Tuesday 11 August 2020

Did government officials collude in trying to remove a judge?

Alex Chisholm, former BEIS Permanent Secretary

The scale of collusion between government officials and the Post Office in the latter's appalling behaviour towards campaigning Subpostmasters is in the process of being properly and diligently exposed.

On 22 June, Lord (James) Arbuthnot asked the following written question:

"To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the Accounting Officer with responsibility for the Post Office has played any role in advising ministers on the Government’s policy in relation to:

(1) the faults in Horizon software; 

(2) the treatment by the Post Office of sub-postmasters in relation to allegations of alleged criminal behaviour by sub-postmasters; 

(3) the sub-postmasters’ litigation against the Post Office; and 

(4) the establishment of the review into the Horizon issues."

On 6 July, Lord Callanan, the BEIS ministry's representative in the upper house, replied:

"The Principal Accounting Officer (PAO) responsible for Post Office Ltd. (POL) is the BEIS Permanent Secretary.

Issues regarding POL’s IT system and its relationship with postmasters are operational matters in which the PAO and Ministers relied on information provided by POL senior management.

Following the Common Issues Judgment in March 2019, POL advised Ministers that it intended to change its approach to the litigation. This included changes to the POL legal team and strategy, and ultimately led to the successful mediation in December 2019.

The Independent Review into Post Office and the issues highlighted by the litigation was approved within Government at all levels, including by the BEIS Permanent Secretary."

The Common Issues trial judgment was handed down on 15 March 2019. The Post Office would have sight of it at least a week before that. On 21 March, six days after the trial judgment was made public, the Post Office applied to remove the judge from the litigation, adjourn and re-hear the Horizon Issues trial under a new judge

On 19 May (after it had failed to stop the Horizon trial or get the judge recused), the Post Office used its new legal team to try to reverse the Common Issues trial judgment at the Court of Appeal.

For Lord Callanan to say that the Post Office's decisions in the aftermath of the Common Issues judgment "ultimately led to the successful mediation in December 2019" is like saying Hitler's attempt to take Moscow ultimately led to Britain and its allies winning World War II. It did, but that wasn't quite the outcome Hitler was looking for at the time.

When Post Office execs trotted along to BEIS in the immediate aftermath of losing the Common Issues trial, a successful mediation was not on the agenda. They wanted to reverse a judgment they didn't like, stop a trial which was going badly and remove a judge using millions of pounds of taxpayers money. 

It was a spectacularly wrong-headed approach from any perspective, certainly morally, yet we see from Lord Callanan's reply above that Alex Chisholm, the Principal Accounting Officer at BEIS, nodded it through. 

Yes, ultimately, it did lead to the successful mediation in December 2019, but only because the strategy was a disaster on all fronts.

Mr Chisholm has never been held to account for his actions in monitoring or blessing the Post Office's behaviour since he was appointed BEIS Permanent Secretary in 2016.

We don't know what he advised ministers about the progress of the litigation or the post-Common Issues "changes" to "strategy". We don't know anything about the nature of his discussions with Tom Cooper, the Post Office's UKGI-appointed non-executive director, who Paula Vennells said was "was fully engaged on the Board, sub-committee and with ministers and lawyers at BEIS." 

Yesterday, Chi Onwurah, the shadow minister for Business, wrote an opinion piece in the Daily Express demanding a full inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal. It was echoed by several Labour high-profile Labour MPs.

A judge-led inquiry could compel Mr Chisholm, Mr Cooper et al to answer some pretty important questions. An independent review can't.

Unsurprisingly, the government has insisted there will be no judge-led inquiry. 

The current minister, Paul Scully, has said he hopes to announce who will chair his "independent review" next month. Mr Scully, is, of course, in the hands of the very government officials who have something to cover up. 

Indeed, as a senior government source told me earlier this year: "the officials weren’t happy... They didn’t want a review, they didn’t want an inquiry or anything. They wanted it all to go away."

On 7 September, Lord Arbuthnot will be in the House of Lords asking Lord Callanan "what progress has been made in the review into the Post Office Horizon scandal."

Let's see what insight the answer to that question brings.


My thanks to Tony Collins for alerting me to Lord Callanan's reply to Lord Arbuthnot via his ever-excellent blog.


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