Monday 13 July 2020

JFSA reach £98,000 crowdfunding target for parliamentary complaint

The Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance has reached the £98,000 crowdfunding target it wants to raise a complaint about the government to the Parliamentary Ombudsman.

In a message to supporters Alan Bates, founder of the JFSA said:
"On behalf of the group, many of whom have contributed to this fundraising, thank you for supporting us. It means we can now go on to expose those who were so determined to bury what happened in a whitewashed 'review'. 
The Common Issues and Horizon Issues trials in the High Court last year exposed revelation after revelation of the incompetence and mismanagement by Post Office which devastated hundreds of lives, and even now, there is evidence that this may well run into the thousands.  
They tried to cover it up year after year and they could never have done this without the support and collusion of government. 
Your support has enabled us to go on to expose the maladministration by the government departments charged with the oversight and management of Post Office. 
Once again, thank you... and don't forget to hold on to your payment receipts to recover your pledges when we've recovered the costs we are seeking - details will be on the website at that time."
Bates launched the action back in June. Although a complaint to the parliamentary ombudsman is free Bates told JFSA members:
"the reason we will be incurring costs is for preparing the submission to the Ombudsman to ensure our documents focus on our strongest points in our claim of maladministration by BEIS, and in order to do that, we need to use a QC experienced in such matters.  But the costs involved are nowhere near the cost or time involved of bringing another civil litigation action against Post Office’s shareholder. 
I am sure you will agree that during the civil action the Post Office threw everything it could at us, including four legal teams, the Court of Appeal and trying to sack the judge.  Be absolutely certain that the Government will try every trick in the book to have our submission dismissed.  We will only have one chance of following this route and we need experienced legal representation."
As someone who has been delighted to raise nearly £20,000 in crowdfunding over the course of two years of covering this story, I thought the £98,000 target was ambitious.

Given what he has achieved against incredible odds over the years, I should not have underestimated Alan Bates. It's a huge sum of money, and he's done it. Again.
Alan Bates

I do wonder to what extent this will set a cat amongst the pigeons and whether or not this will get taken up by my colleagues on the Westminster beat, but whatever media coverage it attracts, it certainly puts the government on notice.

The JFSA now has leverage inside the political machine. The government (and civil service/UKGI sorts who want the Post Office scandal to "go away") will have to find a way of responding to a high profile complaint to the parliamentary ombudsman.

They know that whatever they do, campaigning MPs and journalists will be watching.

Game on.


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Monday 6 July 2020

The Post Office cover up, part 2: They wanted it all to go away

For part 1 of this article, click here.

I think it is essential to know the identities of the people who took one look at the can of worms Second Sight had opened and decided the best course of action was to spend millions trying to bury it.
Chris Aujard
In between Second Sight publishing their interim report in July 2013 and a Post Office board meeting in September 2013 there appears to have been a realisation that the scale of the scandal Second Sight were methodically uncovering had the potential (at the very least) to halt the continuing trajectory of the Post Office and put an end to its aims of becoming profitable.

Up to September 2013 the Post Office General Counsel (also known as the GC - the top company in-house lawyer) was Susan Crichton, who had helped set up August 2013's Complaint and Mediation Scheme.

In September 2013, there was a Post Office board meeting. Ms Crichton left the organisation shortly after that meeting. Ms Crichton has not responded to my request for an interview over what happened.

In October 2013 a new interim general counsel appeared. On his LinkedIn page Chris Aujard describes himself as a "seasoned and commercially focussed GC... comfortable... managing major disputes and litigation."
But what was he at the Post Office to do? Perhaps we can get some kind of idea from a revealing article in General Counsel magazine in the Autumn of 2015. The article does not mention the Post Office, but it was published shortly after Mr Aujard left the organisation.
"The bigger the corporation, the more likely the crisis" hoots the article's anonymous author "what they don’t see is the general counsel busy behind the scenes with the mop and bucket."
Oh, do go on:
"There’s no hard and fast rule as to who takes the lead in a crisis, of course. The clean-up team will depend on the nature of the emergency and company protocols, not to mention the judgement of the CEO. But usually, says veteran general counsel Chris Aujard, ‘at some point, no matter where the crisis enters the organisation, the GC gets involved.’"
In the magazine piece, Aujard comes on strong as the go-to man, especially when the brains of the executives around him are falling apart like wet cake: 
"‘They tend to go down the route of denial" he says, "“This can’t be happening, you’ve got it wrong, everyone’s got it wrong”. They might go through the process of grudging acceptance: “Well, ok, maybe there is something in it.”"
So where next? Aujard again: 
"There’s a skill that general counsel typically have, which is to turn around to the C-suite and say, “look, this is not something that you should push to one side and deal with tomorrow. This is today’s issue and it’s pressingly urgent – and by the way, it could cost some of you your jobs.”
Ah yes. Self-preservation. Always a way to motivate people. But what about the public-facing response to a crisis? How does Aujard recommend addressing that?
"‘You can’t send stuff out saying, “it’s all our fault, terribly sorry, we’ll pay you any compensation you ask for!”’
Of course not. 

Given the period Aujard was at the Post Office almost exactly matches the birth and sad, quiet death of the mediation scheme (Autumn 2013 - Spring 2015), and given what we know about his experience, it seems reasonable to assume one of his jobs was making the growing Horizon scandal go away. 

This he temporarily did, infuriating MPs, prolonging the agony for people whose lives had been ruined and setting things up for a future High Court case which was to shred the Post Office's reputation and cost it more than £100m.

Mr Aujard might be pleased with what he achieved (I've asked him for a comment and have so far received nothing), and it may be that he did lead the way with his mop and bucket, but in terms of executive responsibility he was very much a monkey to the Post Office board's organ-grinder.

In her evidence to the BEIS Select Committee, former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells reveals that:
"Post Office decisions in relation to the [Complaint and Mediation] Scheme were discussed in the first instance by an ad hoc Board sub-committee, consisting of the then Chair (Alice Perkins), myself, and two non-executive directors. Meetings were attended by, among others, the General Counsel and the company secretary."

Alice Perkins, CB
We have already met Mr Aujard, and we know Ms Vennells of old. What of the other characters mentioned in the above statement?

Alice Perkins seems to have ghosted around the upper echelons of the civil service for most of her career. A former underling from the Cabinet Office who got in touch recently described her as "patronising... wooden and inarticulate", complaining she "couldn't connect with people at all... we used to see her about twice a year and she would give speeches that made you numb with boredom."

Ms Perkins was the first to become aware of the parliamentary interest in the Horizon scandal when James Arbuthnot MP buttonholed her at a function in 2011. 

He said that as the new Chair of the Post Office, she really ought to do something. 

To her credit, Ms Perkins set in chain the conversations which let to Second Sight's 2012 investigation, and by all accounts she was very keen to get to the truth. At first. Then she sort of drifted away from things, and left the Post Office in December 2015. 

When I contacted her, she replied: "Thank you for the suggestion you might interview me. I won't be taking up your offer." 

Not at all patronising.
Alwen Lyons, OBE
Alwen Lyons OBE was the company secretary between 2012 and 2018 and a Post Office lifer, starting as a graduate trainee in 1984. Ms Lyons has proved impossible to track down, though several people have left me in no doubt as to where her loyalties lay. I am told by a former Post Office senior insider, that by the summer of 2013, she was highly attuned to the concern at exec level about how much the complaint and mediation scheme could end up costing the Post Office.

Vennells, Aujard, Perkins and Lyons know everything. But it's not just them.

Short arms

The government has always distanced itself from the Post Office's handling of the Horizon scandal, repeating the tedious mantra that although the Post Office is publicly-owned, it: 
"operates as an independent, commercial business within the strategic parameters set by government.”
But that's not all the story. The mask first slipped on 23 May 2019 at the High Court when the Post Office tried to delay paying legal costs to the claimants after losing the first trial. The Post Office QC gave as a reason
"It is a question of arranging the funds...  and talking to our shareholder about it."
This contrast baldly with a government statement statement issued in January this year:
"government did not play a day-to-day role in the litigation or on the contractual and operational matters that were at the heart of it."
Talking to the government about the timing of a litigation payment is precisely a day-to-day operational matter.

When I presented this "arm's length, independent" plop to the senior Post Office insider who helped inform my work on this year's File on 4, Private Eye and Radio 4 series, they nearly spat out their drink with laughter. 

The insider told me that whilst they were there, Post Office staff with varying levels of seniority were running in and out of BIS the whole time. They also told me that culturally, within the Post Office, senior management priorities revolved around what the government wanted. What the government wanted, I was told, to the exclusion of almost anything else, was for the Post Office to become profitable.

The shareholder's eyes and ears

Another thing which gives lie to the government's position is that there has been a government representative sitting on the board of the Post Office as a non-executive director since it split from Royal Mail eight years ago. 

First was Susannah Storey (April 2012 to March 2014), second was Richard Callard (March 2014 to March 2018). The third and current incumbent is Tom Cooper. I met Mr Cooper last year. He told me he was a reader of this blog. Hello Tom.
Susannah Storey and Richard Callard
Although the Business Department (formerly BIS, now BEIS) technically "owns" the Post Office - which means it is the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Business, Storey and Callard came from an outfit called ShEx or SharEx, which was short for Shareholder Executive. 

ShEx was a group of supposed industry titans who were brought in to oversee the government's interest in publicly-owned bodies (eg Highways England, Nuclear Decommissioning Authority), many of which were being run as quasi-autonomous companies.* 

In 2015 ShEx became part of UKGI - United Kingdom Government Investments. UKGI is a company wholly owned by the Treasury, and it is there Mr Cooper comes from.

They wanted it all to go away

Whilst it would be fascinating to if know Storey and/or Callard were on the "ad hoc Board sub-committee" dealing with Second Sight and the complaint and mediation scheme between 2013 to 2015, it doesn't really matter. Vennells' evidence to the BEIS select committee is that this sub-committee only took decisions "in the first instance".

This suggests everything around the mediation scheme - including the Post Office's "duplicitous" reining back on its promises to MPs and Postmasters - was approved by the board, on which sat a government representative. 

Now, thanks to Paula Vennells' evidence, we finally have confirmation of the government's closeness to the Post Office:
"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 [Tom Cooper] joined the Board in 2018 with a fresh pair of eyes.... He was fully engaged on the Board, sub-committee and with ministers and lawyers at BEIS."
Tom Cooper
Vennells' statement is clear. She is saying our elected Ministers knew what the Post Office was up to. Government lawyers knew what the Post Office was up to. Civil servants and business experts like Susannah Storey, Richard Callard and Tom Cooper knew what the Post Office was up to. And they, at the very least, let it happen.

Incidentally Vennells' description of Tom Cooper's effect on Post Office thinking contains the single worst sentence of lawyer-approved drivel in the history of writing:

"His questioning was challenging and because of that it was helpful; it did not lead to any different outcomes."

Ms Vennells appears to be suggesting that Mr Cooper was challenging, useful and completely ineffective all at the same time. The genius responsible for this screed ought to take a good look at themselves. 

Vennells' shareholder-knew-everything take contrasts starkly with Business Minister Lord Callanan's recent suggestion that the government was "misled" by the Post Office. According to Ms Vennells, the government knew and knows everything. 

It is no wonder backbench MPs and campaigners are demanding a judge-led inquiry rather than the current proposed "independent review". From Vennells' letter it's obvious responsibility for the Post Office's decisions over the last ten years goes deep into the government machine. The current terms of the independent review would not begin to touch it. 

Shortly after the Panorama on 8 June 2020 I got a call from a senior person within government who wanted to talk about this proposed review. They told me:
"we are limited in what we can do - the terms of the review were kicked between BEIS and No 10 before they finally reached an agreement on what the terms should be and how it should be structured, but the officials [civil servants] weren’t happy with anything. They didn’t want a review, they didn’t want an inquiry or anything. They wanted it all to go away."
That is a wholly irresponsible position for anyone in government to take. It'll be interesting to see if parliament is capable of doing anything about it, or if the existing proposed terms of the review win out. 

I'm off to get a tattoo of "His questioning was challenging and because of that it was helpful; it did not lead to any different outcomes". It's a good epitaph for a journalist.


Part 1 of this article: How and when the cover-up happened


At the time, the Post Office was officially a government-owned Arm's Length Body. Confusingly, responsibility for Arm's Length Bodies lay not at the Treasury, nor the sponsor department (in this case BIS/BEIS), but with the Cabinet Office.

Some time between 2016 and 2019, though no one has explained why, the Post Office ceased to become an official government Arms Length Body and turned into a Public Non-Financial Corporation.

If this sort of thing makes you want to cry with boredom, wait till you start digging into Accounting Officers and Framework Agreements.


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.

Saturday 4 July 2020

The Post Office cover up, part 1: How and when it happened

There are, arguably, three Post Office scandals:

1) Why an organisation saw fit (and was allowed) to criminally prosecute 900 people over two decades.

2) How the UK justice system abetted this.

3) The Post Office and the government's attempt to cover it up.

I want to focus on point three. 

In July 2012, forensic accountants Second Sight were invited by the Post Office to investigate the growing number of complaints about the Post Office's Horizon IT system. 

The Post Office knew there were a number of former Subpostmasters campaigning for justice well before then (the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance had been around since 2009), but now a number of MPs had got involved, led by James Arbuthnot.

In Sep 2013, the Post Office board and/or the government realised the information Second Sight had begun to uncover - about the Horizon IT system and the Post Office's business practices, investigation and prosecution strategy - had the power to potentially bring the organisation down and damage a lot of reputations within government. 

Somewhere, a political decision was taken that it was "better" to cover up the truth (or, technically,  make it almost impossible to uncover), than to bite the bullet and deal with the fallout. 

The consequences of that decision were horrendous. It allowed the Post Office and specific individuals within it to behave abominably towards Subpostmasters well into 2019. 

Take a look at the cases of Chirag Sidphura or Pete Murray, or read what Mr Justice Fraser had to say about the treatment of Liz Stockdale in the Bates v Post Office first trial judgement (see par 517). For many years after the cover-up, the Post Office continued to arbitrarily remove people's livelihoods, destroying their businesses and reputations.

Paula Vennells, Post Office CEO from 2012 - 2019, may well believe she was a good Christian woman running an organisation with a community-minded purpose, but she was at best deluded, and at worst, complicit. Her organisation crushed people. And then tried to cover it up. On her watch.

Let's take it chronologically

In July 2012, Second Sight were promised unfettered access to everything. It was Second Sight's stated condition for taking the job. Director Ian Henderson said on Panorama: Scandal at the Post Office: "The phrase was 'seek the truth at all costs'". 

The Post Office agreed to this and acknowledged it in a statement to campaigning former Subpostmasters, dated Dec 2012, stating:

"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."
An unequivocal promise made to everyone, whether they had criminal convictions or not. 

In July 2013, Second Sight produced their interim report, which made it clear there were serious problems at the Post Office. Still at that stage being helpful, the Post Office published the report and took steps to set up a truth and reconciliation programme in August 2013, known as the Complaint and Mediation Scheme.

As that scheme progressed, when Second Sight requested certain documents which could explain the criteria by which prosecution decisions were made, they were refused. The change in attitude from the Post Office began in September/October 2013.

Why would the Post Office want to withhold documents from Second Sight? As well as being forensic accountants, they were experienced fraud investigators. Having eyes on the methods, evidence and the communications between Post Office prosecutors and security team - the internal prosecution files -  would go a long way towards knowing whether the campaigning Subpostmasters had any grounds for complaint, and would have certainly helped inform the individual Subpostmasters whose cases were being investigated.

"The decision that was made... was that Second Sight would not be given access to the... files." 
The body making this decision was:

"an ad hoc Board sub-committee, consisting of the then Chair (Alice Perkins), myself, and two non- executive directors. Meetings were attended by, among others, the General Counsel and the company secretary."
As to why...

"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."

Firstly - so what? Just because a document is legally privileged, it doesn't mean it has a witchy spell on it. If the Post Office wanted Second Sight to see those documents all it had to do was waive legal privilege by handing them over.

Secondly - so what? You either want your independent investigators to see and report the truth or you don't. You don't start arguing about scope.

Thirdly - Second Sight were immensely experienced investigators. They were perfectly capable of making pronouncements on internal prosecution files which were within their area of expertise and either recommending or commissioning further specialist legal interpretation as required.

None of the above reasons wash, independently or collectively. Try it the other way round - if you were a powerful CEO and you did want your independent investigators to see your own internal files, because you knew getting to the truth was essential, you would simply task your General Counsel to find a way to deal with issues of privilege, expertise and scope.

The Post Office decided it did not want Second Sight to see those internal files and trotted out a number of fig-leaf justifications for its decision.

That's your cover up, now admitted by the former Chief Executive.
Rev Vennells

The smoke and mirrors act

Before we get to part 2, let's quickly look at Vennells' attempt to re-write history.

The shift in the Post Office's position from "all documents for everyone" to "no internal files will be examined and we're not dealing with anyone with a criminal conviction" has been completely unacknowledged by the Post Office and isn't touched by Vennells' letter to the BEIS Select Committee. 

MPs, the Justice for Subpostmasters' Alliance and Second Sight have all told me that at the beginning, the Complaint and Mediation Scheme was designed to try to help former Subpostmasters with criminal convictions as much as those who hadn't. Indeed it is a fact that convicted Subpostmasters were accepted onto the scheme in 2013. 

By 2014 the Post Office was trying to exclude those who had pleaded guilty and by 2015 the Post Office was refusing to mediate with any former Subpostmasters who had a conviction. 

"The Post Office agreed to a mediation scheme that was to include those who had pleaded guilty. It is almost too obvious to say this, but in view of what the Post Office has been doing I have to do so: I would never have agreed to a mediation scheme that excluded people who pleaded guilty, such as my constituent, Jo Hamilton... 
In the working group for the mediation scheme, the Post Office began this year to argue that the issues of concern that were identified by Second Sight should be excluded from mediation—for example, the absence or ignorance of contracts, and the failure of audits and investigations—despite its agreement with Members of Parliament that the scheme would cover the issues in the interim report. 
I understand that the Post Office has been arguing in recent months at the working group stage to exclude 90% of the cases coming before the working group, despite everybody’s understanding that exclusion from mediation was to be the exception, not the rule. 
Extraordinarily, the Post Office argued to exclude people who had pleaded guilty, despite its express agreement to the contrary with me and other right hon. and hon. Members, and despite the fact that it knew that we would not have agreed to a mediation scheme otherwise."
In the same debate Arbuthnot called the Post Office's behaviour "duplicitous." The same duplicity is apparent in Vennells' evidence to the BEIS Select Committee. First she says:
"We... spent a great deal of time investigating the non-criminal historical complaints relating to Horizon... and hoped that these could be resolved through the Scheme. Criminal cases were referred to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (“CCRC”)."
Not in 2013, they weren't, they were accepted onto the scheme. Later in her letter Vennells says:
"In March 2015, Post Office took the decision to end the Complaints Review... and to push all cases in the Scheme through to mediation, apart from where there had been a conviction: in those cases, Post Office took the view that the CCRC was the correct route, indeed the only possible legal route."
Again, no explanation of how or why the Post Office, so keen to get to the bottom of things in 2013, had spent 2014 trying to argue Second Sight were out of scope, applicants who pleaded guilty should be excluded from the scheme and in 2015 binned off any Subpostmaster with a conviction, whichever way they had pleaded.

Part 2 deals with the other individuals involved in this.


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.