Category Archives: Department for Business

Is government “review” into the Post Office IT scandal a parody?

By Tony Collins

Business ministers have repeatedly used the word “independent” to describe their planned review of the Post Office Horizon IT scandal.

In the space of 15 minutes, Lords business minister Martin Callanan, in a debate on the scandal last week, used the word “independent” eight times when referring to the review.

But, as it is being boycotted by some of its main potential participants, including the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, the review now largely comprises the Post Office itself and three organisations with which it has financial relationships: its Horizon supplier Fujitsu, the National Federation of SubPostmasters (which receives funding from the Post Office] and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (which provides the Post Office with hundreds of millions of pounds in public funding and is supposed to scrutinise its work).

Far from looking rigorously independent, the review could be said to resemble a Post Office self-help group.

More than 60 MPs, groups of peers, the Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance, forensic accountants Second Sight and the CWU union which represents sub-postmasters, will continue to campaign for a judge-led public inquiry into what is being described as one of the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history.

They say a judge is needed to hold the Post Office to account. When sub-postmasters led by former sub-postmaster Alan Bates successfully sued the Post Office in a group litigation to expose the flaws in Horizon, even the High Court judge in the case struggled at times to obtain full, accurate and truthful evidence from the Post Office.

In the government’s voluntary review of the scandal, the chair would be without the statutory power and authority of the High Court and would be unlikely therefore to be able to require the Post Office to tell the whole truth and disclose all relevant evidence.

For nearly 10 years the Post Office wrongly held sub-postmasters liable for money shown as missing on its flawed Horizon computer system. The Post Office insisted Horizon was robust and covered up its bugs and weaknesses. Hundreds of sub-postmasters were affected by the scandal. Some lost their businesses, life savings, liberty,  reputations and health.

Debate

It’s unclear how well the business minister Callanan was briefed for last week’s Lords debate on the Horizon scandal.

He told peers that the findings outlined throughout the High Court Horizon judgment provided an extensive insight into what went wrong at the Post Office including an independent judicial view of “all the facts that all sides were looking for”.

But the Post Office, which was the defendant in the case, had fought and lost a costly legal attempt to stop subpostmasters setting up a High Court Group Litigation Order against the Post Office.

In addition, the Post Office fought and lost a bid to stop sub-postmasters presenting a range of evidence that the judge ruled as relevant in the case. The Post Office  also tried to remove the judge and criticised many of his findings. The judge found that the Post Office “resisted timely resolution of this Group Litigation whenever it can…”

Comment

If a privately-owned company had behaved as the Post Office has behaved, forcing its franchisees to pay large sums of money because a flawed computer system was generating phantom shortfalls, would the authorities confine their response to a lessons-learning review?

An independent review is a classic Sir Humphrey riposte to demands for a judge-led public inquiry. Sir Humphrey knows that such review reports are destined for the archive almost as soon as they are published.

But the momentum in Parliament is for a judge-led inquiry.

Peer group pressure?

One reason business ministers in successive governments have always sided with the Post Office and not the sub-postmasters might be because ministers do not talk regularly to victims of the scandal but have routine meetings with senior officials at the Post Office and senior civil servants at the business department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

The solution therefore may be then for the current business ministers Paul Scully and Martin Callanan to put aside two hours to listen in full to journalist Nick Wallis’ extraordinary BBC R4 documentary  The Great Post Office Trial.

Maybe then the ministers would start demanding a judge-led inquiry.

In case they don’t, please donate to this crowdfunding appeal to raise money for a case to be made to the Parliamentary Ombudsman for an investigation into  maladministration by the Department of Energy, Business and Industrial Strategy. The Department for BEIS was in denial for nearly 10 years over the Horizon scandal.

Donate hereJustice for Sub-postmasters Alliance appeal

Nick Wallis’ 10-part BBC Radio 4 The Great Post Office Trial. The series is a momentous achievement by any documentary standards.

Family of man who killed himself after being wrongly accused of theft demand Post Office bosses are held accountable

Post Office Horizon victims keep up pressure on government – Karl Flinders, Computer Weekly.

Post Office IT scandal: do business committee MPs firmly back victims or ministers and civil servants?

Tony Collins

Business committee MPs have asked politely for a judge-led inquiry over the Post Office IT scandal. But they also conditionally welcome the business minister’s announcement of a “review”. Whose side are they on?

The House of Commons’ business committee BEIS is supposed to oversee the Post Office. But in the stand-off between ministers and sub-postmasters over whether there ought to be a judge-led inquiry into the scandal or a review, the position of the BEIS committee is not obvious.

The two sides agree on the scale of the scandal: hundreds of sub-postmasters were  wrongly blamed for money shown to be missing on the Post Office’s Horizon system whose flaws were kept hidden. Up to 900 sub-postmasters might have been wrongly prosecuted. The Post Office took away hundreds of livelihoods and made numerous sub-postmasters bankrupt. Many lost their life savings which have still not been returned.

But while everyone agrees the scandal represents one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in legal history, a gulf separates the two sides on what to do about it.

Paul Scully MP, business minister who wants a review and doesn’t support a judge-led inquiry into the Post Office Horizon IT scandal

On one side stands the business minister Paul Scully,  the Post Office and civil servants at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Scully has announced a government “review” and refuses to support calls for a judge-led inquiry. He says that he will make sure the Post Office cooperates fully with a review.

Boycott

But MPs in general, together with peers and sub-postmasters, insist on a judge-led inquiry. Sub-postmasters will boycott Scully’s review, as will forensic accountants 2nd Sight who have reported in-depth on flaws in the Horizon system.

The boycott would leave a shortage of useful participants in the government review. But where do MPs on the House of Commons’ business committee stand? Review or judge-led inquiry?

The answer is that nobody is quite sure. The committee’s MPs sympathise with the scandal’s victims whose losses remain in the tens of thousands of pounds. The MPs appear to advocate a judge-led inquiry.  But they have also given a conditional welcome to Scully’s announcement of a review.

Misled

Darren Jones MP, chairman of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee

Yesterday, the committee’s chairman Darren Jones wrote a letter to Scully which set out an impressive and forceful argument for a judge-led inquiry. Jones said,

“It is imperative that, if wrongly convicted or accused, sub-postmasters and postal staff are to receive justice that those who took key decisions in relation to Horizon at Post Office Ltd, Fujitsu and within government are held to account.
“You yourself, in the written evidence you supplied to the Committee in March, noted that the advice Post Office Ltd provided to BEIS was ‘flawed’, while Lord Callanan [business minister] stated in the Lords on 5 March that BEIS officials were “clearly misled by the Post Office”. Bearing in mind the number of successful litigants in Bates v Post Office Ltd and the number of cases referred by the CCRC [Criminal Cases Review Commission] to the Appeal Court, centering on people who went to jail or who lost their careers, homes and, in some cases their lives, this is not just a matter of learning lessons. This is also about establishing facts. If there was maladministration or deliberate withholding of evidence that might have had a material impact on the outcome of these cases and convictions, those responsible should be held to account. This in turn will allow lessons to be learnt but will also send a powerful signal that if the highest standards in our public institutions are not adhered to there will be serious consequences.
” I urge you to put this Independent Review on a statutory basis so that it can summon Post Office and Horizon staff, past and present, who made key decisions related to this case. It is also important that past and current UK Government Investments (UKGI) and Departmental officials give evidence. UKGI sat on the Post Office Ltd Board and the BEIS Permanent Secretary is the Accounting Officer for arms-length bodies, including Post Office Ltd. It is crucial that those who were supposed to be scrutinising Post Office Ltd decisions and/or who were privy to board level discussions are also held to account. A statutory judge-led Public Inquiry needs to be able to establish the truth and give closure to those who have lost so much and who have waited for justice for so long.”

No justice without truth

In last week’s debate on the scandal MP Chi Onwurah also set out a strong case for a judge-led inquiry. She told the House of Commons,

“Nine hundred prosecutions, each one its own story of dreams crushed, careers ruined, families destroyed, reputations smashed and lives lost—innocent people bankrupted and imprisoned. Does the Minister agree that Monday’s “Panorama” adds to the sense of a cover-up on a grand scale in the Post Office, a trusted national institution? And all because of the failings in the Post Office Horizon system.
“For over a decade, the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance campaigned to get at the truth, but the Post Office denied all wrongdoing, imposing huge lawyers’ fees on the claimants. Mr Justice Fraser’s High Court ruling in December paved the way finally for justice for some, but the mediated settlement means the truth remains hidden. Does the Minister agree that there can be no justice without truth?
“So many questions remain unanswered. When did the Post Office know that the Horizon system could cause money to disappear, and what responsibility did the developer, Fujitsu, have? What did Ministers, to whom the Post Office is accountable, do, and what did they know? Who was responsible for innocent people going to jail? Have they been held accountable? Will all the victims be properly compensated?
“Three months ago, the Prime Minister committed to a public inquiry, but we now hear that that is to consider whether the Post Office has learned the necessary lessons. We need an inquiry not simply to learn lessons but to get to the truth. Only a judge-led inquiry can do that, with the Post Office compelled to co-operate. Will the Minister now agree to the judge-led inquiry we need? It is the very least the victims deserve.
“We need answers, not more delay. We will not rest until we get that and justice for all those wronged in this scandal.”

The BEIS committee

Last year, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy committee did not launch an inquiry into the Post Office Horizon IT scandal because High Court litigation between 550 sub-postmasters and the Post Office over Horizon’ was continuing.

The litigation ended in a settlement n December and, in March 2020,  the committee duly launched an inquiry into the scandal but changed its mind on calling as witnesses the Post Office, its IT supplier Fujitsu or the civil servants whose job was to oversee the Post Office.

Instead, the committee gave them the option of answering written questions, which gives them time for answers to be checked and polished, if necessary, by lawyers. The move left some sub-postmasters asking whether the BEIS committee was on the side of the Post Office and the civil service or victims of the scandal.

Last week, the committee appeared again to go against the wishes of sub-postmasters when it sided with Scully in giving conditional support to a government “review” of the scandal.

Committee chairman Darren Jones told the House of Commons, “The sub-postmasters who have suffered such a depth of injustice, such a wide range of harm, will no doubt welcome the news today of the Minister’s inquiry, but will he confirm to the House that that inquiry will have sufficient power to compel the disclosure of documentary evidence and to compel witnesses to come before it to give evidence in public?”

Scully gave no such assurance. Yesterday, after it emerged that sub-postmasters did not welcome the minister’s announcement of a review – and indeed would be boycotting any review – the committee set out strong grounds for a judge-led inquiry but stopped short of demanding one. Its letter to Scully referred only to a “need” for such an inquiry. The committee’s letter to Scully said,

“A statutory judge-led Public Inquiry needs to be able to establish the truth and give closure to those who have lost so much and who have waited for justice for so long.”

Campaign4Change asked the committee whether its letter to Scully amounted to a call for a judge-led inquiry. The committee did not reply.

The committee’s apparent ambivalence seems to suggest it is keen to maintain the support of postal ministers, the Post Office and civil servants in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Comment

The BEIS committee’s support for Scully’s announcement of a review, even though conditional, is remarkable when it is only too obvious to campaigners for justice that a review is worse than pointless. It is a delaying tactic.

Why would the Post Office after centuries of being answerable to nobody suddenly, in the year 2020, in response to a government review, become open, truthful and humble?  It is not necessary to read carefully Mr Justice Fraser’s two main judgements on the Horizon High Court trials to realise that he was appalled at the Post Office’s poor conduct, lack of truthfulness and secretiveness.

Therefore Scully is naïve if he supposes he can ensure the full cooperation and openness of the Post Office in a voluntary, non-statutory review when it behaved the way it did in several statutory High Court hearings.

But can sub-postmasters rely on the BEIS MPs to demand a judge-led inquiry when the committee hasn’t even called the Post Office, Fujitsu, the civil service and ministers to give verbal evidence to its Horizon inquiry?

The apparent reluctance of the committee to do anything that upsets ministers, civil servants or the Post Office even when the subject in question is one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British legal history, reinforces the need for an independent investigation by the Parliament Ombudsman. Donations to enable a QC to make a powerful case for such an investigation can be made here.

Donations to ensure strong case for an independent investigation by the Parliamentary Ombudsman 

Key forensic accountants refuse to support government review of Post Office scandal – Computer Weekly’s Karl Flinders

Scandal at the Post Office – BBC Panorama

The civil service may face an investigation into maladministration over Post Office IT scandal

By Tony Collins

Campaigners for justice over the Horizon IT scandal have launched a bid to raise £98.000 to try and hold the civil service to account over its failed oversight of the Post Office that allowed the scandal to continue unchecked for years.

It comes as the Post Office continues to defend its actions over the Horizon controversy, raising questions about whether its culture has changed in the sixteen years since sub-postmaster Alan Bates  began his campaign to elicit the truth about the Horizon system.

The Post Office’s latest bout of defensiveness has come to the fore thanks to journalist Nick Wallis’ 10-part BBC R4 series on the Horizon scandal, The Great Post Office Trial, which continues every day this week at 13.45.

A theme running through several of the episodes in the series is that the Post Office is still defending itself over the Horizon controversy. Last year, following a group legal action brought by Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance [JFSA], the High Court strongly criticised the Post Office’s conduct, actions and truthfulness in its dealings with sub-postmasters and during the litigation itself.

The institution’s apparent lack of remorse – it has given an apology for “past” events but not its conduct during the litigation – may add force to the JFSA’s appeal for crowd-funding to launch a complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman.

The Alliance wants funding for a QC to prepare a complaint about the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and its predecessor organisation BIS.  The department was supposed to oversee the Post Office but repeatedly defended it while sub-postmasters went to prison, lost their livelihoods, made bankrupt and handed over their life savings to the Post Office, because of discrepancies shown on a flawed Horizon system.

The Alliance also wants the role of government as a stakeholder on the Post Office board to be investigated.

Maladministration is defined as a public body’s not having acted properly or fairly, or having given a poor service and not put things right. At the time the Ombudsman office was established, Richard Crossman, the then Leader of the House of Commons, defined maladministration as including “bias, neglect, inattention, delay, incompetence, inaptitude, perversity, turpitude, arbitrariness and so on”.

If crowd-funding succeeds in raising £98,000 and the JFSA’s QC puts forward a strong argument for redress, the Ombudsman has no executive powers to award compensation but can recommend a financial remedy.

The principles underlying the Ombudsman’s work is that, where it is established that maladministration or poor service has resulted in an injustice or hardship, the public body restores to complainants the position they would have been in had the maladministration or poor service not occurred. If that is not possible, the Ombudsman can suggest the public body provides appropriate compensation.

A typical Ombudsman investigation takes six months but could be delayed by the pandemic.

Those who want to contribute to the campaign can pledge money via this crowd-funding site. Money is collected only if the £98,000 target is met.

The Great Post Office Trial

Subpostmasters to force scrutiny of governments’ role in Post Office IT scandal – Computer Weekly’s Karl Flinders

The case for a statutory public inquiry into Post Office Horizon scandal – Eleanor Shaikh

A message to ministers Paul Scully and Alok Sharma: your decision could change lives.

By Tony Collins

As ministers with the Post Office in your remit, you could change the lives of hundreds of families by setting up a judge-led inquiry. Or you could do what your predecessors did when faced with the Horizon scandal: shrug and side with the Post Office.  For any minister who goes into politics to make a difference,  this could be a career-defining decision .

Not all ministers are spokespeople for their departments. Now and again a minister will stand up to officials and go against what countless ministers have said before. That minister in 2011 was Liam Fox. His determination to put right a long-standing miscarriage of justice will not go down in history.  It’s not even mentioned in his entry in Wikipedia. But he knows he changed, for at least a generation, the lives of two families.

John Cook and Mike Tapper lost their sons in a notorious helicopter crash on the Mull of Kintyre in 1994.  Everyone on board died, including 25 senior police and intelligence officers.  The RAF found the two pilots, Flight-Lieutenants Rick Cook and Jonathan Tapper, grossly negligent. But computer and other problems with the helicopter type, the Chinook Mk2,  were hidden until, five years after the crash, Computer Weekly published a 145-page report “RAF Justice – How the Royal Air Force blamed two dead pilots and covered up problems with the Chinook’s computer system FADEC.”  But the civil service and ministers still  kept to the official line that the pilots were to blame. Even a cross-party House of Lords committee that was set up to investigate the crash had no influence. It questioned the two air marshals who had found the pilots grossly negligent. One of the air marshals came to the committee with slides to show how the pilots had failed to keep the helicopter and its passengers safe. The committee found that the RAF had not justified its case against the pilots. But its report and a similar one from the Public Accounts Committee on the Chinook Mk2’s ‘s flaws were to no avail.  The Ministry of Defence repeated its line that there was no new evidence. For 16 years successive defence ministers and defence secretaries sided with the civil servants and RAF against the pilots. John Cook, father of pilot Rick, died before he saw the campaign’s conclusion.

It was not until Fox took over as defence secretary in 2010 that the official position began to change. He commissioned the first judge-led government investigation of the crash. It found that the defence establishment was wrong and the Cook and Tapper families were right.  Fox could have left it at that: as yet another independent inquiry report that made no difference, albeit a judge-led one. But Fox went much further. He took on the defence establishment.

The formal finding against the pilots could be overturned only by the Defence Council, a formal body on which sit the country’s defence leaders including the Chief of the Defence Staff, senior officers from the Royal Navy, Army and RAF, the head of the MoD and the Defence Secretary. How he achieved it we do not know, but somehow Fox came out a closed-doors meeting of the Defence Council with the finding of gross negligence set aside.  Subsequently, the Tapper and Cook families watched from the House of Commons gallery as Fox gave them an unequivocal apology. It mattered, because the pilots had young children who would now grow up with pride in their fathers who had died in the service of their country. Were it not for Fox, the civil service could today be asserting in their letters to the Cook and Tapper families that there was no new evidence and the pilots were to blame.

Horizon

Boris Johnson supports a government  inquiry into the Horizon scandal just as David Cameron supported a government inquiry into the blaming of the pilots for the Chinook crash. There is another common factor: the Horizon campaign for justice has the ardent support of Lord Arbuthnot who was a leading Parliamentary campaigner for the families of Rick Cook and Jonathan Tapper. Lord Arbuthnot knows he has right on his side now, as he did then. But that may not be enough.

The Post Office retains its power and has the full support of a civil service that, in relation to the Horizon litigation’s aftermath, does not see itself as an entrenched and uncaring bureaucracy.

Justice campaigners who call for a judge-led inquiry into the Horizon scandal have no support from the civil service and the Post Office who want only a “review”. That is why it falls to Paul Scully and Alok Sharma to make the difficult decision on whether to insist, as Fox did, for a judge-led investigation.

Lord Arbuthnot gives one reason for wanting a judge-led inquiry,

“We need an inquiry and, since the Post Office has repeatedly given inaccurate information including to me, it needs to be led by a judge.”

It is a difficult decision for Scully and Sharma to take because, just as the civil service and ministers held to the wrong official line for 16 years in the Cook and Tapper case, the Post Office and civil service will hold to the wrong official line indefinitely without a Fox-like intervention.

An insight into the Post Office’s attitude to a judge-led inquiry can be gained from its history of thin-skinned reactions to scrutiny and criticism: it sacked and criticised accountants Second Sight who were critical of Horizon and it spent hundreds of thousands of pounds trying to remove the judge in the High Court Horizon trials whose rulings had favoured sub-postmasters; its verbal attacks on its critics during the High Court hearings were harsh and it tried to prevent much of the other side’s evidence being heard in court. Since the litigation, the Post Office has apologised for past events only, not for its conduct, inaccurate statements and high spending during the High Court trials,  all of which the judge criticised.

The civil service’s objections to a judge-led inquiry are likely to focus on three things: cost, a likely requirement to compromise necessary confidentiality and a possible awkward recommendation that government pays the legal and funding costs of sub-postmasters in their litigation against the Post Office.

These objections are one-sided. Put into context, a judge-led inquiry would cost less than 5% of the money the Post Office has spent on fighting sub-postmasters and settling the High Court litigation.

On confidentiality, it is true a judge-led inquiry would require an openness the civil service would find hard to accept, such as the disclosure of relevant internal emails. Scully’s department BEIS and HM Treasury’s UK Government Investments, as the body that provides a representative to sit on the Post Office board, would object to disclosing internal emails on public interest grounds. Officials often argue that what journalists call secrecy civil servants call a “safe space” to give candid advice to each other and to ministers in the interests of smooth government. But a lack of openness allowed the Horizon IT scandal to spread unchecked for more than a decade. Fujitsu, Horizon’s supplier, did not disclose problems with the system while sub-postmasters were prosecuted on the basis of Horizon’s stated resilience. The Post Office also did not disclose problems. It took High Court trials costing many tens of millions of pounds to establish the truth about Horizon’s flaws.

One indication of the Post Office’s attitude towards openness and scrutiny can be seen in its citing of the Official Secrets Act in its dealings with sub-postmasters, to the surprise of Sir Peter Fraser QC, the judge in the Horizon trials.  It was understandable that General Post Office workers during the two world wars were required to sign the Official Secrets Act when they were involved in wireless communications and intelligence gathering. But the Act’s use in dealings with sub-postmasters who have complained about Horizon is, arguably, a matter for an inquiry judge.

On the civil service’s objections to paying the legal and funding costs of the sub-postmasters’ litigation against the Post Office, it was the dogged efforts of former sub-postmaster Alan Bates, his lead claimants and their legal team  that led to the unearthing of what is being described as the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history.

It was this legal action that proved the Horizon faults and has led to reviews of more than 500 potentially unsafe criminal convictions. Boris Johnson has called the Post Office’s actions taken against sub-postmasters a scandal. He said he has met some of the victims. He is aware that being blamed for shortfalls shown on Horizon could lead to imprisonment, bankruptcy and suicide. But for Bates’ litigation, those 500 or more criminal convictions would not now be under review – a reason in itself to meet the litigation costs from public funds of Bates and the other sub-postmasters?

Spin

Without a judge-led inquiry,  the spin will doubtless continue. The Post Office has announced that the High Court settlement of Bates’ group litigation was agreed by both sides. But Post Office officials know that sub-postmasters had no choice but to settle because of a risk their funding would otherwise run out, even though they had won every one of six judgements so far and seemed set to win all further judgements. The Post Office had no such funding risk: it could have walked out of the mediation with no consequences for any of its individuals. The sub-postmasters did not have the same freedom.

The result was that the Post Office succeeded in ending a legal case it was losing by paying the fees of lawyers and litigation funders and leaving the sub-postmasters, its legal opponents, out of pocket, some of them by hundreds of thousands of pounds.

As of now, five months after the litigation ended, the sub-postmasters remain punished and the Post Office unpunished.

Nobody outside the Post Office and civil service will think it right to abandon former sub-postmasters who have been through years of trauma, including a difficult High Court case and who, in the end, have performed a public service on an historic scale.

The Post Office remains fully in control: at no point in nearly 20 years of the scandal have ministers sided with sub-postmasters, as Fox sided with the Cook and Tapper families.

Scully and Sharma have it within them to break the mould. The easy option would be to shrug off calls for the accountability and scrutiny of a judge-led inquiry. Or they could stand up to their officials, their department and the civil service hierarchy including Downing Street officials who seem determined to undermine Boris Johnson’s commitment to “get to the bottom” of the scandal.

Justice for the families of Rick Cook and Jonathan Tapper was a long time in coming. But campaigners knew it would come eventually.

If this government decides merely to set up a safe “review”, it will set off more Parliamentary calls for a judge-led inquiry and sub-postmasters may have to wait for a new government and new ministers who have no equity in what has gone before.

But Scully and Sharma may want to right nearly two decades of wrongs during this Parliament. When, in the future, their Parliamentary careers end, they will then be able to feel quietly satisfied that they were able to make a difference. Such an opportunity does not present itself in every ministerial career.

One thing is certain: structural, fundamental and attitudinal change will never come to the Post Office however many new CEOs it has. As Alan Bates knows well, the Post Office has shown during the litigation and since that it will yield temporarily to weaker forces only when the law requires it.

Scully and Sharma do not have to give up supporting the Post Office or the civil service to side with sub-postmasters. But setting up a judge-led inquiry would require ministerial determination to make it happen. Paul Scully and Alok Sharma – your decision could have a deep and lasing effect on the lives of hundreds of families.

This piece has been emailed to Paul Scully and Alok Sharma.
Peer demands judge-led inquiry into Horizon fiasco – Nick Wallis’ Postofficetrial
Alan Bates on the need for a judge-led inquiry – Karl Flinders, Computer Weekly

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

 

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

Is the Post Office to blame for Horizon IT dispute – or is it really ministers and civil servants?

By Tony Collins

How does a public institution behave when it has little effective oversight?

Mr Justice Peter Fraser is expected to rule shortly on a critical question that is at the heart of a long-running IT dispute between the Post Office and hundreds of former sub-postmasters.

His ruling may answer the question of whether the Post Office’s “Horizon” IT or sub-postmasters were likely to have been to blame for unexplained shortfalls of sometimes tens of thousands of pounds shown on local branch systems.

If the Post Office loses the High Court case, it could end up paying damages of hundreds of millions of pounds – which could fall to the taxpayer. The state owns 100% of the Post Office. Public funding of the Post Office amounted to £2bn between 2010 and 2017 and a further funding package of £370m is agreed until 2021. Any damages could be on top of this.

If the case ends up with the Post Office’s needing a taxpayer bail-out, this would raise some obvious questions:

  1. Who in government and the civil service provided oversight when the Post Office decided controversially to trust what was shown on a proprietary computer system rather than the word of hundreds of local branch sub-postmasters?
  2. Who in government and the civil service endorsed the Post Office’s decision to defend litigation that could end up costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds?
  3. Who in government and civil service endorsed the decision to continue defending the litigation – and indeed deepening it – despite excoriating criticisms of the Post Office by two High Court judges?

It is still possible for the Post Office to win the case in which event its actions and decisions may be vindicated. But it has lost every interim ruling so far, in a case which has lasted two years to date.

When asked about their oversight of the Post Office, ministers have distanced themselves.

In August 2019, the then Minister for Postal Services, Kelly Tolhurst, said in a letter that Post Office Limited “operates as an independent, commercial business and the matters encompassed by this litigation fall under its operational responsibility”.

But thanks to extensive research by Eleanor Shaikh, a reader of the blog of journalist Nick Wallis, who is crowd-funded to cover the High Court hearings, we know that civil servants reporting to ministers have extensive responsibilities for oversight of the Post Office.

The state categorises the Post Office as an “Arm’s Length Body”]. Shaikh learned that the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy is required to “exercise meaningful and commensurate oversight of ALB [Arm’s Length Body] strategy, financial management, performance and risk management”.

A 2014 Civil Service document, Introduction to Sponsorship, adds that,

“the Secretary of State is ultimately accountable to Parliament for the overall effectiveness and efficiency of each ALB of which their department is responsible.”

It’s not only about oversight. Civil servants are,

“… expected to play an active role in the governance, financial management, risk management and performance monitoring of ALBs and are responsible for managing the relationship with an ALB on behalf of the Minister and the AO [accounting officer].”

Wallis reports in full on Shaikh’s findings.

How effective has civil service oversight been so far?

The judge’s comments in his ruling of March 2019, which the Post Office is seeking leave to appeal, suggest that there has been little effective civil service challenge to Post Office’s decisions. Indeed, one of the judge’s findings was that,

“The Post Office appears, at least at times, to conduct itself as though it is answerable only to itself.”

The judge also criticised,

  • untrue statements by the Post Office
  • threatening and oppressive behaviour by the Post Office.
  • the Post Office’s appearing “determined to make this litigation, and therefore resolution of this intractable dispute, as difficult and expensive as it can”.
  • the Post Office house style for some senior management personnel giving evidence which was to “glide away from pertinent questions, or questions to which the witness realised a frank answer would not be helpful to the Post Office’s cause”.
  • a culture of secrecy and excessive confidentiality generally within the Post Office but particularly focused on Horizon
  • Post Office witnesses in general who have become “so entrenched over the years, that they appear absolutely convinced that there is simply nothing wrong with the Horizon system at all …”
  • attempts by the Post Office to prevent some evidence from emerging into the public domain by applying to have it struck out as irrelevant
  • attacks by the Post Office on the credibility of sub-postmasters whom the judge found credible as witnesses in the case.
  • some Post Office procedures that went from the sublime to the ridiculous,
  • some Post Office submissions that were “bold, pay no attention to the actual evidence, and seem to have their origin in a parallel world”.
  • the Post Office’s asking a sub-postmistress to extend the local branch’s opening hours a day after her husband, who ran the branch, had died.

Of the Post Office’s most senior witness, a director, the judge described her as highly intelligent. She on occasions gave clear and cogent evidence. She helped to improve the Horizon system and had provided some useful evidence.

But in describing parts of her evidence he also referred to a “degree of obstinacy”, extraordinarily partisan”, “sought to obfuscate matters…”, “disingenuous” and a “disregard for factual accuracy”. He said at one point in his ruling, “I find that she was simply trying to mislead me.”

He concluded, “I find that it is necessary to scrutinise everything she said as a witness, both in her witness statement and in cross-examination, and treat it with the very greatest of caution in all respects.”

Comment

If the judge is right in his criticisms – and it is too early in the appeals process to say conclusively that he is right – is he simply describing the behaviour of a state institution that is, in essence, without higher control?

Civil servants from, among others, the Department for Work and Pensions, HM Revenue and Customs, the Ministry of Defence, Home Office and DEFRA appear regularly before the Public Accounts Committee and are the subject of value-for-money investigations by the National Audit Office. The Post Office has little of this scrutiny.

A large private company has many shareholders and the threat of going bust to keep it in check. But the Post Office is too big and important to the community to be allowed to fail.

When Boeing’s aircraft technology is the subject of independent, detailed and widespread criticism, its planes are grounded indefinitely while regulators investigate.

The Post Office has no fear of any regulators shutting down its Horizon system.

In an accountability vacuum, how can a state institution be expected to behave?

Individuals within a large organisation will have a sense of right and wrong. But collectively, can people within state institutions be expected to do much more than meet the requirements of the culture and law as they perceive it?

That is why effective and rigorous oversight of state institutions is critical, if only to protect the interests of taxpayers.

When the widow of a sub-postmaster who’d died the previous day took over his branch, the Post Office asked her to extend the opening hours, which seems to have surprised the judge. Wouldn’t that behaviour surprise anyone?

When shortfalls were shown on the computer system, how easy was it for the Post Office to demand that sub-postmasters made good the losses sometimes without full investigations? It was easier, perhaps, without effective oversight.

Can the Post Office be held entirely responsible for the Horizon IT debacle? It is a state institution. Responsibility for the debacle lies, therefore, with ministers and civil servants, whatever the outcome of the Horizon dispute.

Nick Wallis’ trial coverage including Eleanor Shaikh’s research on the oversight that ought to be provided by ministers and the civil service.

Computer Weekly’s useful summary of the latest position

 

Civil servant in charge of £9.3bn IT project is not shown internal review report on scheme’s failings.

By Tony Collins

“If people don’t know what you’re doing, they don’t know what you’re doing wrong” – Sir Arnold Robinson, Cabinet Secretary, Yes Minister, episode 1, Open Government.

Home Office officials kept secret from the man in charge of a £9.3bn project a report that showed the scheme in serious trouble.

The Emergency Services Network is being designed to give police, ambulance crew and firemen voice and data communications to replace existing “Airwave” radios.  The Home Office’s permanent secretary Philip Rutnam describes the network under development as a “mission-critical, safety-critical, safety-of-life service”.

But Home Office officials working on the programme did not show an internal review report on the scheme’s problems to either Rutnam or Stephen Webb, the senior responsible owner. They are the two civil servants accountable to Parliament for the project.

Their unawareness of the report made an early rescue of the Emergency Services Network IT programme less likely. The scheme is now several years behind its original schedule, at least £3.1bn over budget and may never work satisfactorily.

The report’s non circulation raises the question of whether Whitehall’s preoccupation with good news and its suppression of the other side of the story is killing off major government IT-based schemes.

With the Emergency Services Network delayed – it was due to start working in 2017 – police, ambulance and fire services are having to make do with the ageing Airwave system which is poor at handling data.

Meanwhile Motorola – which is Airwave’s monopoly supplier and also a main supplier of the Emergency Services Network – is picking up billions of pounds in extra payments to keep Airwave going.

Motorola may continue to receive large extra payments indefinitely if the Emergency Services Network is never implemented to the satisfaction of he emergency services.

EE is due to deliver the network component of the Emergency Services Network. Motorola is due to supply software and systems and Kellogg Brown & Root is the Home Office’s delivery partner in implementing the scheme.

Has Whitehall secrecy over IT reports become a self-parody?

The hidden report in the case of the Emergency Services Network was written in 2016, a year after the scheme started. It said that dialogue between suppliers, notably EE and Motorola, did not start until after the effective delivery dates. Integration is still the main programme risk.

MP SIr Geoffrey Clifton Brown has told the Public Accounts Committee that the report highlighted an absence of clarity regarding dependency on the interface providers, which caused something of an impasse.

He said the report “alluded to the fact that that [a lack of clarity around integration] remains one of the most serious issues and is not showing any signs of resolution”.

Stephen Webb has been in charge of the project since its start but he is the business owner, the so-called “senior responsible owner” rather than the programme’s IT head.

In the private sector, the IT team would be expected to report routinely to a scheme’s business owner.

But in central government, secrecy over internal assurance reports on the progress or otherwise of major IT-related projects is a Whitehall convention that dates back decades.

Such reports are not published or shared internally except on a “need-to-know” basis. It emerged during legal proceedings over the Universal Credit IT programme that IT project teams kept reports secret because they were “paranoid” and “suspicious” of colleagues who might leak documents that indicated the programme was in trouble.

As a result, IT programme papers were no longer sent electronically and were delivered by hand. Those that were sent were “double-enveloped” and any that needed to be retained were “signed back in”; and Universal Credit programme papers were watermarked.

The secrecy had no positive effect on the Universal Credit programme which is currently running 11 years behind its original schedule.

Webb has told MPs he was “surprised” not to have seen review report on the Emergency Services Network. He discovered the report’s existence almost by accident when he read about it in a different report written a year later by Simon Ricketts, former Rolls Royce CIO.

This month the Public Accounts Committee criticised the “unhealthy good news” culture at the Home Office. The Committee blamed this culture for the report’s not being shown to Webb.

The Home Office says it doesn’t know why Webb was not shown the “Peter Edwards” report. The following was an exchange at the Public Accounts Committee between MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, Webb and Rutnam.

Clifton-Brown: When you did that due diligence, were you aware of the Peter Edwards report prepared in the fourth quarter of 2016?

Rutnam: No, I’m afraid I was not. The Peter Edwards report on what exactly, sorry?

Clifton-Brown: Into the problems with ESN [Emergency Services Network], in particular in relation to suppliers.

Rutnam: I do not recall it. It may have been drawn to my attention, but I’m afraid I do not recall it.

Webb: It was an internal report done on the programme. I have not seen it either.

Clifton-Brown: You have not seen it either, Mr Webb—the documents tell us that. Why have you not seen such an important report? As somebody who was in charge of the team—a senior responsible officer—why had you not seen that report?

Webb: I don’t know. I was surprised to read it in Simon’s report. [Simon Ricketts.]

Chair: Who commissioned it?

Webb: The programme leadership at the time.

Chair: That is the board?

Webb: The programme director. It was a report to him about how he should best improve the governance. I think he probably saw it as a bit of an external assurance. It probably would have been better to share it with me, but that was not done at the time.

Clifton-Brown: “Probably would have been better to share it”? That report said that dialogue between suppliers, notably EE and Motorola, only started after the effective delivery dates. The report highlighted that there was not clarity regarding dependency on the interface providers, and that caused something of an impasse. It also alluded to the fact that that remains one of the most serious issues and is not showing any signs of resolution. That was in 2016, in that report. Had that report been disseminated, would we still be in the position that we are today?

Webb: I think that we would have wanted to bring forward the sort of [independent] review that the Home Secretary commissioned, and we would have done it at an earlier date.

Clifton-Brown: Why did you need to? You would not have needed to commission another review. You could have started getting to the root of the problem there and then if you had seen that report.

Webb: Yes.

Comment:

Webb and Rutman seem highly competent civil servants to judge from the open way they answered the questions of MPs on the Public Accounts Committee.

But they did not design the Emergency Services Network scheme which, clearly, had flawed integration plans even before contracts were awarded.

With no effective challenge internally and everything decided in secret, officials involved in the design did what they thought best and nobody knew then whether they were right or wrong. With hindsight it’s easy to see they were wrong.

But doing everything in secret and with no effective challenge is Whitehall’s  systemically flawed way of working on nearly all major government IT contracts and it explains why they fail routinely.

Extraordinary?

It’s extraordinary – and not extraordinary at all – that the two people accountable to Parliament for the £9.3bn Emergency Services Network were not shown a review report that would have provided an early warning the project was in serious trouble.

Now it’s possible, perhaps even likely, the Emergency Services Network will end up being added to the long list of failures of government IT-based programmes over the last 30 years.

Every project on that list has two things in common: Whitehall’s obsession with good news and the simultaneous suppression of all review reports that could sully the good news picture.

But you cannot run a big IT-based project successfully unless you discuss problems openly. IT projects are about solving problems. If you cannot admit that problems exist you cannot solve them.

When officials keep the problems to themselves, they ensure that ministers can be told all is well. Hence, ministers kept telling Parliament all was well with the £10bn National Programme for IT in the NHS  – until the scheme was eventually dismantled in 2011.

Parliament, the media and the public usually discover the truth only when a project is cancelled, ends up in the High Court or is the subject of a National Audit Office report.

With creative flair, senior civil servants will give Parliament, the National Audit Office and information tribunals a host of reasons why review reports on major projects must be kept confidential.

But they know it’s nonsense. The truth is that civil servants want their good news stories to remain uncontradicted by the disclosure of any internal review reports.

Take the smart meters roll-out. Internal review reports are being kept secret while officials give ministers and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy the good news only. Thus, the latest Whitehall report on smart meters says,

“Millions of households and small businesses have made the smart choice to get a smart meter with over 12.8 million1 operating in smart mode across Great Britain. This world leading roll out puts consumers firmly in control of their energy use and will bring an end to estimated bills.”

Nothing is said about millions of homes having had “smart” meters installed that are neither smart nor compatible for the second generation of smart meters which have a set of problems of their own.

The answer?

For more than 30 years the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have published seemingly unique reports that each highlight a different set of problems. But nobody joins the dots.

Sir Arnold, the Cabinet Secretary said in “Yes Minister“, that open government is a contradiction in terms. “You can be open, or you can have government.

This is more than a line in a TV satire.  It is applied thinking in every layer of the top echelons of civil service.

Collective responsibility means civil servants have little to fear from programme failures. But they care about departmental embarrassment. If reviews into the progress or otherwise of IT-enabled programmes are published, civil servants are likely to be motivated to avoid repeating obvious mistakes of the past. They may be motivated to join the dots.

But continue to keep the review reports secret and new sets of civil servants will, unknowingly each time, treat every project as unique. They will repeat the same mistakes of old and be surprised every time the project collapses.

That the civil service will never allow review reports of IT programmes to be published routinely is a given. If the reports were released, their disclosure of problems and risks could undermine the good news stories ministers, supported by the civil service, want to feel free to publish.

For it’s a Whitehall convention that the civil service will support ministerial statements whether they are accurate or not, balanced or not.

Therefore, with review reports being kept secret and the obsession with good news being wholly supported by the civil service, government’s reputation for delivering successful IT-based programmes is likely to remain tarnished.

And taxpayers, no doubt, will continue to lose billions of pounds on failed schemes.  All because governments and the civil service cannot bring themselves to give Parliament and the media – or even those in charge of multi-billion pound programmes –  the other side of the story.

Home Office’s “unhealthy good news culture” blamed for Emergency Services Network Delays – Civil Service World

Emergency Services Network is an emergency now – The Register

Home Office not on top of emergency services programme – Public Accounts Committee report, July 2019

Will Post Office need state bail-out if it loses Horizon IT trial?

By Tony Collins

The Government is now aware, if it wasn’t before, that Horizon IT trials could end up costing the publicly-owned Post Office hundreds of millions of pounds.

Is continuing the case a gamble with public money?

Tom Cooper, the Government’s shareholder on Post Office board

Journalist Nick Wallis has questioned a minister and a senior official on the possible cost implications if the Post Office loses a High Court case over the Horizon IT system.

His questions to the Post Office minister Kelly Tolhurst and civil servant Tom Cooper, who is the government’s representative on the Post Office board, could help to ensure that the Government is aware that the Horizon IT trial may end up costing the Post Office hundreds of millions of pounds if it loses.

This awareness could raise questions among ministers and civil servants about whether the Post Office will face financial problems or even insolvency if it loses the Horizon trials.

The litigation began in 2017 and the Post Office has lost all of the several rulings so far. Judgements have been strongly critical of the Post Office, its approach to the litigation and its behaviour.

Hundreds of millions of pounds?

Tom Cooper joined the Post Office’s board as non-executive director last year. On the board he represents, on behalf of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy,  the Government’s 100% shareholding in the Post Office.

He is a director of UK Government Investments, which is wholly-owned by HM Treasury and represents government interests on the boards of arm’s length bodies including the Post Office.

Wallis asked Cooper about the government’s strategy if the claimants win the case. Claimants are about 550 former sub-postmasters who are suing the Post Office – potentially for hundreds of millions of pounds – because they say they were unjustly forced to make good non-genuine losses shown on the Horizon system.

The Post Office is strongly defending the case, arguing that Horizon is robust and that the sub-postmasters were to blame for actual losses.

In his reply to Wallis, Cooper explained that claimants have not declared the size of the damages they seek. Wallis cited Freeths solicitors, which represents the former sub-postmasters, as saying the litigation could cost the Post Office hundreds of millions of pounds.

Cooper replied that no sums of that nature had been mentioned in court. At this point, one of Cooper’s colleagues politely terminated the interview.

Bail-out?

Wallis also questioned Post Office minister Kelly Tolhurst on the possible cost implications if the Post Office loses the case. She politely declined to answer directly saying, “I can’t really go into the litigation stuff… I’m not being evasive. I can’t speak to you about it.”

Wallis asked whether, if the Post Office loses, the government could end up bailing out the Post Office. Tolhurst said she wouldn’t “get into theoretical-based outcomes of the litigation.”

But Tolhurst disclosed that there were conversations going on between the Post Office, civil servants and the ministry [Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy which is the Post Office’s parent ministry].

HM Treasury’s UK Government Investments is responsible for ensuring the Post Office has enough investment and subsidy funding to ensue it is commercially sustainable in the longer term, whilst meeting its social obligations, particularly around minimum network coverages requirements.

UK Government Investments also advises ministers on Post Office commercial and policy issues.

Comment

Wallis’s interviews with Cooper and Tolhurst are important developments: they mean that officials and ministers cannot credibly deny in future that, if they end up bailing out the Post Office, it has come as a shock.

In Wallis’ questions, he made it clear that solicitors Freeths had said the litigation could end up costing the Post Office hundreds of millions of pounds.

Cooper tacitly acknowledged in his reply that he had heard what Wallis said. Indeed, Cooper’s impressive financial background indicates that he will have a good understanding of the possible cost implications for the Post Office if it loses the case.

Cooper was global co-chairman of mergers and acquisitions at Deutsche Bank. He was at UBS Investment Bank for 21 years where his various roles included head of European merger and acquisitions.

Of course, ministers and officials could argue internally – at the moment – that taxpayers are not funding the litigation.

Indeed, Whitehall officials have obtained a written assurance from the Post Office that it will fund the Horizon litigation from its own money, not public money that is allocated to modernisation and new investment in the Post Office’s network.

But it’s a different story if the Post Office runs into financial trouble.

The Government would have no choice but to use public money for a bail out. It could not allow the Post Office to go bust.

And thanks to Wallis’ questions yesterday,  ministers could not argue they were unaware of the full possible cost implications of losing the case.

Indeed, it is incumbent on civil servants now to make sure ministers are aware of what could happen if the Post Office loses the case and cannot afford to pay damages and costs from its own money.

When fully aware of the risks – the gamble with public money – will ministers and officials allow the Post Office to continue spending large sums on the High Court case – or will they urge it to settle now before many more millions of pounds are spent on legal costs?

The judge in the trials, Mr Justice Fraser, has said the case will continue for “years”. Ministers and officials could therefore take the attitude that they may be long gone by the end of the trials and therefore costs are a matter for their successors.

Or they could do the right thing and urge the Post Office to limit its potential liabilities by settling now.

Wallis has a full account of his conversations with Cooper and Tolhurst on his postofficetrial blog.

Post Office Ltd and the money tree – Tim McCormack’s blog

Post Office ordered to pay £5m towards claimants’ costs – part of Computer Weekly’s coverage of Horizon trials