Monday, March 23, 2020

Recent parliamentary activity: a 2020 timeline

Boris Johnson agreeing to an independent inquiry on 26 Feb 2020
There have been number of parliamentary debates and exchanges about the Post Office Horizon scandal over the past two months. I thought it might be useful to lay them out chronologically with a few notes:

4 Feb 2020 - question in the House of Lords from Lord Arbuthnot.

This sparked a lively ten minute debate. The minister answering said the Post Office "got it badly wrong" but suggested things were going to be made better by quarterly meetings with the National Federation of Subpostmasters, (already discredited by the High Court and completely supportive of the Post Office over two decades on the issue of Horizon).

The government also indicated no change to the Post Office's ability to prosecute Subpostmasters.

Watch the debate and read the transcript here.
Lord Callanan in the Grand Committee debate
25 Feb 2020 - Grand Committee debate in the House of Lords, led by Lord Berkeley.

Here the new government minister in the Lords, Lord Callanan, claimed advice the government had been receiving from the Post Office over the last ten years or so was "flawed". He also said "A scheme will be announced in ​the near future with the aim of addressing historical shortfalls for postmasters who were not part of the group litigation settlement", but said of the claimants "the Government cannot accept any further request for payment."

The government also said as well quarterly meetings with the NFSP, it was in talks with the Communications Workers Union.

The minister was silent on the need for an inquiry and said "the Government do not propose to take any further action against current or former directors."

Read the full debate in Hansard.
Watch it online.

PMQs 26 Feb 2020
26 Feb 2020 - Prime Ministers Questions in the House of Commons in which Boris Johnson agrees to an independent inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal.

Watch the short exchange and read the transcript here.


Lucy Allan MP in Westminster Hall
5 March 2020 - Westminster Hall debate, led by Lucy Allan MP.

Ms Allan has become a passionate, effective and articulate advocate for aggrieved Subpostmasters and during her opening speech she had the most startling revelation as she explained a recent interaction with the Post Office about the cases before the Criminal Cases Review Commission:
"I understand from my discussions with representatives of the Post Office that it would prefer each [potential miscarriage of justice] case to be treated separately. They have said that the Post Office will insist that those who pleaded guilty to false accounting should be excluded from the process."
Ms Allan was clear:
"That should not be a matter for the Post Office to involve itself in. Should the cases be referred by the CCRC to the Court of Appeal, the Post Office will be a respondent. It would be wholly wrong for the Post Office to be involved in any decisions around the mechanisms for the quashing of the convictions, given that the convictions are of people whom it sought to prosecute."
Palpable anger about the current situation was expressed by many other MPs. The demands for an independent judge-led inquiry were long and loud. Here's just one example, from Duncan Baker:
"The Government must intervene and force the Post Office to make good the losses that those postmasters have suffered, in full. The board of the Post Office is accountable for this fiasco. Action must be taken against it. The issue is most definitely worthy of a public inquiry to uncover the extent of the wrongdoing that has occurred."
The new Minister for Postal Services, Paul Scully, was having none of it. He repeated Lord Callanan's mention of a scheme to help Subpostmasters outside the litigation, but all he would say on the Prime Minister's agreement that there should be an independent inquiry was:
"We will certainly look at how we can keep the Post Office on its toes in future and at how to look back to learn the lessons" 
Read the full debate in Hansard. It is quite something. Or watch it online.

Lord Arbuthnot
5 March 2020 - short debate in the House of Lords, led by Lord Arbuthnot.

In response to the various questions, the minister, Lord Callanan, was more strident than he was on 25 Feb, telling peers:
"During the unfolding of this scandal, BEIS officials were clearly misled by the Post Office."
Unlike Paul Scully, he followed firmly on the Prime Minister's promise of an independent inquiry.
"We agree that there needs to be a full examination, with due rigour, of what happened and what the next steps will be, but I cannot go further than the answer that I gave earlier to my noble friend - that, as soon as we can, we will announce the next steps following the Prime Minister’s announcement."
He also stated:

"There is no question but that the Post Office management at the time behaved disgracefully but none of them is now in post."

Which is incorrect. Plenty of them are still there.

Read the full debate in Hansard.
Watch it online here.

Wendy Buffrey (l) and Tracy Felstead (centre) giving evidence
10 March 2020 - Select Committee hearing.

The transcript for this doesn't yet seem to be available, but you can watch it online. Tracy Felstead and Wendy Buffrey gave evidence of their experiences at the hands of the Post Office, and Alan Bates, the founder of the Justice For Subpostmasters' Alliance gave his account of the Post Office's attitude.

The second session featured Andy Furey from the CWU and Calum Greenhow from the NFSP, separated by Ron Warmington and Ian Henderson from Second Sight. Given this was Ron Warmington's first opportunity to give evidence under parliamentary privilege, it's a shame Second Sight were barely given five minutes to speak.

Watch the hearing online.

Kevan Jones MP
19 March 2020 - debate in the House of Commons main chamber led by Kevan Jones MP.

Another blistering debate in which the full rage and anger of MPs was duly recorded. In terms of the government's answer, Paul Scully was slightly more forthcoming.

On the issue of an independent inquiry, he said:
"We are looking at the best way to do it. There will be a further announcement as soon as possible in the very near future. I know that hon. Members want progress, but I want to ensure that we get it right, rather than rushing into the terms of reference and other details."
Which is somewhat different to his position earlier in the month. He promised backbenchers: "I will not hide and I will not wash my hands of it", adding "even if we cannot achieve everything that has been asked."

At the end of the debate, Kevan Jones was very direct, telling Mr Scully:
"The Minister has an opportunity here. I have been a Minister, and it is a great privilege, but it is not about sitting on that Front Bench or carrying the red box; it is about making a difference. The Minister has an opportunity to make a real difference and put right a wrong. He cannot carry on as his predecessors have done and ignore the truth. I challenge him: be brave, Minister. Please, put this right; it is in your hands. No matter what obstruction he has from his officials, he should challenge them."
Read the full debate in Hansard.
Watch it online.

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