By Tony Collins
Paul Scully, a new business minister in charge of the Post Office, refused yesterday to back calls by various MPs for a judge-led inquiry into the Horizon IT scandal.
Downing Street and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy have also refused to commit to an inquiry, reports Computer Weekly.
Yesterday in a debate in the Commons on former sub-postmasters whose criminal records are being reviewed by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, Scully went off script several times but still refused to give any commitment to an inquiry over the scandal.
Asked for a commitment to an inquiry, Scully said,
“We will certainly look at how we can keep the Post Office on its toes in the future and look back and learn the lessons from that. What I don’t want to do is step on the toes of the CCRC’s [Criminal Cases Review Commission] investigation…. but clearly we do need to make sure lessons are learned and we will look at that over the coming days and see what more we can do.”
Scully’s comments appear to give strong backing to the civil service’s line on the Horizon scandal which is to be non-committal on MPs’ calls for an inquiry.
Boris Johnson indicated last week that he supported an inquiry but unless he has the support of the civil service an inquiry is unlikely.
Scully also gave no commitments on fair compensation to victims of the scandal or on whether he will hold anyone accountable. As the new business minister, he said he will dedicate his time to “making sure that we can see tis through and keep the Post Office on their toes to make sure we can come to a proper conclusion that means something to the postmasters who have suffered in the past …”
He said the convictions will not be treated as a group because the way the legal system works. “We are not able to do that,” he said. Each conviction will be dealt with individually with forensic accountants going through thousands of pages of documents.
He put aside his prepared speech on “what a great job” the Post Office is doing and instead answered points put by MPs but in a generalised way.
He said the government will proactively challenge the Post Office and its new chief executive Nick Read and “I will make sure that happens”.
MPs during the debate, in describing the Post Office’s conduct, used words such as “despicable” and “utterly deplorable”. One MP said the Post Office had “misled from the outset”.
MP Lucy Allan said yesterday she had been told by a representative of the Post Office that he doubts many cases of sub-postmasters with criminal convictions will be referred to the Court of Appeal and that those that are, may not succeed. She said the Post Office, is
“still intent on protecting the interests of the institution at all costs.”
Recent events have made the position of the government and civil service over the Horizon IT scandal clear:
- Boris Johnson would like an inquiry but this is opposed by the civil service which has nothing to gain and much to lose: any inquiry may ask how the civil service allowed the Post Office to spend seemingly unlimited funds on its legal fight against sub-postmasters litigation (including the hiring of four QCs and two sets of solicitors). It may also ask why the civil service failed to stop a scandal that was obvious for more than a decade to anyone outside the Post Office.
- Boris Johnson needs the full co-operation of the civil service to manage and implement his policies. He has little choice therefore but to accept the civil service’s party line that it must be non-committal when MPs ask what has happened to Johnson’s promise of an inquiry.
- As MPs on the business committee (BEIS) look at how another Horizon-like scandal could be avoided in future, the existing Horizon scandal continues and deepens.
- The criminal convictions of former sub-postmasters are to be reviewed individually and not collectively. Forensic accountants are going through thousands of pages of documents in individual cases. This could delay the final outcome of some cases indefinitely, although the reviews have already been delayed several years. The Post Office supports the individual rather than collective consideration of criminal cases.
- The ruling of Mr Justice Fraser in the Horizon case made it clear that Fujitsu engineers could alter branch accounting systems from a remote location without the knowledge of sub-postmasters. Such changes could affect figures shown on the Horizon system. This fact alone – without the disclosures during litigation about bugs in Horizon – undermine every case where there is nothing other than Horizon evidence to suggest money has been stolen.
- For each conviction to be looked at individually is as ludicrous as the Board of Inquiry in 1912 going through in forensic detail every survivor’s witness statement before making a recommendation on whether the available evidence supports claims the Titanic actually sank.
- The Post Office continues, in practice, to exert a similar level of control and influence it had on the state during the height of the Horizon IT scandal. MPs made the point correctly yesterday that nothing has changed.
- In the same way the Post Office tried to stop Alan Bates from launching a group litigation, the institution appears to be opposing former sub-postmasters with criminal convictions taking a group civil action – but how could individuals with criminal convictions, many of whom lost their homes and businesses and have found it difficult to get work, find the money, individually, to sue the Post Office which, in its legal fight against Alan Bates and his co-claimants, has shown it is prepared to spend tens of millions of pounds on lawyers?
- Nothing substantive will change unless the Post Office has demonstrably independent, rigorous and fully empowered oversight, including representation of sub-postmasters on an oversight board (though not from the National Federation of Sub-postmasters which the Post Office funds and whose independence the judge questioned), together with the detailed public reporting of progress on implementing the recommendations of a judge-led inquiry.
- Without these two things, ministers and the civil service will do little more than try to embalm the Horizon scandal in reassuring platitudes such as lessons learnt, a new framework, ministerial meetings, working groups, better scrutiny etc
- If the civil service has its way, there will be no fair compensation, minimal accountability and no judge-led inquiry; and the Post Office will emerge from the scandal entirely unscathed other than the damage to its reputation which will cost public servants and those who misled the High Court nothing.
- It is up to MPs, many of whom have an excellent grasp of the facts, to test, as the judge did, everything the Post Office says for truthfulness. The judge found that some Post Office witnesses gave him partial and inaccurate evidence. The Post Office corporately gave the High Court inaccurate evidence on Horizon and a Post Office director tried to mislead the court.
- The Post Office has a new CEO. But does he have the power to modify fundamentally an institutional culture that allowed a national scandal to take grip and, according to MPs yesterday, still opposes change?
- Much of what the minister said yesterday implied that the government (other than Boris Johnson), the civil service and the Post Office speak as one voice – a voice that shows compassion in the words used but not at all in the deeds.
- It’s difficult to avoid a conclusion that the only regret within officialdom over the Horizon IT scandal is that the Post Office was found out. It will now take a very clever use of language – something civil servants are famous for – to convince MPs and peers that the scandal is in the past.
- Credit goes to MP Lucy Allan for securing yesterday’s debate and to MPs who contributed including Gill Furniss, Andrew Bridgen, Karl Turner, Sharon Hodgson, Emma Lewell-Buck, Maria Eagle, Philip Dunne, Marion Fellows, Gerald Jones, Jim Shannon, Tonia Antoniaazzi, Ian Paisley, and Duncan Baker.
BEIS civil servants – are they hoisting their own petard? – Tim McCormack
Boris Johnson’s commitment to inquiry in doubt – Computer Weekly
House of Lords debate on Horizon scandal – #postofficetrial