Monday, 29 June 2020

Nick Read's selective awareness

Nick Read, Post Office CEO
Nick Read has had nine months to find out what on earth the Post Office has been up to over the last twenty years, or at least ask some questions about the worst of it.

His first job was to stop the litigation, which he did. His second job was to, in his words, "reset" the Post Office's relationship with Subpostmasters.

In a letter to the BEIS Select Committee, Mr Read explores that theme a little further, stating:
"As Chief Executive, ensuring that the business conducts itself with integrity is of upmost [sic] importance to me. That requires addressing the issues of the past... with energy and transparency. Bluntly, there can be no new beginning without an appropriate reckoning with the past."
So how much reckoning with the past is Mr Read prepared to do?

The appendix to the letter contains answers to questions posed to Mr Read by Darren Jones, the chair of the BEIS Select Committee inquiry. The very first answer is disingenuous by omission.

Mr Jones asks: "Do you now accept that there was a major problem with Horizon and, if so, when did Post Office Ltd identify this problem and what was the nature of that problem?"

Mr Read replies:
"Post Office accepts that there were deficiencies in previous versions of the Horizon system." However: "the judgment did not determine whether bugs, errors or defects did in fact cause shortfalls in the individual claimants’ accounts but it found that they had the potential to create apparent discrepancies in postmasters’ branch accounts."
The judgment did not determine whether bugs, errors or defects caused shortfalls in the individual claimants’ accounts because the trial was specifically set up not to look for them. It was set up to see if there was the potential for Subpostmasters' branch accounts to be affected by bugs errors and defects. This is the exact text of the judge's finding
"It was possible for bugs, errors or defects of the nature alleged by the claimants to have the potential both (a) to cause apparent or alleged discrepancies or shortfalls relating to Subpostmasters’ branch accounts or transactions, and also (b) to undermine the reliability of Horizon accurately to process and to record transactions as alleged by the claimants. Further, all the evidence in the Horizon Issues trial shows not only was there the potential for this to occur, but it actually has happened, and on numerous occasions." [my italics]
Mr Read chose to leave the information in italics out of his response to the select committee.

In 2015 the Post Office told the BBC's Panorama that remote access to Subpostmaster accounts simply could not happen without the Postmaster being aware of it. This was later revealed to be untrue.

In his letter, Mr Read says: "As I was not involved at the time, I do not wish to speculate how Post Office’s knowledge of remote access issues evolved over time."

Mr Read thinks the Post Office should be "addressing the issues of the past", but he's not going to address this one.

Nor is he going to address the issue of who at the Post Office was telling porky pies to the government about what they'd been up to. Lord Callanan told peers the government had been "misled". Mr Jones wants to know more:

"Are you investigating which advice was misleading or flawed and who gave it?" he asks, "Will there be any sanctions for those who may have given misleading or flawed advice?"

Mr Read replies: "I am not able to comment on matters before my time."

In response to Mr Jones' question on the Post Office's prosecution function, Mr Read replies:
"I believe that the last private prosecution of a postmaster or branch assistant was brought by Post Office in 2015 but there have been very few since 2013." 
That was also before Mr Read's time, but he managed to find the answer to that question.

CWU take

I am grateful to serving Subpostmaster and "redoubtable" Communications Workers Union Branch Secretary Mark Baker for running his eyes over the other answers Mr Read gave. I asked him to do this as he uses Horizon daily. The Post Office refuses to accept the CWU as a representative body for Subpostmasters and Mr Baker's answers should be seen in that context.

Mr Jones asks: "Can sub-postmasters now park significant shortfalls in suspense accounts and can they expect that Post Office Ltd’s first response will be to assist them in identifying possible errors?"

Mr Read replies: "A postmaster can put a shortfall into their suspense account, trade normally and ask for our help and investigation if they do not understand the reason for the discrepancy."

Mr Baker says:
"This is not an entirely accurate reply. The reality is that a Postmaster can only put a discrepancy into local suspense for the amount of left in his/her trading period. Trading Periods, or TPs, last for four weeks. On TP day the Postmaster is forced by the system to accept the discrepancy. This is done by pressing an option called Settle Centrally. This allows the Postmaster to complete that TP and roll over into the next TP. 
What happens next is that the PO financial HQ gets in contact with the Postmaster to ask them how they would like to pay the discrepancy... the PO open up a debtors account in the Postmasters name and the discrepancy is treated as a debt owed.  
Only if a Postmaster knows that they can dispute the discrepancy will the PO commence further investigations as alluded to by Mr Read. Currently I have several members of my Branch that have raised a dispute over discrepancies but the disputed amount seems to get parked as it would appear that the Post Office can’t prove any fault on the Postmasters part but do not know what to do next. 
Discrepancies below £150 still cannot be disputed there is no option to park these smaller shortages."
Mr Jones asks: "What mistakes did Post Office Ltd make?"

Mr Read replies with some monumental guff which doesn't answer the question, but instead talks about "significant lessons to be learnt... undertaking wholesale reform... better training and continuing dedicated support..."

Mr Baker writes:
"In our opinion the Post Office is only tinkering around the edges of trying to change its relationship with Postmasters. It is our belief this can only be achieved if Mr Read adopts a more inclusive approach to finding the solutions for a successful working relationship...
We have made several attempts to engage with Nick Read and he has rebuffed all approaches. Nick Read's approach appears to be to select small token groups of individual Postmasters to consult with and base his polices on those limited perspectives. 
This was also Paula Vennells' approach and it failed."
Mr Read tells the inquiry: "We have increased [Subpostmasters'] remuneration by £20 million a year on top of the £17 million increases secured for banking services through our new framework with the High Street banks."

Mr Baker notes:
"Most of the £20m allocated last year as fees increases were on Banking transactions and the £17m that Nick Read alludes to was also on Banking fees and travel products. It is important to highlight that both sets of fee increases are funding allocated, not deployed. 
I mention this because the Covid crisis has wiped out all Banking and Travel related products. Therefore it is misleading for Nick Read to imply that Postmasters are in receipt of £37m worth of fee increases."
I have asked the National Federation of Subpostmasters - the only representative organisation the Post Office will recognise - for their thoughts about Mr Read's submission to the inquiry. I will publish them if they respond.

Number crunching

In terms of new information from the Post Office in Nick Read's letter, there are a few interesting numbers.

The Post Office says it has now received 560 applications to its Historical Shortfall Scheme. These are completely separate from the 555 people who took part in the Bates v Post Office group litigation and also separate from the "around" 500 people whose convictions are being independently reviewed by Peters and Peters, as convicted Subpostmasters are barred from the Historical Shortfall Scheme (their only chance of compensation is getting the Criminal Cases Review Commission to review and refer their case to the Court of Appeal, have the Court of Appeal quash their conviction and then attempt a malicious prosecution claim against the Post Office at the High Court). This means there at least 1600 people who claim to have lost money via Horizon.

The Post Office has also confirmed it has spent "approximately" £43m during the civil litigation on trying to fight the idea it had any responsibility towards its Subpostmasters, which, when you add it to the £57.75m settlement fee, just tops £100m.

This figure includes "expenditure on legal and professional consultancy fees connected with the litigation and other costs indirectly related to the litigation". It's not clear whether it includes the Peters and Peters review of the Post Office's 900 prosecutions using Horizon data, and it doesn't include any sums related to the Historical Shortfall Scheme. This by itself will cost a few million to operate and could end up making individual compensation payments running into thousands.

Responsibility

Finally, as to whether anyone has been sacked or is going to take responsibility at the Post Office for ruining so many lives, Mr Read plain refuses to answer the question, stating:
"The original Horizon system was introduced from late 1999 and there have been considerable changes, including of personnel, over subsequent decades. 
A number of the management team have left Post Office in recent years. As the Committee will appreciate, I am not at liberty to reveal the circumstances or terms of their departures."
Further reading:

My fisking of Paula Vennells' letter to the select committee inquiry. Ms Vennells is Mr Read's predecessor.
My take on Fujitsu's letter to the select committee inquiry. Fujitsu operate the Horizon system for the Post Office.

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Friday, 26 June 2020

Fujitsu tries to dodge the blame bus

Fujitsu designed, operated and rolled out the Horizon IT system, which has ruined so many Subpostmasters' livelihoods and lives. Yet it has never had much to say about it, preferring instead to let its client, the Post Office, take all the heat. 

Since 16 Dec 2019, that position has been untenable. The judge in the Bates v Post Office litigation finished proceedings by announcing he had such "grave concerns" about the "veracity of evidence given by Fujitsu employees to other courts in previous proceedings about the known existence of bugs, errors and defects in the Horizon system" he was handing a file to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

All Fujitsu have said about this up till now is: “Fujitsu takes the judgement in the second trial of the Post Office Group Litigation very seriously. While Fujitsu was not a party to the litigation, we are conducting a thorough process to review the court’s statements in detail."

This was never going to hold, and thanks to a series of questions sent on 2 June by the chair of the BEIS Select Committee, Fujitsu have been forced to give their take on the Horizon scandal. 

Fujitsu's reply to the committee chair has been published here. It is written by someone called Rob Putland, Fujitsu's "Senior Vice President". Let's take a closer look. 

(What follows are edited highlights of the most interesting questions and answers. For the full set of questions and complete answers - go to the original letter.)

Q: The Judge in Bates v Post Office Ltd said that in giving evidence Fujitsu gave “a very one-sided picture which was to omit any reference to important contemporaneous documents that criticise or demonstrate any deficiencies with Horizon”. How do you respond to this criticism?
A: Fujitsu was not a party to the Bates v Post Office Ltd litigation. All decisions relating to the prosecution of sub-postmasters and the conduct of the Bates litigation were made by the Post Office. Whilst Fujitsu employees gave evidence, it was the Post Office who determined all aspects of its case including the choice of witnesses, the nature of their evidence and the associated documents. Nonetheless, we take Mr Justice Fraser’s criticisms extremely seriously and we have now stopped the provision of any new witness evidence to the Post Office.
Notes: This seems to be suggesting that somehow those evil ******** at the Post Office managed to manipulate sweet, innocent Fujitsu staff into the sort of folk who might wish to defend the Horizon system to the detriment of truth and justice. The solution, you will note, is neither to work with the Post Office to do things properly in future, or to ask their own staff to think about telling the truth in court, but to refuse to let their poor bambinis get involved in any more proceedings. Blaming the Post Office in this instance does not wash. More from Sir Peter Fraser's judgment:
"I consider that Mr Parker [a Fujitsu employee], and the [Fujitsu] team who assisted him, sought to portray the Horizon system – Legacy Horizon and Horizon Online – in a light as favourable as possible to Fujitsu, regardless of its own internal evidence to the contrary, and regardless of the facts."
Q: The Judge established that there were errors and bugs within Horizon and that remote access to Horizon terminals was possible and transactions could be changed without a sub-postmaster knowing. He said that some of this only came to light because of the Group Litigation. Do you accept that local Horizon terminals could be accessed and altered centrally?
A: Yes, local Horizon terminals could be accessed and altered centrally.
Q: Why did it take a highly expensive court case to establish these facts?
A: This is a matter for the Post Office; they determined the litigation strategy and their conduct towards the sub-postmasters.
Notes: Sorry, lads. You can't pin it all on the Post Office. You were responsible for the way your employees presented evidence in court, and you had ten years to pick up the phone and tell people like me and/or Panorama that the Post Office's assertions about remote access were incorrect. This is what the Honourable Mr Justice Fraser said about your organisation's attitude towards Horizon errors, and providing information to the court in the Horizon Issues trial:
"Fujitsu do not... appear to me to have properly and fully investigated these myriad problems, nor did Fujitsu categorise such incidents correctly. They also seem to have moved away, in their investigations, from concluding that there were any issues with the software wherever it was possible for them to do so, regardless of evidence to the contrary, an approach that has been carried into the Fujitsu evidence for the Horizon Issues trial."
Q: What role did Fujitsu play in investigations and prosecutions of sub-postmasters and postal workers who found shortfalls in their Horizon accounts?
A: Fujitsu played no role in the decisions to investigate, prosecute, or otherwise seek to recover shortfalls from sub- postmasters or postal workers. The Post Office devised and implemented the strategy for the recovery of shortfalls, including conducting all investigations and prosecutions of its sub-postmasters and postal workers.
Notes: The Post Office was (and is) Fujitsu's client. The decision to use Horizon data to prosecute Subpostmasters is all on the Post Office. Fujitsu was providing data (and possibly court witnesses aiming to protect Fujitsu's corporate position) where requested. The quality of the data provided, the processes for handing it over and the efficacy of the Horizon network, vital to the reputations of both the Post Office and Fujitsu, is another matter. The next few questions and answers are illuminating on those points. It's where Fujitsu starts to get very slippery.

Q: How reliable is Horizon now and what steps are Fujitsu taking to ensure full disclosure of errors and bugs?
A: Horizon operates to the service standards contractually required by the Post Office. However, in our view, no complex IT system will ever be completely free of errors and bugs.
Q: How many bugs, errors and discrepancies have been logged for each year since they began to be recorded?
A: The incident management system captures incidents logged, and includes matters raised by a sub-postmaster as well as incidents raised by Fujitsu monitoring. The system has recorded thousands of incidents since the inception of Horizon, as would be expected of a system of this complexity and size. However, in respect of material incidents, Mr Justice Fraser highlights 29 bugs, errors and defects, some of which had the potential to impact a sub-postmaster local branch account.
Notes: This does not answer the question. The answer first states there have been thousands of bugs (or "incidents") since the inception of Horizon, and then (using the word "However" to suggest we are coming to the important bit), tells us when it comes to "material incidents", the recent court case found just 29 bugs which had the potential to impact branch accounts.

The Select Committee chair's question does not ask how many bugs the recent court case found. It asks how many Fujitsu have logged. During Bates v Post Office, the vast majority of Horizon error logs were simply not disclosed to the court or to either of the independent IT experts who were assigned to examine the Horizon system. Those IT experts worked with their teams through the logs they had been given to ascertain what they could. With the limited information, resources and time-span they had available, the IT experts were able to find 29 bugs which had the potential to impact branch accounts.

Fujitsu know, or could find out, the real number of bugs/errors/defects which caused material incidents over Horizon's twenty year history and present them to the inquiry, but they choose not to, and instead erect a smokescreen. That, to me, is very serious and potentially misleading.

Q: Can you provide a breakdown by error type and its implications for the integrity of a local Horizon terminal and for the system as a whole?
A: In the Appendices to his judgment in Bates v Post Office Ltd, Mr Justice Fraser provides significant detail on the history of Horizon and a summary of bugs, errors and defects since the inception of Horizon in 1999 including those that had the potential to impact a sub-postmaster local branch account.
Notes: They're at it again. The question has nothing to do with the court case. The court case was a snapshot of the system used to establish general facts. There's no point in getting on a high horse about the Post Office's presentation of evidence to the High Court when you're basically up to the same tricks with the select committee inquiry.

Q: What lessons have you learnt from Horizon and how can you reassure my Committee that the type of issues detailed in Bates v Post Office Ltd will not happen again?
A: The provision of witness evidence to support prosecutions under the direction of the Post Office should not have been allowed to happen. We have implemented the changes below, and will implement such further measures as may be appropriate following any related judicial processes or inquiries:
- Fujitsu has not provided any new witness evidence since the judgement.
- Fujitsu will not provide any witness evidence in the future to support Post Office led prosecutions of sub-postmasters.􏰀
- We will provide information if requested by the Police or an appropriate judicial authority but only after such request has been fully considered, and with the approval of a UK board director.
Notes: It's good that they're not going to let themselves be led by the nose into prosecution cases against Subpostmasters without properly thinking about it at board level, but this also smacks of a company which is going to become very unwilling to hand over information about anything to anyone. Given the judge found Fujitsu staff were continually overlooking significant Horizon errors,  either to suggest they weren't their responsibility, or were caused by individuals external to the company, or to paint a misleading picture in court, it does not bode well for anyone trying to get the truth out of the organisation in the future.

Q: Have any Fujitsu staff been disciplined or dismissed as a result of the issues associated with Horizon and/or regarding the evidence they gave in Bates v Post Office Ltd?
A: In many cases key employees and decision-makers are no longer working at Fujitsu. If it emerges that any current employee intentionally misled the court or otherwise failed to meet the standards expected from Fujitsu, then they will be dismissed.
Notes: There might be something of a bloodbath coming, then. Given the only thing Fujitsu have been saying for the last six months is that they are: "conducting a thorough process to review the court’s statements in detail" they will have spotted the following comments from the Honourable Mr Justice Fraser in his judgment re:

Andy Dunks, IT Security Analyst, Fujitsu
"Mr Dunks expressly sought to mislead me by stating that there was no “Fujitsu party line” when it came to the contents of drafting witness statements about audit records for legal proceedings. There plainly is; it was used in the Fujitsu statements in 2010 and it was used by him in his statement for the Horizon Issues trial... 
"I found Mr Dunks very unsatisfactory as a witness. He was both plainly aware of the Fujitsu “party line”, or corporate position, regarding the words asserting accuracy of audit data, and he was very anxious to keep to it, whilst initially denying that there was one. He sought to mislead me."
Stephen Parker, Head of Post Office Application Support, Fujitsu
"Mr Parker chose specifically to give the impression in his 1st witness statement that Fujitsu did not have the power (the word Mr Parker expressly chose) to inject transactions into the counter at branches, even though he knew that it did. This paints him in a very poor light as a credible witness... 
"I do not consider that Mr Parker was interested in accuracy in any of his evidential exercises, and I do not consider that he was objective in the way he presented his evidence, although he sought to give the impression that he was....
"Although Mr Parker agreed, as it was put to him more than once, that accuracy is important, I do not consider his evidence in his witness statements to have been remotely accurate, even though he stoutly maintained that it was. He continued to maintain this in his re-examination, even though by then he can have been in no doubt that he had departed from Fujitsu’s own definition – which he had said he had forgot about. I found him a very unsatisfactory witness, who presented in his witness statements a misleading and one-sided sanitised version of actual problems and events that Fujitsu had experienced."
William Membury, Fujitsu Central Quality Partner
"Mr Membury’s statement... omitted some highly material matters.... I consider that Mr Membury’s evidence is of limited, if any, assistance in resolving the Horizon Issues. It does however continue the very one-sided picture presented by all the Fujitsu witness statements, which was to omit any reference to important contemporaneous documents that criticise or demonstrate any deficiencies with Horizon." [my italics]
Whilst trying to mislead a judge on oath in court is a very, very serious matter, it would be an absolute tragedy if the only people to lose their jobs in the Horizon scandal were a few company lifers at Fujitsu (and I'm not saying this glibly - it would be a tragedy for them and their families, too).

From the answers given to the chair of the select committee, Fujitsu is doing its utmost to blame the Post Office for everything that has gone wrong, and possibly throw a few of its own employees under the bus, whilst maintaining a borderline indefensible position on what did happen.

It certainly doesn't seem to be doing much corporate soul-searching over its potential culpability, which could bode very badly for the future.

A fisking of Paula Vennells' letter to the select committee inquiry. Ms Vennells is the former CEO of the Post Office.
A fisking of current CEO Nick Read's letter to the select committee inquiry.

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Thursday, 25 June 2020

Paula Vennells breaks her silence

Rev Paula Vennells, CBE
Five long years we've waited to hear something of substance from former Post Office Chief Executive, Paula Vennells, and the good reverend has returned from silent exile shooting from the hip. If she's going down, she's going down in a Bon Jovi-style blaze of glory.

But first, the headlines:

1. Nothing was her fault.
2. A lot of it was definitely Fujitsu's fault.
3. The government were completely aware of and involved with every significant decision the Post Office made during her tenure.

Ms Vennells was CEO of the Post Office from 2012 to 2019. This covers the period from the commissioning of Second Sight to investigate the Horizon IT system right through to the class action brought by 500+ disgruntled former Subpostmasters, which has so far cost the Post Office more than £100m. Throughout this period she refused every single interview request on the issue.

But now, a year after she left the Post Office, she's back, laying down her position in writing to the BEIS Select Committee, responding to questions in a letter sent by the committee chair on 2 June.

In her letter, Ms Vennells (inadvertently?) reveals she was actively trying to avoid surfacing documents which could have revealed miscarriages of justice at the same time she was telling parliament it was really important to surface them.

Her letter also informs us that the Post Office's change in prosecution policy (ie to go from prosecuting dozens of Subpostmasters every year to er, none) was on the advice of a QC, yet she fails to say what the advice was, and (rather ludicrously) tries to claim it might have been a good idea to carry on prosecuting indiscriminately even though they did stop. A legalistic attempt to have her cake and eat it.

Ms Vennells' letter also displays a striking lack of interest in the financial controls surrounding suspense accounts.


The cover-up

Second Sight were taken on by the Post Office to find out the truth of what was going on at the Post Office. Directors Ron Warmington and Ian Henderson have said on the record (most recently on Panorama) they were, at the outset, given the Post Office's blessing to find "the truth at all costs".

In a document asking Subpostmasters with grievances to help Second Sight's investigations, dated December 2012, the Post Office states:
"In order to carry out the Inquiry, Second Sight will be entitled to request information related to a concern from Post Office Limited, and if Post Office Limited holds that information, Post Office Limited will provide it to Second Sight."
I have this document, and it is absolutely unequivocal. No ifs, no buts. If the Post Office holds the information, they will provide it. And indeed, from the way Second Sight tell it, at first, they had complete, unfettered access to pretty much anything they wanted. Then, in the autumn of 2013 the shutters came down. In today's letter to the BEIS Committee, Paula Vennells picks up the story:
"As Post Office informed the Committee in follow-up written evidence in March 2015, Second Sight had been given access to everything in terms of prosecution material that the Working Group had decided they should be given access to. This was not, itself, a reason to refuse additional documentation. The decision that was made, collectively by the Board sub-committee, was that Second Sight would not be given access to the internal files. Firstly because the documents were legally privileged and, as I understood it, it had never been agreed that Second Sight would be given access to privileged material. Secondly, it was the view of Post Office that the conduct of prosecutions was outside the scope of the Scheme. Thirdly, Second Sight, as forensic accountants, had no expertise to consider legal matters."
So documents which could have been examined and which might have revealed potential miscarriages of justice were withheld from Second Sight in contravention of the Post Office's initial parameters for the investigation. Furthermore, from the evidence above, the Post Office did so for arbitrary and spurious reasons.

Not only that, whilst the Post Office Board sub-committee was deciding to keep buried documentation which could reveal miscarriages of justice, Paula Vennells was telling a BIS select committee inquiry on 3 Feb 2015: 
"If there had been any miscarriages of justice, it would have been really important to me and the Post Office that we surfaced those."
That, right there, is your cover-up. Well, that and the public rubbishing of Second Sight and continuing dismissal of MPs and journalists' concerns for more than ten years.

Rampant prosecution was a brilliant idea and no rampant prosecution was a brilliant idea too

This load of old legalistic cobblers is perhaps the low point in the letter. We all know the Post Office stopped prosecuting people in 2014, but Ms Vennells is not going to tell us why, and once more hides behind lawyers to do so. As she says:
"Although it seemed there were good reasons in principle for Post Office to continue the practice of bringing private prosecutions, the Board adopted a new prosecutions policy in February 2014... Prosecutions effectively ceased during my tenure as CEO... in July 2014, Post Office engaged a senior criminal QC... to advise on prosecution related issues. In referring to this advice I do not and do not intend to waive any privilege of Post Office or myself, if any, over the advice the criminal QC gave."
What on earth were the "good reasons" for continuing to bring private prosecutions - to get the number up to 1000? Because it worked? Because it was fun? There might have been good reasons in principle to do it (ie to punish and deter criminal activity), but in practice all the evidence suggests that the security team and in-house prosecutors weren't capable of doing it properly. Note Ms Vennells can't bring herself to say it was a good thing they stopped prosecuting.

Incidentally, in her letter, Ms Vennells also says it wouldn't have been her job to get too involved in the prosecutions while they were happening "unless of course I became aware of a systemic problem, which I did not."

From when she joined the Post Office in 2007 to 2014, the Post Office prosecuted 335 people! What did she think was happening if it wasn't a systemic issue? A run of bad apples? Demographics? That it was perfectly normal to go about criminalising staff like this?

Even if every single one of those 335 people were guilty of criminal dishonesty, wouldn't a responsible CEO be wondering how her company had created a business model which made blameless, hard-working people with spotless reputations suddenly turn to crime.

Really - none of it was her fault

Whilst Ms Vennells is most certainly sorry for what happened to Subpostmasters, she isn't responsible for it one iota. 

According to Ms Vennells, a lot of it was Fujitsu's fault. Particularly over the issue of remote access. In her letter, Ms Vennells says:
"The issue of whether Post Office or Fujitsu had the ability to access and alter branch information remotely had been raised during my evidence to the Committee in February 2015. I wanted to give an answer that was direct and factually accurate. I raised this question repeatedly, both internally and with Fujitsu, and was always given the same answer: that it was not possible for branch records to be altered remotely without the sub-postmaster’s knowledge. Indeed, I remember being told by Fujitsu’s then CEO when I raised it with him that the system was “like Fort Knox”. He had been a trusted outsource partner and had the reputation of a highly competent technology sector CEO. His word was important to me."
So, according to Ms Vennells, the Fujitsu CEO was either lying or so incompetent, he didn't know what he was talking about. Big accusation.

The government were party to every significant Post Office decision on Horizon

I've spent years reading and listening to frankly mendacious statements from successive ministers and mandarins about their dealings with the Post Office over the Horizon scandal. Endless, endless bollocks about it being an "arm's length" organisation with complete autonomy to make its own decisions.

Funnily enough a year ago today, I felt I had enough information to call this out as bollocks, but it's nice to have it confirmed by the woman who was supposedly running the show. In her letter today Vennells makes it quite clear that (as any 100% shareholder should be) the BEIS ministry and UKGI (UK Government Investments) were all over the Post Office:
"The UKGI directors were fully engaged in the discussions and Post Office (including myself and each subsequent Chair) had conversations with their senior line director and the Chief Executive of UKGI too from time to time. The present UKGI incumbent director joined the Board in 2018 with a fresh pair of eyes. His questioning was challenging and because of that it was helpful; it did not lead to any different outcomes. He was fully engaged on the Board, sub-committee and with ministers and lawyers at BEIS."
This will add a huge amount of fuel to backbench MPs calls for a full, independent judge-led inquiry. Incidentally, the government is still sticking to its "review", which the minister confirmed today won't have statutory powers.

Where Has All The Money Gone?

This is the multimillion dollar suspense account question, apparently raised by Sir Anthony Hooper at the beginning of many working group meetings whilst the mediation scheme was still alive. It has also been repeatedly raised by Second Sight's Ron Warmington (see his first public statement since the investigation here) and many MPs, Subpostmasters and members of the public. 

In his letter to Ms Vennells of 2 June, the chair of the BEIS Select Committee states:
"Second Sight... told us they suspected that money paid in by sub-postmasters to cover shortfalls may have ended up in Post Office Ltd’s central suspense accounts and ultimately its profit and loss account. Did Post Office Ltd, as they contend, frustrate them in investigating this possibility and did you as CEO look into this. Do you think this could have been a possibility?"
Ms Vennells replies:
"I have very little recollection of this issue and I can only tell the Committee what I now recall. I believe that Second Sight raised it with me in conversation. Since it was a technical financial control issue, I asked the CFO to look into it, and I can see from the transcript of the evidence to the Committee on 2 February 2015 that Second Sight had already met with the CFO to discuss the further information they said they required. I cannot remember how this was resolved, but I do not recall any further communication from Second Sight to me on this issue."
It's all suddenly a bit vague, isn't it? Yet suspense accounts remains the scandal's biggest unanswered question. Has the Post Office erroneously taken thousands, tens of thousands, millions of pounds from its own Subpostmasters? Ms Vennells has no idea now, and from the admission above, whilst she was CEO, she never bothered to try to find out.

If this letter is the best she can do, I suspect Paula Vennells is in trouble.

If you would like to see what Paula Vennells' successor at the Post Office thinks about the Horizon scandal, click here.
If you would like to read a similar fisking of Fujitsu's letter to the select committee inquiry, please click here.

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This blog is entirely funded by donation. You can donate any amount through the secure payment portal I have set up for this purpose (click here for more info or to donate).

If you contribute £20 or more you will be added to the secret email list. This alerts you to the latest developments on this story before they happen, as well as links to new articles and stories, whether posted here on this blog or elsewhere. Thank you for your support.




Paula Vennells leaves Ethical Investment Advisory Group

Paula Vennells, CBE
Paula Vennells has temporarily stepped down from her role on the Church of England's Ethical Investment Advisory Group. 

An email dated 23 June from Anna McDonald, Secretary to the EIAG states Ms Vennells: "has taken a leave of absence as she engages with the BEIS Select Committee Review."

The two line email was a response to Tom Hedges, a church warden and former postmaster who queried Paula Vennells' fitness to advise on ethical matters, given her stewardship of the Post Office during what one MP has described as "one of the worst disasters in public life since the infected blood scandal". Ms McDonald told Mr Hedges: "The EIAG is not conducting an investigation into this matter."

It is curious that Paula Vennells' reason for taking a leave of absence from her position as an EIAG group member is engaging with a BEIS Select Committee "Review". 

Ms Vennells was due to give oral evidence to the BEIS Select Committee Inquiry on 24 March. Covid-19 did for that. The new chair of the select committee wrote to Ms Vennells on 2 June asking her some excitingly direct questions. He requested her answers by 16 June. 

Maybe the EIAG lady got confused between the Select Committee Inquiry and the government's promised upcoming Independent Review - and it is that which Ms Vennells is preparing for.

Either way, Paula Vennells, who has only spoken once in public about the Horizon scandal during her seven year tenure as Post Office CEO, is a woman under pressure.

She left the Post Office in 2019 ("And with that... she was gone"), slap bang in the middle of a litigation which was to take her organisation for more than a hundred million pounds in (ongoing) costs, fees and compensation. She had been at best misinformed or misadvised. At worst, she was complicit in a corporate cover-up which prolonged the agony for hundreds of people.

Ms Vennells' reward for running the Post Office was a CBE, millions of pounds in salary, and two cushy numbers - a non-executive position on the Cabinet Office board and the chairmanship of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust. 

The new government has taken some steps to address this. Shortly after Martin Callanan was appointed as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in the Lords, Ms Vennells was stood down from the Cabinet Office.

On 18 June, Lord Callanan also told his fellow peers:
"it would be very helpful if she would account much more fully in public for what she knew and for the actions that she took at the time. I have written to the Department of Health to make clear our position on her future. The Care Quality Commission is, I believe, looking at whether she is a fit and proper person for the role that she holds. I hope that it will conduct that review swiftly. Obviously, I cannot predict that, and it is not a matter directly for me, but I have written to the Department of Health to make my views clear."
I suspect, in that letter, he isn't giving her a massive thumbs up. 

As the noble lord mentioned, further scrutiny of a sort is also being brought to bear via a Care Quality Commission investigation into whether Ms Vennells is a Fit and Proper Person (FPPR) to chair a large NHS Trust.


Six months after asking for the investigation to take place, and the same day Lord Callanan mentioned them in parliament, the CQC sent an email to Dr Alexander stating: “We are making some further enquiries with the trust and we will be discussing the referral at the next FPPR meeting on the 8 July 2020.”

Perhaps Lord Callanan's desire to move "swiftly" led to someone at the CQC pulling their finger out.

Bishop Alan washes his hands

As well as ministering to the sick in her NHS role, the Reverend Vennells is a non-stipendiary vicar in the Bromham Benefice in Bedfordshire. Alan Smith, the Bishop of St Albans, has recently been asked to explain why someone who is partially responsible for what has been described by a Labour shadow minister as possibly "the largest miscarriage of justice in our history", still gets to be held up as a paragon of moral virtue.

As well as complaining about Paula Vennells to the EIAG, Tom Hedges made a formal complaint directly to the Bishop. He spoke on 14 June about it on Radio 4's Sunday Programme. The Bishop of St Albans refused to be interviewed, but he did offer a statement, which was précised by the programme as follows:
"It is not my purpose in making this statement to defend or excuse the way that Post Office Limited was run. It is clear to me that these events, which have been reviewed by the High Court, were a terrible tragedy which have had an appalling effect on the lives of a large number of people, some of whom are still suffering.
The law - which I must apply when dealing with complaints against priests - only allows me to act on the basis of allegations, supported with evidence, of wrongdoing by the priest. My view, taken following legal advice, is that I cannot simply impute to Ms Vennells all of the failures found to have been committed by Post Office Limited.   
The Church of England has a formal system by which complaints may be made against clergy.  Complainants are required to furnish me with evidence of misconduct and to demonstrate a proper interest in bringing the complaint.  If any formal complaints are made within those parameters, which are legally defined, I will consider them upon the evidence and make a decision."
The statement looks like it was drafted in close consultation with some half-decent lawyers and now it appears to be being sent to anyone who contacts Bishop Alan. I have the full text, which was sent to one complainant on 12 June. The complainant had originally been told by the Bishop to direct her complaint to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who passed the buck straight back to Bedforshire.

The full statement reads like a masterful exercise in simultaneous hand-washing and hand-wringing. Put on your best internal bishop's voice as you read:
"I am aware of the recent court action, with regard to Post Office Limited and the Horizon software system, which was brought by a number of individuals who are or were at one time employees of the company. 
It is not my purpose in making this statement to defend or excuse the way that Post Office Limited was run. It is clear to me that these events, which have been reviewed by the High Court, were a terrible tragedy which have had an appalling effect on the lives of a large number of people, some of whom are still suffering.   
I am the son of a former sub post-mistress, so I have a pretty shrewd idea of what it is to run a post office as it was a significant part of my childhood.  I can only begin to imagine the extent to which the actions of the Post Office have affected and still affect the lives of many people.  All those affected continue to be in my prayers. 
I have maintained a close watch on developments and I note that Post Office Limited reached a settlement agreement with some of the plaintiffs.  It is my understanding that the action taken was against Post Office Limited as a corporation and that no culpability was attributed to any specific individuals.  Ms Vennells has made a personal apology.  I am also aware that there are many legal processes still underway which I, and anyone else, would hesitate to pre-empt. 
Ms Vennells is a Clerk in Holy Orders and is authorised to minister in the Diocese of St Albans.  She is a self-supporting minister, meaning that she does not receive a stipend for carrying out her duties as a priest. 
I have received correspondence from a number of people detailing what went wrong. Some of these describe events which took place before Ms Vennells worked for Post Office Ltd and for which she cannot be held responsible. 
One of the significant factors in this case is that there is a difference between allegations made against Post Office Limited and allegations of personal wrongdoing by Ms Vennells. I entirely appreciate that the Chief Executive Officer is the lead officer in an organisation.  However, the law - which I must apply when dealing with complaints against priests - only allows me to act on the basis of allegations, supported with evidence, of wrongdoing by the priest.   
My view, taken following legal advice, is that I cannot simply impute to Ms Vennells all of the failures found to have been committed by Post Office Limited.  If I were to do so, I would be making assumptions about the management practices at Post Office Limited, and of Ms Vennells’ state of knowledge throughout the period of this dispute.   
I have to be conscious that, in an organisation of the size and complexity as the Post Office, the company is not simply a manifestation of the Chief Executive Officer’s personal will and diktat. Leaders, including the Chief Executive Officer, will be responsible to the Board, and knowledge and decision-making will be dispersed over a wide range of executives, department heads, professional advisers and contractors. 
It is possible for complaints about clergy to be brought in relation to their secular or business lives. In such cases I must make decisions based on evidence of personal misconduct, and I cannot assume that evidence to exist, based solely on findings against a company. 
The Church of England has a formal system by which complaints may be made against clergy.  Complainants are required to furnish me with evidence of misconduct and to demonstrate a proper interest in bringing the complaint. 
If any formal complaints are made within those parameters, which are legally defined, I will consider them upon the evidence and make a decision. To find the formal process please see:  
+Alan St Albans
June 2020"
The Bishop is essentially saying he realises the Post Office has done some horrible things and that Paula Vennells was in charge whilst it was doing some of those horrible things, but he doesn't know what personal culpability she has for those horrible things, so he has to shrug his shoulders and let her get on with it. Of course, he could always ask her what she did. Perhaps he'd prefer not to know. 

Whatever, Ms Vennells is turning into a useful human shield. I suspect there are plenty of senior people within the Post Office, Fujitsu, and government who are as culpable as she is. They will point campaigners in her direction simply because it takes the heat off them. 

That said, it would be a relatively simple thing for Paula Vennells to come out from behind the lawyers and explain herself. 

I wonder why she doesn't?

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Friday, 12 June 2020

Post Office cans prosecutions of Subpostmasters - revealed in the Lords

The House of Lords
Following the commons debate on Wed 10 June during which MPs demanded a judge-led inquiry into the Post Office scandal, there was a follow-up discussion in a socially-distanced Lords on Thu 11 June. The minister representing the government was Martin Callanan.

I would recommend watching his responses here, or reading the transcript in Hansard or below.

As with the commons debate, there were many calls for a judge-led inquiry. There were another couple of other things of interest:

a) the Post Office has now completely stopped prosecuting anyone and "it has no plans to indulge in any further prosecutions."

It's hard to overstate just how vulnerable this leaves the Post Office to rampant fraud.

Last year the Post Office was told its interpretation of the Subpostmaster contract was wrong. Previously Subpostmasters had to make good any loss they couldn't prove wasn't their fault. Mr Justice Fraser decided this was unlawful and said it was the Post Office which had to prove the Postmaster was at fault before demanding money.

Now the Post Office has given up prosecuting people altogether, it makes it very easy for a corrupt Subpostmaster (or assistant) to take £10,000 out of their safe, put it under their mattress and then refuse to make good the subsequent discrepancy until the Post Office can prove it is their fault.

The Post Office security team might have to learn how to do proper investigations now, and then have their work checked by both the police and the CPS before anyone gets charged. Good.

b) Lord Arbuthnot raised the Ernst and Young management letter which we used in this week's Panorama to show the Post Office board was well aware of remote access possibilities to Horizon yet continued to deny them for a further six years.

As you'll see below, Lord Callanan says the government was told by Second Sight in 2013 that the Post Office could access branch accounts, but only in a way that would be visible to the Subpostmaster. Lord Callanan then goes on to say the government only found out this wasn't the case whilst reading witness statements in last year's litigation.

Yet a senior civil servant sits on the board of the Post Office. Either that civil servant colluded in the Post Office's cover up and didn't tell the government, was entirely oblivious to what was going on or knew exactly what was going on and did tell the government. Lord Callanan was only able to tell Lord Arbuthnot the situation "as far as I am aware".

No wonder Whitehall mandarins are keen to avoid a judge-led inquiry. Here's the full transcript:

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)

My Lords, the whole country owes a considerable debt of gratitude to Kevan Jones MP, Andrew Bridgen MP and the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, who have been campaigning tirelessly to expose this appalling scandal for over seven years. Too many sub-postmasters, often respected and hard-working pillars of their local community, have been imprisoned and many have been ruined financially, physically and mentally. By settling in mediation before the Horizon trial judgment was made public, the Post Office avoided public scrutiny and the facts of its transference of operational risk to sub-postmasters, persistent denials of fault and coercive behaviour were covered up. Thanks to recent TV and radio programmes we now have a lot of detail, but much more clearly needs to be uncovered.

The question that we have to answer first is whether the proposed independent review will do what is needed, as it is not a public inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005. Can the Minister confirm that the review will have the same powers that a public inquiry would have had under statute to compel the disclosure of documentary evidence and to compel witnesses to come before it to give evidence in public?

Secondly, can the Minister confirm that the review, which presumably is being set up by Ministers, will have sufficient power to investigate the same Ministers who were responsible for the Post Office over the relevant period? Can he confirm that all the ​costs of the victims of this scandal who may be asked to testify and provide evidence, many of whom have yet to receive the full compensation that they seek, will be met?
Lord Callanan

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Lord Callanan) (Con)

My Lords, I join the noble Lord in paying tribute to all those Members from both Houses who have laboured for many years to draw attention to this unfolding scandal.

While the terms of reference for the review chime with that of an inquiry, we are undertaking a review in order to allow progress to be achieved in an accelerated timeframe. I can tell the noble Lord that the Post Office has committed to fully co-operating with the review, and Ministers will hold it to that commitment. The purpose of this non-statutory inquiry is to ensure that there is a public summary of the failings that occurred at the Post Office, drawing on the judgments from the Horizon case and listening to those who have been most affected, so that we make sure that those lessons have genuinely been learned and this cannot happen again. With regard to documentary evidence, as I said, the Post Office is expected to co-operate fully with the review.

Lord Fox (LD)

My Lords, I associate myself with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, regarding the campaigners in this case, because hundreds of people have had their lives ruined, and sometimes ended, by this terrible scandal. The Prime Minister in February committed to getting to the bottom of this, and we have to take that at face value, but in answer to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, I do not think it is entirely clear what powers this independent inquiry will have. Yes, the Post Office has committed, but will this inquiry actually have legal powers to command people to give evidence and to sequester evidence? Unless it is able to do that, I do not think the Prime Minister is going to get his wish—we will not get to the bottom of this. I understand the time element, but can the Minister reassure the House that this will be an inquiry with teeth?

Lord Callanan

Well, we are committed to getting to the bottom of this scandal. I can tell noble Lords that, yes, the Post Office has committed to co-operate fully with the inquiry; Ministers will expect it to do that. We expect others involved to co-operate with the inquiry as well, and if we need to take further action to make sure that they co-operate, we will be prepared to look at that.
Baroness Neville-Rolfe
Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)

The Horizon case is an appalling matter. It was, as I have mentioned before, the most worrying issue that I had to deal with as a Minister, because it involved many respectable individuals with no record of criminal activity, many of whom we now find have had their lives ruined. Does my noble friend agree that the immediate need, from information already available, is to remove the Post Office’s unusual right to act as prosecutor itself, and to do this forthwith?

Lord Callanan

My noble friend makes a good point, but powers to bring a private prosecution are not specific to the Post Office. The Post Office has the same rights as any other person, whether an individual or a company, to bring a private prosecution. I can tell her that the Post Office is conducting no current private prosecutions and it has provided assurances to Ministers that it has no plans to indulge in any further prosecutions.

Lord Craig of Radley (CB)

My Lords, depending on court appeals, the Post Office may be liable to pay further compensation. Does it have insurance against computer system failure? Is it obligatory for businesses to take out insurance against any serious computer malfunction? If not, does this Horizon scandal suggest that it is required?

Lord Callanan

The Post Office operates as an independent business. As noble Lords would expect, it has all the necessary insurance in place for a company of this kind. It is not, however, obligatory for businesses, including the Post Office, to take out insurance against computer malfunctions or liabilities to third parties that could result from such malfunctions. It is therefore unlikely that any of the Post Office’s insurances would provide cover for any compensation payments the business may be required to partake in.
Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom
Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom (Con)

My Lords, when did the Government’s representative on the Post Office board first know that the Post Office had privileged access to sub-postmasters’ accounts, so that the Post Office or Fujitsu could alter those accounts at will without the sub-postmasters being aware of it? Was it from the Ernst & Young management letter to the board of 27 March 2011, or was it earlier than that? If my noble friend does not know, will he please write to me?

Lord Callanan

First, I pay tribute to the work my noble friend has done, both in the other place and in this House, to draw attention to this unfolding scandal. The issue of privileged access was discussed throughout the Horizon case and highlighted in the Horizon issues judgment. The Ernst & Young management letter he refers to was issued before Post Office Ltd was separated from Royal Mail Group. At the time, there was no government representative on the board. The first government representative was appointed to the board of the Post Office in 2012. The Government were aware from the information they received, such as that by the forensic accountants, Second Sight, in 2013, that branch records could be accessed remotely; however, we were then advised that any transactions entered remotely would be visible to sub-postmasters in branch. As far as I am aware, the Government were only made aware that this was incorrect early in 2019, via witness statements that were used by Fujitsu in the court case.

Lord Browne of Ladyton (Lab)
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, on this issue, for all the reasons that have been mentioned. He deserves significant recognition for his effective leadership on this issue. While I support the call for an ​inquiry, already every parliamentarian, including every Minister, believes that those damaged by this scandal deserve to be exonerated and properly compensated, so how much additional evidence do the Government need before that can be achieved? For more than a decade, while covering up the truth, the Post Office spent in excess of £100 million maintaining the convictions and the impoverishment of hundreds of innocent sub-postmasters. Not one director or senior executive has been held to account. What do the Government, who own the Post Office, plan to do about this shocking failure of corporate governance?

Lord Callanan

The Horizon IT system was put in place in 1999, with the first issues being raised by sub-postmasters in the early 2000s. Mr Justice Fraser has considered what happened over this period and has set out his findings in considerable detail in the court case. Of course, the senior directors responsible at the time of the prosecutions against sub-postmasters are no longer at the Post Office. Any further proceedings against such individuals is a matter for the Crown Prosecution Service, and the courts and the justice system.

Lord Mann (Non-Afl)

Being experienced, knowledgeable and of impeccable character, and having no vested interest, were seen to be the appropriate qualities required for the person to chair this inquiry. Can the Minister think of anyone better suited than the former postman Alan Johnson?

Lord Callanan

I thank the noble Lord for his question. We are actively considering who should chair the inquiry at the moment, and as soon as I have further information, I will refer it to the noble Lord.

Read my write up of the commons debate here.

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"One of the worst disasters in public life since the contaminated blood scandal"

Chi Onwurah standing opposite the minister, Paul Scully
There has been a flurry of parliamentary activity this week, the most significant being an urgent question in the commons, during which the shadow minister with responsibility for the Post Office said this scandal:

"may well be the largest miscarriage of justice in our history"

another MP said it was:

"one of the worst disasters in public life since the contaminated blood scandal”

and another called it:

"as big a scandal as that of the Guildford Four."

Our legislators have finally spelled out the scale of what we are dealing with.

Parliament is squaring up for a fight with the government over the scope and powers of the "independent review" into the Post Office's actions announced this week by the Minister, Paul Scully. During Wednesday's debate, Mr Scully took such a beating from backbenchers Alistair Carmichael remarked:

"It is noble of the Minister to offer himself up as a human shield for the Post Office"

... before sticking the boot in himself. It is much easier and quicker to read the transcript, but I would also suggest watching it. The atmosphere in the commons changes markedly about 15 minutes in as MPs ramp up the pressure on an increasingly flustered minister.

The video is here - the link takes you straight to the beginning, and you can read the transcript in Hansard or below. Thursday's Lords debate is written up here, and if you are a supporter of the Postmaster's cause, you might want to ask your MP to sign this Early Day Motion, sponsored by Kevan Jones MP, which demands a judge-led public inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal.

12.43 pm Wed 10 June

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab)

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy what steps the Government are taking to support sub-postmasters wrongly convicted in the Post Office Horizon scandal.
Chi Onwurah
I wish you a very happy birthday, Mr Speaker, and many happy returns.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Paul Scully)

Happy Birthday, Mr Speaker. I have listened to a number of postmasters’ stories personally, and I saw the recent “Panorama” programme. It is impossible to ignore the negative impact that the Horizon dispute and court case have had on affected postmasters’ lives, livelihoods, financial situations, reputations and, for some, as we know, their physical and mental health.

Convicted claimants’ seeking to overturn their convictions are going through a further process with the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which has the power to refer cases to the Court of Appeal to consider whether any of the convictions are unsafe. As the hon. Lady will appreciate, it is important that the Government do not seek to influence this process or comment on any individual cases. I can confirm, though, that the Post Office is co-operating with the CCRC to the fullest extent and the Government are monitoring this. Forty-seven of the 61 CCRC cases have now been referred to the Court of Appeal, and it is for the courts to decide whether the convictions are unsafe.

Let me acknowledge the strength of feeling on this matter on both sides of the House, which was evident in the debates I participated in earlier this year and in the correspondence I have had from many Members. That is why the Government are committed to establishing an independent review to consider whether the Post Office has learned the necessary lessons from the Horizon dispute and court case, and to provide an independent and external assessment of its work to rebuild its relationship with its postmasters. Full details of the terms of reference for that independent review are set out in a written ministerial statement that I laid in the House this morning. We are keen to see that review launched as soon as possible, and we are in the process of identifying a chair to lead the work of the review.

Chi Onwurah

The Post Office Horizon scandal may well be the largest miscarriage of justice in our history. 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.

Paul Scully

I welcome the hon. Lady to her place, and I appreciate her comments. A public inquiry, according to Jason Beer QC, one of the leading experts on this, talks about what happened, why it happened and who is to blame, and what can be done to prevent it from happening again. This independent review, chaired by someone independent of both the Government and the Post Office, will indeed look to do that—to understand and acknowledge what went wrong in relation to the Horizon system by drawing on the evidence of those people who, as we have discussed, have been wronged in this situation, using both Mr Justice Fraser’s judgment and words and his own evidence that he will call upon.

The Government want to be fully assured—I want to be fully assured—that the right lessons are learned for the future and concrete changes have taken place at Post Office Ltd to ensure that this is not repeated. We want to be sure that, through this review, there is a public summary of the failings that occurred at Post Office Ltd, drawing on the judgments and, as I say, listening to those who have been most affected. That is the purpose of the independent review we are in the process of setting up.

Scott Mann (North Cornwall) (Con)

It is absolutely right that we acknowledge the injustices that were done at the time. I have spent a bit of time in post offices in my time, and I remember having conversations with sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses in which they acknowledged to me that they could not get their books to balance at the end of particular days. They were really worried about it at the time. It is worth remembering that the post office network is made up of sub-postmasters, and they need our support at this moment in time. What can the Department do to ensure that our sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses who are working around the country have the ability to continue while the Horizon scandal is taking place?

Paul Scully

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. The Government provided nearly £2 billion for the period 2010-18 and are investing a further £370 million from 2018-21 to invest in the transformation ​of the business. A negotiated agreement was secured with all 28 UK banks in 2019 and took effect in 2020. That has resulted in a significant increase in the overall fees received by the Post Office from the banks, and that will rise further if transaction volumes continue to grow. We have also encouraged the Post Office to strengthen its relationship with postmasters and postmaster training to foster a stronger commercial partnership. We recently put in place personalised support for postmasters. If we are going to get the future relationship with postmasters right, we have to tackle the injustices that have happened in the past, but we also have to rebuild, with the new management in the Post Office, trust and training and respect for the sub-postmasters of the future.

Mr Speaker

We now come to the Scottish National party spokesperson, Patricia Gibson, who has one minute.

Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP)

We can all agree with the Minister that the reputations, mental health and lives of the victims of this scandal have been ruined. Alan Bates, the former sub-postmaster who led the legal case against the Post Office, has been clear that the Post Office has not changed. It is six months since judges found major issues, including an excessive culture of secrecy and confidentiality generally in the Post Office, but specifically relating to Horizon, so can the Minister explain why we still are not getting a public inquiry into the scandal? The Prime Minister told the House on 26 February that such an inquiry would be established, but the proposals set out by the Minister today fall short of that. We welcome the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee inquiry into this issue, but we really need a full independent public inquiry.

Does the Minister understand the anger and disappointment at the length of time it is taking to get the truth about one of the largest miscarriages of justice in the UK’s history, amidst very serious allegations of perjury levelled against employees of Fujitsu, the company behind the system, and will he apologise to the hundreds of postmasters whose lives have been ruined—who have lost their homes, their livelihoods and their reputations as a result of inaction by this Government?
Paul Scully

Paul Scully

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for those questions. The review that we are putting in train covers the areas that a public inquiry would achieve. We want to find out exactly what is going on. We do not want to duplicate the effort, and we already have a number of words from Justice Fraser that point to exactly where the chairman of the independent review needs to look.

This situation has been going on for some 20-odd years. It is disgraceful that it has taken this time for Alan Bates and his fellow group-litigants to actually get to a settlement and that so many people have had to suffer as a result. What I am keen to do now—my tenure in this role has been brief—is push on and make sure that they can get the answers that they need.

Mary Robinson (Cheadle) (Con)

It is clear that the Post Office concealed evidence that would have cleared sub-postmasters who were convicted and have had their lives ruined. A major part of the evidence came from a Fujitsu whistleblower, who revealed that Post Office accounts could be changed remotely from Fujitsu offices. ​Sub-postmasters now have the opportunity to sue the Post Office for malicious prosecution, but while those who were subject to criminal proceedings are able to make claims, people who brought civil claims that have been settled cannot. This was clearly not the intention of the courts, so how can such a disparity in outcome be justified?

Paul Scully

In terms of the whistleblower, Justice Fraser recommended a number of individuals to the criminal prosecution service, and that will follow its train accordingly. In terms of the group litigation, the settlement was agreed with the Post Office and that included legal and all other costs. In those circumstances, the Government cannot accept any further requests for payments, but for postmasters who have been convicted and had their convictions overturned there is a process in place for them to receive compensation, if appropriate.

Darren Jones (Bristol North West) (Lab)

The Minister will know that the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, which I chair, is undertaking an inquiry on the Post Office Horizon scandal, and it is a matter of regret that we were unable to take oral evidence from Mr Read, the current chief executive officer of the Post Office, Ms Vennells, the former CEO, and Fujitsu as planned on 24 March, because of the lockdown. 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?

Paul Scully

I am sorry that, for the same reason, I was unable to attend that session, but I hope in future to engage fully with the Select Committee. 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. I saw the same “Panorama” programme as the hon. Gentleman did, in which there was a big discussion and a long piece about non-disclosure. That cannot happen again. We have to draw a line and make sure that we get answers. The chairman of the independent review will push for that and so will I, to ensure that the Post Office complies appropriately.

John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)

Most MPs want the Post Office to apologise to all those it has wronged and pay generous compensation to them in the circumstances. Will the Minister add the Government’s voice to that and make it a demand of the Post Office?

Paul Scully

The Post Office has acknowledged mistakes in the settlement and the case that we have had. I am glad that both parties to the group litigation were able to reach a settlement. Other sub-postmasters who suffered a shortfall will be able to take advantage of the historical shortfall scheme that the Post Office has launched. They will be able to come forward and have their case investigated, and hopefully those wrongs will be righted.

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab)

I, the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) and Lord Arbuthnot have been campaigning on this ​for over seven years. People have been imprisoned; they have been ruined, both financially and mentally. As I have said on the record previously, they have been treated in a way a totalitarian state would treat people. The fact is that only a judge-led inquiry will get to the bottom of what is needed. Over the past seven years, I have cross-examined many of the Minister’s predecessors; today, I urge him to insist on that, because without it we will not get to the truth.

The Post Office is not the only one to blame; the Government are to blame as well, because Government Ministers have shareholder representation on the Post Office board and they have sat back and done absolutely nothing. Last year, they allowed the Post Office to spend nearly £100 million of public money on trying to bankrupt the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance. That disgrace also needs to be exposed.

Paul Scully

I acknowledge the right hon. Gentleman’s long campaign on behalf of the Horizon postmasters, which is to be welcomed. I have been shocked and surprised by the revelations I saw when I took over and continue to see. The terms of reference of the review are the same as those for a public inquiry. It is to work out: who is to blame, can it happen again, how can we prevent it from happening again, what wrongs were done, and how can we right them? The chairman will be independent of both the Post Office and Government.

On the Government’s role as a shareholder, clearly the Post Office has operational independence, but numerous attempts have been made over the years to resolve the dispute, including an independent investigation in 2013 and a mediation scheme in 2015, which was supported by Post Office Ltd and Ministers. All those attempts failed to resolve the issues, leaving the court as the only way to provide the independent review that all sides needed.

Shaun Bailey (West Bromwich West) (Con)

I am sure we all agree that sub-postmasters are at the heart of our communities, none more than the communities I represent in Wednesbury, Oldbury and Tipton. It is right that the Post Office is able to compete in challenging times, but may I ask my hon. Friend to reassure sub-postmasters in my constituency that the Government will continue to review the Post Office’s relationship with sub-postmasters and make sure that they are given the protection and respect they are entitled to and deserve?

Paul Scully

One of the first things I said to the chief executive was to acknowledge the fact that we need to build the relationship with postmasters and give them the support they need in the future, and we need to make sure that we right the wrongs of the past. The chief executive has assured me, and his background supports this, that he is used to working with sub-postmasters as stakeholders, and I think that is what they need to be.

Stephanie Peacock (Barnsley East) (Lab)

Postmasters across the country have been fired, gone bankrupt and, in some cases, gone to prison. Given the scale of this injustice, with over 550 postmasters’ families left in financial ruin, does the Minister agree that the current compensation, which fails to cover their legal costs, is neither fair nor just?

Paul Scully

I agree that so many people have suffered. Indeed, some people have taken their lives, as well as losing their livelihoods; that is not to be forgotten. I was pleased that a settlement was reached by both sides of this agreement and, as I say, sub-postmasters caught within shortfalls in the past who were not part of that agreement are able to claim under the historical shortfall scheme.

Jerome Mayhew (Broadland) (Con)

One of the great frustrations to date has been the refusal of the former senior management of the Post Office to answer detailed questions on this issue and to be held to account. That is the least that is owed to those who have been wrongly convicted, including my constituent Siobhan Sayer. Will my hon. Friend confirm that individual culpability of senior management figures within the Post Office will be part of this review?

Paul Scully

I totally empathise with the suffering of my hon. Friend’s constituent, Siobhan Sayer. The chairman, who is independent of the Post Office, and the Government need to look at exactly what went wrong, which will by necessity mean looking at who took what decisions when. It will be complicated, because this happened over a period of 20 years, but none the less, they must get to the bottom of it.

Marion Fellows (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.

Post Office Ltd has been allowed to destabilise the post office network by its underhand and legally dubious actions. This Government must take up their responsibilities as a special shareholder in Post Office Ltd and commission a judge-led inquiry—I make no apology for repeating that. Nothing less will do. Will this Government help to compensate those postmasters who have been so wrongly convicted and help shore up the finances of Post Office Ltd?

Paul Scully

In terms of the finances, the Government continue to work with the Post Office on its needs and to ensure that, although it is an independent company, it can work within its service obligations. In terms of the review, we recognise the hugely negative impact that the Horizon dispute had on postmasters. The financial settlement was a major step towards resolving some of those grievances, but there is more to be done. That is why we have launched the independent review, to ensure that the lessons are learned and that they can never be repeated.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)

This is one of the worst disasters in public life since the contaminated blood scandal. Does the Minister agree that, if it is proven that Post Office executives were aware of the software faults but allowed innocent people to rot in jail, they were guilty of criminal negligence and possibly criminal conspiracy and therefore ought to be brought to justice? Will the proposed inquiry allow that to be done?

Paul Scully

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question. The Horizon IT system was put in place in 1999, with the first issues being raised in the early 2000s, so this was over a long period. Mr Justice Fraser considered what happened over that period and set out his findings ​in considerable detail and, as I said, he has referred some individuals to the Crown Prosecution Service. Post Office is now working to implement all the vital changes to which it has committed under the leadership of its new CEO, to reset the relationship with its postmasters.

Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab)

Many hundreds of postmasters were forced to pay back many thousands of pounds to the Post Office—moneys that were never in fact owed or, indeed, missing. That in itself should trigger a criminal investigation. How much of that money went to pay the previous chief executive’s £5 million salary, and why can the Minister not accept that only a judge will get to the bottom of this miscarriage of justice?

Paul Scully

I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s part not only in campaigning on the plight of the sub-postmasters since coming to this place, but in his previous work representing some of them in the court case. As I said, the important thing about the review is: does it find out what went wrong and who made what decisions when, does it listen to the evidence of those who were wronged and get those voices out there, complementing what Justice Fraser said, and does it make sure it can never happen again? Those are the terms of the inquiry and review. The independent chair will get to the bottom of that while being independent of Government and the Post Office.

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con)

I cannot understand why the Government want to prolong the agony on this with the halfway house of an independent review. I add my calls for a judge-led review that progresses speedily. Does the Minister share my amazement at the behaviour of the Post Office, which had employed these postmasters and postmistresses for years and realised they were decent, hard-working people? They did not suddenly all become criminals. Did no one ask the questions? Can we please get on with this and get the full judge-led inquiry now?

Paul Scully

It is for that very reason that we have announced an independent review. Of all the judge-led inquiries in the last 30 years, the shortest lasted 45 days —that was one Minister dealing with two people, whereas this is an incredibly complicated case—and the longest lasted 13 years. In the last 30 years, inquiries have cost £600 million. We need something reasonable in its timing and extensive in its remit so that we can get to the bottom of this as quickly as possible.

Mohammad Yasin (Bedford) (Lab)

The covid crisis has revealed what should have been obvious: that key workers, including postmasters, are essential workers and should have been treated with respect, not suspicion. Why did the Minister’s Department fail to protect workers from a corporate governance failure of this magnitude, and how will it prevent such a failure from happening again?

Paul Scully

The Government have challenged it over the years, especially in recent years—the Horizon situation has come about over 20 years, but as I have said, recently there have been independent reviews in 2013 and investigations in 2015. It is because we have been unable to get a result that we have had to resort to the ​courts. We need to get to the bottom of this so that we can right the wrongs done to the postmasters of the past and ensure the respect of future postmasters, who must feel secure in their positive relationship with the Post Office.

Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) (Con)

I fear the cover-up could continue. The Post Office has decided to bring in Herbert Smith Freehills to oversee historic cases. This is the practice that contributed to the cover-up of a fraud at Lloyds HBOS over seven years and oversaw the establishment and operation of the Lloyds bank customer review, which was described by the Financial Conduct Authority’s review of that scheme as discriminatory, flawed and an unacceptable denial of responsibility, and that review is now having to be done again. Does the Minister think the Post Office should reconsider that decision?

Paul Scully

My hon. Friend and I spoke about this earlier. As he says, the Post Office decides its own legal advisers. As far as I understand it, the Post Office changed its advisers to Herbert Smith Freehills in the latter stages of the litigation, which resulted in the settlement, good progress in resolving outstanding claimant issues and a successful launch of the historical shortfall scheme.

Alyn Smith (Stirling) (SNP) 

Happy birthday from me also, Mr Speaker.

We have seen some movement today from the Government, and I do welcome that as far as it goes, but like the Equitable Life scandal, this is an ongoing deep injustice, as is the plight of people currently suffering under the loan charge. There is a consensus across the House that this just does not go far enough. Could I urge the Minister to build on the progress he has announced today and accept the will of the House that we need a judge-led inquiry to properly ventilate all the issues?

Paul Scully

As I have said, the terms of reference of this review are deep enough to get to the bottom of exactly what has happened. The fact that the chairman, who will be appointed, is independent of Government, independent of Post Office Ltd, and will have the freedom to be able to go and find evidence to complement the evidence that has already been published by Mr Justice Fraser in his judgment means that there will be plenty to draw on in order to come to conclusions and recommendations.

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

Does the Minister not accept that this is as big a scandal as that of the Guildford Four? Although the settlement was reached by mediation, which I approve of, much of that settlement was taken away in cash for lawyers. Can we not do something to ensure that the settlement justifies the indignities that many of these people have had to suffer?

Paul Scully

With regard to the scale of the issue, I agree with my hon. Friend that this has gone on for so long and has involved so many people who have suffered as a result, some with their lives, as we have heard. The point is that the mediated settlement was between the ​Post Office and the sub-postmasters who took out that group litigation. I am pleased that it came to a conclusion, but, as a result of that, the Government cannot enter into a new discussion with the Post Office on that basis.
Alistair Carmichael
Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)

It is noble of the Minister to offer himself up as a human shield for the Post Office in this way, but I hope that, when he returns to the Department today, he will tell his officials, who, I fear, have perhaps not briefed him as well as they might have done, and Post Office senior management that this review will just not cut it. He says that this is a complex case spanning a long period of time, and he is absolutely right about that. That is why it requires a judge-led inquiry. That is what will happen eventually, so why not just cut to the quick and do it now?

Paul Scully

I keep hearing that. I keep hearing the words “judge-led inquiry” and then I keep hearing that we need to move this on as quickly as possible. The point is that the terms of reference within this review are the same as a judge-led inquiry.

Patricia Gibson

Why not just have one?

Paul Scully

Because I do not want an inquiry that will last 13 years, with sub-postmasters coming back time and again with no justice. I have been pushing on this from the moment that I found out the details about it as postal affairs Minister. That is why I will drive this through to make sure that the answers are heard and that the independent chairman, who is independent of Government and independent of the Post Office, gets to the bottom of the case and gets some answers.

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con)

In 2015, Post Office Ltd closed its own review of Horizon IT by saying that there were “no system-wide problems with our computer systems”. Nothing could have been further from the truth. We have all been let down, and many sub-postmasters have been badly treated. I urge the Minister to start the independent review as soon as possible to discover precisely who knew what and when in Fujitsu, Post Office Ltd, and the National Federation of SubPostmasters. Does he agree that nothing should be ruled out, including criminal prosecution, if justified?

Paul Scully

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, as the criminal proceedings continue, those wrongly convicted continue as well, and that will sit along with Justice Fraser’s findings. I do want to move this on as quickly as possible—not to rush anything, but to make sure that those postmasters can get answers and bring the injustice to an end.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)

I add my support for a proper judge-led inquiry, too. Della Robinson was sub-postmaster at Dukinfield post office. She lost her business, the building the post office was in, her rental property, her job, and almost her home. It is just wrong. Can the Minister confirm that the Government are re-evaluating any public positions held by current or former senior employees at the Post Office who were intimately involved in decisions that victimised sub-postmasters?

Paul Scully

I am aware that a former chief executive of the Post Office took up a role as a non-executive director at the Cabinet Office until she stood down. I am also aware that the Care Quality Commission has written to Imperial following a fit-and-proper-persons referral. The CQC is considering this. Lord Callanan wrote to the Department of Health and Social Care on 18 May to draw the Department’s attention to the strength of feeling about the position in the NHS of the former chief executive of the Post Office.

Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con)

Post offices are at the heart of our communities, yet the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses have been so badly let down. I share the clear anger felt across the House on this issue, but to keep the network open and viable it must be attractive to take on a Post Office franchise. To do that there is the critical question of rebuilding trust. As the Minister holds the Post Office to account, will he hold it to account on how it is rebuilding trust with all sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses right across the network?

Paul Scully

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. That is why some of my first conversations with Nick Read, the current chief executive of the Post Office, have been to ensure that he can do exactly that. We need to draw a line and right the wrongs of the past to give respect and trust, as well as support, for future postmasters to make sure they are valued stakeholders.

Kim Johnson (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab)

Many innocent sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses have been bankrupted, imprisoned and wrongly accused of theft due to the Post Office’s heavy-handed approach, when accountancy issues with Horizon reported financial irregularities. Sadly, one of my constituents tragically took his own life after being falsely accused of financial impropriety, leaving his family destitute and without their business. It is too late for an apology or compensation for that family. What new procedures have the Post Office introduced to protect sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses as a consequence of this scandal? What protections has the Post Office put in place to ensure accountancy software is fit for purpose? What action will be taken against those in positions of leadership in the Post Office during the scandal? And does the Minister agree that actions speak much louder than words?

Paul Scully

I sympathise with the hon. Lady’s constituent who sadly took his life. That is one of many tragic stories. The fact is that we have now got the Post Office to accept its wrong position and the fact that the Horizon software could make mistakes—things were being changed there. That is why it is important to get that acknowledgment. It is also important that we continue to build trust with sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses in their relationship with the Post Office. That is why every time I speak to the chief executive, I make sure that that is at the top of our agenda.

Mr Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con)

If the Government accept that software can never be thought infallible, will the Minister take steps to ensure that the law and policy making reflects the truth that all software has bugs?

Paul Scully

We will, of course, review that and keep it in our mind.

Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) (Lab)

Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.

The Post Office Horizon scandal begs the question: why did the Post Office not believe its own sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, many of whom had given decades of loyal service, even after evidence was presented to them that the Horizon system was most likely faulty? Can the Secretary of State give a cast-iron guarantee, as other hon. and right hon. Members have requested, to all sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses and their families whose lives have been ruined, that there will be a judge-led inquiry, not merely a review, so we can ascertain how this happened, who is responsible and what steps can be taken to ensure that this never happens again?

Paul Scully

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that promotion to Secretary of State. He raises some really important points. The point is that, whether we call it a review or an inquiry, the terms of reference are exactly as he describes. We want to make sure we can get to the bottom of this to find out who made what decisions and how they were made, and ensure they can never happen again. That is exactly why I have pushed to make this happen as soon as possible.

Simon Fell (Barrow and Furness) (Con)

Isabella Wall was a sub-postmistress in Barrow. She ran a thriving shop and let flats above the property. As a result of the scandal, she lost everything. She was the very first person to come and see me at a surgery as a newly elected MP and I carry with me the anger she brought to that meeting. Does my hon. Friend accept that while the Post Office has accepted it got things wrong, there is a long, long way to go for people like Ms Wall before they are properly compensated for the financial and emotional losses they faced? Will he confirm that the Government will give weight to fair compensation being paid to wronged sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses?

Paul Scully

Isabella Wall is one of far too many constituents of ours who have suffered in this. The hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) was right when he said that the Post Office should have had more faith and trust in its sub-postmasters. Of course we will make sure we can get to the bottom of this to get some justice for Isabella Wall. On the group litigation, I am glad that they have reached a settlement. As for sub-postmasters who have not yet been part of a case but may have suffered a shortfall, I encourage them to come forward to take advantage of the historical shortfall scheme the Post Office has launched.

Neil Gray (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP)

Many happy returns, Mr Speaker.

There is no doubt that many grave injustices have been served upon sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, some of whom have gone to jail and lost everything. I know that my constituents will want two things. The first is to see justice done and the full facts brought out in a public inquiry, which is why a judge-led public inquiry is so important. They will also want to see their local post office network protected, ensuring it is shielded ​from the potential ramifications arising from the actions of management. So what plan does the Minister have to ensure both?

Paul Scully

On the inquiry, I have set out the fact that the terms of reference are wide and deep enough. The judge has already reviewed this situation; Justice Fraser has already come up with many, many pages of a response about what happened when and what went wrong. We need to make sure we can build on that evidence, we listen carefully to those who have been wronged and we make sure it can never happen again.

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con)

Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.

We are all aware that victims of this scandal have lost their livelihoods, savings and reputations, and that some have lost their liberty, as a result of a faulty computer system. I know that my hon. Friend understands the financial and emotional suffering that the Horizon litigation has brought on the victims, but does he agree that the only right and just situation will be to restore those victims to exactly the financial position they would have been in had this faulty system not occurred? I am talking about full compensation and an apology, and, equally, about the real criminals being brought to justice.

Paul Scully

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The point he raises shows why it took a court to get to the bottom of this, to break the deadlock that had been happening over so many years, which should have been settled so much earlier. That is why in December 2019 both parties in the group litigation agreed a settlement, following several days of mediation—it was a financial settlement totalling £57.75 million. Convicted claimants can still go through a further process; processes are in place for them to receive compensation, if appropriate.

Dave Doogan (Angus) (SNP)

The Post Office was not slow in dragging hard-working, honest sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses before the courts based on spurious data from a flawed IT system, one that it knew to be flawed, thereby depriving good people at the centre of their communities of their reputations, businesses and personal assets, in some instances their liberty and, tragically, for some their lives. Does the Minister accept that a judge-led public inquiry, not a review, is required now, without delay, and that anything less is a further assault on the welfare of Horizon victims?

Paul Scully

The findings outlined during the Horizon case provided extensive insight into what went wrong with the Post Office—this includes the independent judicial review of the facts that all sides have been looking for. However, the serious impacts of this case mean more needs to be done. We want to be assured that the right lessons are learned, and that is the purpose of the independent review that we are in the process of setting up.

Joy Morrissey (Beaconsfield) (Con)

Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the postmasters in Beaconsfield and Bucks and across the country who have tirelessly carried on throughout covid-19? Will he also join me in paying tribute to Mr Patel, who passed away from covid-19 and served the people of Hedgerley loyally? ​He was lovingly known as CD to many of the customers. Will the Minister please not only demand an apology but demand justice for the countless men and women who served and have suffered at the hands of the Post Office, and who see no justice? I hope that he will have the courage to deliver that for them.

Paul Scully

Justice is exactly what I want and what I want to be seen to be done. I would go further to extend my sympathy to the family of Mr Patel as well, because we must not forget, in all of this, at this particular moment in time, postmasters up and down the country are doing an incredible job for the most vulnerable people in society.

Kate Osborne (Jarrow) (Lab)

Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.
Kate Osborne
At Prime Minister’s questions on 24 February, the Prime Minister agreed with my request to commit to hold an independent inquiry into this horrific scandal. I followed that question up with a letter to the Prime Minister. Three months later, only this week, I received a response from the Minister. I welcome the Government’s commitment to a review of mishandlings, but this cannot just be a review of past mistakes. With a background of many years in the postal industry, I know many whose lives have been destroyed by this scandal, including sub- postmasters and sub-postmistresses in my constituency of Jarrow. So I ask the Minister again, and make absolutely no apology for doing so: will he commit to having a judge-led review as quickly as possible that will take action against those responsible for the scandal, and ensure that each individual case is assessed and proper compensation is paid to all those affected?

Paul Scully

I thank the hon. Lady for the work that she has done on this matter. Given her background, I can understand her motivation. As I have said, it is important to know that the terms of reference of this independent review are wide enough and deep enough to get to the bottom of what happened. An independent judge has already looked at this and built up a body of evidence and other views, which will be then be looked at as a complement to the review. Do not forget that public inquiries cannot determine criminal or civil guilt in themselves; that is reserved for a court.

Mr Gagan Mohindra (South West Hertfordshire) (Con)

Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.

Many colleagues in the House have alluded to the importance of sub-postmasters during this global pandemic. What reassurance can my hon. Friend give that Post Office Ltd has understood that there needs to be fundamental cultural and organisational change to ensure that sub-postmasters come forward and that therefore the critical network of post offices remains in our communities for years to come?

Paul Scully

I think that that lesson has definitely been learned by the new chief executive. Certainly, the Government have worked, as shareholders, on a new framework for the Post Office to make sure that we can build a solid, confident relationship with future sub-postmasters. Nick Read’s background working with independent convenience stores suggests that he is used to working with people as stakeholders rather than as simple employees or instruments of a large company.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab)

Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.

The Minister has said several times that the victims of this situation need to be heard and their cases listened to, so can he name any one of them who is in agreement with his position and is not calling for an independent judge-led inquiry?

Paul Scully

The sub-postmasters who have been wronged by this want some justice and they want it quickly. What I do not want to happen is a public inquiry that may take many, many years and cost them a lot of money to get more legal representation in. When people have the chance to study the terms of reference, they will realise that the chair will be independent of Government and independent of the Post Office, and that he or she will listen to them to make sure that their stories are told—not just listen to them but make sure that those stories are actually there to feed into making sure that this can never happen again. Then, I hope, they will see that justice can be done.

Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con)

I thank my hon. Friend for his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), but one of the stumbling blocks to a judge-led inquiry is cost. Does he agree that it is absolutely imperative that the honest, decent sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses across the whole country, and indeed specifically in Romsey and Southampton North, should not have a price put on lifting the stain on their characters?

Paul Scully

Sub-postmasters who have been wronged, including in Romsey, need to ensure that their voices can be heard quickly, with no cost. They need to be sure that this can never happen again, and get the acknowledgement that there have been severe mistakes that have caused misery for so many.

Martyn Day (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (SNP) 

This scandal represents a massive failure of accountability and oversight, not just by Post Office Ltd, but by the Government. Will the Minister apologise to those whose lives have been ruined? What assurances can he provide that the losses arising from the Horizon case will not affect postmasters’ pay and unfairly penalise even more postmasters and sub-postmasters?

Paul Scully

There have been numerous attempts over the years to try to resolve the dispute. The fact is that the Post Office has independent operational control. However, facts have come to light through the litigation, revealing that the advice that the Government and the shareholders received over that period was flawed. That is why the Government will be monitoring closely the progress of the Post Office in delivering the programme of commitments following the settlement, including through the review. We have also reviewed the mechanisms that we have in place to maintain oversight of the Post Office, by increasing the frequency of shareholder meetings, establishing a Post Office policy team within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and publishing a framework document to govern the relationship between BEIS, UK Government Investments and the Post Office.

Amy Callaghan (East Dunbartonshire) (SNP)

A very happy birthday to you, Mr Speaker.​

This Government have had six months to enact an inquiry—six months to seek justice for the damage, disruption and loss of livelihood caused by this scandal, not just to see whether the Post Office has learnt lessons. The Minister has said that he pushed for the independent review, but what about listening to the sub-postmasters who have been left destitute by this scandal and providing them with the judge-led inquiry they so desperately want? Will the Minister stop stalling with reviews and commit today to a judge-led inquiry?

Paul Scully

We can talk about semantics, but what we actually need are the terms of reference that get people what they want. Whether we call it a review or an inquiry, the fact is that it will understand and acknowledge what went wrong in relation to Horizon by drawing on the evidence. It will assess whether the Post Office has learnt its lessons, whether the commitments made by the Post Office in the mediation settlement have been properly delivered, and whether the processes and information provided by post offices to postmasters are sufficient. It will also examine the governance and whistleblowing controls now in place at Post Office Ltd. That is what we need to ensure that we get answers in as timely a fashion as possible. I am sorry that it has taken six months. These things are complicated; I would love to have announced the review that following day. However, I am glad that we now have terms of reference that are deep and wide enough to get the answers that we need and for which sub-postmasters have desperately been waiting.

Mr Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con)

My hon. Friend the Minister is quite right to emphasise the need for speed, but people have taken their own lives, and have been wrongly convicted and imprisoned. It does not get much more serious than that. This House is here to defend the liberties of our constituents. Will he bear in mind that the Prime Minister confirmed on 26 February that there would indeed be an inquiry, and, following this urgent question, will he discuss with his colleagues in the Government whether the will of the House may be different on this point from the will of the Government?

Paul Scully

We have looked at the different options. I do not want something that is long, drawn out and costly for sub-postmasters, and which does not necessarily get any answers for years and years to come, if ever. Someone used to say to me, “Less haste, more speed.” Yes, we need to ensure that we can do this in a timely fashion, but that does not mean that we need to rush through the detail as the review is going ahead. We need to listen to the views of the sub-postmasters who have been wronged and put that alongside the findings of Justice Fraser to ensure that such things will never happen again.

Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)

Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.

The Government speak as if there is nothing that they could have done as a special shareholder. Well, of course they could have done something. This situation has left communities in York, such as Clifton, bereft of a post office. The fact is that the Government sat on their hands and did not use their powers, and sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses were thrown into ​jail and made bankrupt, and some took their lives. Do the Government not want a full, judge-led inquiry with the powers necessary to investigate and dig deep because a review does not hold those powers and will not expose their failings in this matter?

Paul Scully

The Post Office has said that it will comply fully with this review. I will push fully for that compliance, and I am sure that the independent chair will want to get right to the bottom of things, however long that takes. We need to get on with the review and get it started now.

On the Government’s actions over the past few years, this issue happened over 20 years, and with hindsight facts have come to light in the litigation that some of the advice received was flawed. However, we have pushed for many years to make sure that we can get a settlement, and I am glad that we are at the point at which we can start to get some answers.

Miss Sarah Dines (Derbyshire Dales) (Con)

As a barrister of more than 30 years’ experience, I have witnessed at first hand the sheer devastation that a wrong conviction, or even a false accusation, can bring to a family. This is the United Kingdom. This is an injustice. Will the Minister reassure me that following the review there will be real sanctions, because this injustice has effectively destroyed a much-loved public institution?

Paul Scully

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. She is right about its being a much-loved institution. What we must not lose is the amazing work of post offices and sub-postmasters up and down the country. We must make sure that their reputations are not tarnished by what happened over a 20-year period. We need answers as quickly as possible, so that I, the Government and all of us can see the recommendations that the chairman will bring forward from that review.

Dr Rupa Huq (Ealing Central and Acton) (Lab)

Many happy returns, Mr Speaker.
Dr Rupa Huq
For the Patels, moving from being managers of Acton Crown post office for more than three decades to their own sub-postmaster role in the country was meant to be a dream come true, but it turned into a nightmare when they lost not only substantial sums of money but their mental and physical health and their reputations. Mr Patel ended up with a criminal electronic tag—the humiliation of it. They want to know why in Acton, for more than 20 years, they were seen as upstanding pillars of the community—they handled multi-million pound sums and had a safe key—but suddenly in Oxfordshire they were falsely branded as criminals. Why did it take the Criminal Cases Review Commission to say that there had been a miscarriage of justice? Where was the oversight? Finally, can the Minister make good on the promise that Paula Vennells gave me in 2018 that Acton Crown post office will reopen? It closed on her watch, and she has since done a runner.

Paul Scully

We have had the most stable network of post offices for a number of years now, on which—obviously, covid-19 notwithstanding—we need to make sure we can build. I also want answers to why the three Patels—her constituents, who were fine, upstanding members ​of the community—were seen in that way because of the actions of the Post Office. That is why we need to get this review done and why we need to get the independent chairman’s recommendations out, so that we can see justice done.

Gerald Jones (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab)

Many happy returns of the day, Mr Speaker.

The scale of this scandal demands no less than a judge-led inquiry that has appropriate power. Why can the Minister not accept that that is the only way to examine fully and get answers on how this sorry saga went on for so long and caused so much misery and heartache to my constituents and thousands more across the country?

Paul Scully

We have 1,000 pages of Justice Fraser’s findings to build on. Reviews are going through to over- turn and look at a number of convictions. We have this review to build on all of that. I hope and believe that all that body of work will find the answers that sub-postmasters are after about when decisions were taken, who took those decisions, how they went wrong and how they were allowed to go wrong. The fact is that we must get some answers so that it can never happen again.

Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford) (Con)

I think the Minister is doing an excellent job, and I have been in his position, where I have announced a review but was not allowed to call it a review. I appreciate that he might think the difference between a review and an inquiry is just semantics, but for many people those semantics really matter. I share colleagues’ views about the need for an independent inquiry. I would also like to know what the Minister will do about financial compensation. He has said that there are limits on what the Government can do, but it is really important that he looks at this again and sees what steps can be taken to ensure that those affected are fully and fairly compensated.

Paul Scully

In terms of compensation, the mediation that took place allowed a settlement to be reached by the members of that group litigation. Other sub-postmasters who have been found to be wrongly convicted will be able to go through other procedures to get compensation, and any postmasters who were not part of that litigation but suffered a shortfall as a result of the Post Office will be able to apply to the historical scheme. I believe that this review will be able to get to the answers and build on the body of evidence that Justice Fraser has built up through the findings of his court case. There will be a lot of answers and recommendations there to secure the future trust and relationship between postmasters and the Post Office.

Douglas Chapman (Dunfermline and West Fife) (SNP)

Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.

Following this case being taken to the High Court, I have read that some Fujitsu employees are being investigated for perjury, which is a big deal. What discussions has the Minister had with the Attorney General and the Ministry of Justice on this issue, and when will he announce a judge-led inquiry into this whole sorry debacle?

Paul Scully

My understanding is that Justice Fraser has referred a number of people to the Crown Prosecution Service.

Derek Thomas (St Ives) (Con)

I hope that all the time taken to wish you a happy birthday has not delayed any celebration you might have planned for later, Mr Speaker.

I want to raise a case that is one of many. Susan Knight was a postmistress of 32 years who was dragged before magistrates courts three times and Truro Crown court twice and made to pay over £20,000. This lady’s life was made a misery, with her reputation trashed and 32 years of service for the Post Office counting for nothing. It is too late for her to rebuild her business. She is basically left with nothing. Can the Minister assure me, my constituents and Susan Knight that she will be adequately compensated in good time without a huge effort to achieve that result?

Paul Scully

My hon. Friend refers to Susan Knight. He has also told me about another constituent of his who was the landlady of a local pub and lost that pub. It was another terrible story, alongside those we have heard from Members on both sides of the House about their constituents. In terms of compensation, members of the group litigation have reached a settlement, and I am pleased that a settlement was reached after many years and that the deadlock was broken. As I said, anybody else who has not claimed can join the historical shortfall scheme, and if people have been wrongly convicted, there will be procedures in place for them to claim compensation.

Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP)

Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.

While the Post Office was wilfully hiding its own failings, it operated a system where sub-postmasters were automatically guilty. The Post Office then ran its own prosecutions, so in effect, it was judge, jury and executioner. This proves that we need a judge-led public inquiry, with all the powers associated with that, to get full disclosure and a call for evidence. In the meantime, can the Minister tell me what steps the Government have taken to ensure that this abuse of power can never be replicated and that sub-postmasters now have fair and transparent contracts?

Paul Scully

Justice Fraser is that independent judge who has looked into exactly what the hon. Gentleman described, which is why we want to build on those findings in what happens next. The Post Office has realised and finally acknowledged that it has done wrong. The fact is that the Government, within our new relationship and new framework as the sole shareholder in the Post Office, need to ensure that we can analyse the work that is done to earn trust and rebuild the relationship with future sub-postmasters.

Chris Loder (West Dorset) (Con)

The biggest disgrace about all this is that innocent people have been incarcerated and imprisoned. Can the Minister confirm whether there are any sub-postmasters or sub-postmistresses currently in prison? If that is the case, will he commit to expediting immediately a full investigation into those specific cases for their release, if that is appropriate?

Paul Scully

What we are not going to do with the review is get in the way of the Criminal Cases Review Commission. It is really important that it does actually go through that process as quickly as possible for any number of reasons, not least to lift the conviction of ​people wrongly convicted. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to decry the fact that people have been put in prison wrongly. Their reputation has suffered, their lives have suffered and, indeed, in certain cases their lives have ended. That is why I want to make sure that we can get on, set up this review and find those answers to move forward.

Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)

If the review that the Minister proposes is just as deep and wide-ranging in going into the complexities as a judge-led inquiry, the question is why it should be less time consuming and more cost-effective than a judge-led inquiry. I understand that the Government always say no before they say yes, so for the last time today, will he commit to a judge-led inquiry?

Paul Scully

I can give the hon. Member one easy answer as to why it takes so long, and that is lawyers. If we have a public inquiry, we tend to get a lot of expense, with both sides lawyering up, to use the vernacular. That is why £600 million has been spent in the last 30 years on public inquiries. We can either spend a lot of time in working on such a case, or we can get through a review, build on the work of the independent judge who has already looked at this case and has already built up the foundations, and make sure that we add to that by listening to the voices of those people who have gone through absolute hell.

Karl MᶜCartney (Lincoln) (Con)

Hearty birthday felicitations, Mr Speaker.

Throughout the financial and emotional suffering the Horizon process has caused postmasters and their families across the country, I have been kept informed of developments by the Bailgate post office sub-postmaster, Simon Clarke, in my constituency of Lincoln. Can my hon. Friend tell me and the House how many senior managers responsible for the position that the Post Office has taken have resigned or been sanctioned or had any bonus payments revoked?

Paul Scully

I thank my hon. Friend. One of the problems with this case is that it has happened over 20 years, which means that a lot of people have moved on or moved around, and it has been difficult to follow those who have gone through the system in all this time. [Interruption.] I hear the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) say from a sedentary position that we gave the former chief executive a CBE. We have followed that up: she went through the independent honours commission, which works on that in a separate process, but we have actually made sure that we have written to the Care Quality Commission to ask if she is a fit and proper person in terms of the position she now holds.

Lucy Allan (Telford) (Con)

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for including me on the call list.

I sympathise with my hon. Friend, and I know that he will have heard what has been said today and will be listening very carefully. A succession of his predecessors have come to that Dispatch Box over years to read out statements from officials who we know have closely connected relationships with Post Office management and who knew that an injustice had occurred. What will he do to tackle the network of intertwined vested interests ​on his doorstep—and I include the Cabinet Office and ex-Fujitsu employees—that led to this shameful and tragic scandal and cover-up?

Paul Scully

It may be that many Government Ministers have come here, but it is this Government Minister who has actually pushed to make sure that we can have a review and that we can have it independently chaired—separate from the Post Office, separate from Government —to come up with those answers. That is what postmasters want. We have made sure in Government that we have come up with a new framework for an increased frequency of shareholder meetings to ensure that we can hold the Post Office to account for its actions, but also ensure that the taxpayer gets the most out of the Post Office, communities get the most out of the Post Office and, importantly, postmasters can feel confident they can build up a trustful relationship as valued stakeholders within the post office network.

Mr Speaker

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am now suspending the House for three minutes.

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