Category Archives: National Audit Office

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

Is the State (apart from Boris Johnson) content for the Post Office IT scandal to go on another 20 years?

By Tony Collins

Boris Johnson agreed in February to an “inquiry” over what he called a “scandal” and a “disaster” that has befallen many Post Office workers. But civil servants and their ministers want only a “review”.  Since Johnson’s promise, the scandal has deepened with the Daily Mail revealing that another 500 criminal convictions – nine times more than thought – may be unsafe. MPs and peers are likely to see this as reinforcing the need for a judge-scandalled inquiry. In contrast, civil servants, in their recent letters to former sub-postmasters,  appear to see the whole matter as  passé.  But journalist Nick Wallis reported recently on a case that suggests the Post Office’ s controversial approaches and attitudes to sub-postmasters who have inexplicable shortfalls on the Horizon computer system continue. Even so, civil service leaders seem to want to put the Horizon affair into a black sack labelled “historical issues”, courier it off to a state-appointed review panel and archive the published “lessons learned” report as soon as practicable.  But the scandal is now described as the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history. Campaigners will not be content with a review that doesn’t allow for witnesses to be cross examined or the full conduct of the Post Office to be challenged. The stage appears set for a new and prolonged dispute. On one side are campaigners who perhaps include Boris Johnson. On the other side are civil servants and their ministers. When, as expected, business minister Paul Scully announces the commissioning of an independent review, not a judge-led inquiry, the Post Office and some senior civil servants may cheer quietly but campaigners will ask what happened to justice and accountability. Is part 2 of the Horizon IT scandal about to begin? 

 

Boris Johnson told MPs in February he has met some of the victims of the Post Office IT scandal.  He was aware it had caused bankruptcies, imprisonment and suicide.

Asked by Labour MP Kate Osborne if he would commit to an “independent inquiry”, he said,

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

But business minister Paul Scully, who represents the Post Office in Parliament, has referred to Boris Johnson as wanting a “review”. At no point has Scully’s department BEIS committed to an inquiry.

Scully told the Commons,

“We have talked about the independent review, which the Prime Minister mentioned a couple of weeks ago. We are looking at the best way to do it.”

Scully used the “review” word again – not inquiry –  when replying to a tweet by Nichola Arch, a former sub-postmistress who is one of the Post Office’s Horizon victims. Arch had tweeted that Scully, after a debate on Horizon in the Commons, was a “complete coward”. Scully tweeted in reply,

“Sorry you felt that way. Hoping to get more details of a meaningful review as soon as possible.”

Scully has repeated the “review” word in recent correspondence.

Inquiry v Review –  phase 2 of the Horizon scandal?

Review

On the  “meaningful review” side are civil servants at Downing Street, the business department BEIS, the Post Office, business ministers Paul Scully and Martin Callanan who represent the Post Office in Parliament and their boss business secretary Alok Sharma.

But a review may be the civil service’s equivalent of throwing a beach ball directly into the hands of a four year-old on a windless day: all being well the outcome is predictable.

An independent review has no cross examination of civil servants or other witnesses, no forced disclosure of emails, letters and internal assessments, no identification of individuals involved in the scandal and perhaps most important of all, no asking of questions the Post Office would be unhappy to answer: a review is collegiate and consensual in civil service tradition. Therefore there would be no summing up by each side of their case and no judge to weigh up the conflicting evidence and reach a conclusion.

Old and new

Recommendations of a review panel are likely to be, in the main, unchallenging and abstract. Their wording would be in keeping with the terms of reference which could be along the lines of “To review the lessons learned from the introduction of the Post Office Horizon system, in terms of past dealings with sub-postmasters.”

Indeed, in their speeches this year on the Horizon affair, ministers have spoken in vague terms about what changes are underway: a strengthened relationship with postmasters and the taking on board of lessons learned.

It may of note that at no time has Scully described the Horizon affair as a “scandal ” – the word used by Boris Johnson. Scully suggested in one speech on Horizon that the litigation process (which sub-postmasters launched against the Post Office) had caused an impact on sub-postmasters.

Summing up the government’s reaction to a debate in the House of Commons on Horizon, he told MPs

It is impossible to ignore the impact that the litigation process has had on the affected postmasters and their families.”

It seems particularly important to civil servants that, in terms of public perception, the Post Office’s conduct is divided into old and new: it was the old regime that was responsible for wrongly blaming sub-postmasters for money shown on the Horizon system as missing. The new regime under its CEO Nick Read who j0ined in September last year is seen in Whitehall as having a caring, modernising culture of reform and self-improvement; it is clearing up a long-ago mess for which nobody today can be held responsible.

Indeed, official apologies from the Post Office and its ministers for the Horizon affair have been confined to “past” shortcomings only.

The official line is that Horizon has been, in recent years, relatively robust, that the litigation between former sub-postmasters and the Post Office has been settled successfully with the agreement of both sides and the Post Office’s new CEO makes all the difference.

Asked in the Commons in March by campaigning MP Karl Turner about whether the minister supported a judge-led inquiry, Scully replied, “We will certainly look at how we can keep the Post Office on its toes in future and at how to look back to learn the lessons …”

Scully has range of job responsibilities at BEIS including the Post Office. The Horizon scandal puts him in a difficult position: he is the Parliamentary spokesman for the Post Office and BEIS who would be the two main subjects of any inquiry. He has no obligation to represent former sub-postmasters and indeed could decide to do nothing about the Horizon affair but he has ruled this out. He told the House of Commons, in a debate on the Horizon matter, “I will not wash my hands of it.”

Police investigation?

Fujitsu, the supplier of Horizon, is unlikely to participate in any review or inquiry as it may be the subject of a police investigation. The judge in the Horizon litigation having  said he was referring Fujitsu to the director of public prosecutions.

Addressing a packed courtroom last year, the judge, Mr Justice Fraser QC, expressed his “very grave concerns” about the evidence given by employees of Fujitsu. Such evidence had been given in the Crown court, in actions brought by the Post Office, as well as the High Court, he said.

Review no-go areas?

Likely no-go areas for any review include the question of why the Post Office would be any different in its dealings with a non-statutory review than in its dealings with the High Court which, the judge found, were nether open nor impartial. The Post Office wanted evidence withheld, and what it said in evidence was, in part, wrong, inaccurate, inconsistent and out of context.

Another possible “no-go” question for a review is whether the civil service and its ministers, in holding nobody to account for the Horizon scandal, are ending a clear message to hundreds of publicly-owned organisations not to worry if their actions cause bankruptcies, imprisonment and suicide.

A petition calling for a judicial inquiry, which has been signed by more than 5,300 people and has the support of more than 100 MPs, has been handed in to Downing Street. The petition was started by Christopher Head, a former sub-postmaster who lost about £100,000 in the scandal.

Head’s petition was clear in calling for a judicial inquiry. It did not ask for a review.

Tomorrow  – questions a review may avoid.

To anyone who didn’t get to the shops, Private Eye’s superb piece of investigative journalism “Justice Lost in the Post“, written by Nick Wallis and Richard Brooks, is available to buy online here.

Another 500 Post Office staff could have been wrongfully convicted of theft after last year’s £58million settlement over an IT glitch – Daily Mail

A thorough investigation of a Horizon bug that can affect Horizon balances in a local branch, possibly the result of intermittent hardware problems – Tim McCormack, Problems with POL blog.

Chirag’s story – Nick Wallis’ blog

New minister whose remit includes the Post Office refuses to back judge-led inquiry into Horizon scandal.  

This state-sanctioned conduct would not be out of place in China or North Korea – the Horizon scandal in summary

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

Destitute Tom Brown lost £500,000 in Post Office IT scandal.

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

 

Horizon IT scandal: has Goliath won?

By Tony Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was this fair?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Scandal” says Boris Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

Mediation

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

Not in this case.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did the Post Office still wield power with impunity?

Convictions

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

Or could even this be denied him?

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

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

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

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

A Houdini escape?

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

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

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

Why then does  justice still elude him?

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

“Rats”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

**

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

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

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

Alan Bates – the details man

Secret Post Office deals cause fury – Computer Weekly

BBC Radio Wales – Post Office IT scandal

Postofficetrial website

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

By Tony Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The PO should hide its head in shame.”

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

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

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

Comment:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PM commits to Post Office inquiry – Nick Wallis’ blog

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

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

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

 

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