By Tony Collins
The Sunday Mirror has reported the “low levels of participation” in aspects of the government’s public inquiry into the Post Office IT scandal.
It also reports comments by campaigning Labour MP Kevan Jones that the inquiry has had a wasted year because it still does not have the scope to look into compensation for most of the victims who sued the Post Office and exposed failings in the organisation’s Horizon accounting system.
Horizon was supplied by Fujitsu and went live in more than 18,000 post office branches in 1999 and 2000. Unexplained shortfalls in branch balances began appearing within weeks. By default, the Post Office blamed sub-postmasters for incompetence or dishonesty and demanded they pay back the allegedly lost money. For nearly 20 years the Post Office continued to blame sub-postmasters for shortfalls and denied Horizon was at fault.
Using Horizon as evidence, the Post Office prosecuted more than 700 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses for theft, fraud or false accounting and made more than 2,400 others pay back shortfalls shown on the system. It also took civil actions to confiscate homes, cars and possessions. Some of the Post Office’s victims went to jail or were made bankrupt and lives were lost after stress, illness or suicide.
It is only since the litigation brought by the Justice for Sub-Postmasters Alliance and its legal team that the government, Whitehall officials and the Post Office have accepted that Horizon’s many defects and errors caused shortfalls for which sub-postmasters were wrongly blamed.
The litigation ended in December 2019 and the prime minister Boris Johnson agreed in February 2020 to a request by Labour MP Kate Osborne to set up an independent public inquiry. But now, more than 18 months later, the inquiry is still not fully underway.
The inquiry’s chairman, retired judge Sir Wyn Williams issued a progress report last month. He said that the inquiry had hoped to engage in telephone interviews with employees nominated by the Post Office who were employed in managing branch accounting shortfalls such as helpdesk and case handlers and those involved in cash reconciliation, audits and managing suspensions, terminations and disputes since January 2020. But “no one in those spheres offered to take part”, he said.
However Post Office employees did take part earlier this year in group “discussions” with the inquiry team over matters such as a commitment to addressing Horizon Issues and cultural change, branch account balancing measures and transaction corrections.
The Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance has made no commitment to participate in the inquiry because Sir Wyn has no scope to look at compensating the group’s victims.
In his progress report, Sir Wyn reveals that a survey to establish how well whistleblower complaints were being handled drew only 15 responses in total from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and UK Government Investments. They are the two government organisations most closely implicated in the scandal other than the publicly-owned Post Office.
The survey had been aimed at discovering whether people were aware of whistleblowing policies and procedures, whether they had confidence in how complaints were handled, what barriers there were to raising concerns and the extent to which their employer supported and encouraged employees to raise concerns.
.Is the public inquiry likely to be a flop?
Former sub-postmaster Lee Castleton, who was made bankrupt after experiencing Horizon shortfalls, said the inquiry is in danger of turning into an expensive flop unless its current terms of reference are widened.
Campaigning Labour MP Kevan Jones said, “It was clear from the outset that a non-statutory inquiry would be wholly inadequate for a scandal of this nature. The Government has wasted another year setting up an inquiry that did not have the power to answer any of the important questions, and still does not have the necessary scope to look into financial compensation for the victims of this scandal.”
Alan Bates, who founded the 555-strong Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance, said he wanted to know the real intentions of the inquiry. “Does it have any concern at all in relation to the 555 who struggled for years to expose what has been going on. Without the 555 none of this would ever have been discovered and the biggest miscarriage of justice would have remained buried, and the incompetence of a major national public corporation would have remained hidden.
“The main point about this Inquiry is what difference it will make, because the courts have already handed down detailed judgments of what went wrong and who was responsible, and as we all know now, it is POL [Post Office Limited] which is not only guilty, but incredibly guilty. Yet it seems this Inquiry is just interested in looking into the minutia of the individuals involved, which will not make any difference to the fact that at the end of the day POL was responsible, just as the court found.
“We don’t need the minutia established in order to resolve the 500’s only interest, which is the financial redress they are rightfully owed. If the Inquiry has any interest at all in looking after the victims, this issue has to be at the top of its agenda.
“Other than those in power deciding they don’t want to address it first and prefer to compound the suffering this group has already been forced to endure, there is no reason at all why the financial redress issue can’t be dealt with first, as it is a separate issue to the other matters the Inquiry is to look at. It can’t be left hidden away in the middle of an endless list, or left for years until the Inquiry reports before it considers the real victims position in this scandal.”
Jones’ Letter to the Public Accounts Committee
Kevan Jones has written to the Commons’ Public Accounts Committee calling for an investigation into how the Post Office used public money to challenge the postmasters’. Below is his letter to Labour MP Meg Hillier who chairs the committee:
“During the entire Horizon Scandal, the Post Office continually used public money to pursue a condemned legal case in an attempt to bankrupt litigators, as well as its own commercial interests.
“This use of public money has not been accountable to Parliament, due to the particular position of the Post Office as an arms-length body of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
“My office has continually made attempts to understand the nature and amount of public money being used by the Post Office. Even outside periods where much of this scandal has been sub-judice, I have not been successful in understanding either. As a result, I have contacted the Speaker’s Office and the Procedure Committee on numerous occasions during this period.
“At the time of writing, there are a number of outstanding cases of public money being spent where my office has only been able to make estimates of the amount of public money which has been spent, having been denied official figures from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
“These costs include but are not limited to:
the cost of the initial mediation scheme, which ran from 2012-15. the cost of the Common Issues and Horizon trials (circa £150m). the Historic Shortfall Scheme (circa £320mn).
the cost of payments required for 63 overturned prosecutions, with another potential 500, and the costs of Post Office hiring multiple external legal firms to review these cases over many months.
the costs of payments sent to Fujitsu as part of correcting Horizon’s technical problems over a number of years.
“My estimation places the money spent by Post Office, in relation to the Horizon Scandal, at over £1bn.
“Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the Government’s statutory inquiry will include within its scope the Post Office’s use of public money. Moreover, it is not within the scope of the case currently being pursued by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman.
“In your position as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, I am hoping you may be able to advise on a strategy to increase the transparency of the Post Office’s use of public money and bring it accountable to Parliament in this crucial respect.”
Despite Sir Wyn’s best intentions, things are not looking good for the Horizon IT inquiry, in part because of low levels of participation. The main problem is that it is difficult to see who can benefit from the inquiry other than lots of lawyers.
Public inquiries are usually set up to appease a concerned public. The National Audit Office found that government typically accepts outright fewer than 50% of recommendations of public inquiries; and there is also no obligation on departments to publish what improvements they have made in response to recommendations.
The National Audit Office also found that public inquiries typically take evidence from hundreds of witnesses and consider an average of about 52,000 documents. But Sir Wyn has received only 350 documents so far from the institutions involved.
At some inquiries, documents such as formerly confidential emails, memos, letters and reports between the parties and government departments including the Cabinet Office and Downing Street were published as the inquiry went along.
The Horizon inquiry has published no formerly confidential emails between the parties and the government institutions involved.
The National Audit Office found there was a potential for conflicts of interest where a department sponsors an inquiry and is also a core participant in the inquiry. In the case of the Horizon inquiry, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy , which is the Post Office’s “sponsor” department and has provided it with billions of pounds in funding, has been in charge of setting up the inquiry, writing its controversially-narrow terms of reference and is homing the inquiry team at the BEIS headquarters in Victoria Street, London.
The National Audit Office said,
“Managing potential conflicts may also be further complicated where staff from the sponsor department are seconded to work directly on the inquiry team.”
It is hard to see how the Horizon inquiry team, working as it does in the Department for BEIS’s offices and seeing its officials regularly as they use and go in and out of the building regularly, and also making use of the government’s secretariat and lawyers, could end up finding, say, that BEIS covered up or turned a blind eye to the Post Office scandal or that there was institutional dishonesty in some of its public statements.
There is also the question, given the non-confrontational approach of the inquiry team, how much of an appetite exists for finding out how much the Cabinet Office and Downing Street have been involved in damage-limitation events since the litigation settlement.
It is also unclear whether an appetite exists for any vigorous challenge to senior Whitehall officials who are likely to explain what they didn’t know, why they weren’t told and how they asked all the right questions but weren’t given the right answers.
Full email exchanges, if they are disclosed, may reveal how much was known and what decisions were taken within Whitehall and the Department for BEIS.
Then there is the critical question of compensation for the Bates 555 who exposed the scandal, much to the chagrin of Whitehall departments whose officials had fully backed the Post Office side in the High Court litigation.
The government line is that the £58m paid to the Bates 555 to settle the litigation was “full and final”. But the government, Whitehall officials and the Post Office knew at the time that the £58m was inadequate. They were aware that, after costs, it did not refund to the 555 the payments they had made to the Post Office to cover unexplained Horizon shortfalls let alone provide them with fair compensation.
Since then, the settlement deed which said the £58m settlement was full and final has been questioned by some lawyers. In the deed, the Post Office did not accept the validity of any of the sub-postmasters’ claims or of any the facts or matters in relation to their claims. But the Post Office has since told the Horizon inquiry it accepts all of the findings of the litigation. The case proved the validity of the 555’s claims.
The settlement deed has also been undermined by the Post Office’s non-disclosure during the litigation and settlement negotiations of the “Clarke Advice” which showed that the Post Office was aware, years before, that Horizon was capable of causing shortfalls for which sub-postmasters and sub-mistresses had been wrongly blamed.
It is now clear, therefore, that Boris Johnson and the postal affairs minister Paul Scully are using the phrase “full and final settlement” as an excuse not to pay compensation to those who campaign has embarrassed Whitehall officials and the government.
The least Scully and his BEIS department can do is make sure the matter of compensation for the 555 is included in the Horizon inquiry’s agenda or is the subject of a separate government review.
If included in the Horizon inquiry’s formal discussions, it would give the inquiry a credibility it does not yet have.
Government minister holds secret meeting with Post Office IT scandal victims – Karl Flinders, Computer Weekly