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

Victims of Post Office IT scandal to boycott minister’s “review”

By Tony Collins

Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance, whose successful legal action against the Post Office uncovered one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in modern legal history, is to boycott a minister’s “review” of lessons from the scandal.

Alan Bates, founder of the Alliance and lead claimant in the litigation against the Post Office, says that the lessons-learning “review” announced by business minister Paul Scully on Wednesday is “not what we need”.

The Alliance, together with MPs and peers of the main political parties, have called for a judge-led inquiry.

But Scully has rejected a judge-led inquiry suggesting it would cost too much and take too long – although a full-scale judge-led inquiry could cost less than £5m including the legal fees, office and administration overheads.

Campaign4change published a breakdown of the costs of a typical judge-led inquiry in April 2020.

Scully’s planned review has been described as “pathetic” and “pointless” in a Computer Weekly article.

MPs at a debate on the Horizon scandal in the House of Commons on Wednesday made it clear they will accept only judge-led inquiry, not a review. Newcastle MP Chi Onwurah said a judge-led inquiry is the “very least the victims deserve”.

More than 1,000 sub-postmasters were victims of the Horizon IT scandal. Lives, livelihoods, homes, life savings, marriages and good health were lost because the Post Office held sub-postmasters liable for every amount shown on Horizon as missing even when the system was to blame. The Post Office prosecuted more than 900 sub-postmasters using potentially untrustworthy Horizon data. An unknown number of sub-postmasters have lived for large periods of their adult lives with unwarranted criminal convictions.

Scully’s review would not be able to require the disclosure of top-of-government emails and letters about the scandal or confidential reports and files that are usually made available to judge-led inquiries. Neither would a review feature the cross examination of ministers, civil servants or the  Post Office’s current and former officials. It would also not be able to take evidence on oath.

Ministers say the Post Office will cooperate fully with the review. But the High  Court’s Sir Peter Fraser QC, in his judgements last year after two Horizon-related trials,  found that the Post Office had not always told the truth to the court, either verbally or in written evidence. The High Court trials uncovered extensive cover-ups that extended well into 2019.

Sub-postmasters may wonder why the Post Office would be open and transparent in an entirely voluntary review when it sought to have relevant evidence struck out and provided misleading information in statutory court hearings. The Post Office hired four QCs and two firms of solicitors against sub-postmasters during the High Court trials.

But Scully suggests that the Post Office has changed. He told MPs on Wednesday,

“The key point is that the Post Office has said that it will disclose everything, and I will ensure that it does, to the best of my ability.”

However, Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance said,

“We need to know who in Government took such disastrous decisions, and who failed to undertake their duties that led to us having to pursue Post Office through the courts costing each of us £86,000.

“Who lied?  Who knew what?  That’s what we want to know …”

The JFSA says it will not engage with the review and will refuse any invitations to attend or submit documentation to this review. “We will only assist a judge-led public inquiry, and would do so gladly.”

Forensic accountants Second Sight, which carried out an independent review of the Horizon system at the Post Office’s request but had its contract terminated after it found faults with the system, may also take part only in a judge-led inquiry.

The Alliance says will write to Scully to explain its position.

It has set up a crowd-funding appeal to raise money for a formal complaint against the civil service and ministers of maladministration.  If enough money is raised for a QC to lodge the complaint, and the Parliamentary Ombudsman finds in the Alliance’s favour, the Ombudsman can recommend that adequate compensation is paid to former sub-postmasters for their losses.

The website for donations is here.

The Minister and the Department for BEIS’s proposed ‘review’

Anger as government launches “pathetic” and “pointless” review of Horizon scandal 

Another 20 years of the Horizon IT scandal? – questions a “review” may avoid.

BBC Panorama – Scandal at the Post Office

Has the Post Office Horizon IT scandal turned into “Yes Minister” without the smiles?

The main characters in the minister’s Office of the Department of Administrative Affairs: from left, Sir Humphrey Appleby (the consummate civil servant), Bernard Woolley (private secretary) and Jim Hacker (the minister)

By Tony Collins

Yesterday in the House of Commons, MPs debated whether the Post Office Horizon IT scandal ought to be the subject of an independent “review” or an independent judge-led inquiry.

MPs of all parties were adamant they wanted a judge-led inquiry and the minister insisted on a “review”.

Perhaps the difference between a judge-led inquiry and a review is simply explained in the following imaginary episode of Yes Minister…

Hacker (Sitting behind his desk): “What are we going to do Sir Humphrey? They all seem to want a judge-led inquiry. We don’t want one of those do we?

Sir Humphrey (Standing in front of the desk): Absolutely not.

Hacker: Why not?

Sir Humphrey: Because judge-led inquiries are not what we do.

Hacker: But people want accountability. They want heads to roll. (Looking down with lowered voice). Mine perhaps. They say we’re implicated in this, scandal. The least we can do is have a judge-led inquiry. Surely?

Sir Humphrey: Actually minister there’s a way of dealing with these things that’s much more … (smiles, with emphasis) reassuring.

Hacker: Yes?

Sir Humphrey: We have a “review“. That’s the way to deal with these things.

Hacker: What’s the difference? Judge-led inquiry or review.  They’re the same thing aren’t they?

Sir Humphrey: Yes minister. In everything except the detail.

Hacker: What do you mean?

Sir Humphrey: Well a judge-led inquiry may want to talk to you.

Hacker: (with alarm) Me?

Sir Humphrey: Yes and possibly … us.

Hacker: We can’t have that!

Sir Humphrey: Quite.

Hacker: But won’t people object to a review? It doesn’t sound like it’s going to get to the bottom of this; they’re calling it the biggest scandal of modern times.

Sir Humphrey: We call it an independent review.

Hacker: What’s independent about it?

Sir Humphrey.  We appoint the chair.

Hacker: But isn’t an independent chair the same as a judge?

Sir Humphrey: Judges have a habit of wanting the facts. They like documents. Letters. Internal confidential reports. That sort of thing. They may even want evidence on oath.

Hacker: But doesn’t the chair of a review?

Sir Humphrey: That’s the beauty of a review. It takes the facts we already know, everything that’s already known and, well … reviews it.

Hacker: Well what’s the point of a review then?

Sir Humphrey (stroking his chin, contemplative): Exactly. (Looks at his feet, almost under his breath). Yes, what is the point.

Hacker: (triumphant)  A review it shall be!

Sir Humphrey: (reluctantly) Yes, Minister

ends

Now the serious bit … Alan Bates, founder of Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance wants donations to hold the civil service to account over the Horizon IT scandal. The Ombudsman can recommend that proper compensation be paid to victims of the scandal. Bates seeks to raise £98,000 in the next three weeks to fund a complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman. Any investigation by the Ombudsman is likely to offset the friendly pointlessness of a civil service-ordered “review”.

Donations website

Concern as MPs drop plan to cross question Post Office and Fujitsu over Horizon scandal

By Tony Collins

MPs who are holding an inquiry into the Post Office Horizon IT scandal have dropped plans to cross question the Post Office’s current and former CEOs and a senior executive of Fujitsu.

It’s a blow to campaigners for justice who are concerned that nobody has been held to account for what is being described as one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British history. The scandal might have claimed more than 1,000 former sub-postmasters as victims. The Post Office prosecuted an unknown number of sub-postmasters over money shown as missing on an untrustworthy Horizon branch accounting system.

Now MPs on the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy committee will have  no opportunity during their current Horizon inquiry to cross question Nick Read, the Post Office’s CEO.  MPs had been expected to question him on Zoom or similar video conference system.

Read has not at any time faced cross questioning on his public statements over the scandal.

Polished answers?

The committee has also dropped plans to cross question Read’s predecessor Paula Vennells, Post Office CEO from 2012 to 2019. Instead, the committee has given Vennells, Read and the Post Office’s Horizon system supplier Fujitsu a set of written questions to be answered by 16 June.

But former sub-postmaster Alan Bates, whose successful group litigation in the High Court against the Post Office exposed numerous flaws in the Horizon system, says he fully expects the written answers to be “crafted and polished by a team of lawyers” and may say little.

It has further emerged that the committee has no plans to cross question any civil servants from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy which was responsible for overseeing the Post Office. The Department’s ministers and civil servants allowed the Horizon scandal to continue unchecked for more than a decade. They rejected repeated warnings about Horizon’s flaws from MPs whose constituents were among the Post Office’s victims.

Bates has set up a crowdfunding campaign to hold the department for BEIS to account for its failed oversight of the Post Office. The campaign has a one-month deadline to raise funds for a QC’s formal complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman. It has so far raised about a third of the target £98,000.

Remote access

Sub-postmasters lost their freedom, livelihoods, houses, marriages, life savings and sometimes their lives because the Post Office held them liable for money shown as missing on Horizon.  But while prosecuting sub-postmasters, the Post Office kept it a secret from defence lawyers that some Fujitsu IT engineers could remotely access sub-postmasters’ branch Horizon systems and, without their knowledge,  change code for software maintenance reasons. These changes could, potentially, show phantom shortfalls that the Post Office could demand that sub-postmasters make good.

In a Panorama documentary “Scandal at the Post Office”, which was broadcast on Monday, Vennells appears to hang up the phone on reporter Nick Wallis when he begins asking her a question about remote access…

Wallis:  “Hello Ms Vennells. This is Nick Wallis from the Panorama programme. This conversation is being filmed. I’d like to ask you some questions about your tenure as Chief Executive of the Post Office.”

Vennells, “I am sorry Nick. I have already given a statement to the programme. Thank you.”

Wallis:  “I would like to ask you why the Post Office knew about remote access to the Horizon system …”  The phone line appears to go dead after Wallis’ words “remote access”.

Wallis then says to the camera, “This is one of the biggest frustrations about covering this story for so long: the consistent refusal of the chief executive and people at the top to answer serious questions about what’s been happening. I think the sub-postmasters deserve better than that.”

No media interviews

Vennells did not answer any of Panorama’s questions and Nick Read has given no media interviews on the Horizon scandal since he took over from Vennells in September last year.

When Campaign4Change asked the Post Office this week why Read has given no media interviews on Horizon, it referred us to a statement on its website.

Campaign4Change also asked MP Darren Jones, chairman of the BEIS committee, why its MPs have dropped their plan to question Nick Read on his written answers, at least during the committee’s current Horizon inquiry.

We put it to Jones that some people may see the role of the BEIS committee as providing accountability. We said that some people may not understand why the committee has decided to give the Post Office an opportunity to answer written questions and not face questions on its answers. We added that Sir Peter Fraser QC, the judge in the Horizon litigation, had commented a number of times on deficiencies in the Post Office’s written and verbal responses to the High Court.

Jones replied, “The Committee’s evidence session on 24 March on the Post Office and Horizon with Post Office Ltd CEO, Nick Read, the former CEO, Paula Vennells, and Fujitsu had been scheduled for Tuesday 24th March but was postponed due to the Covid-19 lockdown. Given the importance of issues around Horizon, the Committee was keen to follow up to ask questions of the Post Office Ltd and Fujitsu. While we have no immediate plans to hold further public hearing, we shall be publishing the responses of the Post Office Ltd and Fujitsu and deciding how to follow up with recommendations for Government on any issues raised.”

He added, “Sub-postmasters deserve justice. It’s important the Post Office Ltd and the Government genuinely learn the lessons from this scandal and take the actions necessary to ensure this kind of mistreatment of dedicated sub-postmasters and postal staff can never arise again.”

Judge-led inquiry?

We also asked Jones whether he fully endorses a letter by Rachel Reeves, his predecessor, to Boris Johnson in March 2020. The letter called for a full independent inquiry into the Horizon scandal, the Department for BEIS having committed only to an independent “review”.

Jones replied, “The previous Chair, Rachel Reeves, wrote to the Prime Minister about his apparent commitment to a public inquiry and, as a Committee, we will consider how to follow up on this issue.”

Alan Bates was particularly concerned that officials at the Department for BEIS are not giving evidence to the committee on the Horizon scandal.  “Hopefully,” said Bates, “we will have an opportunity to address that through the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s investigation should we manage to find the funding to pursue this route.”

Panorama

MP Karl Turner told Monday evening’s BBC Panorama why he wants a judge-led inquiry into the Horizon scandal. “People went to prison. Peoples’ livelioods were lost and some of the victims ended their lives. That is enough for a judge-led public inquiry.”

Lord Arbuthnot, former Conservative defence minister, who has campaigned for justice for sub-postmasters for nearly 10 years, told Panorama there has been a  Post Office cover-up that is probably still going on.

He said, “I have never heard of anything like it at all where a government-owned organisation attacked, on the basis of false evidence, the integrity of so many pillars of the community. It is a quite extraordinary story.”

Wallis: “Has there been a cover-up?

Lord Arbuthnot: “I believe there has been. It’s probably still going on.”

Seema Misra, a former sub-postmistress who was jailed on the basis of money shown as missing on Horizon, told the programme that the Post Office had been “lying from the start”. Another Post Office Horizon victim Janet Skinner, who was given a nine-month prison sentence, questioned how injustices can happen without anyone being held accountable.

Wallis ended the programme saying, “A much-loved institution has become a national disgrace. Hundreds of lives have been shattered by the scandal at the Post Office.”

Comment:

The power of Parliamentary committees lies in their ability to cross question witnesses. Sometimes the witnesses’ answers – or non answers – attract TV, radio and newspaper coverage that holds the witnesses to account.

At one point the Public Accounts Committee MPs made a civil service lawyer  appearing before them swear an oath to tell the truth after he gave a series of unhelpful answers.

Why then has the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy committee forfeited its big chance to cross question, on Zoom if necessary, Nick Read, Paula Vennells and a senior Fujitsu executive?

Governments all but ignore reports of House of Commons committees. Civil servants can write Government replies to select committee reports almost with their eyes closed. It is the committee’s cross questioning of witnesses that matters.

The BEIS committee has asked some good questions of Read, Vennells and Fujtsu’s legal head. But imagine a QC in a High Court civil case saying to someone in the witness box, “Now be prepared please … I am about to ask you a series tricky questions for which I will require written answers in about two weeks time.”

Read, Vennells and Fujitsu may give open, candid and direct answers to the committee’s written questions. But if the answers are unhelpful,  the committee’s MPs, by allowing their key witnesses to avoid cross questioning, will have, in essence, brought their Horizon inquiry to a premature end, thus deepening the Horizon scandal.

Tomorrow: What Alan Bates would have wanted the committee to ask the Post Office.

Crowd-funding appeal for £98,000 to request a Parliamentary Ombudsman investigation into maladministration at the Department of BEIS  over its lack of oversight of the Post Office.

BBC Panorama – Scandal at the Post Office

NHS IT: more wisdom in some Register reader comments than in NAO report

By Tony Collins

National Audit Office reports are almost always clear and sharp but not this one.

Anyone reading the latest National Audit Office report on NHS IT could be forgiven for thinking it was written with the help of Whitehall officials.

Indeed, its preface expresses gratitude to the Department of Health & Social Care and the NHS for their help in confirming the factual accuracy of the report. By convention, the facts in NAO reports are agreed with the department in question but it is unusual for the NAO to express gratitude to the department it is reporting on – and prominently in the report.

The report is thorough, comprehensive and sums up the poor state of NHS IT. Digital Transformation in the NHS”   laments the lack of interoperability, the mass of unlinked legacy systems,  a lack of clarity on who is responsible for what, an  NHS-wide IT skills shortage, huge technical challenges and the failure to change working practices before or alongside introducing new technology.

But it lacks any sharp criticisms of the billions being spent centrally on IT without proper scrutiny or a clear purpose.

And it doesn’t acknowledge the work of IT professionals on the front line in  hospitals, often in old buildings, who keep legacy systems running in an idiosyncratic environment in which outages and failures can affect lives.

The report does, however, find that lessons might not have been learned from the largely-unsuccessful and centrally-run National Programme for IT [NPfIT] in the NHS which began in 2003 and was dismantled in 2011. Much of the £9.8bn spent on the NPIT was wasted though not all.

Those who followed the NPfIT from start to finish will know it was a dream turned to reality for a few multinational IT companies, consultants, international hotel groups, airlines and marketing people who helped produce DVDs, board games and coaching for the NHS on what language to use when speaking publicly about the NPfIT.  The scheme was run by the Department of Health which kept its software and hardware problems secret – a closed reporting culture that remains intact today.  IT-related problems in the NHS are rarely reported by the Department of Health, NHS England, any arm’s length body or by trusts in their board minutes.

But the NAO report fails to mention the NHS’s closed reporting culture or the waves of costly central initiatives that seem to mean little to patients, doctors or nurses.

Jargon-laden

At one point the report has to explain its repeated use of the jargon phrase “adaptive change” by bracketing an explanation after it: (changes in the way people work).

The title of the report is Whitehall jargon: “Digital Transformation in the NHS”. Nearly every Whitehall scheme that relies heavily on new technology is called a “Digital Transformation” project.

On what to do about the generally poor state of NHS IT ,the NAO report is unclear: its wordy and vague recommendations could have been written 20 or 30 years ago. Its windiness could be said to reflect decades of Whitehall thinking on NHS IT and may help to explain why central IT initiatives have a long history of failure.

The recommendations  urge health officials to “collect more data to enable a better understanding of the full cost of delivering digital transformation and prioritise the work programme” … “maintain a comprehensive set of lessons for digital transformation” … “ensure that the expected technology plan for health and care includes an implementation plan with specific objectives and measurable actions that are required”…. “establish a resource to provide bespoke support to trusts in managing the adaptive change required for digital transformation… use digital maturity assessments of local organisations to gather additional information. ”

Crucial

The NAO report has a crucial paragraph on page 43. It refers obliquely to the single biggest problem with NHS IT: that systems do not talk to each other.

The NAO says it was told by one technology supplier that “many of the benefits of interoperability could be achieved quickly by sharing the GP record, which it considered to be the most complete account of a patient’s history”.

But this powerful message the NAO appears to dismiss, citing the NHS as saying that the GP record does not include everything and the sharing of the GP record would “not be sufficient to deliver all of the benefits envisaged in the NHS Long-Term Plan”.  But how many patients care about the NHS long-term plan? Wouldn’t they want their hospital doctors and nurses to view their GP records today?

Without interoperability, a patient can have a blood test in a local hospital but find that the full electronic results cannot be added to their GP record because the hospital and GP systems are incompatible.

Indeed, patients can be treated at different NHS clinics, hospitals or sites without clinical teams in each location seeing on their screens an up-to-date record of what the other is doing or not doing, full test results  or x-rays. That is potentially dangerous.

The GP patient record doesn’t have everything in it but it may be the most comprehensive record available.  If authorised users in hospitals and other NHS sites could view the GP record, they would have valuable access to the patient’s recent and past record. If many GPs object to their records being viewed by hospital clinicians, it would be possible, without vast expense, to make hospital records shareable by authorised users via secure internet links.

Readers’ wisdom

Wisdom and insight into the problems of NHS IT and what needs to happen can be gleaned from some reader reactions to The Register’s summary of the NAO’s findings.

One reader’s comments are a reminder that hospital IT people in general do a “miracle”  job although the NHS tends to have a one-size-fits-all low pay structure.  This is not reflected in the  NAO report.

Other reader comments criticise those who suggest, start and run major schemes centrally.  Says the reader, “Has any large-scale [NHS] IT project ever learnt any lessons from previous failures, other than the lesson that folks who plan out these repeated failures are none-the-less handsomely rewarded?”

Another apt comment,

“You can’t ‘digitise’ business processes until those processes are fit for purpose, and clearly understood, documented, and accepted by all.”

And …

“There is an experience asymmetry between the buyer (public sector) and the seller which I have seen play out countless times in a neighbouring industry:

“The lead buyer often runs their first procurement of this magnitude and complexity, as each organisation only procures one of these types of projects every few years or so, often accompanied by advisors (e.g. procurement advisors on process, external domain experts, internal stakeholders). On the other side of the table you have sellers who are engaged regularly in these kinds of procurements and consequently have experience – often lots of it – on how to maximise the opportunity for them.

“The outcome is varied and while there may be a postmortem after the procurement and implementation, lessons learned are forgotten (by the organisation), because the next procurement is a few years away, the lead buyer has changed through promotion or retirement and a new lead is in place, possibly with new advisors and stakeholders.”

Another reader says,

“You need to ask front line staff what they do. How they do it. What is making it harder for them to do it; and could it be done better?   You do not want to ask the senior managers this.”

Comment

The nuclear physicist Richard Feynman was famous for explaining complex things simply. He explained the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster with a glass of ice water and a little rubber “O” ring.

It’s usually a strength of NAO reports that its investigators extract simple and punchy messages from their complex inquiries, but not this time.

The NAO could have seen problems from the perspective of patients and clinical users of the systems. Instead it seems to take the Department’s line on the problems with NHS IT,

Perhaps the best way to tackle poor NHS IT is to avoid what the consultants and centrally-based officials say.

Big companies, consultants, Whitehall officials and even the NAO in this case revel in the complexities of the NHS IT. But as Feynman said: “You can recognize truth by its beauty and simplicity.”

The simplest way to start tacking poor NHS IT is to recognise that there is no overall solution: the NHS has spent the last 20 to 30 years working on big solutions and the message, untold billions of pounds later,  is that  they don’t work.

What no Whitehall NHS report in the past 30 years has recommended is compromise. Whitehall has never accepted that the NHS has too many systems, too many autonomous hospitals,   too many different ways of working at innumerable sites and too many pressures on time and money in a safety-related environment to adapt to national standards and a national way of thinking.

One strength of giving autonomy to hospital IT chiefs working alongside their clinical directors is that they can be extraordinarily innovative and provide useful systems of benefit to patients. Some trusts are, when left to their own devices, bringing shared patient records to entire regions.

That’s not to suggest that centralised thinking is best avoided altogether. A reliable Covid test and trace app is the current top priority but when or if the virus is under control, a top priority would be to sweep away a mass of vague central initiatives and consult health IT SMEs on finding the simplest way to use existing systems to talk to each other.

It’s possible – but unglamorous – for hospitals with different systems to make their records available using secure links to hospitals in other regions. The trouble is it doesn’t involve large numbers of consultants, big companies and Whitehall officials . It’s too simple for Whitehall to implement. What’s worse, it’s cheap. It’s a compromise.

Whitehall officials and advisors would instead prefer to spend their time and public money working on initiatives that will look good in ministerial and departmental press releases. Such as AI to analyse X-rays, CT and MRI scans without a doctor in sight.

The NAO ought  not to be writing reports on NHS IT that could have been written 30 years ago.

Centralised thinking needs to change.  You don’t need every hospital using the same standards with the same working practices. It will never happen.  Just concentrate on interoperability – not of new systems but existing ones.

Here’s a genuinely innovative approach for NHS IT: compromise.

Thank you to FOI campaigner David Orr for alerting me to the National Audit Office NHS report

The Register’s reader comments

Digital Transformation in the NHS – National Audit Office report

 

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

Is Whitehall’s broken system of accountability enjoyed by many bodies beyond the Post Office?

A National Audit Office report yesterday shows that the Post Office is not the only arm’s length body to act as if answerable to nobody. Whitehall is supposed to oversee more than 450 arm’s length bodies that spend at least £250bn a year. But it’s a broken system.

On Monday,  Radio 4 begins a 10-part series that asks whether hundreds of sub-postmasters were victims of “institutionalised corporate cruelty from the Post Office”.

The BBC describes its series “Great Post Office Trial” as the extraordinary story of a decade-long battle fought between sub-postmasters and the Post Office.

After the introduction of Fujitsu’s Horizon branch accounting system  in the early 2000s, the Post Office began using the system’s data to accuse sub postmasters of falsifying accounts and stealing money.

Innocents

Village sub-postmasters who were doing their best to serve their local communities were fired,  financially ruined, prosecuted and imprisoned – all of which raises questions as to why none of this was of any concern to the civil service which was supposed to be keeping an eye on the Post Office, according to civil service guidance unearthed by justice campaigner Eleanor Shaikh.

Last year the High Court issued judgements that criticised the Post Office for acting as if answerable to nobody. The judgements left the Post Office’s credibility in tatters. But still the civil service has continued to distance itself from the Post Office. Officials have written defensive letters to sub-postmasters about the “past” actions of the Post Office. The civil service accepts no responsibility for any failures to stop the scandal.

Now a new National Audit Office report makes clear that another arm’s length body, the British Tourist Authority has, like the Post Office, acted as if answerable to nobody. Gareth Davies, head of the National Audit Office, said the British Tourist Authority “repeatedly broke the regulations” – despite several internal audit reports that highlighted irregularities. He said,

“The British Tourist Authority has knowingly entered into contracts for which it did not have approval, disregarding regulations designed to ensure that public money is being spent as Parliament intended.”

The National Audit Office also found that irregular, non-contractual severance payments went ahead without the approval beforehand of its sponsoring organisation, the Department for Culture, Media and Sports or HM Treasury.

Such actions can open the door to fraud and corruption if allowed to go unchecked.

Comment

If the Post Office and British Tourist Authority have been able to conduct themselves as if answerable to nobody, who cares? It’s not a frivolous question.

Civil servants are supposed to check up on arm’s length bodies such as the Post Office and the British Tourist Authority. But it’s clear the system of oversight is broken.

Campaigner Eleanor Shaikh found that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS)  chose to rescind its duty of oversight during the years of the Post Office Horizon scandal.

Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee reported in 2016 on problems for Whitehall departments of overseeing more than 450 arm’s length bodies that spend more than £250bn a year.

But it’s not just arm’s length bodies that fall through the accountability net. The civil service itself is largely unaccountable. MP Margaret Hodge, former chair of the Public Accounts Committee, wrote an excellent bookCalled to account which showed, among much else, how some senior civil servants have little regard for accountability to Parliament.

If the civil service acts as if unanswerable to Parliament and potentially hundreds of arm’s length bodies act as if unanswerable to the civil service, it could explain how the Post Office has never been held to account for a scandal that dates back nearly 20 years.

No wonder hundreds of arm’s length bodies have sprung into existence as if from nowhere. Being an arm’s length body means even less scrutiny than being a direct part of the Whitehall system.

The unchecked conduct of the Post Office and British Tourist Authority are signs of a mature democracy that has grown tired and flabby.

It helps to explain why the Post Office was able to conduct itself in ways that would not have been out of place in North Korea or China.  Why would the civil service want the unpleasantness of properly scrutinising the Post Office and other arm’s length bodies if senior civil servants are themselves unaccountable?

MPs and peers care about accountability. But how can they  hold to account a civil service that doesn’t want to be held accountable?

Every new government needs the full support of the civil service. Therefore it’s hard to see how the broken system of accountability will ever be fixed.

The Great Post Office Trial – BBC series starting Monday at 13.45

National Audit Office report on British Tourist Authority

Letter demanding public inquiry into Post Office scandal

 

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

Another 20 years of the Post Office IT scandal? – questions a “review” may avoid …

By Tony Collins

It is being described as the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history: the potentially unsafe convictions of more than 500 businessmen and women whose prosecutions were based on the output of a Post Office computer system, Horizon.

In December last year,  the High Court confirmed what sub-postmasters had been saying for years: that the Horizon system’s flaws could explain mysterious shortfalls being shown on the system – shortfalls for which hundreds of sub-postmasters have been blamed for at least 15 years.

Even before news broke last month of potentially 500 unsafe convictions,  Boris Johnson had promised MPs to “get to the bottom” of what he called a scandal.

He was aware that bankruptcies,  imprisonment and suicide had resulted from the Post Office’s actions against sub-postmasters who had complained about the Horizon computer system.

Yesterday, Campaign4Change looked at why civil servants and their ministers prefer a “review” to an inquiry.  This piece compares the likely costs of a judge-led inquiry against  a review and looks whether a cheaper review could undermine Boris Johnson’s promise to get to the bottom of the Horizon scandal.

Alan Bates, founder of Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance, which led a successful group litigation against the Post Office, says he would not engage with anything but a judge-led inquiry.

He told Computer Weekly,

“Despite our years of campaigning, it has become clear that the only way to expose the lies and cover-up by the Post Office has been through the courts, which is why, going forward, the judiciary must be involved.

“Any other type of inquiry would have no merit or value and would not be anything that the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance  would want to engage with.”

But Downing Street officials appear to have left the final decision on an inquiry or a review to the business department BEIS, which provides public funds to the Post Office and would be in the firing line of any inquiry: a judge-led inquiry may ask why, for nearly a decade, BEIS rejected the concerns of peers and MPs about Horizon and instead accepted the Post Office’s assurances that Horizon was robust. This raises two awkward questions for BEIS,

– Why did BEIS not commission its own  independent analysis of Horizon’s robustness given the seriousness of the concerns of MPs, in particular former Conservative defence minister James (now Lord) Arbuthnot, in 2010?

– why did it take a former sub-postmaster, Alan Bates, to raise tens of millions of pounds for a legal action to  bring Horizon’s bugs and systemic weaknesses into the open?

In deciding what happens next – a review or much tougher judge-led inquiry –  BEIS may be said to have a conflict of interest. So far BEIS has rejected a judge-led inquiry (in which BEIS civil servants may be cross-examined by lawyers for sub-postmasters).

Costs?

Whitehall may cite costs as a reason or not holding a judge-led inquiry. But the counter argument is that the costs are small compared to the £100m that the Post Office is estimated to have spent on years of fighting the well-grounded assertions of sub-postmasters that Horizon was flawed.

The typical costs of a four-week judge-led inquiry would be about £3.5m to £4.5m to cover external lawyers’ fees,  research and expenses, the legal and other costs incurred by BEIS, UK Government Investments and any other government departments involved in the inquiry.

The figure includes about £180,000 for  staffing the inquiry and a predicted £350,000 in fees such as audio/video links in inquiry courtrooms at the Royal Courts of Justice. 

A review with a “safe” remit such as the lessons learned from the Post Office’ past dealings with sub-postmasters, need cost only about £200,000-£300,000 (or less) but all of this may be wasted if a review perpetuates the Horizon scandal by looking at it from a restricted historical viewpoint instead of challenging the Post Office’s conduct and actions from 1999 to the present day.

Some questions a review would avoid?

Below are some of the questions that lawyers for sub-postmasters may ask at a judge-inquiry but which a review panel is unlikely to go anywhere near …

Has the Post Office, after all that has passed in two years of High Court litigation it lost, gone back to regarding Horizon as robust and treating sub-postmasters who challenge its reliability  as likely criminals?

Is the Post Office today, with the tacit consent of BEIS, trivialising the ongoing dire consequences of the Horizon scandal for 550-plus people and their families by suggesting it all happened in a done-with past era ?

What does the Post Office say to victims of the scandal who may never recover their full losses?

Does the Post Office still employ most of the people whom a High Court judge criticised?

If the Post Office was unable to accept criticism from a High Court judge and sought to have him removed, why would it be any more willing to accept the findings of a non-statutory review?

Why is the Post Office in control of choosing solicitors to assess 500 potentially unsafe convictions? Is it also in control of what evidence it provides to the solicitors? A High Court judge last year found that Post Office wanted things its own way in terms of what evidence was heard and not heard.

How was the Post Office board able to spend an estimated £100m on fighting sub-postmasters when it was obvious to everyone except the Post Office and BEIS that the sub-postmasters were victims of a scandal?

More questions a review would avoid?

Why are the Post Office’s apologies limited to past shortcomings only? It has not apologised for presenting misleading evidence to the High Court.

Why did Post Office staff who saw at first hand that a branch Horizon system was producing inexplicable shortfalls, still allow the sub-postmistress to be chased for debts?

Was the Post Office’s attitude towards sub-postmasters typified by its questioning during the trial of a widow who took over the running of her husband’s post office the day after he died?  The Post Office put it to her during the trial that she probably had a vague recollection of that month, August 1999, and that the signing of documents and taking over the Post Office were “everyday events”; they were not like a car crash?  She replied that the events of that day were “very similar to a car crash.” The judge agreed. He described the events of that month as “seismic” . He said it was “unsurprising” that the sub-postmistress rejected the suggestion put to her by the Post Office that the signing of documents and formally taking over as the sub-postmistress the day after her husband had died were ‘everyday events’.

On what basis did the Post Office’s board decide to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds trying to remove the judge in High Court litigation the Post Office was losing?

Are ministers and the Post Office being disingenuous in saying the mediation settlement figure was agreed by both sides when the sub-postmasters had little or no choice but to settle because of the way they were funded?  The Post Office did not have the same risks to its funding: it is a national institution with a turnover of nearly £1bn.

How did the Post Office arrive at a decision to drop criminal charges against sub-postmistress Fiona Cowan without telling her? She took a fatal drugs overdose without knowing the charges had been dropped. She was 47.

Who took the decisions at the Post Office that led to Martin Griffiths, a successful businessman, borrowing his parents’ life savings to pay the Post Office £53,000? These were the amounts shown on the Post Office’s Horizon system as shortfalls – but Horizon’s systemic faults and sometimes untrustworthy figures were being hidden. He ended up stepping in front of a bus. An inquest heard that the Post Office was pursuing him for money.

**

Met Police assessing evidence of potential perjury in Post Office IT trials – Karl Flinders, Computer Weekly

Chirag’s story – #postofficetrial

Is the state (apart from Boris Johnson content for the Post Office IT scandal to go on another 20 years? (Part 1)

Why Nicki Arch will never go into a Post Office again