Secret email about the Post Office Scandal. Shh!

The Noble Minister’s Bottom

“Malevolent incompetence”

Another day, another debate.

Lord Arbuthnot, tireless campaigner for the Subpostmasters cause, was tilting at the government again today. In a short debate in the Lords this morning (watch it here), he put on the record his demand for a judge-led inquiry into the Post Office scandal. The minister, Lord Callanan, is holding firm – there will be no judge-led inquiry, despite many peers demanding one.

Lord Arbuthnot said the current terms of reference for the independent review are inadequate, because:

“they don’t say anything about the likelihood of the Post Office improperly making a profit from the sub-postmasters, or about the suspense accounts or the critical role that Fujitsu played in all this. Without asking those questions, you cannot get to the bottom of this, as the Prime Minister wants.”

Lord Callanan repeatedly stated that getting to the “bottom” of “this” is government policy, yet armed with the review’s current terms of reference many peers and MPs seem to think we’ll be lucky to get below the navel.

The disgust for the way the Post Office has treated its Postmasters – with “malevolent incompetence” in the words of one noble Lord – rang true and deep. But Lord Callanan had his bottom, he was determined to examine it his way and he isn’t, for now, going to swap it for anyone else’s.

A taste of her own medicine

One other interesting thing of note in today’s debate (read it here) is that the government really wants us to know it is sort of going after former Post Office Chief Executive Paula Vennells.

Since Lord Callanan has been in post, the Rev Vennells has been disappeared from her Cabinet Office job. Now Callanan says “it would be very helpful if [Vennells] would account much more fully in public for what she knew and for the actions that she took at the time. I have written to the Department of Health to make clear our position on her future. The Care Quality Commission is, I believe, looking at whether she is a fit and proper person for the role that she holds. I hope that it will conduct that review swiftly. Obviously, I cannot predict that, and it is not a matter directly for me, but I have written to the Department of Health to make my views clear.”

I have written before about Paula Vennells flat refusal to be interviewed by any journalist about the decisions she made whilst CEO of the Post Office. If there were a judge-led inquiry into the scandal, she could be compelled to give evidence.

Charge of the select committee chair brigade

Continuing the judge-led inquiry vs lessons learned review debate, the chair of the BEIS select committee appears to have gone walloping into the middle ground by writing a letter to the Post Office minister Paul Scully asking for a lessons learned review with the teeth of inquiry. The journalist Tony Collins dissects this on his blog as does the mighty Karl Flinders at Computer Weekly.

Historical Shortfall Scheming

As readers of this week’s Private Eye will note, the lawyers running the Post Office’s Historical Shortfall Scheme are Herbert Smith Freehills. HSF are the same bunch behind the Post Office’s attempt to get the first group litigation judgment overturned on the grounds it was “radically wrong.”

Hmm. Turns out they were radically wrong.

HSF are also infamous for being the law firm which ran a compensation scheme for victims of the Lloyds/HBoS banking fraud, which was found by the Cranston Review to be both unfair and unreasonable in its failure to make a single award to applicants for their Direct and Consequential losses as a result of being defrauded by their bank.

Why the Post Office thought HSF were the right law firm to run a compensation scheme for Subpostmasters hoping to recover money they were forced to pay the Post Office on the basis of unsupported Horizon calculations is a mystery. One barrister told me it was like putting the fox in charge of the chicken coup.

I contacted the Post Office press office and asked “How do you know [HSF] will be fair and deliver just outcomes, rather than outcomes favourable only to the Post Office? Or is that the intention in appointing them?”

I was pointed towards the scheme’s FAQ.

HSF have already been complained about in parliament by the MP Kevin Hollinrake, who happens to have a constituent caught up in the Post Office scandal. The solicitor Neil Hudgell (who now represents a number of Subpostmasters) also has concerns about the Historical Shortfall Scheme, and has blogged about them here.

Btw, the independent panel for the scheme has been announced. They are:

Alex Charlton QC, a barrister with particular expertise in software and IT systems; Susan Blower, a forensic accounting partner at BDO and fellow of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales; and retail expert Sunder Sandher, a member of the Independent Retailer Board of the Association of Convenience Stores.

Crowdjustice link

Time is running out for the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance to hit their crowdfunding target of £98,000. JFSA members want to make a complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman about the government’s complicity in the Post Office scandal. At the time of writing they are very nearly half way there with 12 days to go. If you haven’t made a pledge, do consider it. If the total is not reached, your account will not be debited. Donate and learn more here.

As we’re on the subject of Justice, remember the CCRC asked the Ministry of Justice Select Committee to examine the rules around private prosecutions in the light of the Post Office’s alleged abuse of process? Expect some news on that next week. But you didn’t hear it from me, right?

Thanks for all the ongoing correspondence. I think I’m almost on top of it. Nudge me if you have an outstanding query. And have a great weekend.


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