Further questions in the Lords tonight
So much for trying to take a few days off. This scandal has erupted.
The Urgent Question moved in the Commons yesterday by the Labour whips unleashed quite an extraordinary action by MPs. They homed in with such precision on the hapless minister Paul Scully, by the end of it he looked like he was almost in distress.
Chi Onwurah, Mr Scully’s shadow, spoke eloquently from the opposition front bench. Straight out of the blocks she said “The Post Office Horizon scandal may well be the largest miscarriage of justice in our history.”
She added: “Nine hundred prosecutions, each one its own story of dreams crushed, careers ruined, families destroyed, reputations smashed and lives lost—innocent people bankrupted and imprisoned. Does the Minister agree that Monday’s “Panorama” adds to the sense of a cover-up on a grand scale in the Post Office, a trusted national institution?”
It was nice that both Ms Onwurah and the minister mentioned the Panorama, but when it came to the alleged cover-up and multiple demands for a judge-led inquiry, the minister was in full “lessons will be learned” mode, promoting the government’s idea of an independent review.
But this was not enough for MPs, who described what the Post Office has been up to as “one of the worst disasters in public life since the contaminated blood scandal” and “as big a scandal as that of the Guildford Four”.
Later in the debate Alistair Carmichael said, dryly, “It is noble of the Minister to offer himself up as a human shield for the Post Office in this way” and added “I hope that, when he returns to the Department today, he will tell his officials… that this review will just not cut it… it requires a judge-led inquiry. That is what will happen eventually, so why not just cut to the quick and do it now?”
This was a telling and casual flexing of parliamentary muscle, backed by Andrew Mitchell, who asked Mr Scully: “Will he bear in mind that the Prime Minister confirmed on 26 February that there would indeed be an inquiry, and, following this urgent question, will he discuss with his colleagues in the Government whether the will of the House may be different on this point from the will of the Government?”
A colleague pointed out the implication here. The House is sovereign – if the idea of a review is moved to a vote somewhere down the line, there may be enough rebels on the Tory side to defeat the government. Mr Mitchell was firing a warning shot. Accept the will of the House, or you are going to lose.
Circle the wagons
Mr Scully went on the defensive. He told the House several times that the independent review would be exactly the same as a judge-led inquiry except without a judge, and cheaper and shorter, and that he was doing this purely for the Postmasters to serve their need for justice. Given the head of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance has already made it clear he wants a judge-led inquiry and intimated he will boycott anything else, this seems a little disingenuous.
The clear impression I came away with from this was that MPs are now on the case, ferociously. They are very well informed, they understand the scale of this scandal and I don’t see any appetite amongst them for letting the government get away with setting up an independent review.
Incidentally, Bryan Glick, the editor of Computer Weekly tweeted a link to the review’s terms of reference during the debate. He noted: “It’s rubbish. All about lessons learned and not making same mistakes again – nothing about accountability for PO execs or redress for #postofficetrial victims.”
After having a look I was inclined to agree. I tweeted: “I think it’s fair to say what [Paul Scully] said the review will be bears no relation to its written scope…. He either needs to change its scope to what he said… in the Commons this afternoon, or admit it will be nothing more than the scope of the review.”
Mr Scully replied to my tweet: “I was reading from that document at one point in the UQ”
Bryan Glick got back first, saying: “Paul, which bit of the statement says the review will determine Post Office executives’ accountability for what has happened, and ensure appropriate redress for victims?
The question went unanswered.
Lords duke it out
The heat now moves to the Upper House. Tonight at 6.15pm, Lord Callanan will respond to an urgent question from Lord Arbuthnot on the issue of how much the government knew about what the Post Office has been up to.
Where this goes next is anybody’s guess. I don’t know enough about how parliament operates, but the battle lines are clearly drawn. In both houses Labour, the SNP, the Lib Dems want a judge-led inquiry as do a large number of Tory backbenchers.
The fact the Labour front bench are getting involved is a sign that this could go into the mainstream very quickly. One more serious push and you could see the likes of Laura Kuenssberg reporting it as a political story and then suddenly everyone would know about it.
There are good write-ups of the exchanges in parliament yesterday in the Daily Mail and Computer Weekly – and journalist Tony Collins has reimagined the discussions between mandarin and minister about the government’s “independent review” as a scene from Yes, Minister. Tony has also written a more sober post about the latest situation here, too.
In other parliamentary activity news Kevan Jones has just put down a Early Day Motion thus:
“That this House recognises the life-changing injustices experienced by subpostmasters throughout the Horizon scandal; notes with the deepest sadness that subpostmasters have served custodial sentences and suffered bankruptcy for offences they did not commit; recognises the role of the Government in prolonging this crisis through not fulfilling their role of shareholder representation on the board of Post Office Limited; expresses concern at the scope and formation of the inquiry currently outlined by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; and strongly urges the Government to institute a judge-led public inquiry into this matter at the earliest opportunity.”
If you support the motion yourself, it might be worth writing to your MP to ask them to do the same. It will show the strength of feeling in the House and give the government an idea of the scale of the battle they might have to take on if they insist on the independent review.
The Jeremy Vine Show had Seema Misra on air yesterday and who happened to be listening but Jo Hamilton, who emailed in, and before you knew it, was on the air talking about her case and the wider story. Have a listen here.
There is also the possibility I might be on the Radio 4 religious breakfast programme on Sunday talking about this story in the context of complaints against Paula Vennells made to the Bishop of St Albans.
Ms Vennells is a preacher in the Bromham Benefice. Some people don’t think she should be and have complained. One of those complainants might be on the radio on Sunday and I’ll just be there to give some wider context to the story.
Thanks and apologies
Over the last three weeks I have been inundated with correspondence. Despite the fact I haven’t actually done any paid work over the last two days, I also haven’t managed to make much headway in triaging my emails, DMs, PMs etc and responding accordingly. I am sorry if you ware one of the many people awaiting a response. It will come, but it may not be this week!
Thank you also very much to the new secret emailers behind the many donations I have received recently. You are wonderfully generous and very welcome here. I hope you will come to see it as money well spent. I am also hoping that this newsletter will continue to serve its purpose as a one-stop-shop for all the latest developments in this story. I’m only as good as the information I receive, so please let me know if I am missing something or you have a story yourself (or even better, a document you want to pass on). Everything will be treated in absolute confidence unless you state otherwise!
Enjoy the debate tonight – I’ll make sure both it and the Commons urgent questions are up on the Post Office Trial website tomorrow for your easy reading pleasure.
As the kids say – laterz…