There has been a flurry of activity this morning over compensation for Subpostmasters as the government announced details of a scheme which will hopefully get the 492 (the 555 minus those with quashed/unquashed criminal convictions who will go into the overturned compensation scheme if/when their convictions are overturned).
The structure of the scheme is complicated and not a million miles from the Historical Shortfall Scheme (HSS), but the presence of Lord Arbuthnot and Kevan Jones MP on the scheme’s independent advisory board might give applicants some comfort.
The JFSA has been defeaning by its public silence and lack of endorsement. But… Alan Bates was in parliament today to hear the details of the scheme being debated and I am told he, officials from the Business department (BEIS) and lawyers from Freeths have been having weekly meetings over the last few months in order to thrash things out. I suspect he is adopting a watching brief.
I know one thing Freeths are unhappy about is the draft claim form which BEIS has already published on the gov.uk website. James Hartley from Freeths says the form needs to be much more up front about the sort of losses Subpostmasters can claim for, specifically consequential losses. One of the reasons the Post Office has got away with bouncing so many vulnerable Subpostmasters into almost criminally low amounts of compensations in the HSS was because it disguised the legally-binding claim form as an innocent-looking application form and made it all about shortfalls rather than reputational, mental health and future earning damages.
The Post Office has now published its statistics on the HSS, saying 75% of claims have been settled. I dread to think how many people have accepted less than they were due.
When I asked Kevan Jones if the aim of the 492 scheme was to ensure those who had lost out unfairly would be restored to where they were financially if they hadn’t come into contact with the Post Office Horizon IT system, he said ‘that’s exactly where we’ve got to get to’.
The legal advisors to the scheme have yet to be appointed (it won’t be Freeths or Herbert Smith Freehills, or indeed anyone who has represented Subpostmasters or the Post Office on matters anywhere close to this).
Informal soundings have already been taken from potentially interested firms. If any of the legal eagles reading this get a whiff of who might be in the running, please let me know (all correspondence is treated in the strictest confidence).
If you want to see the results of the consultation which led to the scheme’s design, you can find the relevant document here.
The Independent Advisory Board is distinct from the Independent Panel overseeing the scheme. Kevan Jones and Lord Arbuthnot will not be sitting in judgment on individual cases.
That job goes to the accountant, lawyer and retail expert sitting on the Independent Panel. Outstanding isputes between the administrators of the scheme (lawyers and claim facilitators with experience of ADR – alternative dispute resolution) and Subpostmasters over offers of compensation will be raised to the panel.
I asked BEIS if Second Sight would considered for the forensic accountant role on the Panel. The answer was, in short, “no”. The reason why was something to do with not just getting independent adjudicators on the panel, but “disinterested” ones. I hope they are not too disinterested.
The independent panel, if they cannot adjudicate on a dispute can seek expert advice (eg psychiatric evaluation) if they want to. The cost of this will be borne by BEIS.
I think Mr Bates is right to adopt a watching brief. BEIS seem unaccountably proud of the HSS, which from where I’m sitting seems designed to fob desperate people off with pathetically low offers and only grudgingly raise them if they have particularly tenacious lawyers and water-tight documentation. I expect this is the area that will be generating the fireworks tomorrow.
Today in parliament
It was discombobulating to see Grant Shapps, the former Secretary of State for Transport now acting as the Business Secretary commending this new compensation scheme to the House. You can watch his statement and the various MPs who made contributions to the subsequent debate here (it starts at 13:15).
Challenged by Labour’s Chi Onwurah (Shapps’ opposite number) on the lack of endorsement for the scheme from the JFSA, Shapps said “They will speak for themselves – as they always have done – about the extent to which they are satisfied with today’s statement, but we have been working closely, and my honourable friend the Small Business Minister [Kevin Hollinrake] has been meeting with them and will obviously keep a close eye on the operation of this.”
Onwurah and many other MPs, wanted to know about accountability. In response to question from Kevan Jones, Grant Shapps replied: “we will not allow any process or shyness of what it might uncover to prevent the legal process from being able to run its full course.”
Karl Turner tried again, saying: “People at the very top must have made decisions to block defence lawyers getting information that was incredibly important to the defendants… Those victims—those men and women in the Public Galley—and their families will not feel they have had justice until every single person responsible is criminally investigated, potentially prosecuted and, if convicted, sent to prison for a very long time. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that is his intention?”
Shapps attempted some mollifying words: “I do not want to stray too far into the judicial area,” he said “other than to say, as I mentioned before, that when Sir Wyn Williams completes his inquiry and makes his recommendations, this Government will take every single proposal very seriously. Everyone, not just those directly involved but the country at large, must know and see that the overall system, both the democratic part and the courts, got to the truth in the end.”
The Big Compensation Hearing
There should be a substantial turnout at the International Dispute Resolution Centre tomorrow. Whether I will be able to join everyone depends on whether or not I can shake a horrendous cold which struck me down on Monday.
It stopped me appearing on the BBC News Channel earlier this afternoon. They booked Calum Greenhow from the NFSP instead. I have vowed henceforth to do everything I can to say yes to any broadcast media request going forward unless I am literally at death’s door.
The schedule Is pretty straightforward. Post Office, BEIS and Hudgells in the morning, Hodge Jones and Allen and Howe and Co in the afternoon. All the above parties, plus Freeths and the barrister Paul Marshall have made written submissions to the hearing, which you can read here.
I have not read every submission and I ask the parties’ forgiveness, as I am sure they contain a raft of valid points, but i have had a chance to read Mr Marshall’s submission in full. It develops a very interesting legal argument. If accepted by the inquiry it could potentially unlock the door to serious compensation. Marshall says:
“a convicted defendant has a right, recognised and guaranteed by statute, to the hearing of an appeal within a reasonable time. That is part of the Article 6(1) right under the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR)… Where the delay to the hearing of an appeal is unreasonable, it is for the state to come forward with explanations… The Court of Appeal was singularly uninterested in this important circumstance – and requirement – in its judgment in Hamilton v Post Office Ltd  EWHC 577. No formal explanation has ever been provided.”
It’s a jolly good bedtime read (well, actually it served to make me angry all over again). Either way, I comment it to the house.
You can follow tomorrow’s proceedings from 10am on the Inquiry’s youtube channel here. If you want to see where the issue of compensation was left by the inquiry’s chair, Sir Wyn Williams, as a primer, you can read his latest report on the matter here.
Noel Thomas given an award
I could not be more delighted to tell you that the wonderful Noel Thomas has been honoured by Anglesey Council, sixteen years after being dismissed and disqualified as a councillor on account of his now-quashed criminal conviction.
Noel has been a stalwart campaigner for Subpostmasters and is genuinely one of my favourite human beings. I am delighted that not only has he been exonerated, but now, deservedly, commended by his community. Noel spent his life as a fantastic public servant, and I hope they find the people who prosecuted him and ask them some hard questions.
You can see photos of Noel receiving his award on this BBC News piece here. Da iawn, hogyn (I hope I’ve got that right!)
Finally – hello and welcome to all the new secret emailers who have joined in the last week. I hope there is enough in this newsletter alone to keep you busy for a bit. I will be back on Friday with a report from the compensation hearing. If I don’t make it in I’ll watch it remotely, but Rebecca Thomson, who has a much sterner constitution than me, will be in the inquiry room keeping a close eye on proceedings. Between us, we’ll knock up a podcast and get the relevant reports done.
Enjoy what’s left of the evening.