• Lord Arbuthnot and the Lies

    James Arbuthnot

    The former MP who started the Parliamentary campaign to help Subpostmasters in their fight for justice, gave evidence at the public inquiry into the Post Office Horizon IT scandal on Wednesday.

    James Arbuthnot told inquiry he was first alerted to potential problems with the Horizon system during a coffee morning in his constituency, in 2009, when he was introduced the former sub postmaster Jo Hamilton.

    Arbuthnot at first attempted to raise Hamilton’s case with the government, specifically the Secretary of State for Business, Peter (now Lord) Mandelson. Arbuthnot received a “frustrating” response from Mandelson’s junior, Pat McFadden, effectively washing the government’s hands of the Post Office business, despite being its sole shareholder.

    Undeterred, Arbuthnot founded a group of MPs who also had constituents claiming they had suffered life changing problems as a result of their interactions with the horizon IT system, and the Post Office’s punitive practices.

    They eventually found themselves, in 2012, face-to-face with Paula Vennells and other senior executives at the Post Office. None of the execs would entertain the idea that there was anything wrong with the Horizon IT system. Paula Vennells went one further. According to the minutes of the meeting, Vennells told the MPs:

    “Every case taken to prosecution that involves the Horizon system thus far has found in favour of the Post Office.”

    Demonstrably false

    Jason Beer KC, who was asking Lord Arbuthnot questions on behalf of the Inquiry, queried this in a series of important rhetorical questions which neatly summarised, and devastatingly undermined Paula Vennells’ assertion.

    Jason Beer KC

    JB: Would you agree overall that this is a fair summary: the problem is that a small number of postmasters borrow money from the till; the problem is not Horizon; every prosecution involving Horizon has found in favour of the Post Office; and not a single case existed where, on investigation, the Horizon system was found to be at fault?
    JA: Yes.
    JB: I think it follows that Alice Perkins, Paula Vennells, Angela van den Bogerd and Alwen Lyons did not disclose to you and the other eight MPs or their representatives the following: firstly, anything about the
    Julie Wolstenholme case…
    JA: No, they didn’t.
    JB:… in which expert evidence had been served by a man called Jason Coyne concerning bugs in the Horizon system and which case was subsequently settled by the Post Office?
    JA: They didn’t disclose that, no.
    JB: They didn’t mention the case of Lee Castleton and the obtaining of a report from BDO Stoy Hayward, which had found errors in the operation of the Horizon system?
    JA: No, they didn’t.
    JB: They didn’t mention the acquittal of Maureen McKelvey by a jury in 2004, Mrs McKelvey having blamed Horizon for the causing of losses of money which she was accused of stealing?
    JA: No, they didn’t.
    JB: They did not mention the speedy acquittal of Suzanne Palmer by a jury in 2007, Mrs Palmer also having blamed Horizon at trial for the losses attributable or said to be attributable to her?
    JA: No, they didn’t.
    JB: A jury question directed at the Post Office to the effect of “What is Mrs Palmer supposed to do if she didn’t agree the figure that Horizon had produced”, which the Post Office had been unable or unwilling to answer, and an order that the Post Office pay £78,000 in costs?
    JA: No, they didn’t.
    JB: They didn’t mention any of the following bugs, all of which had been discovered and notified to the Post Office by this time, the Callendar Square bug – sometimes known as the Falkirk bug – operative, by the Post Office’s admission, between 2000 and 2006 and, on the findings later of Mr Justice Fraser, until 2010?
    JA: No, they didn’t mention.
    JB: They didn’t mention the receipts and payments mismatch bug of 2010?
    JA: No.
    JB: The suspense account bug that was operative between 2010 and 2013?
    JA: No.
    JB: They didn’t mention the Dalmellington bug, operative from 2010 and the fact that it was still operative at the time of this meeting?
    JA: No.
    JB: They didn’t mention the remming in bug operative in 2010 or the remming out bugs operative in 2005 and, again, in 2007?
    JA: No.
    JB: They didn’t mention the local suspense account bug operative in 2010?
    JA: No.
    JB: The reversals bug operative in 2003?
    JA: No.
    JB: The Giro bank discrepancy bugs operative in 2000, 2001 and 2002?
    JA: No.
    JB: They didn’t mention that consideration had been given to the commissioning of an independent expert review and report on Horizon in December 2005, and again in March 2010, but that on each occasion the Post Office had decided against it, on the latter occasion seemingly on the grounds that it might be disclosable in criminal proceedings?
    JA: They didn’t mention that.
    JB: They didn’t mention problems with the so-called ARQ data and whether those issues should be revealed to criminal courts who are hearing criminal charges against subpostmasters based on ARQ data and of which the Post Office had been notified?
    JA: No.
    JB: Does it follow that your state of knowledge at this time, based on what the Post Office board member and executive members were telling you, was that you were unfair of any bugs, errors or defects which had been detected in Legacy Horizon or which were then evident and emerging in Horizon Online?
    JA: Yes, I was unaware. I think we were all unaware, but Mike Wood was raising the question: is this the only absolutely perfect computer program in existence?
    JB: You were unaware of the problems with the so-called ARQ data…
    JA: I was.
    JB: …and its presentation to criminal courts?
    JA: Yes, completely unaware of that.

    I was surprised Mr Beer had not mentioned Nicki Arch’s acquittal in 2002. So was she. As Ms Arch was in the room, she approached Beer during the break. After the break, Beer resumed his questioning of Lord Arbuthnot thus:

    JB: Lord Arbuthnot, in my list of 16 or 17 things that were not mentioned to you against being told that every prosecution involving Horizon had found in favour of the Post Office and that not a single case existed where on investigation the Horizon system was found to be at fault, I omitted to include one, that of Ms Nichola Arch, who was acquitted [in 2002], so, very early on. Was that something that was mentioned to you?
    JA: No, that was not something that was mentioned to me.
    JB: I had mentioned the jury acquittal in 2004 of Maureen McKelvey and the jury acquittal of Suzanne Palmer in 2007, that’s a third jury acquittal not mentioned.
    JA: Right.
    JB: In that list of 16, now 17, issues that were not revealed to you at the meeting that we were talking about in mid-June, does the same apply to all of the meetings you had with senior Post Office managers, and by that I mean the meeting with Alice Perkins and Alwen Lyons on 13 March 2012?
    JA: Oh yes, the same applies. I was not told “Here is a list of bugs that you ought to take into account”, no. They failed to do that.
    JB: I might divide it into three. One is civil and criminal cases, the second is bugs and the third is consideration in the past of independent investigations?
    JA: Absolutely. They did not do that.
    JB: Does the same apply to the meeting with Alice Perkins and Paula Vennells on 17 May 2002?
    JA: Yes.
    JB: In all of this time, did any of them ever mention the facts and matters which I’ve listed, 16 or 17 of them?
    JA: No.

    Funny that.

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  • Phase 5 & 6 curtain-raiser: Alan the Man

    Alan Bates.

    Founder of the justice for Subpostmaster alliance Alan Bates today gave evidence to the public inquiry into the Post Office Horizon IT scandal. 

    The Inquiry has resumed withafter a five week break, and is now entering a four month period of hearings, combining phases five and six of the planned seven phases. Phases 5 & 6 will take in the 2013 Complaint Review and Mediation Scheme, conduct of the group litigation, governance, stakeholder engagement, oversight and whistleblowing, amongst many other matters.

    Disclosure failings again

    The proceedings were prefaced by a short introduction from the Inquiry’s lead barrister Jason Beer KC who told the chair, Sir Wyn Williams, that the Post Office, despite warnings which now carry criminal sanction, was still failing in its obligations with regard to disclosure of information.

    In fact it transpires that The Post Office had recently dumped 67,000 documents on the Inquiry, which may be of relevance to this phase of the enquiry.

    Beer told the Inquiry that the Post Office was under written instructions to provide all documents “created by, sent to, received by, recorded in a conversation or meeting, or otherwise made reference to 19 specific individuals within The Post Office” including, but not limited to “Paula Vennells, Alice Perkins, Alwen Lyons, Angela Boon Beard*, Tim Parker and Susan Crichton”.

    It transpired today that a number of documents created by or sent to the personal assistants of many of the senior executives were part of this latest chance of disclosure and therefore considered relevant. 

    Jason Beer KC

    The Post Office also sent a series of letters to the inquiry indicating that five separate disclosure reviews were still ongoing, which may yet bring to light documents relevant to witnesses giving evidence this month.

    Beer told Sir Wyn: “The issues that the post offices disclosure to this enquiry have presented has been much more than minor ad hoc or additional disclosure” and were “very concerning.”

    “These developments are,” he added “to use a parliamentary word, unwelcome.”

    Sir Wyn was undeterred: “We’re going to carry on”, he announced, noting “there may be occasions in which witnesses are giving evidence, and documents haven’t caught up with witnesses, so to speak, and that is a highly undesirable state of affairs.”

    That could be “cured” he said “albeit with some cost to the witness, by recalling them if necessary… the alternative to have a substantial break and… that is not desirable”.

    And so, on to the star of the show…

    Watching Alan

    The inquiry hearing room listening to Alan Bates give evidence, with Jo Hamilton sitting front and centre

    One of the most telling revelations about Alan Bates’ first (and likely only) session before the inquiry was the extent and speed with which he had grasped the problems with Horizon and the manner he went about giving the Post Office management clear and specific pointers as to where those problems might lie.

    The documentary evidence brought up by Jason Beer over the course of the hearing told the story very clearly. 

    Given his experience using electronic point of sale (EPOS) and accounting systems before he became a postmaster, Alan Bates welcomed the arrival Horizon in 2000, but after a few weeks of use he became grimly aware of the errors and shortcomings with the system. He detailed them in writing to post office management. He was also alive to the dangers of taking any action which could be seen to accept responsibility for accounting variances which he disputed, and he saw the power imbalances written into the postmaster contract.

    Despite his repeated requests for help, there did not seem to have been a single attempt to engage with him on the specifics he was raising. 

    The Post Office management for their part either ignored Alan’s request for help or miss equated his responsibilities under the postmaster contract.

    Beer asked: “Was there any effort by the Post Office to engage with the points that you were making in this letter?” 

    Bates replied: “None at all… [they] never addressed them”

    Bates in a rare moment of levity

    In the letters that were posted on the screen during Alan’s questioning today, we got a picture of a man who was polite, diligent, intelligent and hoping to work with the Post Office to determine the source of his discrepancies, fix the obvious errors within the Horizon system which were throwing up these discrepancies and resolve them to all parties’ satisfaction. 

    The Post Office, through its responses (and lack of them), exhibited a total disinterest in his situation, other than when it came to demanding money or threatening him with disciplinary action. 

    Even when it became apparent the Post Office was not going to listen, Bates proposed a fair resolution to the situation: 

    “I said ‘if you’re unhappy with the way that I’m providing your service then pay us back our initial investment and take the Post Office away’. I would’ve been quite happy for them to do that, and I probably wouldn’t be sitting here today.”

    Alan and his partner Suzanne’s investment in their branchwas around £100,000. The Post Office’s refusal to consider his offer to part company on equitable terms, has cost it and the government (and the taxpayer) hundreds of millions of pounds.

    “They didn’t like me standing up to them”

    Beer asked Bates what he understood to be the reason for the termination of his contract

    He replied: “Basically, I think it was because a) they didn’t like me standing up to them… b) they were finding it awkward and c) I don’t think they could answer these questions, and I was going to carry on.”

    After being told his contract was going to be terminated, Alan Bates went to the top, writing to Allan Leighton, Chairman of the Royal Mail plc, which in 2003 was the Post Office’s parent company. In his letter Bates complained about the Post Office’s “Stalinistic” management approach, “in order to bludgeon its will onto the poor Subpostmasters”.

    Bates determination to see justice done shines through:

    “Unlike the Post Office,” he writes, “I do not have endless funds to fight this injustice through the courts, but I do realise it is imperative for as many people as possible to have an opportunity to see in detail the management style applied by Royal Mail Group to the very public face of the local Post Office.”

    Bates tells Leighton he is setting up a website called  postofficevictims.org.uk, and he will be soon putting a hoarding outside his branch, with the name of the website on it. 

    The Post Office’s response was to conduct what Bates called a “tick box exercise”, stating that his contract had been terminated perfectly properly. And so our doughty campaigner’s path was set, gunning for justice for the next two decades, working between 30 and 40 hours a week. As he told the Inquiry:

    “I didn’t set out to spend 20 years doing this. I hadn’t expected to be doing this so much by myself but it got more and more complex and it was harder and harder to share out and work as a bigger group to take things forward. So I finish up leading in a way.”

    Jo Swinson

    Bates said “One of the things we did do is bring people together. And a lot of people… they’re suffering so badly, but once you manage to bring them together to meet others in a similar situation, it has enormous effects on their lives.”

    Bates’ diligence has a huge value to the public inquiry. He didn’t stop writing letters after he was sacked. After the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance was formed he made a point of writing to every single postal affairs minister, to request meetings and detail exactly what was going wrong with the Post Office prosecutions and their defence of the Horizon network.

    Jo Swinson, who was postal affairs minister when Second Sight (the Post Office’s independent investigators) were sacked in 2015, was sent a letter by Alan Bates before Second Sight’s termination. In the letter, Bates details the appalling behaviour of the Post Office and tells the minister what needs to be done to deal with the situation. Swinson gives evidence later on in the Inquiry. It will be interesting to see what she has to say for herself.

    Derisory compensation offer

    We know that despite all the work Alan Bates has done in bringing this enormous miscarriage of justice to light, his first offer of compensation from the government came in at around sixth of what he claimed for. 

    Today he told the inquiry that the government was refusing to put a value on the 20 years he spent campaigning. As he put it: “Government doesn’t think anything I’ve done is worth anything.”

    Bates saved his final comments for the Post Office:

    “They’re an atrocious organisation. They need disbanding. It needs… building up again from the ground floor… it’s a dead duck, it’s beyond saving… it needs a real big injection of money… otherwise it’s going to be a bugbear for governments for years to come.”

    * Angela van den Bogerd as rendered by my speech-to-text software (I’ve brokn my arm). This got picked up shortly after I published this blog post on twitter, so I decided to leave it uncorrected.

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  • PR Week puts departed Post Office Comms Director in its “Power” Book

    Richard Taylor, in happier times.

    On Tuesday 27 February, the Post Office’s Director of Communications, Richard Taylor, left the Post Office. He had been suspended since 12 January after two recordings of him were made public by TalkTV.

    Curiously he has just been included in PR Week’s Power Book 2024, which celebrates “the most influential and respected comms professionals in the UK today”.

    In the Post Office Tapes, recorded in 2020 and 2021, Taylor insinuated many of the campaigning Subpostmasters were thieves. Specifically, he said:

    RT: “We give you… £30,000 pounds in cash to stick in a safe. And the problem with £30,000 in cash in a safe if you’ve got 11,500 post officers [sic] is some of those people decide to… not necessarily with any particular intent… to borrow that money for a little while.”
    Q. “So you think that’s what happened?”
    RT: “Well some of them downright stole it.”

    Also in 2020, he misrepresented the Bates v Post Office High Court judgment, stating:

    RT: “It’s never been proven that there was a link between the computer glitch and anybody actually losing any money. That’s what the judge said as well. There’s no causal link….”
    Q. “So where did the money go?”
    RT: “God Knows.”

    This was the line the Post Office Chief Executive Nick Read was trying to spin to parliament in June 2020.

    The judgment actually says:

    “It was possible for bugs, errors or defects of the nature alleged by the claimants to have the potential to cause apparent or alleged discrepancies…. 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 emphasis]

    In 2021, Taylor said of Subpostmasters:

    “They get a bit of training, and then we leave them to it, and sling £30,000 of cash in a safe. These people have never run a business in their lives, and they get into a bit of a mess sometimes. Yeah?”

    Then he said:

    “No one writes about the other side of the story. No one writes about the fact that… 72 cases have been overturned – it was on ITV News yesterday – it was ‘these people are innocent… it should never have happened… they were all wrongly accused’, well – they were actually not necessarily wrongly accused, and it’s not all of them. Because yes, okay, on the scorecard so far it’s 72 overturned convictions… 3 upheld and 20 appeals withdrawn… so in broadest terms it’s currently kinda 72 – 23 so it’s… 3 to 1 but it’s not everybody.”

    Only 72 innocent people being given criminal convictions. Some scorecard.

    Taylor also insinuated that many Subpostmasters got off on a technicality, stating:

    “From a legal point of view, it says nothing about their guilt or innocence. It just means that their conviction is unsafe.”

    The Court of Appeal made it quite clear that’s not true. That’s why it found the Post Office prosecutions to be a second category Abuse of Process, ie “an affront to the conscience of the court”.

    Taylor’s response

    On 11 Jan, the day we were about to publish the Post Office Tapes, TalkTV asked the Post Office for comment. We received this via their press office from Richard Taylor:

    “I am deeply sorry about the terrible impact of this scandal on victims and have consistently apologised for all they have suffered. I sincerely apologise for any past remarks that I may have made during personal conversations which cause hurt or offence.”

    On 27 February 2024 the Post Office issued a statement. Of the 2020 and 2021 recordings, it said:

    “The conversations were one-to-one between Mr Taylor and a friend of forty years who instigated both meetings. While Mr Taylor’s comments did not breach any confidentiality, they do not reflect the view of the Post Office. Mr Taylor apologised publicly to anybody offended by his comments. Richard Taylor has left his role at Post Office, and hopes this might help to ensure that all those affected by the Horizon IT scandal, and the wider public, maintain confidence in the modernisation of Post Office.”

    The source who gave me the recordings said: “It was what he said (twice) that damned him, not what I did. I think he probably got off lightly (with a pay off) rather than stay and be there for the inevitable eradication of the Post Office board of Directors.”

    One senior PR professional I know messaged me today and said: “Why on earth is Richard Taylor in the list of the so called ‘top 1% of most impressive and influential PR professionals in the UK’? The irony is that PR Week asked us to nominate the worst PR performers over the last year and the Post Office was in the top five. So why include the person who was at the helm?”

    Obviously Richard Taylor is a titan among PR professionals, which is why he is lionised the PR Week 2024 Power Book. Or he might be an idiot. I’m not sure. I’ve asked PR Week why they’ve celebrated Taylor as one of the most “the most influential and respected comms professionals in the UK today”. They responded within ten hours to say:

    “Thank you for drawing our attention to our oversight here, for which we apologise. Richard Taylor should have been removed from the Power Book before it was published. We have now removed him. For context, the Power Book lists about 450 senior figures working in communications and public affairs in the UK. The vast majority of invitations for the 2024 edition were sent in December last year, before the airing of Mr Bates vs the Post Office and the subsequent stories. We abhor the treatment of Subpostmasters in the scandal and hope for full justice for everybody affected.”

    Here is Richard Taylor’s (now-deleted) Q&A in the PR Week Power Book 2024:

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  • Chris’s Compensation Solutions

    Chris Head at the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry earlier this month.

    After yesterday’s parliamentary debate on Postmaster Compensation, former Subpostmaster Chris Head came up with his solutions for sorting everything out in a timely manner.

    Chris is a member of the Group Litigation Order (GLO) scheme, announced in 2022, by the (then) Postal Affairs Minister Paul Scully. For the last four years, however, Chris has been helping other Subpostmasters find their way around the mess surrounding the compensation schemes whilst working with Dan Neidle to expose their flaws.

    Chris posted his thoughts on twitter yesterday, I have edited and reformatted them for clarity and published them, with his permission, below:

    HSS ‘disaster’

    “I respect Kevin Hollinrake in the way he answered questions in the House of Commons today. There are many issues that need to be resolved with regard to the 2,197 “settled” claims in the Horizon Shortfall Scheme (HSS).

    I’ve had 27 new emails since Tuesday from Subpostmasters who settled under that scheme who say they have not been settled fairly but agreed when they were either desperate or unaware (due to the design of the application form) what they were able to claim for.

    They said the Post Office and the Business Department call it compensation but in some cases they have simply received their own money back and are aggrieved that the rhetoric is ‘they have been compensated’ because that is simply not the case.

    The forms they completed have been forwarded to me in full and there is no mention of the word ‘compensation’ or ‘distress & inconvenience’ that these people may have suffered on top of their shortfalls. It is a disaster. These people cannot instruct lawyers because their shortfalls may have been £7k or £10k, but they certainly have not been compensated as is being said.

    There is no provision for legal costs to assist these people to re-open these claims and no process in place to re-visit them. What do these people do? What about all the claims settled in that scheme in the earlier years where there was no 80% interim payment offered and therefore people took the offer because they simply couldn’t afford to dispute or lock into battle?

    I’ve now worked on over 200 cases where people would not have been able to access legal support because there was no provision to do so (especially around 1000-1500 earlier applicants), the £1200 legal fees offer was only mentioned after a claim was made and an offer received.

    OC and GLO schemes

    In the Overturned Convictions (OC) scheme there is £600k on the table to ‘speed up’ settlements. It is forcing people to make completely unfair decisions because that is indeed a lot of money.

    If they decline that offer and have a full assessment it takes far too long, the individual is starved of monies in the meantime regardless of what interims [claimants in the OC scheme are entitled to an immediate interim payment of £163,000] have been paid. And I am sure after speaking to people some would not have accepted this if they had access to additional interim amounts. This applies similar to the GLO scheme’s walk-away £75k offer.

    Some Subpostmasters may want a full assessment like the case Helen Morgan MP raised for her constituent during the debate, but how long will the delay be? She awaits disclosure, forensic assessment, submits a claim, waits at least 40 working days, may receive a derisory offer, and then has to dispute it, all whilst being starved of money [see barrister Paul Marshall on the lack of interim payments available to those on the GLO and HSS schemes].

    Chris’s solutions

    GLO scheme:

    ANYONE who has a claim below £100k pay it in full at its face value so as to not inflate low claims to the £75k level.

    ANYONE with a claim substantially above £100k as per expert reports commit to a 25% interim payment of the total claim value with 21 days of claim submission, pending its full assessment.

    OC scheme:

    ANYONE with a claim £600k or less gets it paid immediately. Anyone who provides evidence of a claim substantially above £600k gets an interim payment at a minimum of £500-£600k (less already received payments) and a commitment to providing a full offer within 60 calendar days.


    Re-visit every settled claim putting in place a trusted advocate on this (I would volunteer) to assess those who applied without legal assistance or haven’t been fully compensated as promised due to many factors.

    Those who are represented and have a quantified claim by experts receive 25% of its value as an interim amount and full settlement within 60 calendar days. No excuses.

    Any delay to these timeframes or offered amounts to result in additional damages for distress/inconvenience and added trauma at a pre-agreed rate.”

    Chris says his proposals are “fair, reasonable and achievable”.

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  • Staunton shoots back

    Henry Staunton

    On 18 Feb, the Sunday Times published this extraordinary interview with Henry Staunton, the sacked chair of the Post Office. Staunton said there was a “toxic” culture within the Post Office, alleged that the government had told him to go slow on compensation payments and that the Post Office CEO had written to the Business department saying that hundreds of Postmasters prosecuted by the Post Office were “guilty as charged”.

    It was followed in Monday’s Times with a story reporting that the Subpostmaster members on the Post Office board felt “ignored and unwanted”.

    At 4.18pm on 19 Feb, an outraged Business Secretary took to the Commons to describe Staunton’s comments as “patently untrue”. You can watch her statement here, or read the transcript of the statement and the subsequent debate here.

    Staunton immediately fought back, with a statement attributed to his spokesperson, which I have only been able to find on twitter. I thought it might be an idea to put it up here, for future reference. This version is taken from Robert Peston’s feed and was posted up at 6.39pm on 19 Feb 2024.

    Staunton’s Statement

    Firstly, with regard to the comment made to Mr Staunton by the senior civil servant to the effect that he was to stall on compensation payments to Horizon victims and on spend on the Horizon replacement so the government could “limp into the election” with the lowest possible financial liability. Mr Staunton stands by this comment which he recorded at the time in a file note which he emailed to himself and to colleagues and which is therefore traceable on the Post Office Server. 

    Secondly, Mr Stanton stands by his characterisation of the conversation with the Secretary of State in which he was informed of his dismissal.

    Thirdly, with regard to the alleged failure to observe due process in respect of the proposed appointment of a senior independent director, this is once again a mischaracterisation of the situation. 

    What happened was that the Government via the UKGI had proposed for the post an external candidate with Whitehall experience. Initially the Board acquiesced, but when it came to the Board for discussion, because so much had happened in the intervening four weeks the Board voted 6-2 to express clear preference to appoint a well qualified and in their view better qualified internal candidate, Andrew Dafoor who was already a director, and understood the issues. 

    The 6 included the chief executive. Of the two dissenters one was the UKGI representative. Mr Staunton informed the Board that they would now have to go through a due process including a nomination committee, Board and shareholder approval process and could not simply impose their preferred candidate. This was all at an early stage in the consultations, and could not be characterised as a breach of due process.

    Fourthly, with regard to allegations of bullying behaviour, this is the first time the existence of such allegations have been mentioned, and Mr Staunton is not aware of any aspect of his conduct which could give rise to such allegations. They were certainly not raised by the Secretary of State at any stage and certainly not during the conversation which led to Mr Staunton’s dismissal. Such behaviour would in any case be totally out of character.

    With regard to the appointment letter which the Department has chosen to publish, it should be noted that the reference to settlement with claimants is one of a number of issues arising out of the Horizon issue that are listed and not necessarily the most prominent. It should also be noted that if indeed the Secretary of State were concerned about the lack of urgency with which it was being addressed, this was never raised in any of the quarterly review meetings to assess progress against these objectives. These meetings were fully minuted.

    Last but not least, it should be noted that the Secretary of State has admitted that a letter was sent by the Post Office CEO to Alex Chalk setting out a legal opinion stating the reason so few sub-postmasters had come forward to have their convictions overturned was because they were “guilty as charged”. That letter was set after the ITV documentary was screened and after the government had set out a pledge to bring forward legislation to exonerate the postmasters.

    As chairman, Mr Staunton championed the cause of the postmasters who he saw as the real backbone of the organisation and the best hope for the future. As a number of recent press articles have indicated, historically postmasters were treated with contempt by much of the Post Office hierarchy, those attitudes were deeply entrenched and Mr Staunton fought hard with their representatives on the Board and others including the CEO to change that culture.

    Mr Staunton said: “It was in the interests of the business as well as being fair for the postmasters that there was faster progress on exoneration and that compensation for wrongly convicted postmasters was more generous, but we didn’t see any real movement until after the Mister Bates programme.”

    Mr Staunton is due to give evidence to the Business Select Committee on Tuesday next week (27 Feb), after the committee hears from Subpostmasters including Alan Bates, Tim Brentnall and Tony Downey and some of the usual suspects from the Post Office and government, including Simon Recaldin and Nick Read.

    One highlight might be Ross Cranston, who has been appointed as the independent reviewer of the GLO scheme. We have not heard him speak in public about his role before. But the real fireworks will undoubtedly begin when Staunton takes the chair, on his own, at 1pm. More details here.

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  • The unredacted Project Sparrow board minutes

    Screenshot from the BBC article

    On 26 Jan the BBC’s excellent economics correspondent Andy Verity published a story. Andy had eyes on two confidential Post Office documents which had previously only been published under FOI in heavily-redacted form.

    They were Project Sparrow board sub-committee meeting minutes from 9 and 30 April 2014. Project Sparrow was the codename given by the Post Office to its interactions with the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, MPs and Second Sight (independent investigators) between 2013 and 2015.

    During the 2018 group litigation Bates v Post Office at the High Court, the Post Office tried to claim the name “Project Sparrow” was legally privileged. True fact.

    The heavily redacted versions of the two Project Sparrow meeting minutes were sent to me in 2021 after I made the request which led to their release. I published them. Shortly afterwards I received them in unredacted form. I failed to publish them. I am grateful to the BBC story (a well-deserved scoop) for prompting me to look through my own document archive. I am now pleased to be able to upload the unredacted minutes for your reading pleasure:

    Unredacted Project Sparrow board meeting minutes 9 April 2014:

    Unredacted Project Sparrow board meeting minutes 30 April 2014:

    For more information on Project Sparrow, do read Andy’s report alongside my piece from 2021.

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  • What’s really going on with the Subpostmaster compensation schemes pt. 3

    Paul Marshall

    This short series of blog posts reveals the contents of a letter sent by the barrister Paul Marshall to the Post Office Horizon Inquiry. The letter shares Marshall’s concerns at the Post Office/Government compensation schemes and the way they are being run. It was written on 9 January 2024.

    Part 1 deals with the section of the letter which addressed the problems being suffered by Subpostmaster claimants in the Bates v Post Office High Court litigation with overturned criminal convictions.

    Part 2 deals with what Marshall calls the “complete absence of any principled approach to interim payments”.

    This final part is concerned with the Post Office and government’s role as gatekeepers in the Subpostmasters’ access to expertise and therefore justice. You could read it as a moan by a lawyer about lawyers not being given enough money, but closer inspection may tell you something about the implications.

    Mr Marshall writes:

    “It is trite that economic barriers to a market (including ex hypothesi a market for legal services) may be low cost as much as (more commonly) high cost.

    I represent only a small number of claimant victims of the Post Office, but I am almost overwhelmed with work on Post Office cases. While I have been able to enlist the expert and valuable assistance of a colleague with specialist experience of personal injury work, somewhat to my surprise, the compensation process is materially indistinguishable from litigation. As a result I have been driven, from last summer, to seeking the assistance of a full service law firm.

    In many respects, the circumstances of my clients are markedly different from ordinary litigation. The statutory limitation period operates to provide a temporal (usually 6-year) boundary for documentation. In these cases the claims go back more than 10 years and sometimes more than 20 years. There is a serious paucity of documentation (which is nonetheless routinely demanded by the Post Office/DBT [Department for Business and Trade] and their lawyers – in many cases, such as Mrs Arch’s, the Post Office retained all her documents when she was excluded and suspended from her branch) and the work of reconstruction of events is over a commensurately long timeframe. That presents unusual evidential challenges.

    Furthermore, the Post Office’s victims are typically deeply traumatised individuals. Client care that is required is greater than in the ordinary run of commercial litigation. I think almost all those whom I represent are diagnosed as suffering from long-term PTSD, mostly severe. It is necessary for clients to obtain expert evidence, not only medical evidence, but accountancy evidence, and latterly other expert assistance also.

    The so-called “tariff” agreed by some solicitors’ firms for fees in the GLO compensation scheme is at paragraph 5 of a document entitled “Post Office Horizon Scandal: GLO Compensation Scheme Tariff of Reasonable Legal Costs”.

    The introduction provides that: “The Government has agreed to meet the reasonable legal costs of members of the GLO claiming for additional compensation under the scheme announced on 7 December 2022. This note sets out the tariff by which those costs will be calculated. It has been agreed through a mediated discussion between DBT and legal advisors known to represent eligible claimants – ie Freeths, Howe & Co and Hudgell Solicitors.”

    It provides that fees payable by the Department of Business and Trade for “Complex” cases, per case, will be £18,060. Being neither a solicitor nor a solicitors’ firm, I was party neither to the discussions/negotiations nor to the agreement of those rates. I suppose that they might possibly make commercial sense if one is handling a very substantial volume of closely similar cases.

    You will see that the government strongly advises claimants not to engage any lawyer who asks for payment, either during the claims process or when compensation is paid. Similarly, the GLO Compensation Scheme Guidance and Principles at 1.1.3 states “You should not engage any firm which asks you for money now or later, or which offers a No-Win, No-Fee conditional fee or litigation funding agreement.” 

    If my clients adhered to/heeded that advice none of them would be represented by me.

    The government’s advice to victims of the Post Office, I suspect, tends to have a chilling effect on solicitors willing to act and will tend to cause the only port of call available to potential claimants for compensation to be Hudgells, Freeths or Howe & Co. I strongly doubt whether that is desirable, whether or not it is intended by DBT.

    The damages/compensation claims of individuals such as Tracy Felstead and of Nichola Arch are self-evidently complex, both as personal injury claims and also as loss of employment and loss of future earnings claims. I have repeatedly been referred by Addleshaw Goddard, solicitors acting on behalf of the Department of Business and Trade, to their agreed “tariff” fee arrangements. At present, my perception is that attempted adherence to those rates, at least in respect of the claims of those on whose behalf I am instructed, fails to have regard to the true complexity of individual cases and is wholly unrealistic and also unreasonable.

    More concerningly, solicitors with whom I have been having discussions, for the purpose of securing additional assistance with the object of expediting the evaluation and submission of claims, who are in principle willing to assist, are hesitant to do so (understandably) in the absence of assurances that it is commercially viable for them to do so. Accordingly, the stated tariff rates for legal costs operate, or may operate, as an economic barrier to entry for those firms of solicitors who would be willing to act for claimants for compensation. As a result this will tend to divert claimants and potential claimants to those firms who have agreed to work for the stated government (in my view unrealistically and uneconomic) low charging rates. That is unsatisfactory and concerning.

    Without making too much of it, it is notable that the Post Office itself has engaged one of the largest and most expensive law firms in the country (in fact in Europe) and the government has retained both Dentons and Addleshaw Goddard.

    It is obvious, at least to me, that the government, like the Post Office, should pay the reasonable costs of legal representation. That is to say, the same level of costs as assessed costs on the standard basis in ordinary High Court litigation.

    To pretend that claims in the GLO compensation scheme are somehow ‘simple’ and straightforward, is both an absurdity and, at least in my experience, the very opposite of the reality. If the point requires elaboration, there are claims, such as Mrs Arch’s claim, that while in the GLO scheme are on true analysis claims for malicious prosecution. There should not be a dramatically different costs regime under the DBT GLO scheme from that that applies to the Overturned Convictions scheme, where the legal nature of the claims to compensation are the same. No principled basis for such a distinction is capable of being identified.”

    Marshall contends that the failure to make adequate allowance for the fees incurred by claimaints and potential claimants acts as a “denial of/obstruction to justice”. Taken with the two other concerns Mr Marshall raised in his letter (published in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series), it seems we still have a serious problem with the existing compensation arrangements for victims of the Post Office scandal. This is nearly four years after the Post Office and government announced they would be setting up and running two of them (the HSS and OC compensation schemes), and two years after the announcement of the GLO compensation scheme.

    As many people have asked – why are the perpetrators of this scandal in charge of compensating their victims? The Postal Affairs minister Paul Scully – who was in charge when all these schemes were set up – has already conceded that was a mistake. Postmasters could be forgiven for thinking it was deliberate.

    The journalism on this blog is crowdfunded. If you would like to join the “secret email” newsletter, please consider making a one-off donation. The money is used to keep the contents of this website free. You will receive irregular, but informative email updates about the Post Office Horizon IT scandal.

  • What’s really going on with the Subpostmaster compensation schemes pt. 2

    Paul Marshall

    In Part 1 of this short series I quoted at length from a letter written to the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry on 9 Jan 2024, by the barrister Paul Marshall. That blog post covered Mr Marshall’s concerns about Subpostmaster claimants in the Bates v Post Office High Court litigation with overturned criminal convictions.

    The following blog post quotes from the same letter. In this instance Marshall is concerned with what he describes as the “complete absence of any principled approach to interim payments”.

    It is another lengthy extract, but it makes clear an invidious and unfair situation. The only Subpostmasters with access to any guaranteed interim compensation are those who have had their convictions quashed. They are given £163,000. For everyone else (those in the Horizon Shortfall Scheme (HSS) or the Group Litigation Order (GLO) scheme – the vast majority of claimants) there is no policy of providing guaranteed interim payments.

    Mr Marshall writes:

    “I read with surprise and dismay the Department for Business and Trade [DBT] response to the Horizon Compensation Advisory Board 9th Meeting (29th November 2023) in connection with item 8 – GLO Scheme: “The availability of interim payments”. The DBT response that is recorded is that “The Department explained that it was willing to make interim payments based on partial claims where postmasters had an urgent need for them.” (The meaning of the expression “based on partial claims” is not entirely clear.)

    In this, as in other respects and across different compensation schemes, the compensation arrangements are out-of-step with the requirements of justice and fairness as these are provided for, for example, by statute under the Civil Procedure Rules. The arrangements for interim payment of damages, first introduced under the Administration of Justice Act 1969, were for the explicit purpose of mitigating the hardship caused to claimants making well- founded personal injury claims by the long delays in receiving payment. From 1980 the arrangements were extended to all claims where liability was not in issue. The position under the DBT GLO scheme (and also “Overturned Convictions” scheme) is analogous to a civil claim where liability is not in issue, and the only question is one of quantum – how much must be paid to satisfy the claim(s) of the individual concerned for the injury and loss that they can show that they sustained as a result of the wrongful act(s)?

    The legal principles in this regard are well settled and you will not consider it any discourtesy to remind you of them. The relevant test for a court to have jurisdiction to make an interim payment is set out in the Civil Procedure Rules at rule 25.7(1)(c). That provides that the court must be satisfied that “if the claim went to trial, the claimant would obtain judgment for a substantial amount of money (other than costs) against the defendant…”.

    Formally, of course, the DBT ‘GLO’ compensation scheme is ex gratia, but the compensatory principle (namely, to put a person in the position that they would have been but for the Post Office’s actions/wrongdoing) has been clearly expressed/restated in your Inquiry. There is no reason, as a matter of principle, why a claimant for compensation should not be treated analogically to a claimant in litigation and every reason why they should be, given that the ‘compensatory principle’ is essentially identical/materially indistinguishable.

    CPR rule 25.7(4) provides that the court must not order an interim payment of more than a reasonable proportion of the likely amount of the final judgment. CPR rule 25.6(2) confirms that a claimant may make more than one application for an interim payment.

    Once the gateway criteria for making an interim payment are satisfied, the court should make an order for an interim payment unless there is specific reason not to do so: Test Claimants in FII Group Litigation v Revenue & Customs Commissioners (No2) [2012] EWCA Civ 57.

    The important point is that the default position is that, subject to satisfying the gateway criteria under CPR 25.7(1)(a)-(c), a person claiming damages is in principle entitled as of right to receive an interim payment. The grounds for the paying party objecting to an interim payment under the rules are narrow and limited. Among these there is no basis for a court not to make an interim payment order because a claimant has not demonstrated their need – let alone urgent need – for such payment. Importantly in this regard, in Stringman v. McArdle [1994] 1 WLR 1653 the court confirmed that need is not a requirement for an interim payment, nor, for the same reason, for a further interim payment to a payment already made.

    The purpose of the interim payment arrangements is to facilitate justice and to mitigate the unfairness of a claimant entitled to substantial compensation being kept out of their money simply because of the time that it frequently takes to fully evaluate an individual’s loss – delay occasioned simply by the mechanics of the evaluation and quantification and by the payment process.

    The interim payment principle has particular importance and obvious application in circumstances where Post Office victims have suffered financial loss and injury over a very long period of time, extending indeed to the roll-out of Horizon in 1999.

    In Eeles v. Cobham Hire Services Ltd [2010] 1 WLR 409, the Court of Appeal said that a reasonable proportion “may well be a high proportion, provided that the assessment has been conservative. The objective is not to keep the claimant out of his money but to avoid any risk of overpayment.” (Risk of overpayment is thus the principal constraint.)

    In TTT v. Kingston Hospital NHS Trust [2011] EWHC 3917 the court held that a reasonable proportion meant not more than 90% on a conservative estimate of the amount that the claimant was likely to be awarded at trial as a capital sum.

    So in the DBT’s response to the Compensation Advisory Board, that it was willing to make interim payments where there was “urgent need” demonstrated – and (seemingly) not otherwise, DBT parts company with legal principles of justice and fairness as these are given statutory effect under the rules of court.

    It appears unprincipled, and requiring justification, for DBT to withhold compensation otherwise payable, in the absence of demonstrated “urgent need”. Introducing such a test suggests unfairness and a denial of justice, where the interim payments regime under the rules of court are explicitly aimed at facilitating those ends and thus reflect and give effect to general legal principle.

    This is not merely an issue of desirability, it has a substantive aspect; a person who is required to formulate and establish the full scope and detail of their claim before any payment is made, is placed under pressure and is put in an impaired bargaining position – and, further, is kept out of money to which they are otherwise entitled (disregarding the point that the GLO scheme is ex gratia – that for this purpose is irrelevant). The reasons are perhaps too obvious to require elaboration. The effect is, that it encourages DBT, and, indeed, the Post Office in the other compensation arrangements, to make low opening offers. The resulting situation may readily result in unfairness because it exploits the consequences of delay and ‘litigation fatigue’.

    I shall give two concrete examples of how the unavailability of proper arrangements for interim payments works injustice (in both the Overturned Convictions and GLO schemes).

    Tracy Felstead was maliciously prosecuted by the Post Office in 2002 and was wrongfully convicted of theft. She was imprisoned aged 19. Her entire adult life, including most obviously her employment prospects, has been blighted by the consequences of wrongful conviction for theft. As a result of her deeply traumatic experience of prison, she suffers from severe PTSD and depression. Her conviction for theft was quashed in April 2021. The Post Office has been willing in June 2023 to make payment of a substantial proportion of her claim for general damages, as submitted with a full medical consultant’s report in January 2023. Despite an application having been made for Ms Felstead’s loss of earnings – limited to the period of the subsistence of her conviction between 2002-2021 (and thus disregarding any future losses) the Post Office has to date declined to make any interim payment on account of special/liquidated damages, despite the request for an interim payment being supported by an accountant’s letter and evaluation.

    You will understand that the evaluation of special damages over a long period that has passed, regardless of the calculation of future losses, is a complex task of reconstruction, not least because of the general paucity of documents, but also because of the length of time that has elapsed. I have in recent months decided that it is strongly in the interests of my clients to engage the services of the specialist employment experts Keith Carter & Associates. Mr Carter is a very experienced employment specialist who recently has been engaged in assisting Sir Brian Langstaff, to whose inquiry (Infected Blood) he has given both written and oral evidence. The purpose of obtaining Mr Carter’s assistance is to reconstruct what Tracy Felstead’s employment profile would have looked like, but for the catastrophe that befell her in her wrongful prosecution and imprisonment in 2002.

    To my mind it is profoundly unsatisfactory, and it might be said inexcusable, that there is no formal structured arrangement for the payment of interim payments where, as is almost too obvious to state, the subsistence of a criminal conviction for dishonesty over many years has operated to blight an individual’s employment prospects and earnings. In Ms Felstead’s case it is now 22 years since she was convicted.

    The Post Office has made an interim payment in a substantial sum to one of my clients, but only in circumstances where they were faced with imminent eviction from their modest rented home – and where I infer the Post Office would not have welcomed the attention that that eventuality would have attracted from the media. The point is therefore that interim payments can be made, the Post Office and DBT are simply unwilling to make them in the absence of a demonstrated urgent requirement. Not doing so enhances the offeror’s (DBT’s/Post Office’s) negotiating position in making offers.

    Mrs Nichola Arch was one of the first victims of the Post Office to give evidence to your Inquiry. She was suspended and dismissed from her employment as manager of Chalford Hill Post Office, Chalford, Stroud in October 2000. Most unusually, she was acquitted after a trial in the Bristol Crown Court in April 2002. Between those dates she lost her reputation and standing in her community and became the subject of vilification. Her experience almost drove her to suicide. Although having previously been a teacher and having tertiary education, she obtained work as a local authority care assistant. She had aspired to own her own post office and to run more than one branch in her locality. She suffers from morbidity, depression and serious PTSD and she recently underwent surgery connected with her long-term illness. She retired on grounds of ill-health. Her claim for general damages was submitted in the DBT “GLO” scheme at the beginning of July 2023. Her claim for special damages together with an accountants report was submitted in October 2023. No offer, whether interim or otherwise, has been made. Indeed no substantive response has been received. Mrs Arch’s circumstances are rendered particularly complicated because she not only lost property as a result of the Post Office’s actions in wrongfully prosecuting her, she was also subject to an IVA.

    Mrs Arch has recently engaged Keith Carter & Associates to model her employment profile, but for the disaster of her criminal prosecution between 2000-2002 and its consequences for her health and upon her working life. Addleshaw Goddard on behalf of DBT have declined to agree to that course (which DBT requires approval for), as I understand it on the basis that other claimants in the GLO scheme have not sought to rely on similar evidence.

    If I was to be discourteous, one wonders how the counterfactual of what Mrs Arch’s employment history might have looked like from 2000, without such expert assistance; is one to simply guess? In any event, my considered opinion is that such evidence is required to evaluate the true extent of her liquidated claims. It may take some time for that evidence to be finalised.

    Next year it will be 25 years from the date that Mrs Arch’s hopes for a career as a postmistress were dashed by her malicious prosecution by the Post Office. She never recovered from her experience. It is profoundly unsatisfactory that as recently as November 2023, the position of the Department for Business and Trade was that it would make interim payments only in cases of “urgent need”. As I have suggested previously, withholding an interim payment, that on any view must be substantial, constitutes a denial of justice and is manifestly unfair, it is also contrary to ordinary legal principle as given effect in the CPR. Accordingly not facilitating interim payment is unjustifiable.

    There is a compelling case to be made that every person wrongfully prosecuted by the Post Office should be presumed to be entitled to £600,000 as an interim award. That may satisfy the claims for compensation of some claimants, it will be insufficient for many (perhaps most) others, but it would be a step in the right direction.”

    Since Mr Marshall wrote his letter, Alan Bates, the founder of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance has received his offer of compensation from the government, twenty one years after he was sacked. The offer is a sixth of what he asked for when he submitted his claim at the beginning of October. Bates called the offer “cruel” and “derisory”. I spoke to another Subpostmaster yesterday in the same (GLO) scheme as Alan Bates. They too have received an offer of around a sixth of the seven-figure sum they were asking for. Many of the campaigning Subpostmasters seem to have lost faith in the government’s ability to do the right thing. Judging by Paul Marshall’s letter, I’m not surprised.

    Read Part 1 of What’s really going on with the Subpostmaster compensation schemes here.

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  • What’s really going on with the Subpostmaster compensation schemes pt. 1

    Paul Marshall

    I’ve obtained a letter to Sir Wyn Williams, written by the barrister Paul Marshall. Sir Wyn is the retired judge who chairs the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry. Paul Marshall represents, in his words, “some of those most grievously affected by the Post Office’s conduct”.

    The letter is dated 9 January 2024. Whilst recent government announcements, prompted by an ITV drama series, may come to supersede some the concerns expressed in the letter, we should bear in mind that Marshall was writing more than four years after the Bates v Post Office High Court settlement which set in motion the haphazard compensation schemes various groups of Subpostmasters need to negotiate in order to get their hands on the money (and earnings potential) which was stolen from them.

    This letter is evidence the Post Office and government continued, at least until very recently, to say fine words in public whilst, behind-the-scenes, playing games with peoples’ lives.

    It’s a long letter, so I’ll divide the issues it raises into a series of blog posts.

    Subpostmaster claimants in Bates v Post Office with criminal convictions

    In this extract Marshall is outlining the case of someone with a criminal conviction who was a claimant in the civil case Bates v Post Office. Having had their conviction quashed, they pursued compensation. They initially accepted a paltry amount because of the Post Office’s claim that despite their conviction being quashed, Horizon evidence was not “essential” to their case. The Post Office and government would therefore count this individual as having settled their claim and accepted full and final compensation. I have added links and comments in square brackets for clarity where appropriate. Marshall writes:

    “I have recently been asked to represent, and have agreed to represent, someone in the “Overturned Convictions” scheme…

    I shall refrain from naming the individual concerned. In December 2022 they entered into a settlement agreement in the course of a mediation in which they were legally represented (not by me).

    The Post Office’s position, in essence, was that the individual’s appeal was not opposed merely on pragmatic grounds and that other evidence existed that warranted prosecution, other than Horizon data alone, but that a further prosecution was considered not to be in the public interest.

    The individual concerned had made a statement accepting that they had (improperly) taken Post Office money. It is unnecessary, for present purposes, to elaborate the (unsatisfactory) circumstances in which that statement was obtained by the Post Office.

    At the mediation, the individual concerned felt under acute pressure to agree to settlement of their claim in consideration for payment of a modest sum (a fraction of the £600,000 offered by the government in September 2023 to all those convicted whose convictions had been quashed) when considered against the devastating impact that a criminal conviction for an offence of dishonesty has had upon them and upon their family, over many years.

    Against the sum offered by the Post Office, the Post Office demanded that credit be given for a small amount of compensation received in 2020. That was at the direction of the steering committee of the group (GLO) claimants. That compensation was paid ex gratia out of sums paid by the Post Office under the terms of the December 2019 Settlement Deed, that otherwise stood solely and exclusively to the credit of the ‘Not Convicted Claimants’ in the GLO litigation.

    In March 2023 I wrote to Minister Hollinrake MP at the Department for Business and Trade [DBT], expressing my view that such a deduction (actual or demanded), of which I was generally aware in the Overturned Convictions Scheme to be the Post Office’s position, was contrary to principle as a matter of law. The Department for Business and Trade rejected my view, as did the Post Office.

    I am nevertheless satisfied that I was, and am, correct in my analysis [reader, he was], and that both the Post Office and DBT were wrong in theirs. There are two minor issues on this.

    First, it exhibits a willingness on the part of the Post Office (and DBT) to contest meritless/bad legal points with some vigour and at some expense (it took until December 2023 to address it) – there are troubling echoes of its conduct of the Bates GLO litigation.

    Secondly, the Post Office sought credit against payments made by third parties, not by it, which might be thought unattractive and grasping – certainly not disinterested and objective, as one might hope.

    Without condescending to detail, that I believe to be unnecessary for present purposes, in recent evidence given before you in the Inquiry, it emerged that the person responsible for the investigation of the individual to whom I have referred did not accept or believe the account that they had given of their having improperly taken the Post Office’s money. They were nevertheless charged with theft. In the course of other evidence given to you, it emerged that the Post Office’s investigation was not properly conducted and that the alleged losses identified at the individual’s Horizon accounts were consistent with what may be conveniently termed “Horizon shortfalls”.

    So the position, in short, is that the Post Office in a mediation contended that it had material that would have warranted prosecution, so as to take the circumstances outside the class of prosecutions where “Horizon data” was essential – the Court of Appeal’s chosen threshold requirement for allowing an appeal. But that material, upon scrutiny in the Inquiry, was revealed to be profoundly unsatisfactory as a matter of evidence. Had it been challenged, but for a guilty plea, it would have been ruled inadmissible.

    Where does this leave mediations that have resulted in settlement, both in this specific circumstance and in similar circumstances where obtained upon an apparently false premise/representation? Further, what are the issues in connection with the conduct of the Post Office’s original investigations and their propriety and reliability? Perforce, only a tiny number of actual investigations have fallen to be considered by the Inquiry. But it is reasonable to infer that failure in the proper conduct of a Post Office investigation in this particular example is not an isolated instance, indeed, there is evidence in the Inquiry that that is so.

    There is, I believe, a serious issue as to the stability of agreements reached upon a false premise. As a matter of the law of contract, vitiating factors include mistake and misrepresentation. How, going forward, are negotiated settlements such as these, entered into on a false basis, going to be treated/addressed? There is fertile opportunity for subsequent satellite litigation.

    I have written to Herbert Smith Freehills [perhaps the biggest and most expensive law firm the Post Office retains] inviting the Post Office, in this particular instance, to agree to set the settlement aside. I am yet to receive a response. I am drawing the issue to your attention because I believe it gives rise to wider concerns. The circumstances, as these are now known, arise as a direct result of evidence given in your Inquiry.

    It is of particular concern that the individual concerned was given to feel so pressured, and, if I might say so, ‘overborne’ in the mediation and left with what they understood to be essentially no choice but to settle on the only terms that the Post Office offered. I am told that those representing the Post Office on the mediation included Mr Simon Recaldin of the Post Office, and Mr Alan Watts, a partner in Herbert Smith Freehills.

    More generally, the circumstances in this particular case raise important wider questions about facts and matters relied upon by the Post Office as causing other cases to fall outside the Court of Appeal’s chosen heuristic ‘is this a case where Horizon data was essential to the prosecution?’

    Unless the relevant circumstances are explored in evidence before you in the Inquiry, it is not, as a matter of practical reality, possible to test or otherwise scrutinise in detail the ‘other circumstances’ relied upon by the Post Office as taking any particular case outside those where the Court of Appeal treats the conviction as unsafe.

    It is only by fortuity that it has emerged that the Post Office investigator of the individual to whom I have referred did not believe the account that was given, that was otherwise said to constitute a confession and cause the circumstances, for that reason, to allegedly fall outside a “Horizon data” case.

    One is driven to wondering how many similar cases there may be where Post Office investigations were flawed and their evidential product consequently unreliable and inadmissible? Given the extensive and substantial criticisms made by Mr Duncan Atkinson KC in evidence given by him, including absence of standard safeguards and procedures, such as those adhered to by the Crown Prosecution Service, and the absence of requisite independence of investigating and prosecuting agencies, there must necessarily be serious misgivings that, were such Post Office evidential material to be examined, it would not withstand serious scrutiny.

    It was only as a result of your Inquiry that it emerged that the individual who investigated Janet Skinner’s alleged shortfalls did not believe that Janet Skinner had stolen anything. Miss Skinner was nonetheless charged by the Post Office with and prosecuted for theft. One is left with anxiety and misgivings about the propriety of any investigation undertaken by the Post Office.

    I do not have answers to these substantial questions, but they are, I believe, both important and seriously troubling because they suggest – indeed disclose – a fresh injustice. Either something is to be done, or nothing is to be done.
    I should add that I am given to understand that the extreme pressure and isolation experienced by the individual to whom I have referred, to settle their claim for what they considered to be a seriously inadequate sum, is an experience shared by others. That is also troubling.

    Further, I remain concerned that the arrangements to which I have referred raise an issue about the requisite/desirable level of independence of the Overturned Convictions scheme, bearing in mind that HSF also have ultimate supervision of the HSS (or “Shortfall”) Scheme (about which I also have concerns). I have long expressed misgivings about the level of requisite independence and transparency across all the three Post Office compensation schemes. Those requirements are fundamental, both to fairness and for both individual and public confidence.

    The government has recently made some announcements about the number of settlements that have been reached. That matters little if the terms and circumstances of settlements reached are other than fair.

    There is of course scope for further litigation arising out of the circumstances to which I have referred. That eventuality would be unfortunate.

    I repeat here what I have said previously. There is a requirement for the compensation schemes for Post Office wrongdoing to be administered by a demonstrably independent body. The short-term difficulties will be offset by avoiding what may be anticipated as long term further problems. Any further resulting delay may be mitigated by payment of proper substantial interim payments.”

    I know the individual Paul Marshall is referring to in the above letter, and I will write to them to see if they are willing to be identified. I will also find out what the government/Post Office response is to the issues Marshall raises, given they seem to have changed their attitude significantly on the back of Mr Bates vs The Post Office. Keep an eye out for the next blog post which will address Marshall’s view on the failures over interim payments to compensation claimants.

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  • Podcast: Scully calls for Vennells to be stripped of CBE

    In his first interview on the subject since leaving government, Paul Scully MP says former Post Office Chief Executive (2012 – 2019) Paula Vennells should “absolutely” lose her CBE which was awarded to her in the 2019 New Year’s Honours list.

    “I’m a backbench MP now so I can say what I want, I think, reasonably. I think people do need to be held to account and that it includes Paula Vennells…. From what I see of it, the tactics used by the Paula Vennells-led Post Office were pretty horrendous and people need to be held to account.”

    Scully also candidly admits the government should not have let the Post Office control the compensation process:

    “If I had my time again I would have taken it in house and done it with the help of an independent arbiter. I think we were… the Post Office were trying to play catch up in that regard. They were coming up with their scheme…. I think by the time we realised this was going to be at risk of delay and complication, we’d gone probably too far down the line, but yeah I’d definitely have tried to manage it myself if I’d known that was the case.”

    On the Horizon Compensation Advisory Board’s call for all Post Office convictions to be quashed, he said:

    “In principle, I think that’s probably sensible. I know that just speaking to Nick Read and others in the Post Office, they were pretty clear that there were cases that Horizon had absolutely nothing to do with it and there were clear fraudulent cases within that. I think you do get to a point though… when you’ve just got to say “this is going on for so long” and “Are you really going to hold this up? You’ve already made enough mistakes for goodness’ sake over 20 years. Just get through it.” So I think there is a case to look at that… in principle I’m in agreement with it.”

    It’s a wide-ranging conversation which gives some insight into what it’s like to be a junior minister with the job of attempting to put a serious wrong right.

    Have a listen here.

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Alan Bates Amanda Burton Andrew Winn Bates v Post Office Bonusgate Clarke Advice Detica Disclosure Double-entry accounting Elaine Cottam Eleanor Shaikh False Accounts Fraser Fujitsu Grabiner HCAB High Court Horizon Inquiry Janet Skinner Jarnail Singh Lee Castleton Lord Arbuthnot Neil Hudgell Nicki Arch Nick Read Noel Thomas Outcasts Creative Paula Vennells Paul Marshall Post Office Racist document Rebecca Thomson Receipts and Payments mismatch bug Richard Moorhead Richard Roll Rob Wilson Rod Ismay Seema Misra Stephen Dilley Suspense accounts Swift Review The Stamp of Innocence Tracy Felstead Wendy Buffrey

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Latest Comments

  1. Ps to my earlier comment: even if direct lies were not told, the errors of omission quoted in Lord Arbuthnot’s…

  2. I am sickened by the appalling lies told to Lord Arbuthnot by Alice Perkins and the others, including Paula Vennells.…

  3. Absolutely staggering! Hard to believe this could happen on this scale in this country.

  4. So sorry to reply yet again – but I wonder if anyone else noticed a lady newsreader’s slip-up on TV…