquiry into the Matrix Churchill arms-to-Iraq affair. The Economist summed up Sir Richard Scott’s 1,806-page report,
“Sir Richard exposed an excessively secretive government machine, riddled with incompetence, slippery with the truth and willing to mislead Parliament.”
How much the government machine has changed since the Scott report is a matter for debate.
From the viewpoint of senior civil servants, there is no mendacity or excessive secrecy: it is a question of following protocols and complying with requirements. UK Government Investments says it is giving every possible assistance to the complex Horizon inquiry and has appointed specialist legal advisors to ensure it can meet the inquiry’s requirements.
But £1.6m worth of meeting the inquiry’s requirements … while hundreds of scandal-hit former businessmen and women go uncompensated?
The Great Post Office Scandal – Nick Wallis’ forthcoming book.
Post Office victims dying without cash – Sunday Times
Post Office board “appalling” and “short-sighted” said minister in 2000 – Karl Flinders, Computer Weekly