Monday, May 6, 2019

Post Office: the ONLY interview

One very odd characteristic of the Horizon scandal has been the persistent refusal of the Post Office to be interviewed on the subject.* You'd think they'd be proud of their record in uncovering so much criminality amongst their Subpostmasters, but no.

As far as I am aware only one person has ever been been wheeled out to defend the Post Office's position - Mark Davies, still serving as the Post Office's Director of Communications.

Mr Davies' interview took place on BBC Radio 4's Today programme on 9 Dec 2014. It was prompted by an indication that the MPs who had pressured the Post Office to properly look into possible failings with Horizon had lost faith in the Post Office's handling of both the investigation and subsequent mediation scheme. I'm publishing the transcript for the record.

The first interviewee is Jo Hamilton, a former Subpostmaster who was convicted of false accounting after experiencing inexplicable discrepancies on her Horizon terminal. Jo featured in the Panorama investigation into Horizon and is a claimant in Bates v Post Office. ** Her spot in the segment on the Today programme is on the phone and pre-recorded.

Next up, live in the studio, is James (now Lord) Arbuthnot. Lord Arbuthnot was Jo's MP and a prime mover in drawing together the 140-odd MPs who had constituent Subpostmasters experiencing problems with Horizon.

Then, finally, we hear from Mr Davies, also live in the studio. The presenter is John Humphrys:

"John Humphrys: The time is 27 minutes to 8. It's 10 years since the world of many subpostmasters was turned upside down. They found themselves being accused by the Post Office of all sorts of dubious and even criminal practices involving false accounting and fraud - at least 150 of them. Some went to jail. Most denied ever having done anything wrong. They blamed the Post Office. They said they were being made scapegoats for a faulty IT system called Horizon accounting that created thousands of pounds of shortfalls in cash where none existed.

Jo Hamilton was a subpostmaster in the South Warnborough village shop in Hook in Hampshire, within a few weeks of getting the new system, she noticed something wrong...

Jo Hamilton: It all started off in December 2003 and I had a discrepancy of minus £2000. So I rang the help desk, because that's what they're for, and they told me to do various things, and I did that and the amount that I was down doubled. And I asked to speak to a supervisor so they came on the phone, and whatever we did, it wouldn't go back to minus £2000. The upshot of it was that they asked me to pay the money into the Post Office, which I didn't have. And then they decided to take my wages for the next 10 months to pay it back because under the terms of my contract, that's what has to happen if you're down. You have to make it good.

I had to remortgage the house, repay the money, and originally I was charged with stealing. They said, if I repaid and pleaded guilty to 14 counts of false accounting, they would drop the theft. So the decision was made that I was less likely to go to prison for false accounting than I was for theft, and that's what I did. If I didn't plead guilty, they would have charged me with theft, and I couldn't prove I didn't take anything. They couldn't prove I did, and at the time, they told me I was the only person that I'd ever had problems with Horizon, nobody else had. I actually did think I was the only person in the world I'd ever had problems with it. And I hadn't taken any money, but I didn't know what the hell was going on, and they never made any attempt to investigate the money or where it had gone.

I would love to see all our names cleared. And I'd love to see some of us have some of our money back.

John Humphrys: Well, a group of MPs took up the cause of the subpostmasters, but now they say they have lost faith in the Post Office. The leader of that campaign is the Conservative MP, James Arbuthnot. And he is with me, so is Mark Davies, who's the communications director for the Post Office.

Mr. Arbuthnot, what's the problem? Because the Post Office did set up a mediation system...

James Arbuthnot: Yes, at considerable public expense, the Post Office set up this mediation scheme. But sadly, they are now trying to sabotage that very mediation scheme that they set up, and they're doing this in secret. It's an extraordinary story. They're trying to bar from mediation 90% of the subpostmasters for whom it was set up. They're arguing, for example, that those who, like Jo Hamilton, pleaded guilty to false accounting, shouldn't have the mediation scheme available to them, despite having agreed expressly with MPs, that those who had pleaded guilty to false accounting should have it available to them.

So they're doing it in secret. They're doing it at a stage when there is no legal representation available to these subpostmasters, because they're trying to bar these people from the mediation scheme in the working group for the mediation get up. It's an extraordinary story, and I'm afraid I have no confidence that the Post Office is trying to clear it up.

JH: Well, what they say is that they paid for people to get independent advice, they've advertised for people to come forward with their stories, they've investigated the cases. They've done everything that could be reasonably requested of them.

JA: They talk about this legal advice, but then they try to prevent the subpostmasters going into the mediation scheme at a stage of the process when the subpostmaster is not represented by that legal advice. You won't get any of those legal advisors coming on to this programme because the Post Office has bound them to secrecy. You won't get Second Sight, the independent investigators, coming on to this programme because the Post Office has bound them to secrecy.

JH: So couldn't you argue that they have a relationship with their clients, and therefore they're inevitably bound to secrecy?

JA: Yes, and there was a concern at the beginning of this, that Second Sight, the independent forensic accountants who the Post Office chose and are paying for, do have a relationship with the Post Office, and that worried MPs about whether they would have the independence that was required. But they have had, and now that they've shown that independence, the Post Office is doing its utmost to poo-poo the recommendations that Second Sight is putting forward and they're trying to override those recommendations, possibly because of that very independence.

JH: But at the end of that the investigation isn't over yet, a lot of things might yet change.

JA: Well, that is my hope. But for myself, since this is an investigation, and a mediation scheme, which is in the hands largely of the Post Office, it's paid for by the Post Office, for myself, I have lost faith in the Post Office's determination to see it through to a proper end.

JH: Mark Davies, it is a very serious charge that you sabotaged this scheme.

Mark Davies: It's an extremely serious charge John and, clearly, we reject it outright and it's very regrettable some of the things that Mr. Arbuthnot has said this morning.

JH: What did he say that was wrong?

MD: Well, I think, to go back to the original setting up of this inquiry, we as the Post Office, take our responsibilities to our people extremely seriously and to their welfare as well.

JH: What did he say that was wrong?

MD: If I could just finish the point, I think it's really, really important to set this out. The Horizon system that Mr. Arbuthnot refers to is used every single day of about 80,000 people. In the course of the last decade, half a million people have used that system without any problems, face-to-face with customers across the 11,500 branches in the Post Office network. That said, a very small number of people came to us through their MPs with some questions, some issues which they said they had problems with the system. That amounts to 0.03% of those people who have dealt with the Horizon system in the last…

JH: It's still 150 people…

MD: It absolutely is.

JH: …and each individuals with their own lives being ruined. Now, what was it that Mr. Arbuthnot said about your handling of this scheme that is wrong?

MD: Well what is wrong is, first and foremost, that the scheme hasn't finished yet, John. So two and a half years ago, we set up a review into the Horizon system, that review has found no evidence at all have any systemic problems with the Horizon system.

JH: But it's your own review, isn't it?

MD: Well, it with independent forensic accountants, John. And then we set up the complaint and mediation scheme for those 150 people who came forward. Look, we advertised for people to come forward, we went to our people across the Post Office network and said, "If you feel that you've been treated unfairly, please come and talk to us about that." I don't think, if we weren't taking this seriously, I don't think we would have done that.

JH: But you've heard the story of Jo Hamilton there. I mean, she's tried to do everything that she could, at least if we are to believe her, and we have no reason not to believe her. Everything she could have done, she's tried to do and she's got nowhere.

MD: You'll forgive me John, for not getting into an individual case....

JH: All right. I understand you can't do that. But nonetheless, she is representative of many people like her, and they are in desperate trouble now, and they have a case, don't they?

MD: I am really sorry if people have had... have faced lifetime difficulties, lifestyle problems as a result of their having been working in Post Office branches. It doesn't necessarily follow, though, that the Post Office is responsible for the issues that people have had. And I think our commitment to seeking to look at every single case is on the line...

JH: But you barred 90% of them?

MD: No, that's not true. And I don't accept that figure at all. I mean…

JH: Well, what is the figure?

MD: Well, I haven't got... The working group, which is chaired independently by a former High Court judge is bound by confidentiality, the Post Office is bound by confidentiality.

JH: So you can't tell me how many have been barred? It might be 90%. It might be...

MD: I'm afraid I can't, John, because the working group was set up with confidentiality in mind. And we as The Post Office is bound to that.

JH: Well, you're not giving anything away, you know, I'm not asking you for the names of the people. I'm asking you for the number of people who have been barred.

MD: And I can't go into the details of that at all, we…

JH: So in that case we're entitled to accept what Mr. Arbuthnot said, which is that it is 90%.

MD: I don't accept that at all. It's not my... It's not, well...

JH: But without being able to give me a figure, with the best word in the world, it's impossible for us to have anything other than accept the figure that Mr Arbuthnot has given us.

MD: Well we have been placed in an intolerable position as the Post Office, because we're bound by a confidentiality agreement, which was agreed with all parties...

JH: But you entered into that...

MD: ...including the…

JH: …agreement yourselves.

MD: We did. Including with the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance. So we're in an extremely difficult position. It's not the case that 90% have been rejected. We're actually looking at every single case on a case-by-case basis.

JH: So you're saying no ruling has been rejected?

MD: We're absolutely committed to doing that. I'm not saying that at all, we look at every single case on a case-by-case basis. And in some cases, there is evidence whereby we've looked at what's happened, and we've held our hands up and said, "In some cases, we could have done things differently." And we've reached agreement with some people. In other cases, we don't...

JH: And if they have pleaded guilty, they've been banned as well.

MD: If I can just finish the point. In other cases, we haven't reached that conclusion because we have to take it extremely seriously. We're a large retail organization. We conduct audits in our branches across the 11,500 branches every single day. Where there are cases where there have been losses in those branches, then clearly, we have a duty to look at those, and you'd expect us to do that on behalf of our customers, on behalf of taxpayers.

JH: Final very quick word, Mr. Arbuthnot.

JA: Mark Davies says that it's a tiny proportion of the transactions in the Post Office, and of course, that's right. And yet one single miscarriage of justice ought to galvanize the nation and I've got more than 140 MPs, some of them with more than one case. This is not a small problem.

MD: And if evidence emerges where there is evidence that the case should be re-looked at through the legal processes, absolutely the Post Office has a legal duty to take that forward and we will do so.

JH: Mark Davies, James Arbuthnot. Thank you both very much indeed."

I've written about the democratic deficit in the Post Office's repeated failure to be held to account here. It's just as damaging as the lack of governmental oversight and failure of the NFSP.

One of the problems of not being interviewed, not being properly audited and not being challenged by the only "union" it recognises, is that the Post Office has been allowed to exist in a bubble. It is only being forced to rub up against reality with the ongoing litigation.

If Mr Davies, the current Chairman/CEO or indeed anyone else from the Post Office wishes to make it two in two decades and give another interview about Horizon and the Subpostmasters they've sacked and prosecuted, please do get in touch. There is lots to talk about.

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* When she was chief executive, Paula Vennells and her then "Head of Partnerships", Angela van den Bogerd, accepted an invitation to give evidence to a parliamentary select committee inquiry on 3 Feb 2015.

Before giving evidence Ms Vennells instructed her staff to find a way for her to tell MPs that remote access to branch Horizon terminals wasn't possible when, in fact, it was. She also refused to answer MPs' questions on whether she had received legal coaching before speaking to the inquiry. Ms van den Bogerd has since been found to have attempted to mislead a High Court judge on oath.

** See more of Jo's story here.

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