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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