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Post Office IT scandal makes legal history – and now prosecutors will come under scrutiny

By Tony Collins

The Post Office Horizon IT scandal became part of legal history yesterday when the Criminal Cases Review Commission referred an unprecedented 39 potentially unsafe criminal convictions to the Court of Appeal.

The grounds for referral were “abuse of process” – a term that suggests the  integrity of the criminal justice system might have been compromised.

Helen Pitcher, chairman of the Criminal Cases Review Commission, said in a statement yesterday: “This [39 applicants] is by some distance the largest number of cases we will ever have referred for appeal at one time.”

The 39 convictions were for theft, fraud and false accounting. They are being referred on the basis of an argument that “each prosecution amounted to an abuse of process”.

The Commission did not explain what it meant by “abuse of process” but the Crown Prosecution Service gives general guidance on what the term means.

In exceptional circumstances, an “abuse o process” is cited by courts when they intervene to stop a prosecution because of “bad faith, unlawfulness or executive misconduct”.

The term “abuse of process” has been defined as “something so unfair and wrong that the court should not allow a prosecutor to proceed with what is in all other respect a regular proceeding”.

It can also refer to a past prosecution that was manifestly unfair for reasons that have only since become apparent.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission is a statutory body set up to review suspected miscarriages of justice. Its commissioners have been looking at the safety of convictions that were based on evidence from the Post Office’s Horizon branch accounting system.

The commissioners have taken into account judgements in civil court trials related to the Horizon system. The judge managing the trials,  Mr Justice Fraser, found that the Post Office tried to mislead him about the Horizon system. Flaws in Horizon were kept hidden while the Post Office wrongly pursued sub-postmasters for money they did not owe.

Using its power to prosecute without using the Crown Prosecution Service, the Post Office prosecuted dozens of former sub-postmasters citing evidence from Horizon. Mr Justice Fraser found that Horizon was not as robust as the Post Office said it was.

Yesterday’s announcement of the 39 referrals is likely to put the legal spotlight on the Post Office prosecutors. The Appeal Court may consider questions of whether the integrity of the  criminal justice system has been compromised.

A Post Office statement yesterday on the referrals said,

“The Post Office has been assisting the Criminal Cases Review Commission since applications were first made to them by a number of former postmasters. We have always accepted our serious obligations and responsibilities to the Commission’s work.

We have not yet received statements of reasons from the Commission about the referrals they are making to the Court of Appeal.  We will be looking carefully at the Commission’s decision when we have that information and continue to fulfil all their requirements of us.

“We have also been doing all we can to ensure that, in the light of the findings in the Horizon judgment, further disclosure is provided as appropriate in other cases where Post Office acted as prosecutor, not just those reviewed by the CCRC.  The CCRC’s reasoning will be applied to those cases, which are being reviewed by an external team of criminal lawyers.

“We won’t be commenting on individual cases, because it would be inappropriate to prejudge the outcome of the important work that the CCRC is continuing to do or the Court of Appeal’s processes.”

Comment:

Imagine if the Department for Work and Pensions mistakenly sent bills to large numbers of benefit claimants for tens of thousands of pounds they did not owe because of a faulty computer system; and then, when the distressed claimants could not afford to pay the phantom debts, the DWP took them to court, made them bankrupt and took away their homes and livelihoods.

In the Post Office’s case, it is an injustice that has been allowed to continue nearly two decades. And it has gone entirely unpunished, without fair compensation being paid.

But now that the Post Office Horizon scandal has made legal history, perhaps the civil service will take more seriously calls among MPs, peers and former sub-postmasters for a judge-led inquiry.

Until now, civil servants have regarded the scandal as a skin irritant that could be cured by applying a little soothing ointment.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission has shown it is taking the injustices seriously, as have Boris Johnson and the civil courts.  Civil servants could follow reluctantly, as if they were waiting for instructions from the Post Office. Or they could lead.

Thank you David Orr for emailing a link to the BBC story.

Post Office reviews more prosecutions – Nick Wallis

Sub-postmaster convictions to be considered by Court of Appeal – Computer Weekly

 

Destitute Tom Brown lost £500,000 in the Post Office IT scandal – and now a minister promises better governance

By Tony Collins

Today Tom Brown is destitute. He lost his home, his businesses, his reputation and £500,000, because the publicly-owned Post Office made him pay for non-existent shortfalls shown on its Horizon system.

Yesterday, in a Commons debate on the Post Office Horizon IT scandal, Brown’s campaigning MP Kevan Jones set out Brown’s plight as an example of the misery caused by the Horizon IT scandal.

But the new business minister Paul Scully said nothing about compensating Brown or hundreds of other victims of the Horizon system’s phantom shortfalls.

Instead Scully offered the possibility of an inquiry – with no assurance it would be independent of his department BEIS  – and also offered Jones some reassuring words.

He said he will more closely monitor the Post Office and a representative of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will continue to challenge the Post Office on its corporate governance and strategy. He said the Post Office has a new CEO and two new non-executive directors.

But MPs criticisms of the Post Office yesterday raised questions about the institution’s attitudes and behaviours that are not confined to the board.

It appears that Post Office auditors were comfortable accusing Brown of being a criminal when the Post Office given him an award for valour after he fended off a knifeman wearing a Halloween mask.

Tory MP Jerome Mayhew, a former barrister, told the minister of the aggression of Post Office auditors who interviewed his constituent Siobhan Sayer, a sub-postmistress who had trouble with Horizon balances.

When she asked for help, three Post Office auditors arrived. They suspended her, accused her of theft, searched her house, asked her where she had hidden the money and “interrogated her to such an extent that it stopped only when she physically collapsed”.

The Post Office prosecuted her for theft and for false accounting. She did 200 hours of community service, was shamed in her community, ostracised by her friends, and her mental and emotional health was affected. “That is the consequence of the actions and inactions of the Post Office and its servant, Fujitsu,” said Mayhew.

Many other former sub-postmasters had similar experiences with Post Office auditors and managers – which raises questions about whether board-level changes will alter attitudes and behaviour within the institution’s middle and senior management.

MPs yesterday said that the Post Office was denying Horizon was at fault and was continuing to blame sub-postmasters until the point of the mediation settlement in December 2019.

Until then, the Post Office was on record as having described some of the former sub-postmasters who took part in a group litigation against the Post Office as criminals and liars.

Is it likely any of these views will have changed within the Post Office simply because of a settlement at mediation?

Comment

Paul Scully has a particularly difficult job as the new business minister in charge of the Post Office. He is caught between the former sub-postmasters who want accountability and fair compensation and his civil servants who are more comfortable with an offering of platitudes such as closer monitoring, better governance and lessons learned.

The two sides are poles apart. Scully is in the middle. Yesterday he read parts of his civil service brief and described the Post Office shortcomings as in the “past” but it was clear he sympathised with the former sub-postmasters.

In his new job, he doesn’t need the support of former sub-postmasters but he does need the unequivocal support of his civil servants. He is trying to get on with both sides.

But platitudes, a non-independent inquiry, a new Post Office CEO and two new non-executive director on the Post Office will make little difference. The problem nobody can solve is an institutional arrogance built on a culture of secrecy, denial and a deep resentment of criticism and critics.

How will the minister and new Post Office CEO be able tackle institutional problems as profound as those referred to by MPs yesterday?

**

These are some comments of MPs in yesterday’s debate:

    • The Government appear to be content to act as the Post Office’s parliamentary organ, claiming that the December settlement was the end of the matter. Nothing could be further from the truth for the people who are still fighting for justice, and that is why we need a judge-led independent inquiry to take place as soon as feasibly possible.
    • The Post Office knew all along that the Horizon system was flawed.
    • One  cover up after another. The Post Office was still denying that there was a problem with Horizon when it went into court; indeed, its consistent approach has been to deny any type of liability.
    • Fujitsu, the Horizon system’s supplier, was as “guilty of cover up as the Post Office”. Fujitsu knew that there were glitches in Horizon.
    • Victims of the scandal were failed by the courts as well as the Post Office and Fujitsu.  The courts found in favour of the Post Office even though it had not properly evidenced its case.
    • “What has to happen now is that a scheme has to be set up to compensate individuals properly” – Kevan Jones.
    • “Tom Brown should be enjoying a happy, well-funded retirement, but he is not. He is …living in social housing with his son, and that is not his fault; it is down to people such as Paula Vennells (ex Post Office CEO) and the board at the Post Office, and the failure and cover-ups that have been perpetrated by individuals. The Government, who should have stood up for him, have turned a blind eye …” –Jones
    • MPs have had people in their constituency surgeries who have been in tears because of the way the Post Office has treated them. “They have been diligent public servants for many years, and it is intolerable that they have ended up in this situation.” – Martin Vickers.
    • “Ministers have tried to wash their hands of it. They stood back when clear injustices were being ignored.” – Vickers.
    • A litany of maladministration at the very least. “Have any individuals at management level in either at Post Office Ltd or Fujitsu ever been held accountable for this?” asked MP John Spellar. The complete opposite, replied Kevan Jones.
    • “We are unable, as parliamentarians, to scrutinise the Post Office…trying to scrutinise the Post Office and get it to account … is virtually impossible. When I have asked parliamentary questions, they are referred to the Post Office. ” – Jones.
    • David Linden, Why was £100m of public money spent defending the High Court case [brought by former sub-postmasters] when it was clear that the Post Office “had no business continuing to prosecute innocent people?
    • Jones, “I respect those who have religious faith … but the way that (Paula Vennells, a priest) has treated these people cannot be described as very Christian. She certainly would not pass the good Samaritan test, given the way she has ignored their pleas. I hope she thinks about people like Tom [Tom Brown], who have lost their livelihoods and are now living in social housing because of her actions. It angers me that these individuals have gone scot-free, and they need to be answerable for their action.”
    • The role of ministers including Jo Swinson, Claire Perry and Kelly Tolhurst:  “They all completely believed what they were being told by the Post Office, never asked any questions about how public money was being spent and allowed the Post Office to continue what it has been doing.”
    • Dame Diana Johnson,  “… this issue about MPs not being able to find out what happened. In the Hillsborough inquiry, the Bishop of Liverpool talked about the ‘patronising disposition of unaccountable power’. This is a classic case of exactly that.”
    • Dame Johnson, “I also want to put on the record how grateful my constituent Janet Skinner is that MPs such as [Kevan Jones] and others have pursued this matter for many years to try to get justice for the people involved.”
    • “The National Federation of SubPostmasters needs winding up now. It is not independent, nobody joins it—sub-postmasters are auto-enrolled. It is basically an arm of the Post Office and is paid for by the Post Office.” – Jones.
    • The right of the Post Office to take forward its own prosecutions needs to be removed… When Tom Brown asked whether he could get the police or the Crown Prosecution Service involved in looking at the evidence against him, he was told no, said Jones.
    • “… we need to expose who did what … what I would argue was criminal activity took place. People have to be prosecuted. Given their involvement, they certainly need to be removed from any public bodies on which they currently serve.” – Jones.
    • … given the tyrannical conduct of the Post Office over the years, it [Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance] had no alternative but to seek litigation.” – Martin Vickers.
    • “Scores of postmasters contacted the Post Office to tell it of discrepancies. They were not trying to hide them. Their actions were hardly those of someone deliberately engaging in fraudulent activity.” – Vickers.
    • “… it is staggering that Fujitsu could access a sub-postmaster’s account without his or her knowledge. That left it wide open—though one hopes that this was not the case—to others to interfere with the account entries.” – Vickers.
    • Karl Turner,  “… a few days ago I received some startling documents. In 2006, a sub-postmaster was prosecuted. I have documents showing discussions between lawyers within the Post Office conceding that there was no theft, no dishonesty, no fraud and no false accounting in this case, yet she was prosecuted. It is utterly disgusting. When this person found out that these documents existed, because they had been leaked to her, she asked the Post Office whether they would produce the documents to the Criminal Cases Review Commission and she was met with aggression the likes of which I have never seen. She was told that these documents were privileged and that if they were leaked she could be in serious trouble. There was bullying, aggression, and constant lies from the very beginning—lie after lie after lie.”
    • Turner, “…  senior officials in the Post Office and Fujitsu did everything they possibly could to protect themselves. They knew. Let us be absolutely clear about that. They knew that there were victims who might go to prison—or who had already gone, at that point. It is utterly disgusting.”
    • Lucy Allan, “I too have a constituent … who was 18 years old and was sent to Holloway for six months, accused of theft and failing to apologise to the grannies she was supposed to have stolen from. She has not had her name cleared. She has been waiting five years for the Criminal Cases Review Commission to do that.”
    • Turner, “The Post Office was believed. The lies that Ministers, officials and everyone else were told along the line were believed as well. That is why only a judge-led inquiry can possibly sort this out. We need to know who knew what, what they knew, when they knew it and why they acted as they did.”
    • David Jones, “If it had not been for his [Alan Bates, former sub-postmaster who led a group litigation against the Post Office] tenacity and that of others, the consequences would have been that the wrongdoings of the Post Office and Fujitsu would have gone undetected and the reputations of many hundreds of completely decent, innocent people would have been completely destroyed without any hope of being repaired.”
    • David Jones, “It is … a credit to Mr Nick Read, the new chief executive of the Post Office, that his intervention helped achieve a settlement to the legal dispute last December, but that settlement cannot be the end of the matter. The Government cannot simply regard the settlement as putting the Horizon issue to bed…. after costs are taken into account, the settlement sums for those 500-plus litigants will be paltry. The Government have a duty to further compensate the sub-postmasters who have been so appallingly treated by a Government-owned company.”
    • David Jones, “… the deplorable conduct of those responsible for the direction of the Post Office, including non-executive directors appointed by the Government…”
    • Bambos Charalambous, “While after the trial the Post Office chairman conceded that it had got things wrong in the past, the fact was that the Post Office fought the action until the bitter end, and that speaks volumes.”
    • Kevin Hollinrake, “why have the courts not stood up for these people … the courts are structurally biased in favour of large, trusted brands. That cannot be right. I was always brought up to believe that everybody could get justice …There is a structural imbalance between a sub-postmaster or mistress when they go to the courts and the phalanx of lawyers provided by the Post Office. The courts are used to suppress the truth, and that cannot be right. There have been 110 prosecutions. Back in 2007, in the case of the Post Office Ltd v. Lee Castleton, Judge Havery found that there was irrefutable evidence against Mr Castleton, despite the fact that there was no evidence…We must ask questions of the system: of the Post Office, of course, about who knew what and when—I support the calls for a public inquiry and proper compensation …”
    • Chi Onwurah, “Speaking as a former software engineer myself, I am upset and truly disappointed at the way in which technology has been used as an instrument of torture. An IT deployment of this kind—one of the most expensive in the history of the United Kingdom—should have had users and people at its heart. It should not have been turned into a living nightmare—a living nightmare that continues for many sub-postmasters to this day.”
    • Paul Scully, business minister, “We have talked about the independent review, which the Prime Minister mentioned a couple of weeks ago. We are looking at the best way to do it. There will be a further announcement as soon as possible in the very near future…”

BBC Panorama – Scandal at the Post Office, presented by journalist Nick Wallis on Monday 23 March.

Yesterday’s Commons debate – Parliamentary TV

Horizon IT scandal: has Goliath won?

By Tony Collins

Have Post Office officials, despite a series of highly critical High Court judgements against them, escaped masterfully from what Boris Johnson called a “scandal”?

BBC Radio Wales has broadcast an excellent documentary on the Post Office Horizon IT scandal. It features Noel Thomas who had devoted his life to the Post Office, first as a postman for 32 years and then as a postmaster for 12 years.

He worked his way up since the age of 17. But one Thursday morning at 7.30am the life he’d built up over decades began to fall apart. A Post Office investigations team wanted to interview him about “having his hands in the till”.

His denials counted for nothing. Investigators insisted he had taken money. The Post Office’s Horizon branch accounting system supplied by Fujitsu showed shortfalls of £52,000. The Post Office prosecuted him and he was given a nine-month jail sentence in 2006.

After prison, Thomas was called a thief in the supermarket. His children suffered taunts that their father had been to prison.

An unsympathetic Post Office chased Thomas for debts shown on Horizon and he went bankrupt. He ended up losing £250,000; and all the while nobody at the Post Office told him that Horizon screens could show non-existent shortfalls without any fault on the part of the sub-postmaster.

In the years to come, as Thomas tried to come to terms with his new life as a family man who was now a convicted criminal, he learned that he was not alone: the Post Office had demanded hundreds of sub-postmasters make good inexplicable shortfalls shown on Horizon.

But for Thomas and other victims of the Horizon IT scandal things began to look up in March 2017 when, led by campaigning former  sub-postmaster Alan Bates, they won the consent of the High Court for a group litigation against the Post Office.

The litigation was a clear success for Bates, 550 other claimants and their legal team.  By the time the two sides sat around the mediation table late last year, the judge had made several rulings, largely in the favour of the sub-postmasters.

Would the judge’s criticisms put the Post Office on the defensive at the mediation? His main judgement had criticised the Post Office’s “oppressive” behaviour in its dealings with sub-postmasters.  Mr Justice Fraser also criticised the Post Office’s conduct in the litigation: given the high costs of the litigation, it was perhaps extraordinary that the Post Office was said by the judge to have “resisted timely resolution of this Group Litigation whenever it can …”

It was indeed obvious to the sub-postmasters that the more the publicly-funded Post Office delayed  the proceedings, the greater the risk its opponents would run out of litigation funding.

Was this fair?

The judge had also found that the Post Office tried to mislead the High Court and  keep relevant information from being heard.  The appeal court likened the Post Office to a Victorian mill-owner.

Now, as the two sides sat around the mediation table, the High Court was about to publish an entirely new ruling. It would say that sub-postmasters had been forced into paying shortfalls shown on a Fujitsu Horizon system that had hidden bugs and systemic weaknesses.

The Post Office had spent more than a decade denying that these faults existed and had given misleadingly reassuring statements to Parliament and the media. The Post Office had prosecuted dozens of sub-postmasters on the basis of “robust” evidence from Horizon while not saying that Fujitsu engineers could alter branch accounts without the sub-postmasters’ knowledge.

The new ruling would find that the Post Office’s own expert witness was partisan, as were some of the other Post Office witnesses.

If all this was a cue for a contrite Post Office to make amends at mediation, there was little sign of it. It emerged from the mediation paying barely the sub-postmasters’ litigation costs.

Indeed, the £57.75m settlement figure would not have covered the sub-postmasters’ costs had there not been voluntary fee and other reductions on the part of the group’s legal team and a company that provided loans for the litigation.

These reductions, which were made out of sympathy for the former sub-postmasters,  allowed a fund of about £11.5m from the £57.75m to be distributed among the 550.

But the fund will pay only a small percentage of losses. And it doesn’t pay compensation for ruined lives.

“Scandal” says Boris Johnson

The prime minister refers to the whole matter as a scandal. He spoke in the House of Commons of the “disasters that have befallen many Post Office workers”.

But a Post Office statement to BBC Radio Wales offered no hope of any further money for the 550. It referred to its shortcomings as in the “past”. The statement said,

“A comprehensive final settlement was jointly agreed by the Post Office and the claimants in the group litigation last year. We apologise to those affected by our past shortcomings and we are continuing to address these directly…”

That the settlement leaves Thomas with only a fraction of the £250,000 he has lost – and nothing in compensation – is not the concern of the Post Office or its parent department BEIS. organisation.

How did the Post Office extricate itself relatively painlessly mid-way through an embarrassing  litigation, in which its competence, credibility and conduct were questioned repeatedly by a High Court judge?

Mediation

It may be  thought generally that, in mediation, the two sides enter talks to settle their differences on equal terms.

Not in this case.

On one side was a publicly funded institution. The other side comprised small businessmen and women who were funded by limited, expensive loans.

Worse for the sub-postmasters, the Post Office had already made decisions during the litigation that showed it was prepared to add to costs for both sides. Its decisions included applying for the removal of the judge near the end of a lengthy trial.  Had its application succeeded, it would have necessitated the costly trial being abandoned and a new one started under a different judge.

James Hartley of solicitors Freeths, which represented sub-postmasters in the litigation, gave  an interview to Computer Weekly shortly after the mediation settlement was announced in December last year.

He said that if his side had carried on with the litigation it was likely the sub-postmasters would have ended up with nothing. He said his side had obtained the best deal possible but sub-postmasters would not recover anything like their full losses.

“This was always understood by everyone because we knew the group action would have a lot of costs,” said Hartley. Had a settlement not been reached, the two further trials planned would have needed more funding.

“Even if we had got that funding, which is not certain, for every £1m we got from the case, £3m would have to go back to the funders. Every month that had gone on in the case, the value of damages available to claimants would have gone down, to the point where they would have got nothing even if we had won.”

The Post Office has made the point in its public statements that the settlement figure was agreed by both sides.  But mediation was not conducted on an equal financial footing.

In a different context, a few months before the mediation, Mr Justice Fraser had commented on the Post Office’s power when compared to the sub-postmasters.

He had said in his “Common Issues” judgement of March 2019,

“There is no doubt that the Post Office is in an extraordinarily powerful position compared to each and every one of its SPMs [sub-postmasters][. It appears to wield that power with a degree of impunity.”

Did the Post Office still wield power with impunity?

Convictions

At least Thomas, if he is not to recover his losses or receive any compensation,  can look forward to having his criminal record removed – his name cleared.

Or could even this be denied him?

There is no time pressure on the state to overturn wrongful convictions.  The simplest solution would be to set aside convictions en masse on the basis that all the prosecutions arose out of untrustworthy shortfalls shown on a computer system that was not as robust as prosecutors claimed.

But the state could, in theory, handle each wrongful conviction referred to appeal separately, review thousands of pages of documents in each case, and eventually overturn convictions when some of the falsely accused are no longer alive to see justice.

This may indeed be the state’s preferred route although there have already been years of delays in reviewing the cases.

Whether the P9st Office would prefer a group or individual review of convictions at appeal hearings is unclear. What is obvious, though, is that the longer it takes to quash convictions, the more it delays any civil claims for damages and compensation arising out of wrongful prosecutions.

A Houdini escape?

Nearly 20 years after Alan Bates had his contract to run a local post office in Wales terminated without reason when he queried apparent phantom shortfalls on Horizon, he is still seeking justice.

He has raised tens of millions in litigation funding, won the right to launch a group litigation order and his legal team has proved in the High Court that Horizon was not the robust system the Post Office had claimed.

His team could hardly have been more successful in exposing the inherent institutional failings that led to hundreds of miscarriages of justice.

Why then does  justice still elude him?

Comment

The Post Office says it is changing. It is learning lessons. It has a new CEO. But the judge’s comments suggested that the Post Office’s resentment of criticism and critics is deeply institutional.

The judge said the Post Office seems to act with impunity. The word “impunity” means acting as if exempt punishment, penalty of harm.

How can a public institution, however many new CEOs it has, change its spots?

Arguably the Post Office remains as financially powerful, dominating and secretive as ever. Recently, it is said to have reached secret settlements with Horizon victims who were not part of Bates’ group litigation.

For Bates and other sub-postmasters, their campaign or justice moves from the High Court to Westminster. But politicians may not, it appears, have the final say.

“Rats”

There is no provision in law to punish prosecuting authorities that prosecute wrongfully. But the public at least has a right to expect that elected politicians will be able to hold prosecuting institutions to account.

Boris Johnson wants an independent inquiry into the Horizon IT scandal, as do MPs, Alan Bates and many others.  But does the civil service and particularly the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Post Office’s parent?

Lord Arbuthnot, a long-time campaigner for justice, told BBC Radio Wales that he is heartened by the prime minister’s support for an inquiry.

“I was given enormous heart that the prime minister himself described this as a scandal and he said there would be an independent inquiry.

” Now the rats will try to get at that. They will try to make it less independent. They will try to bring it under the Department for Business and Enterprise and that is something I hope the Prime Minister, who seems to have a good deal of sway in this government will be able to resist”.

Noel Thomas, Alan Bates and other former sub-postmasters sued the Post Office seeking damages for financial loss, deceit, duress, unconscionable dealing, harassment and unjust enrichment.

But the civil service seems not to accept that any of these things merit an independent inquiry.

It is extraordinary that a publicly-owned institution has been established in the High Court to have been behind hundreds of grievous miscarriages of justice and yet the victims have not received a full refund of their losses let alone compensation. And those responsible have not been held to account.

Unless Parliament intervenes and orders the setting up of an independent inquiry, it is clear that Goliath, with the support of civil servants at BEIS, will win in the end.

**

Thank you to Tim McCormack whose extensive knowledge and understanding of Post Office affairs never ceases to surprise me.

**

BBC Panorama – scandal at the Post Office – Monday 23 March

Journalist Nick Wallis will present this documentary about when senior managers at the Post Office knew the truth. Did they continue to prosecute postmasters for stealing when they knew technology could be to blame?

Wallis investigates what the BBC says could be Britain’s biggest ever miscarriage of justice scandal and uncovers evidence of a cover-up at the Post Office.

Alan Bates – the details man

Secret Post Office deals cause fury – Computer Weekly

BBC Radio Wales – Post Office IT scandal

Postofficetrial website

Only a judge-led inquiry will change “rotten” Post Office as IT scandal continues, MPs told

By Tony Collins

Former subpostmaster Alan Bates, who spearheaded legal action against the Post Office over its Horizon IT system, told MPs on Tuesday that the Post Office is “rotten underneath” and will not change without a judge-led inquiry.

Horizon victims Wendy Buffrey and Tracey Felstead also called for a judge-led inquiry at a hearing of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy committee.

The committee had its first hearing this week on the Post Office Horizon controversy. At its second hearing on  24 March, its MPs are expected to question the Post Office’s CEO Nick Read, the former CEO, Paula Vennells, Fujitsu, a business minister and a representative from UK Government Investments which has a place on the Post Office board.

The scandal is, in part, over the Post Office’s decision to dismiss unjustly hundreds of business people who ran local post offices. They were dismissed  because of shortfalls shown on the Horizon branch accounting system which had many hidden defects.

While keeping faults hidden, the Post Office, pursued sub-postmasters for supposed debts based on “evidence” from Horizon. Dozens of sub-postmasters  were prosecuted on the basis of Horizon evidence and many made bankrupt. Hundreds of lives were ruined.

Since a judge’s scathing criticism of the Post Office in rulings last year, the Post Office and Martin Callanan,  a business minister in the House of Lords, have said lessons will be learnt but Bates said he has “yet to be convinced things will change at the Post Office”.

He said the Post Office has promised to change its ways many times before but “it never happens”.

Bates said he had spoken briefly to Nick Read who took over the job as Post Office CEO in September last year. Bates said he wished Read well but described him to the BEIS committee as “very much like a new coat on old paintwork”.  He added that the wood underneath is “rotten” and called for a judge-led inquiry to “get to the bottom of things”.

Bates might have been referring, in part, to some of those within the corporate Post Office who chased sub-postmasters for questionable shortfalls and took legal actions against them.

Also giving evidence to MPs were Andy Furey of the Communication Workers Union and chartered accountants from 2nd Sight whom the Post Office paid to investigate sub-postmaster complaints. The Post Office dismissed 2nd Sight after their interim findings criticised aspects of the Horizon system.

What the witnesses told MPs indicates that many questions over the scandal remain unanswered:

  • Who on the Post Office board agreed to spend an estimated £100m or more, over time, on avoidable legal costs to fight the claims of sub-postmasters?
  • Does the civil service have a conflict of interest in deciding whether to support a judge-led inquiry, given that a judge may criticise officials for being a party to, or turning a blind eye, to the Horizon scandal as it unfolded?
  • Does the Horizon IT scandal continue?  It emerges that the Post Office maintains control over, and is dealing in secret with, an unknown number of sub-postmasters who were not part of Alan Bates’ High Court litigation but who have experienced problems with Horizon, including shortfalls. The Post Office has made no commitment to paying them compensation or returning their losses.
  • Why have people not been held to account although it is months since a High Court ruling was scathing in its criticism of the Post Office’s conduct and costs during the litigation, its dealings with sub-postmasters,  the inaccuracy of corporate statements to the media and Parliament and the withholding of relevant evidence from the court?
  • Could sub-postmasters continue to be blamed for shortfalls they know nothing about if nothing fundamentally changes?
  • Will the minutes of Post Office board meetings be published to enable scrutiny of the costly and a futile decision last year to try and remove the judge in the Horizon IT litigation?
  • Will those minutes, if published, reveal whether the civil service has been a party to Post Office board’s decisions?
  • In any dispute between he civil service and MPs, including Boris Johnson, over whether to hold a judge-led inquiry, who would win?

Asked whether the Post Office’s compensation of £57.75m to former sub-postmasters represented justice., Furey replied  “Absolutely not.”

He said it is “so important to get a judge-led inquiry”.” He added that the  vast majority of people operating local Post Office “want to provide a fabulous community service and are part of the fabric of society”. But when money went missing, the Post Office’s position was to “presume the sub-postmasters were guilty”.

He said the culture of the Post Office was to defend Horizon at all costs. “From the outset they could not have a position where Horizon could be questionable because that would jeopardise its business plan, its operating model and its ability to make profits”.  After accusing local businessmen and women of taking money that had been shown as shortfalls on Horizon, the Post Office escorted them out of their buildings and told them they could not visit their own post offices again even if their homes were above or at the back of them.

“This is a national scandal,” Furey told MPs, adding, “It has impacted on peoples’ reputations and the Post Office needs to be held to account”.  What is known about the scandal today has emerged only because of the litigation brought about by Alan Bates and other claimants, he said.

“The PO should hide its head in shame.”

Chartered accountant Ron Warmington of 2nd sight said his company only agreed to accept a contract with the Post Office to investigate the complaints of sub-postmasters on the basis that it wanted to establish the truth,

But the Post Office withheld information.  “Frankly,” he said,  “it was one of the worst and most difficult investigations I have ever carried out in terms of the client relationship.”

BBC Panorama is due to broadcast a documentary on the Horizon scandal on 23 March – how the Post Office covered up evidence of miscarriages of justice.

Comment:

Alan Bates called during the hearing for the “dead wood” within the Post Office to be cleared out. He referred to people who “knew the truth” but carried on with the actions against sub-postmasters.

But clearing out dead wood is not going to happen: the civil service and the Post Office do not want accountability or a judge-led inquiry.

Boris Johnson has suggested that he supports an inquiry but it is likely the civil service will have the final say.

Antony Jay, co-writer of “Yes minister”, said one thing he had learned in researching the TV series was that the civil service was the “real government”.  .

He told the Daily Telegraph that, deep in their hearts, most politicians respected civil servants but “deep in their hearts most civil servants despised politicians”. He said,

“After researching and writing 44 episodes and a play, I find government much easier to understand by looking at ministers as public relations consultants to the real government – which is, of course, the Civil Service.”

Which raises the question: why would the civil service want a judge-led inquiry? By funding and sanctioning Post Office actions that led to the scandal, the civil service has much to lose by any inquiry and nothing to gain.

Indeed it is clear it failed in its role of scrutinising, challenging and not accepting at face value what it was told by the Post Office.

A judge-led inquiry may still happen though, if MPs, peers, committees and Parliament generally, keep campaigning for one.

Clearly, for the victims of the scandal, what the Post Office has done and what the state has sanctioned, knowingly or not,  can never be undone. But not having an inquiry, not paying fair compensation, not holding people to account and offering up a plate of platitudes instead makes things much worse.

As things stand, officials and business ministers seem happy to accept 20 years of injustice and hundreds of lives ruined in order to protect a public institution and the civil service.

Today, across the world, the UK has a reputation for justice and a sometimes grudging fairness. But the more the state tolerates the damage caused by the Horizon scandal, the more it openly and fragrantly repudiates those virtues of justice and fairness.

MPs told to hold to account those responsible for Horizon IT scandal

Falsely accused ex Post Office workers demand judge-led inquiry – New Statesman

PM commits to Post Office inquiry – Nick Wallis’ blog

BEIS civil servants – are they hoisting their own petard? – Problems with Post Office Ltd blog

Accountability of the civil service? – Eleanor Shaikh’s research

Did Post Office chiefs get off lightly CWU, commnications union blog

 

New postal minister refuses to back judge-led inquiry into Horizon scandal

By Tony Collins

Paul Scully, new business minister

Paul Scully, a new business minister in charge of the Post Office, refused yesterday to back calls by various MPs for a judge-led inquiry into the Horizon IT scandal.

Downing Street and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy have also refused to commit to an inquiry, reports Computer Weekly.

Yesterday in a debate in the Commons on former sub-postmasters whose criminal records are being reviewed by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, Scully went off script several times but still refused to give any commitment to an inquiry over the scandal.

Asked for a commitment to an inquiry, Scully said,

“We will certainly look at how we can keep the Post Office on its toes in the future and look back and learn the lessons from that. What I don’t want to do is step on the toes of the CCRC’s [Criminal Cases Review Commission] investigation…. but clearly we do need to make sure lessons are learned and we will look at that over the coming days and see what more we can do.”

Scully’s comments appear to give strong backing to the civil service’s line on the Horizon scandal which is to be non-committal on MPs’ calls for an inquiry.

Boris Johnson indicated last week that he supported an inquiry but unless he has the support of the civil service an inquiry is unlikely.

Scully also gave no commitments on fair compensation to victims of the scandal or on whether he will hold anyone accountable. As the new business minister, he said he will dedicate his time to “making sure that we can see tis through and keep the Post Office on their toes to make sure we can come to a proper conclusion that means something to the postmasters who have suffered in the past …”

He said the convictions will not be treated as a group because the way the legal system works. “We are not able to do that,” he said. Each conviction will be dealt with individually with forensic accountants going through thousands of pages of documents.

He put aside his prepared speech on “what a great job” the Post Office is doing and instead answered points put by MPs but in a generalised way.

He said the government will proactively challenge the Post Office and its new chief executive Nick Read and “I will make sure that happens”.

MPs during the debate, in describing the Post Office’s conduct, used words such as “despicable” and “utterly deplorable”. One MP said the Post Office had “misled from the outset”.

MP Lucy Allan said yesterday she had been told by a representative of the Post Office that he doubts many cases of sub-postmasters with criminal convictions will be referred to the Court of Appeal and that those that are, may not succeed. She said the Post Office, is

“still intent on protecting the interests of the institution at all costs.”

Comment

Recent events have made the position of the government and civil service over the Horizon IT scandal clear:

  • Boris Johnson would like an inquiry but this is opposed by the civil service which has nothing to gain and much to lose: any inquiry may ask how the civil service allowed the Post Office to spend seemingly unlimited funds on its legal fight against sub-postmasters litigation (including the hiring of four QCs and two sets of solicitors). It may also ask why the civil service failed to stop a scandal that was obvious for more than a decade to anyone outside the Post Office.
  • Boris Johnson needs the full co-operation of the civil service to manage and implement his policies. He has little choice therefore but to accept the civil service’s party line that it must be non-committal when MPs ask what has happened to Johnson’s promise of an inquiry.
  • As MPs on the business committee (BEIS) look at how another Horizon-like scandal could be avoided in future, the existing Horizon scandal continues and deepens.
  • The criminal convictions of former sub-postmasters are to be reviewed individually and not collectively. Forensic accountants are going through thousands of pages of documents in individual cases. This could delay the final outcome of some cases indefinitely, although the reviews have already been delayed several years. The Post Office supports the individual rather than collective consideration of criminal cases.
  • The ruling of Mr Justice Fraser in the Horizon case made it clear that Fujitsu engineers could alter branch accounting systems from a remote location without the knowledge of sub-postmasters. Such changes could affect figures shown on the Horizon system. This fact alone – without the disclosures during litigation about bugs in Horizon – undermine every case where there is nothing other than Horizon evidence to suggest money has been stolen.
  • For each conviction to be looked at individually is as ludicrous as the Board of Inquiry in 1912 going through in forensic detail every survivor’s witness statement before making a recommendation on whether the available evidence supports claims the Titanic actually sank.
  • The Post Office continues, in practice, to exert a similar level of control and influence it had on the state during the height of the Horizon IT scandal. MPs made the point correctly yesterday that nothing has changed.
  • In the same way the Post Office tried to stop Alan Bates from launching a group litigation, the institution appears to be opposing former sub-postmasters with criminal convictions taking a group civil action – but how could individuals with criminal convictions, many of whom lost their homes and businesses and have found it difficult to get work, find the money, individually, to sue the Post Office which, in its legal fight against Alan Bates and his co-claimants, has shown it is prepared to spend tens of millions of pounds on lawyers?
  • Nothing substantive will change unless the Post Office has demonstrably independent, rigorous and fully empowered oversight, including representation of sub-postmasters on an oversight board (though not from the National Federation of Sub-postmasters which the Post Office funds and whose independence the judge questioned),  together with the detailed public reporting of progress on implementing the recommendations of a judge-led inquiry.
  • Without these two things, ministers and the civil service will do little more than try to embalm the Horizon scandal in reassuring platitudes such as lessons learnt, a new framework, ministerial meetings, working groups, better scrutiny etc
  • If the civil service has its way, there will be no fair compensation, minimal accountability and no judge-led inquiry; and the Post Office will emerge from the scandal entirely unscathed other than the damage to its reputation which will cost public servants and those who misled the High Court nothing.
  • It is up to MPs, many of whom have an excellent grasp of the facts, to test, as the judge did, everything the Post Office says for truthfulness. The judge found that some Post Office witnesses gave him partial and inaccurate evidence. The Post Office corporately gave the High Court inaccurate evidence on Horizon and a Post Office director tried to mislead the court.
  • The Post Office has a new CEO. But does he have the power to modify fundamentally an institutional culture that allowed a national scandal to take grip and, according to MPs yesterday, still opposes change?
  • Much of what the minister said yesterday implied that the government (other than Boris Johnson), the civil service and the Post Office speak as one voice – a voice that shows compassion in the words used but not at all in the deeds.
  • It’s difficult to avoid a conclusion that the only regret within officialdom over the Horizon IT scandal is that the Post Office was found out. It will now take a very clever use of language – something civil servants are famous for – to convince MPs and peers that the scandal is in the past.
  • Credit goes to MP Lucy Allan for securing yesterday’s debate and to MPs who contributed including Gill Furniss, Andrew Bridgen, Karl Turner, Sharon Hodgson, Emma Lewell-Buck, Maria Eagle, Philip Dunne, Marion Fellows, Gerald Jones, Jim Shannon,  Tonia Antoniaazzi,  Ian Paisley, and Duncan Baker.

BEIS civil servants – are they hoisting their own petard? – Tim McCormack

Those who did not play by the rules in Horizon scandal should face prosecution – Computer Weekly

Boris Johnson’s commitment to inquiry in doubt – Computer Weekly

House of Lords debate on Horizon scandal – #postofficetrial

Some of this state-sanctioned conduct would not be out of place in China or North Korea… the Horizon scandal in summary

By Tony Collins

  1. A knock on your mother-in-law’s front door at 3am. A state-sanctioned investigations team wants to interview you over stolen money you know nothing about.
  2. Your hands are bound and you are also handcuffed to one police officer on your left and another on your right. A state-owned institution says thousands of pounds is missing. It is confident you have taken it.
  3. You haven’t taken a penny but your protests count for nothing. The institution has the evidence from its computer system.
  4. You are not allowed to see your family. You are put in a vehicle and not told where you are going.
  5. You are taken to prison, kept in a cell all day and fed through a hatch. You see another prisoner who has committed suicide.
  6.  Before sending you to prison, a judge says you’ve stolen from pensioners. You are asked if you’ve used the stolen money for your recent holiday.
  7. In fact you are in prison because you had the misfortune to be a user of the institution’s computer system – called “Horizon” – at a time when it was showing discrepancies.
  8. Once a large and inexplicable shortfall appears on Horizon, more follow.  It’s the usual pattern.
  9. You are required to make good every shortfall now and in the future.  It is no excuse to say you haven’t stolen any money or made any mistakes. Evidence from Horizon is sacrosanct.
  10. If you cannot pay for the shortfalls, the institution, the Post Office, will make monthly deductions from your income, make you sell your home or make you bankrupt.
  11. You were given an impossible choice: a) accept the computer’s evidence at face value and agree to give to the Post Office any amount of money it requires you to pay now and in the future, or b) challenge the computer’s evidence and be prosecuted as dishonest.
  12. You challenged Horizon and ended up in court. Here, the denials of a branch counter clerk were unlikely to be believed against the evidence from a large and much-respected publicly-owned institution.
  13. The jury accepted that the computer was correct.  The computer seemed to work well for thousands of people every day. Why would it go wrong just in your case? But you didn’t realise then that, to everyone who complained about Horizon, the Post Office said they were the only one.
  14. You lose your job, cannot pay the mortgage and lose your home. You are traumatised, have an electronic tag, go on medication and try twice to commit suicide.
  15. Why have the courts and jury preferred the evidence from a computer system to your denials?
  16. Many years after prison has left an indelible mark on your mental well-being, it will emerge that thousands of reports on Horizon-related problems have been kept secret.
  17. The system’s problems are kept a secret for more than a decade while the Post Office, with apparent impunity, prosecutes and persecutes.
  18. To clear your name, the onus was on you and other accused to prove the system was flawed.
  19. But you had no right to see the system’s audit data. You had no way of proving whether the computer was showing non-existent shortfalls.
  20. Some families try to avoid the prosecution of a family member by raising tens of thousands of pounds to pay the Post Office for shortfalls they suspect are not real but cannot prove it. The Post Office still prosecutes.
  21. In one of the world’s most advanced nations, governments and civil service leaders turn a blind eye to a scandal that has been obvious for years to those not employed directly by the Post Office.
  22. Far from holding anyone accountable, the UK state appoints those ultimately responsible for running the Post Office and  Fujitsu, supplier of the Horizon system, to top jobs in the public sector.
  23. The Post Office has no close oversight because it is an “arm’s length body”. The state owns more than 100 ALBs. What is to stop any number of them turning on the public as the Post Office has turned on hundreds of Horizon users? In 2015, a committee of MPs found there was little understanding across government of how arm’s length bodies ought to work.
  24. It’s the job of state-funded auditors, non-executive directors, ministers and civil servants to challenge what they are told by the boards of arm’s length bodies.  If they accept assurances at face value, the governmental system of oversight breaks down. But in 2020 business minister Martin Callanan suggests that civil servants were unknowingly misled by the Post Office. Was this confirmation that the system of oversight has failed with appalling consequences?
  25. Since 2010, the media and Parliamentarians, particularly former defence minister James Arbuthnot (now Lord Arbuthnot) have tried to draw the attention of ministers to the Horizon scandal. But civil servants and postal services ministers have preferred the word of the Post Office to the pleadings of constituency sub-postmasters.
  26. After setting up a costly mediation scheme and hiring forensic accountants Second Sight to address the concerns about Horizon among MPs, particularly Arbuthnot, the Post Office ends the mediation scheme and summarily dismisses Second Sight whose report criticises Horizon.
  27. In totalitarian states, it may not be unusual for innocent people to be handcuffed and taken to prison because they questioned the output of a state-owned institution’s computer system. But in the UK?
  28. BBC Panorama reveals in 2015 that it is possible for engineers working for Fujitsu, Horizon’s supplier,  to access Post Office branch accounting systems and alter lines of code, to fix bugs, without the local Horizon users knowing.
  29. These changes could affect the branch’s financial records as shown on Horizon.
  30. Panorama is correct. Fujitsu staff can alter branch Horizon systems remotely but the Post Office issues a lengthy public denial of Panorama’s correct disclosures. Ministers and civil servants accept the Post Office’s denial.
  31. In at least two families,  the misfortune of being a Horizon user at the time of a glitch or training-related issue becomes a factor in  suicide. In other families there are attempted suicides. A  sub-postmaster suffers a stroke shortly after the Post Office wrongly suspends him, claiming incorrectly that he owes £65,000.
  32. The Post Office had the power to enrol state resources in prosecuting sub-postmasters on the basis of “robust” evidence from Horizon.
  33. Even after the extent of Horizon’s problems has come to light during High Court trials, the UK government continues to hold nobody to account.
  34. That the scandal was obvious to outsiders helped Alan Bates, a former sub-postmaster who was one of Horizon’s earliest victims, to obtain venture funding, via solicitors Freeths, of tens of millions of pounds for a High Court case against the Post Office.
  35. The Post Office tried to oppose Bates’ group litigation by claiming every individual case was different. The judge disagreed and the group litigation went ahead in 2017.
  36. Even after the first of a series of planned High Court trials started, the full extent of Horizon’s problems were kept hidden.
  37. Thousands of internal reports on Horizon’s problems were not given to the High Court until late 2019 – after several hearings and judgements in the case.
  38. In 2020, Kelly Tolhurst, the then Post Office minister, refused a request to pay a fair sum in compensation to former sub-postmasters.  She suggested in her letter that the compensation being paid by the Post Office (about £58m) was enough. Last week business minister Martin Callanan also refused state compensation. His words were almost identical to Tolhurst’s, implying that their words were drafted by civil servants at the Post Office’s parent organisation, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which appears to see its role as defending the Post Office against outside criticism.
  39. To those who sold homes and lost businesses because of the Post Office’s demands for payment, under threat of criminal and civil action, the compensation being offered is no compensation at all  It will not, in the end, come close to covering their losses.
  40. Today, 10 years after a pregnant sub-postmistress fainted in the dock as she was sentenced to 15 months for stealing money she knew nothing about, and woke up in hospital in handcuffs she tried to hide, her criminal conviction has not yet been quashed. She considered taking her own life.  The state’s overriding duty to protect its citizens seems not to have applied to her.
  41. Another ordinary law-abiding Horizon user went to prison in handcuffs but her criminal conviction is still in place nearly 20 years later.
  42. Her conviction is likely to be quashed this year or next but she will have endured for much of her adult life being branded a criminal by the state. No amount of compensation can replace 20 lost years of being presumed guilty.
  43. Boris Johnson last week promised an inquiry into the Horizon IT scandal but it is likely to be resisted by civil servants. Officials may see anything other than a narrow inquiry into procedures, contracts and technical matters as not being in their interest.
  44. Last week BEIS confirmed it will not hold anyone accountable. Instead, the new business minister Lord Callanan offered Parliament a series of promises from Sir Humphrey’s phrasebook: a new framework … a working group … ministerial meetings …. cultural and organisational changes … learning lessons …  a major overhaul … strengthened relationships … productive conversations … close monitoring of progress … constant reviews … genuine commercial partnerships … direct addressing of past events … the delivery of support on the ground… accelerating a programme of improvement … engaging with stakeholders … seek evidence of real positive change. .. further accountability mechanisms.
  45. It is likely that some or most the above stock phrases will be used by every BEIS minister when giving a formal response to the Horizon IT scandal in letters, statements and Parliamentary debates.
  46. But those seeking justice will continue to campaign for fair compensation at a minimum.
  47. The campaigners in Parliament include Lord Arbuthnot, Lord Berkeley, Gill Furniss MP, Kate Osborne MP, Kevan Jones MP and Lucy Allan MP. For campaigners, the High Court rulings in favour of the sub-postmasters mark only the end of the beginning.
  48.  Some of the points below may add to grounds for the state to pay fair compensation.

Comment

A scandal perpetuated?

To be fair to the Post Office, it has acted as if it were answerable to nobody because it was indeed not answerable.

It had the very occasional polite tap on the knuckles by officials at its parent organisation, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy [BEIS]. But nothing more.

In effect the Post Office was untouchable. It received hundreds of millions of pounds from BEIS in state aid but not even the National Audit Office was able to investigate how the money was spent.

Again, to be fair to the Post Office, it was partly in the hands of Horizon’s supplier Fujitsu when it came to understanding faults in Horizon. Fujitsu kept its own central error logs and the reports of Horizon problems. It could charge the Post Office for access to data beyond a certain point.

Given the circumstances, the Post Office did what large institutions tend to do when things go badly wrong: they  blame the weakest links in the corporate chain, the human operators.

Fatal crashes of the Boeing 737 Max were, at first, blamed on the weakest inks – pilots – instead of on a poorly-designed onboard computer system.

Again, after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion, the plant’s human operators, the weakest links, were blamed, which initially helped to cover up the reactor’s design and construction deficiencies.

And after the crash of a military Chinook killed 25 VIPs on the Mull of Kintyre, the two dead pilots, the weakest links, were blamed while deficiencies with the helicopter’s computer systems were hidden.

In the case of the Horizon scandal, the weakest links when the system went wrong were the sub-postmasters. About 550 sub-postmasters took part in subsequent litigation but the Horizon shortfall scandal might have claimed another 500 or so victims who hadn’t realised at first that they weren’t alone.

That the Post Office’s parent department BEIS appears to have no interest in paying compensation or holding accountable anyone for the Horizon scandal is not a surprise given that it is part of the problem.

Indeed, it’ll be no surprise if its civil servants resist making good on Boris Johnson’s promise of an inquiry. There are already signs of this, according to Computer Weekly.

For years, BEIS and its successive postal services ministers have accepted the Post Office’s word when it was obvious to Computer Weekly and Parliamentarians that a scandal was taking place under the noses of those running the department.

The Post Office’s party line continues?

In their carefully-worded reactions to the Horizon IT scandal, the current Post Office CEO Nick Read, Post Office chairman Tim Parker, former Postal Services minister Kelly Tolhurst and a current business minister Lord Callanan, have all referred to wrongs as being “in the past”.

Perhaps unwittingly, they appear collectively to be following a party line – although Sir Peter Fraser QC, the High Court judge in the Horizon case, was particularly critical of Post Office witnesses who appeared to follow a party line.

Perhaps Read, Parker, the Post Office press office and Lord Callanan wish to consign the Horizon scandal to history.

-In its corporate apology the Post Office’s statement said,

“We accept that, in the past, we got things wrong …”

In his apology, Tim Parker, Post Office chairman, said that the December 2019 High Court judgement,

“makes findings about previous versions of the [Horizon] system and past behaviours …”

In January 2020, the then postal services minister Kelly Tolhurst said in a letter to Justice for Sub-Postmasters Alliance that the Post Office accepted and recognised that,

“… in the past they had got things wrong…”

Last week, business minister Lord Callanan said at the end of a short debate in Parliament on the Horizon IT scandal,

“Post Office Ltd has accepted that, in the past, it got things badly wrong … ”

“We accept that, in the past, we got things wrong …”

“the Post Office is also continuing to directly address past events for affected postmasters …”

Nick Read, the current Post Office CEO said there was a need to

“… learn lessons from the past.”

[My emphases]

But the scandal is not in the past. Far from it.

In February 2020, Mark Baker, a sub-postmaster and spokesman for the communications union CWU, told a BBC File on 4 documentary that he knows of Horizon shortfall incidents of nearly one a week continuing in one UK region alone this year.

File on 4 also raised the question of whether it is easier to blame “user error” than the Post Office’s having to fine Fujitsu for not fixing a bug within a pre-defined time limit.

Another reason the apologies of the Post Office and ministers for “past” wrongs are disingenuous is that they avoid any apology for the Post Office’s conduct in the litigation.

In his High Court rulings, Sir Peter Fraser was prolific in his  criticisms of the Post Office’s dealings with sub-postmasters but he also attacked its conduct in the much more recent litigation.

It is this conduct that demeans the reputation of UK government and public sector institutions as a whole.

When ministers and the Post Office refer to such conduct as historic they are, in essence,  excusing it. By apologising for past events only, business ministers appear to have become apologists for the Post Office’s conduct in the litigation … conduct such as this:

  • Several Post Office witnesses did not give accurate or impartial evidence to the High Court in 2018 and 2019.  That wasn’t in a past era.
  • A current Post Office director tried to mislead the High Court, as did a witness from IT supplier Fujitsu. This wasn’t in a past era.
  • The Post Office opposed the setting up of a group litigation order, sought to have no substantive trial listed at all and, when this failed, tried to strike out much of the evidence of sub-postmasters before the trials started.
  • During the first trial the Post Office, said the judge, seemed to try and put the court “in terrorem”  – which means serving or intended to threaten or intimidate.” None of this was in a past era.
  • The  judge said some Post Office costs were “extraordinarily high, unreasonable and disproportionate”.
  • In addition to the above costs, the Post Office hired four QCs and two firms on solicitors. It also fielded 14 witnesses against the six lead claimants for the sub-postmasters.
  • The publicly-funded Post Office appeared to be trying to rack up costs, perhaps to drain the funding of the former sub-postmasters and force them into submission.
  • The Post Office sought to have the judge removed – a highly unusual and costly approach to the litigation.  The judge expressed surprise that the Post Office applied to remove him near the end of a lengthy trial. If the judge had stood down, a re-trial would have happened, adding greatly to costs that were already tens of millions of pounds by this stage. It was only last year that the Post Office sought to have the judge removed –  not in a past era.

How many more business ministers will try to consign the Horizon scandal to the past?

That the scandal is one of the most serious group miscarriages of justice in decades is not in doubt.

But by not paying fair compensation, the state is, in essence, sending a signal to the public sector that if another group of innocent people are handcuffed, bundled into a van and taken into prison for doing nothing more than questioning the system, the state will care even less than it does today.

Holding nobody to account and not paying fair compensation also sends a message to the public and Parliament: that it is acceptable for a state-owned institution to conduct itself as if it were answerable to nobody.

One question that still remains unanswered is how a state-owed institution was able – perhaps is still able – to maintain a control and influence similar in status to that of a cult.

For more than two decades, the civil service and ministers accepted the Post Office’s criticisms of sub-postmasters. The courts and judges too.

The Post Office was also able to enlist the support of some the UK’s top QCs in litigation to fight sub-postmasters.

And the Post Office’s most senior witness in the case, whom the judge described as a very clever person,  seemed “entirely incapable of accepting any other view of the issues other than her own”, said the judge. She exercised her judgement to “paint the Post Office in the most favourable light possible, regardless of the facts”.

Other Post Office witnesses in the case were expected to give impartial evidence to the court but followed its party line. Even the Post Office’s expert witness who was professionally required to give impartial evidence to the court was, according to the judge, “partisan” in favour of the Post Office’s case.

The Post Office’s control extended to the sub-postmasters’ supposed trades union, the National Federation of Sub-postmasters: the Post Office secretly gave the Federation millions of pounds that could be clawed back if the Post Office disapproved of the Federation’s public criticisms.

Are BEIS civil servants and ministers, therefore, under the influence of a cult-like institution when they tell MPs the Horizon scandal is in the past and they refuse to apologise for conduct in the litigation, refuse compensation and refuse to hold anyone accountable?

Are the BEIS civil servants and ministers also remarkably naïve when they ask MPs and peers to accept a series of Sir Humphryisms instead of fair compensation for hundreds of damaged or ruined lives?  …  a new framework, ministerial meetings, a monitoring of progress… phrases that could be the output of platitude-generating software?

Do ministers really believe that the Post Office, after decades of control  and influence is able to change suddenly now that it has a new CEO and the Horizon scandal is acknowledged at the top of government?

If ministers want to convince us that the Post Office, BEIS and the government are genuinely contrite, they will pay fair compensation to former sub-postmasters  and hold to account those responsible for the scandal and the failure to put an early stop to its all-too-obvious traumatic consequences.

Acknowledgements:

Alan Bates

Karl FindersNick Wallis, Tim McCormack, Mark Baker, James Arbuthnot, Eleanor Shaikh,  Private Eye, File on 4, Panorama, Christopher Head

Regulator queries appointment of Paula Vennells in light of Post Office IT scandal

By Tony Collins

Regulators have written to a London NHS trust to query the appointment of its chair, Paula Vennells, and her fitness to fill the role, says the Health Service Journal.

Vennells, who is Imperial College Healthcare Trust’s chair, was the Post Office’s chief executive between 2012 and 2019. For much of that time – and before – sub-postmasters were being suspended, prosecuted and made bankrupt because of  non-existent losses that were shown as discrepancies on a flawed Post Office Horizon system.

In 2018 and 2019, the Post Office lost a succession of hearings in the High Court related to the  Horizon system and contracts with sub-postmasters. Although the Post Office has agreed to pay compensation, nearly all of it is going to lawyers.

Sub-postmasters affected by the scandal are unlikely to recover their losses.

Vennells took up the role at Imperial in April 2019. Now the Care Quality Commission has written to the trust, asking its board to provide information showing it “has followed a robust process to ensure that the person in question is fit and proper for their role”. The trust has 10 days to respond, says the Health Service Journal

Concerns about Vennells’ fitness as a trust chair were raised in 2019 by Minh Alexander, a former NHS consultant turned campaigner. She wrote to the CQC asking the agency to “look into whether Paula Vennells is a fit and proper person to be a director on an NHS trust board”.

The Health Service Journal says the CQC will not determine what is and what is not misconduct or mismanagement” but “will make a judgement about the provider’s decision,” such as whether the trust “acted reasonably when it made its determination”.

The Government will commit to holding an independent inquiry following a legal ruling affecting hundreds of subpostmasters, Boris Johnson has suggested.

Mr Johnson’s comments came as Labour’s Kate Osborne raised the “Post Office Horizon IT system scandal” during Prime Minister’s questions and urged him to “commit to launching an independent inquiry”.

Mr Johnson responded: “I am happy to commit to getting to the bottom of the matter in the way that she recommends.”

Raising the issue in the Commons, Ms Osborne, the MP for Jarrow said: “Like many other subpostmasters my constituent Chris Head was victim to the Post Office Horizon IT system scandal.

“These errors have resulted in bankruptcy, imprisonment and even suicides. Will the Prime Minister today assure Chris and others that he will commit to launching an independent inquiry?”

Mr Johnson replied: “I am indeed aware of the scandal to which she alludes and the disasters that has befallen many Post Office workers and I am happy – I’ve met some of them myself – and I am happy to commit to getting to the bottom of the matter in the way that she recommends.”

Inquiry over Horizon scandal?

Boris Johnson appears to have committed to holding an inquiry into the Post Office Horizon IT scandal.

Johnson’s comments came when answering questions in the House o Commons.  Labour’s Kate Osborne raised the “Post Office Horizon IT system scandal” and asked him to “commit to launching an independent inquiry”.

Johnson replied, “I am happy to commit to getting to the bottom of the matter in the way that she recommends.”

Osborne said: “Like many other sub-postmasters my constituent Chris Head was victim to the Post Office Horizon IT system scandal.

“These errors have resulted in bankruptcy, imprisonment and even suicides. Will the Prime Minister today assure Chris and others that he will commit to launching an independent inquiry?”

Johnson replied: “I am indeed aware of the scandal to which she alludes and the disasters that has befallen many Post Office workers and I am happy – I’ve met some of them myself – and I am happy to commit to getting to the bottom of the matter in the way that she recommends.”

Comment

The question  of fair compensation for sub-postmasters and accountability for the scandal ought to be central issues.
Meanwhile it would be a pity if Vennells on her own were held accountable for the Post Office Horizon IT scandal.

Familiar mistakes, wasted millions, big pay-offs and nobody accountable – yes, it’s the public sector IT-led transformation project

By Tony Collins

There’s no money to pay for bus services into Taunton at the weekend but local council officials have found £6.3m for unnecessary pay-offs to employees.

Unhappy residents can do nothing: when council officers are involved in a botched IT-led transformation scheme, the electorate cannot vote them out of office.

The costliest IT-led transformation failure in history was the £10bn NHS’s National Programme for IT [NPfIT], when unelected officials made wrong decisions in secret.

More than £7bn was wasted and nobody held to account.

Numerous other IT-led transformations have failed. A Cornwall Council report on a transformation by BT said, “Service Transformation anticipated at the time of contract commencement has not reached anything like the intended levels”.

An IT-led transformation at Birmingham Council, Europe’s biggest local authority, led to a spend of billions of pounds with Capita. Exactly how the money was spent councillors are unsure.

A leading Birmingham councillor John Clancy said, “The biggest problem we have is with transparency. We have little idea what is going on.”

Now a detailed report has been published on a failed IT-led transformation in Somerset in which familiar mistakes were made, millions spent unnecessarily, decisions made in secret and nobody held to account.

To local residents, the “transformation” meant unanswered phones, uncut grass and increased council tax and parking fees.

As happened in the planning for the NPfIT, potential savings were overestimated and the risks underestimated.

The plan was to merge two councils, Taunton Deane and West Somerset, using simplified business processes  and new technology. But officers made voluntary redundancy available to all staff before new ways of working had bedded in – although it has been well known in the business world for decades that major changes in ways of working need more staff at the outset.

Planning for the merger therefore contravened one of the most basic rules in any IT-led transformation: don’t make staff cuts until business change has bedded in.

Officials planned a redundancy scheme so attractive that many more  staff took pay-offs than expected  – including officers.

Short of staff because of the pay-offs, the merged council had to bring in agency and additional staff – perhaps including those it had made redundant.

Mike Rigby, executive member of the new council, said: “Clearly the so-called transformation programme had not worked.”

Thanks to local media coverage of the project failure, the merger is better known locally for the £6.35 worth of pay-offs to public servants than any benefits to local residents.

What went wrong is revealed in a cautiously-worded but thorough audit report by a not-for-profit audit team in Somerset called “Swap”.  The Swap report has the optimistic title “Transformation – Lessons Learned”.

As the Swap report puts it (politely) …

“The voluntary redundancy option for all staff within the organisation was not in the best interests of the organisation.”

It goes on to say that there was,

“little or no control over redundancy costs and little or no control over the ability to retain certain individuals with specialist knowledge and skills”.

To what extent were experienced, well-paid and professional officers in a position to dissuade ruling councillors from making well-known business mistakes?

Ruling councillors make policy decisions with advice from their permanent professional team of officers, led by the chief executive, on what is and what is not feasible. Officers also make the decisions on how to implement policy.

Will any officer be held accountable for the botched Somerset transformation scheme?  It is not a question being asked by officers in the new council.

The council’s new leader says the problems are in the past and lessons will be learned – but similar messages were given out after nearly every major IT-led transformation project failure over the past 30 years.

A lack of transparency was singled out as a common factor in “Crash“,  a book on the lessons from the world’s worst IT disasters published in 2000.  Its chapter on “concealment” urged those responsible for scrutinising an IT-led project to,

“…continually seek assurances that a major project is under firm and successful control and if you believe what you are told without independent verification expect to discover a disaster only when it is self-evident.”

The Somerset Swap report in 2020 report said,

“We are aware that a number of Members did not feel they were adequately kept informed on what was happening with the transformation programme.

“This would suggest that the engagement with Members was not as effectively managed as it could have been.

“… for a period of time we are not clear on what information Members were receiving as part of their ‘oversight’ …

“It was not until the later part of 2018 and early 2019 that the level of reporting and engagement seemed to increase, which was too late.”

The book Crash said it was the job of anyone responsible for scrutiny to “pry into computer schemes and not to be beaten back by assurances that everything is OK”.

Crash was not an obscure book on the lessons from big IT-related failures. Its findings were reported by national newspapers and specialist publications including Computer Weekly and New Scientist.

The Times Educational Supplement said of Crash that its case studies “illustrate so many general principles worth taking note of when looking at systems”. The New Scientist said of Crash that it is “essential” reading for “any organisation thinking of investing in a computer system”.

Why then were Crash’s lessons apparently ignored in Somerset’s transformation project and why isn’t anyone being held accountable?

Footnote:

A consultancy, “Ignite”, that received more than £1m for help with the transformation in Somerset has been the subject of an Advertising Standards Authority ruling.

Former Somerset IT professional David Orr, who has sought to hold local councils to account over botched schemes, complained to the Advertising Standards Authority over Ignite’s sales claims.

Ignite had published an unremittingly positive case study on the Somerset transformation scheme saying that the “operating model delivered all financial benefits identified in the business case …”

Orr told the Advertising Standards Authority that Ignite’s claims were “demonstrably false and unachieved”. He said other councils could be misled. The Advertising Standards Authority investigated, ruled in Orr’s favour and Ignite removed the case study from its website.

Orr says of the Somerset debacle,

“What is it about the word ‘transformation’ that causes so many councillors to lose their critical faculties?

“We were promised in 2016 that Somerset and Taunton Deane Councillors had learned lessons from the failed joint venture South West One with IBM that lost at least £69m.

“By 2019, we now learn that many of the same councillors have watched an all too similar failure in the ‘transformation’ project to merge two district councils into a new one called Somerset West and Taunton Council.

“Yet again the hubristic promises of ‘magic IT’ and electronic self-service have led to expensive failures.”

Orr referred to large pay-offs for some senior executives. “We need to stop paying for failure and why can’t we claw back some of these huge payouts…” he said.

Comment

Nobody has ever claimed democracy is perfect; and local democracy is particularly imperfect. Audit reports on IT-led transformations rarely – if ever – identify the real underlying cause of failures: the absence of public reporting of ongoing problems.

Such reports could deter failure because civil and public servants have no fear of elections, shareholders, losing money or going bust but they fear embarrassment.

They do not want their mistakes known while they are still in post. Hence no council, government department,  police force or NHS Trust will publish usefully detailed reports on their IT-led transformations while the officials responsible are still in post.

Three possible solutions:

a) Publish detailed progress reports on the IT-led transformation.

b) Elected representatives agree an IT-led transformation only after identifying everyone (or anyone) who has “skin in the game” – that is, a credible reason to fear failure.  If, in the event of failure, officers stand to receive large pay-offs, that’s a good enough reason not to proceed.

c) Simplifying and standardising business processes is usually a good idea if (i) staff numbers involved are doubled until new ways of working have bedded in (ii) realistic calculations  are made of potential costs and savings and (iii) those costs are doubled and the savings halved. If the cost-benefit analysis still looks good, you may have a workable plan.

Thank you to David Orr whose extraordinary tenacity has helped to expose poor decision making, squandered public money and repetitions of familiar mistakes by some councils in Somerset.  

Ignite consultants “probably” breached advertising code

Slapped wrist for Ignite

Merger disaster – critics speak out

Why the victory in Horizon IT dispute is momentous

By Tony Collins

Congratulations to Alan Bates whose remarkable campaign for justice has achieved all he said it would 15 years ago.

In a letter to Computer Weekly in 2004 Bates said,

“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.”

Now his feat in bringing the truth into the public domain against all odds has become one of the most momentous campaigns for justice in modern times.

The Post Office had a total of four Queen’s Counsels, two major firms of solicitors and seemingly limitless funding as a publicly-owned institution. The judge described its legal spending as “very high, even by the standards of commercial litigation between very high value blue chip companies”.

On Bates’side was a group former sub-postmasters who acted as lead claimants in the case, a technical expert, a former Fujitsu whistleblower and a remarkably effective legal team brought together by Freeths solicitors with venture funding. The judge Sir Peter Fraser found the evidence given by the Bates side helpful and credible. He praised the quality of evidence of the witnesses and the balanced assistance to the court of the expert witness.

On the Post Office side, the judge questioned the truthfulness of evidence given by the Post Office’s witnesses. He found numerous flaws in the evidence of its expert witness. The judge also expressed concerns about Fujitsu, supplier of the Horizon system whose alleged robustness was at the heart of the dispute.

The conduct of the Post Office may, with the advent of a new Parliament, be the subject of debate, questions and a possible inquiry. There will be questions about how the Post Office was allowed to behave the way it did.

The judge said,

“The Post Office’s approach to evidence, even despite their considerable resources which are being liberally deployed at considerable cost, amounts to attack and disparagement of the claimants individually and collectively, together with the wholly unsatisfactory evidence of Fujitsu personnel …”

But for the court case, evidence that the Horizon system could have caused the shortfalls for which sub-postmasters were blamed and, in some cases, prosecuted, would not have emerged.

Bates and his team have held the Post Office to account in a way in which ministers and the civil service failed. During the 15 year dispute,  some have died including campaigning former sub-postmaster Julian Wilson. As the livelihoods of sub-postmasters were lost, family homes sold, marriages dissolved and traumatised individuals tried to pick up the pieces of shattered lives, no minister or civil servant showed even a hint of a sign of wanting to hold the Post Office to account.

Former sub-postmasters were blamed and imprisoned for shortfalls that could have been caused by Horizon systems bugs or transactions inserted from a remote location but ministers and civil servants who were responsible for the Post Office considered the prosecutions to be none of their business.

MPs called it a national scandal before anything was known of the conduct of the Post Office and its witnesses at the trials.

The Post Office has issued an apology that journalist Nick Wallis, who has covered the trials and kept the dispute in the public eye, described as “less than fulsome”.

The apology contains no acknowledgement of the Post Office’s conduct and behaviours in court this year, which suggests that, underneath a few changes of rules, procedures and contracts, the Post Office will continue to be culturally and attitudinally exactly the same organisation it was when Bates started his campaign in 2004.

One of the striking characteristics of the Post Office throughout the years has been an absence of humility or contrition. It remains a striking facet today, an impression reinforced by its carefully-worded apology.

Indeed, the judge refers to the Post Office’s “institutional” problems. He said,

“The approach by the Post Office to the evidence of someone such as Mr Latif [a former sub-postmaster] demonstrates a simple institutional obstinacy or refusal to consider any possible alternatives to their view of Horizon, which was maintained regardless of the weight of factual evidence to the contrary.

“That approach by the Post Office was continued, even though now there is also considerable expert evidence to the contrary as well (and much of it agreed expert evidence on the existence of numerous bugs).

“This approach by the Post Office has amounted, in reality, to bare assertions and denials that ignore what has actually occurred, at least so far as the witnesses called before me in the Horizon Issues trial are concerned. It amounts to the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the earth is flat.”

At another point in his ruling, the judge refers to the Post Office’s “extreme sensitivity” that seemed to verge at times on “institutional paranoia”. He was referring to “any information that may throw doubt on the reputation of Horizon, or expose it to further scrutiny”. There are no signs this defensiveness has gone.

The judge also refers to a request by the then CEO for a taskforce to investigate points made by a critic of the Post Office Tim McCormack. The CEO’s request said,

“Can I have a report that takes the points in order and explains them. Tim McCormack is campaigning against PO and Horizon. I had another note from him this am which Tom will forward, so you are both in the loop. We must take him seriously and professionally.”

But a reply the same day from a senior manager said, “Can you stand down on this please? [A redacted section then follows.] Any specific actions and I will revert. My apologies.”

The judge was mystified. He said,

“ I can think of no justifiable reason why the Post Office, institutionally, would not want to address the Chief Executive’s points and investigate as she initially intended, and find out for itself the true situation of what had occurred.”

The Post Office’s brief apology gives no hint of any change to the inexplicable attitudes that led to McCormack’s points not being answered. It doesn’t explain the Post Office’s attempts to stop disclosure of relevant information in the case. Or its attempt this year to have removed the one person able to hold it to account – the judge Sir Peter Fraser.

And it doesn’t explain the bizarre notion of ruining hundreds of lives to defend a corporate computer system.

What the briefness of the Post Office’s apology does explain, however, is the small amount it is willing to pay in compensation. Nick Wallis reports that the 550 former sub-postmasters who were part of the case may receive £8-11m between them after legal fees and venture funders are paid. That will represent a large shortfall on the money the sub-postmasters lost.

But the funders deserve payback for the risks they took and the legal team deserves its fees for its profound understanding of the nuances of the case, the depth of its investigation, its appointment of an outstanding QC to represent the claimants and the sensitivity and discernment in the way he conducted the case.

What the Bates victory does achieve is worth more than money: innocents may have their names cleared and their criminal records expunged. They will be able to go abroad without being pulled aside because of their record. Their reputations in the community will be officially restored.

Not only have 1,000 or more former sub-postmasters been vindicated but the practices, conduct and behaviours of the Post Office as an institution have been exposed. The credibility of the evidence of some of its most senior named individuals has been undermined in the rulings.

Soon the questions in Parliament will begin. The demands for accountability have yet to be met.

Meanwhile Bates and all the other sub-postmasters caught up in a campaign they would have loved never to have needed can dwell on a victory that is surprising, remarkable and historic given the seemingly-invulnerable and implacable institutional attitudes and cultures that opposed them.

Nick Wallis has an excellent account of the latest ruling: They did it.

Computer Weekly has an exclusive interview with Freeths that explains the compensation amount of about £58m.

Campaigner Tim McCormack’s blog.

Fujitsu faces prosecution – Law Society Gazette

 

How did ministers and the civil service let the Post Office behave like this?

Tony Collins

A public or Parliamentary inquiry into the implications of High Court rulings on the Post Office’s business could answer important outstanding questions.

Now that the Post Office has apologised and settled a long dispute with hundreds of former sub-postmasters over the Horizon IT system, the question can be asked: how did ministers and the civil service stand by and let the Post Office damage hundreds of lives?

Why have a public inquiry?      

In its written statement for the opening of the “Common Issues” High Court trial, the Post Office warned of serious dire consequences to its business if it lost the case. The Post Office said that if the claimants (sub-postmasters) were right,

“this would have a very serious impact on Post Office and its ability to control its network throughout the UK”.

The Post Office also said,

“If the Claimants were right in the broad thrust of their case, this would represent an existential threat to Post Office’s ability to continue to carry on its business throughout the UK in the way it presently does.”

This raises a question of whether a public inquiry by MPs after the general election would be needed to look at i) what impact there will be on the Post Office and its ability to control its network throughout the UK and ii) in what way the judgement now represents an existential threat to the Post Office.

Further questions that could be put to an inquiry include:

  1. The legal proceedings contained what the judge called “very wide ranging and extremely serious allegations against the Post Office” which included unlawful treatment of former sub-postmasters leading to bankruptcy and imprisonment. What accountabilities will apply if it transpires the Post Office acted unlawfully?
  2. It is obvious to anyone who works in IT that no complex IT system is infallible but when the Post Office made its case repeatedly in public that sub-postmasters were wrong to blame Horizon, why did no minister or civil servant raise any effective challenge?
  3. The Appeal Court said the Post Office felt entitled to treat sub-postmasters in “capricious or arbitrary ways which would not be unfamiliar to a mid-Victorian factory-owner.” Do these criticisms represent a defining and irreversible culture of the Post Office and, if so, what are the implications for its future management and scrutiny by government?
  4. What are the implications of the dispute on the public funding of the Post Office?,
  5. Is the Post Office in a credible position to make referrals for possible prosecutions given the High Court’s criticisms of its conduct and wrong interpretations of the law?
  6. Why did it take a series of long and costly trials in the High Court for the Post Office to acknowledge – and then only tacitly – that hundreds of its former sub-postmasters were not incompetents, fraudsters or liars?
  7. Will the apologies make any difference to the attitude of senior people in the Post Office whose “entrenched” views were that claimants were either dishonest or wholly incompetent?
  8. Being 100% state-owned, the Post Office has a duty to protect public money and therefore needs robust systems, procedures and contracts in place. What do the High Court rulings say about the robustness of the Post Office’s Horizon system?

There are further questions to be asked. In its apologies the Post Office makes it clear it is referring to past actions in its relationship with sub-postmasters. But what of its own conduct in court this year?

Tim Parker, the Post Office’s chairman, referred to “the past” in his settlement statement…

“We accept that, in the past, we got things wrong in our dealings with a number of postmasters…”

The Post Office’s statement also referred to “the past” …

“The Post Office would like to express its gratitude to claimants, and particularly those who attended the mediation in person to share their experiences with us, for holding us to account in circumstances where, in the past, we have fallen short and we apologise to those affected.”

But the trial judge, Sir Peter Fraser QC, criticised the conduct of the Post Office this year. He questioned the truthfulness or accuracy of a succession of Post Office witnesses who gave evidence during the trial. He said of the Post Office’s most senior witness that she tried to mislead him. “… I find that she did not give me frank evidence, and sought to obfuscate matters, and mislead me.” Was this behaviour “in the past?”

Of another Post Office witness, the judge said, there was “something of an air of unreality about his evidence … I consider his evidence suffered from an overarching reluctance to provide accurate evidence, if that may assist the Claimants”.

The judge also found that a corporate website run by the National Federation of SubPostmasters, which is funded by the Post Office, was altered during the trial to “bolster the Post Office’s position”.

Other comments by the judge raise questions whether any new CEO, however competent and well-meaning, can change the culture of a public institution. Although the Post Office’s apologies relate to its relationship with sub-postmasters, the judge’s rulings this year went wider.

He referred to the Post Office’s appearing at times to “conduct itself as though it is answerable only to itself” which raises a further question about what happened to government and departmental scrutiny.

He also said the Post Office “has appeared determined to make this litigation, and therefore resolution of this intractable dispute, as difficult and expensive as it can”.

Comment

Congratulations to former sub-postmaster Alan Bates without whom the Post Office may still be wrongly making sub-postmasters pay for shortfalls shown on the Horizon system. It is astonishing that the Post Office was unable at the hearings to accept that he was telling the truth.

Indeed the judge commented on the truthworthiness of the sub-postmasters who gave evidence, although the Post Office had depicted several of them as liars.

How was it the judge was able to see the sub-postmasters who gave evidence in a totally different light to the Post Office?

The Post Office’s apologies are welcome. They are limited apologies however.

There are signs in them that, despite the best intentions of the new CEO, the institution and its culture is essentially unchanged by the litigation and settlement.

The Post Office’s statements do not in any way acknowledge its own conduct in court this year. Its statements yesterday are careful to refer to mistakes “in the past” and are careful to categorise these mistakes as referring to its relationship with sub-postmasters, not its conduct in court.

Truthfulness in court is surely the least one could expect of senior Post Office officials? The Post Office is, after all, an institution that can investigate and refer suspected criminal behaviour for possible prosecution.

The judge repeatedly criticised the Post Office for evidence that appeared to geared more to public relations than factual accuracy. Indeed the Post Office’s statements yesterday appear to be geared towards protecting its image. They imply that the settlement and apology put an end to actions “in the past”, as if the whole matter were now concluded.

It would be a tragedy for the families of those who have died and the former sub-postmasters who have lost their health, gone to prison and been ruined for nobody to held accountable. An inquiry could at least question former ministers, civil servants and Post Office executives, past and present.

The biggest unanswered question is how it was allowed to happen. The High Court rulings show, if nothing else, how a public institution can behave if it has no effective government scrutiny.

When a public institution acts as if it is unanswerable to nobody, its culture is more suited to an authoritarian or totalitarian regime.

**

Without accountability to come, the settlement means that the Post Office, being a public institution, has lost nothing and the former sub-postmasters have lost their livelihoods or worse. No amount of compensation will bring back their lost years.

Having suffered no personal loss or consequences for actions and behaviours and conduct, will the real winners of the Horizon IT dispute be the Post Office? It can afford to pay out any number of millions without worrying about shareholder confidence or going bust. An inquiry is vital for justice in the long term.

Will the Post Office be delighted at the settlement? Nick Wallis

Vilified then vindicated – Computer Weekly’s blog on the settlement.

Thank you to Eleanor Shaikh  for her research that established the formal and comprehensive responsibilities of ministers and civil servants to scrutinise the Post Office.

Thank you to Tim McCormack –  @Jusmasel2015 – and Mark Baker – @CWUPostmaster .- for answering my questions, their blog posts and their commitment to achieving justice. A special thank you also to @nickwallis and Computer Weekly’s @Karlfl.