Sunday, 18 October 2020

Post Office inquiry will not publish or transcribe evidence


The Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry, which is due to issue a call for evidence next month, has a transparency problem.

In response to a query about media access, the inquiry secretariat told me:

"The final Report will refer to evidence it has relied on, but the Inquiry will not publish the evidence it has received, it will provide a thorough summary of the Inquiry’s findings." [my emphasis]

Furthermore, whilst there will be provision for those affected by the Horizon IT scandal to give evidence orally: "the evidence taken will not be transcribed."

There was also the unnerving prospect of participants giving evidence "via a combination of formal and informal consultations and information requests." [my emphasis]

Inquiry participants include the Post Office, Fujitsu, the Communications Workers Union, current and former Postmasters, the Department for Business, Enterprise, Innovation and Skills (BEIS), third parties who have represented postmasters’ interests and who have been involved in mediation and/or dispute resolution processes with the Post Office.

But not Alan Bates from the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, Second Sight, or, as far as I can see, any former Post Office executives such as Alice Perkins, Paula Vennells, Angela van den Bogerd, Mark Davies, Kevin Gilliland or the relevant former General Counsel - Susan Crichton and Chris Aujard. Or the former NFSP General Secretary George Thomson. Nor does the inquiry have the capacity to compel the above to attend/give evidence, or cross-examine them if they do.

Sir Wyn Williams, a retired High Court judge, is chairing the inquiry. His findings will be published in the summer of next year.

Let's all respect confidentiality rather than get things out in the open because time and again that has proved to be a brilliant idea

When I got my first reply from the secretariat, I raised a number of concerns over the publication of evidence, the nature of these "informal" chats and how they would be recorded and used differently to "formal" evidence. 

I also made a plea for the inquiry to record and transcribe all witness testimony gathered orally, as this would be a valuable primary source for historians of the future. I also repeated my original request, which had gone unanswered - where do journalists fit into all of this? How are we expected to cover the inquiry?

The email I got back was worrying:

"While we agree that gathering original testimony about the impact that this matter has had on the lives of many postmasters is important, we will also seek to do this in a way that respects the content and confidentiality of such accounts, as indicated by individuals."

So essentially, people can give evidence in secret.

With regards to the media:

"We are actively considering how to enable openness and media scrutiny while paying appropriate attention to the confidentiality concerns of individuals who provide information."

My comments about the necessity to transcribe oral evidence, the secretariat responded, had been noted. 

We know politicians of all stripes are set against this inquiry in its current format. I suspect the above information will further exercise them.

I have written again to the secretariat, this time asking if journalists can make formal representations to Sir Wyn before any further decisions about access to evidence and media coverage are finalised.

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Saturday, 3 October 2020

It was nothing to do with me, guv

On 15 July this year, during an on-line board meeting, Paula Vennells was asked to justify her employment by the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, given her involvement in the Post Office Horizon scandal. 

The question came from a Mr "Alan Wilson". Mr "Wilson" very kindly sent me her response. You can watch it above or read it below.

Ms Vennells' view seems to be that the Horizon scandal started well before she came along, so she can't be held responsible for any decision she took whilst it was ongoing. During the board meeting, she hands the subject over to a plummy fellow who reads a prepared statement.

The plummy fellow gives the impression that Imperial College NHS Trust board members don't want to have to ask Ms Vennells any direct questions about her role in the Post Office Horizon scandal. And as they don't have to, they won't. Besides, she seems like a good egg.

That's not to say Nothing Has Been Done. The board has apparently "reviewed the situation carefully and thoroughly" and satisfied themselves that whatever moved NHS Improvements to appoint Paula Vennells in the first place, still stands. Even though at the precise time of her appointment, her organisation was actively and expensively asserting the legal right to treat its Subpostmasters "arbitrarily" "irrationally" and/or "capriciously".

This ask-no-questions approach is the Horizon fiasco in a nutshell. 

I sincerely hope a huge medical scandal doesn't surface at Imperial College NHS Trust whilst Ms Vennells is in charge. Her track record, and the lack of inquisitiveness shown by her colleagues, suggests she will attempt to cover it up, and carefully wash her hands of it, whilst they all look the other way.

Transcript:

Paula Vennells: "The next question is from Alan Wilson and it refers to me in my role when I was chief executive of the Post Office. What I would just say is that the Post Office issues relating to its Horizon computer system are very well documented, they're very complex and they began in 1998, long before I joined the Post Office. It wouldn't be appropriate for me to answer this question, so I'm going to hand over to my colleague, our deputy chair Sir Gerald Acher. Gerry, if you're there and you'd like to take this one for me then hand it back, I'd be grateful. Thank you"

Sir Gerald: "Thank you, thank you very much indeed Paula. Mr Wilson, thank you for your question. [he reads] Indeed no one could follow what has happened to many of the Subpostmasters using the Horizon system without being profoundly moved, but when Paula was appointed by NHS Improvement, just over a year ago, she was open about the ongoing Horizon issues during her time at the Post Office. And following the Post Office legal ruling and settlement at the end of 2019, and subsequent developments. our board has reviewed the situation carefully and thoroughly. All of the information we have remains in line with what was understood by NHS Improvements at the time of Paula's appointment in April 2019. And the board has no additional insight into the complexities of the Post Office issues over the past 20 years and we are only able to draw on our own direct experience of Paula's conduct and contribution to this Trust, which has been entirely positive. Thank you Paula, back to you."

Paula Vennells: "Thank you Gerry very much indeed, that's much appreciated. And for complete clarity I am also extremely sorry for the distress that was caused to those people over such a long period of time. I am also very proud of what this Trust is doing."

For more on the specifics of the Post Office cover-up whilst Paula Vennells was chief executive and her selective memory about it, please see: The Post Office cover up, part 1: How and when it happened.

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If you are able to give £20 or more you will be added to the secret email list. This alerts you to upcoming developments on this scandal before they are made public, as well as links to articles and stories posted here on this blog or elsewhere. 

Friday, 2 October 2020

First Postmaster convictions to be uncontested by the Post Office

Jo Hamilton and Seema Misra

The Post Office will not be contesting 44 of the 47 convictions referred back to the Court of Appeal and Crown Courts by the Criminal Cases Review Commission in March and June of this year.

That means 44 convicted Subpostmasters are on significant step further along the road to having their convictions formally quashed. 

Some of those who heard the news today have been waiting nearly 20 years for justice. 

Seema Misra, jailed whilst pregnant ten years ago next month said: "Thank you very much to everyone for your support. I don't have many words apart from a tear of joy."

Jo Hamilton, convicted of false accounting in 2008, said: "I am over the moon, but part of me is sad because of people like Tara [who was not recommended for appeal] who still have it all to do. What a journey we've all been on, and they needn't think for one minutes we are not going to expose the whole rotten lot. I am so so happy for us all."

Wendy Buffrey
Wendy Buffrey, who first told her story in detail on this website, before going on to give evidence in parliament said:

"It feels wonderful to have the news that the conviction will be quashed, tinged with a little sadness that we were not all given the same news. I would describe it as an empty feeling as I had geared myself for another fight."

Janet Skinner, who was convicted of false accounting in 2007 said: "This morning opening the email just absolutely floored me, in a good way. I didn’t expect it to be positive at all. Now, my emotions are all the place."

I asked Alan Bates from the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance for a comment. He wants to wait until he knows more about the three cases the Post Office intend to contest.

Lord Arbuthnot, whose former constituent Jo Hamilton alerted him to the Horizon scandal said:

"The Post Office’s decision to contest only three of the cases referred by the Criminal Cases Review Commission is an admission of how very badly things went wrong over this saga.  That admission means that the Post Office and the Government must now address the issue of compensation, by putting these subpostmasters back into the position that they would have been in had the Post Office and the Government behaved properly and decently.  The Court Settlement does not cut it.  More now needs to be done."

Lord Arbuthnot also paid tribute to Jo Hamilton, who has been a tireless supporter of other Subpostmasters caught-up in the same horrible nightmare:

"Jo Hamilton’s victory is wonderful, wonderful news.  It is an astonishing achievement and very much the result of her own personality.  It was because of the sort of person she is that her village turned out to support her at her trial, and ever since then she has cheerfully, optimistically, pursued this outstanding result.  I don’t know whether it is the first time in history that a guilty plea has been overturned like this, but she deserves even more praise than I can express for her steadfast leadership of this campaign in the face of one of the largest injustices in British history."

Neil Hudgell, a solicitor representing 33 of the 47 referred Postmasters said:

“We are today obviously delighted for the people we represent. Clearing their names has been their driving goal from day one, as their reputations and livelihoods were so unfairly destroyed. For the Post Office to concede defeat and not oppose these cases is a landmark moment, not only for these individuals, but in time, potentially hundreds of others. The door to justice has been opened."

He added:

"We must never forget that these people endured years of suffering, and these allegations and convictions affected not only the individuals themselves, but their loved ones too."

Scott Darlington

Scott Darlington, who was convicted of false accounting in 2010, said:

"I am genuinely surprised that the Post Office are not going to oppose the appeal against my conviction. I'm used to it now but the first few years of walking around as convicted
criminal and the devastation to my life that this dealt me are difficult to put into words. I knew I was innocent, my family and friends also believed I was innocent. But the public and former customers and colleagues and the people of the town where I live must have thought I was guilty, I was after all convicted in a Crown Court of false accounting.

Next step... [suing them for] malicious prosecution, which I know is a whole different ball game. For today, I'm happy. Very happy."  

The Post Office sent out a press release acknowledging their decision, but not explaining it. The best the Chairman, Tim Parker, could come up with was:

“I am sincerely sorry on behalf of the Post Office for historical failings which seriously affected some postmasters. Post Office is resetting its relationship with postmasters with reforms that prevent such past events ever happening again.”

I am grateful to those Subpostmasters who have contacted me, full of joy, relief and anger at today's news. Many are only just gearing up to telling their stories publicly. There is so much more of this to come. 

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