Secret email about the Post Office Scandal. Shh!

Political leaders respond to Post Office drama as matter is debated in parliament

Public outcry provokes action

Television Centre at around 6.15am this morning

Hello all

Many times over the years covering this story I hoped we might get to a moment where this story would become huge. I thought that moment was on 23 April 2021 when so many Subpostmasters got their convictions quashed and dear old Tom Hedges was filmed popping open a bottle of prosecco outside the Royal Courts of Justice.

I never thought for a moment we’d be where we are now, witnessing a tide of public outrage washing around the nation as a result of the ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office.

I spent every waking moment yesterday stressing about not managing to write you a newsletter whilst arranging, travelling to or participating in broadcast interviews across various outlets. I managed fourteen – highlights being:

– the privilege of listening to Karen Wilson talk about her husband Julian on Nicky Campbell’s show on BBC 5 Live (first hour)

– finding myself at Wogan House talking to Jeremy Vine about the drama and the scandal on Radio 2 (first half hour).

Many more interviews were conducted by Subpostmasters, who once more were being required to dredge up the memories of their painful experiences for the benefit of the public.

I heard and/or saw Jo Hamilton, Seema Misra, Lee Castleton, Mohammed Rasul, Jess Kaur, Tom Hedges, Tim Brentnall, Tracy Felstead, Pauline Stonehouse, Siema Kamran, Varchas Patel and Alan Bates who seems to have abandoned his media reticence and is (rightfully) going full bore. I know many more Subpostmasters also spoke (several here, to the Guardian) – I am sorry not to have caught you all.

Old campaigners and law horses

There were many other voices adding to the debate. Some were old campaigners like Lord Arbuthnot, Kevan Jones MP and David Davis MP (btw there’s an interesting think-piece mentioning Lord Arbuthnot on politicians as heroes in this Conservative Home column).

Others were experts in law. Neil Hudgell of Hudgell Solicitors has said that more than 100 new victims have come forward to his firm alone. I also heard Professor Richard Moorhead and former Lord Chancellor Charlie Falconer talk with some eloquence about the need to get convictions quashed and how easy it is where there is political will (listen to their interview in the first hour of this programme on Sunday on BBC 5 live here).

Yesterday’s BBC Radio 4 Today interview with Professor Chris Hodges, Chair of the Horizon Compensation Advisory Board and Emeritus Professor of Justice Systems at Oxford University, was a particular highlight. Listen to it at 1hr 9 mins into the programme here.

On top of this the leaders of the three main political parties were required to justify themselves and their actions in relation to the scandal. Rishi Sunak did not repeat his howler on Laura Kuenssberg’s show on Sunday, in which he stated that the Horizon scandal was “something that happened in the ’90s”, a statement I pointed out was factually incorrect on Jeremy Vine’s show, before going on to make a howler of my own.

Bad dog

In fact, during a couple of interviews, whilst trying to give credit where due, I said that Natasha Bondy, creative director of Little Gem productions, approached me with a view to discussing a documentary into the scandal (this bit is true – so far so good).

I then said she took the idea to Patrick Spence at ITV Studios who suggested it would make an excellent drama. This was inaccurate. Natasha thought it would make an excellent drama, which is why she took it to Patrick Spence, who has awards for this sort of thing coming out of his ears. The rest is history.

I’m sorry for the mistake – I misremembered a conversation we had three years ago. After I was reminded of the correct sequence of events, I made sure I got it right for last night’s interview (alongside exonerated Subpostmaster Tim Brentnall) on Talk TV and again for Richard Madeley and Susanna Reid on Good Morning Britain this morning (click here, wait for the ads then go to 1hr 16 minutes).

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People care – details matter

Speaking of credit where due, every time this story gets a little (or big) bump, people start arguing on social meda about who broke it first and who has made most of the running on it.

Whilst this is a distraction from the job of making sure we, as journalists, are all doing everything possible to get every facet of the scandal out there, new subscribers to this email are welcome to use this post I wrote in 2020 to settle any bets.

In short, it was m’podcasting colleague Rebecca Thomson at Computer Weekly who broke this story in 2009, and, yes, the BBC got to it before Private Eye. Karl Filnders at CW and Richard Brooks at the Eye have done dazzling work since.

One other person mentioned by name in that blog post is Tom Witherow, formerly of the Daily Mail, now of The Times. In my view Tom is currently making the running when it comes to breaking news lines in this story. Salut.

Speaking of mistakes, the Paula Vennells’ church has taken issue with ITV’s Mr Bates…

The Reverend Vennells (you did know she was a non-stipendiary, and since 2021 non-practising vicar, didn’t you?) was Chief Executive of the Post Office between 2012 and 2019 and was written a key role in the drama. The Telegraph reports her bishop’s spokesman saying the series “diverged from established public fact”, and in that respect was “a bit like The Crown”.

The petition to relieve Rev Vennells of her CBE has now hit 1m signatures.

In other news:

Here are what the front pages are saying today.

Gaby Hinsliff wrote a strong column in the Guardian about the Post Office disaster and our inability to offer timely redress to victims of any scandal, long after the facts have come to light.

Professor Richard Moorhead has added to his Post Office Substack with a piece called “How soon is now… a quick post on what’s wrong with the Post Office Appeal cases”.

If you don’t already, please consider subscribing to Prof Moorhead’s substack newsletter. It’s free and full of superb thinking and writing about the legal aspects of this affair.

Questions in the House

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Yesterday evening the House of Commons discussed the Post Office scandal. Usually these debates are sparsely attended affairs. This time the chamber, if not exactly packed, was busy-ish, something noted by Kevan Jones MP, who drily told his colleagues:

“I think we need more TV dramas, because it has had a remarkable effect on attendance in this House tonight.”

On Prof Chris Hodges’ letter to the Lord Chancellor which called for ALL Post Office-related convictions to be peremptorily quashed, Post Office minister Kevin Hollinrake said:

“All of us in the House are united in our desire to see justice done, and we have devised some options for resolving the outstanding criminal convictions at much greater pace. The Lord Chancellor will, rightly, need to speak to senior figures in the judiciary about those options before we put them forward, but I am confident that we should be able to implement measures that address the concerns expressed by the advisory board. I hope that the Government will be able to announce those proposals to the House very shortly.”

He also announced “retired High Court judge Sir Gary Hickinbottom has agreed to chair an independent panel that will assess the pecuniary losses of those postmasters with overturned convictions where disputes arise. That will bring independent oversight to compensation payments in a similar way to Sir Ross Cranston’s oversight of the group litigation order scheme and the independent panel in the Horizon shortfall scheme”.

It is unlikely to make it less of a mess or speed it up, though I would be delighted to be proved wrong.

Counting the cash

Hollinrake also announced that 30 people with overturned convictions (from a current figure of 93) have now agreed full and final compensation and that £30m has been paid out to people with overturned convictions including interim payments. I got tripped up in my last newsletter when I did some back-of-a-fag-packet maths with some older figures and calculated that the average full and final payment came in at around £490,000 – below the government’s minimum offer of £600,000.

A contact at the Business Department wrote to tell me that agreeing full and final compensation is not the same as it being paid out. The same trap remains in place for the unwary above – agreements made are different from monies paid out.

I am seeking a clear number from the Business Department on the average payment to those with overturned convictions. I’m expecting it be above £600,000, but not much higher, because, as the Post Office did with the Historical Shortfall Scheme, the government is much more likely to be settling the less complicated cases first.

It was a lengthy debate. You can watch it here, or read the transcript on Hansard.

FU-jitsu

I am delighted more and more people are focusing on Fujitsu’s role in the debacle. I managed to explain some of their failings at length on GMB this morning. For those wanting to find out more, here are two related pieces I wrote, which I think still stand up:

Fujitsu tries to dodge the blame bus

and

Why hasn’t Fujitsu sacked Andy Dunks?

I’m looking forward to seeing one of their senior executives before the inquiry, perhaps the clown who wrote the misleading letter to parliament which I went through in the first article above.

When will it stop?

I think I could make this newsletter several thousand words long, but for all our sakes, I won’t. I am sorry if you think I have missed something important and I am sorry if this is too meaty an affair already. The secret email is not normally like this. The world is not normally like this.

I’ll leave you with a reminder that the Post Office Horizon IT statutory inquiry is cranking up on Thursday after its Christmas break. If you want to find out more about this scandal and be kept up to date on developments at the inquiry, you can come and see me go through all the details in person at a theatre (hopefully) near you. All the dates, details and special guests can be found on the Live Events page of the Post Office Scandal website.

Thanks so much to all the new subscribers for joining. It’s wonderful to have you on board. I apologise if I have not or cannot respond to any emails or information you have sent me. Things aren’t as ridiculous as last week, but it looks like it’s going to take a long time to quieten down. I think that’s a good thing.

Very best

Nick


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