UPDATE: The inquiry’s hearings have now been postponed at least until 25 July, possibly until after summer.
ORIGINAL COPY: The statutory public inquiry into the Post Office Horizon IT scandal is looking very wobbly. Last month’s hearings were postponed as the Chair, Sir Wyn Williams, was ill. Last night we heard Sir Wyn is considering postponing most of this month’s hearings until after summer because of the Post Office’s failure to properly disclose documents to the inquiry, which might be of relevance to this month’s witnesses.
We’ve already seen the second postponement of Gareth Jenkins’ evidence (the Fujitsu engineer under criminal investigation), firstly because he wasn’t prepared to give full evidence without immunity from prosecution (refused), secondly due to a lack of Post Office disclosure.
Today the inquiry will hear from lawyers for the Subpostmasters. The chair wants to know if they are happy to plough ahead, aware that the Post Office still has not disclosed all the relevant documents, or if they want to punt the next two weeks’ witnesses back to the other side of summer. It’s a tricky one to call, as the chair has made it plain that if a relevant document comes to light then witnesses can be recalled.
Reverberations and ramifications
Whilst the lawyers for the Subpostmasters have complained about the Post Office’s manner of disclosure to the inquiry in the past, the reason the Inquiry knows the Post Office has not been disclosing relevant documents to it is entirely down to Eleanor Shaikh’s FOI request which revealed the Post Office Security Team Compliance document’s racist classification codes for Subpostmasters.
This document had not been given to the Inquiry. On realising this, the Inquiry carpeted the Post Office’s General Counsel, Ben Foat, on Tuesday last week, and then the chair issued a Stern Bollocking to the Post Office demanding it sort its disclosure out.
You may remember Post Office execs awarded themselves bonuses for their brilliant work on the Inquiry and then falsely stated why the bonuses had been approved. They said it was because Sir Wyn Williams had signed off their target metric. This was completely untrue.
What had happened was that the Post Office, in the absence of getting approval from Sir Wyn (who didn’t know anything about the bonus scheme), asked its own lawyers to the Inquiry if it had been doing a good job. Amazingly its lawyers, Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF), told the Post Office it had been doing a grand job and should award itself 100% of the bonus metric (see Q7 here). Which it did.
The Chair of the Business Select Committee, Darren Jones MP, believes there is the possibility that the person at the Post Office who decided it was fine that HSF had signed off on the bonus metric rather than Sir Wyn (whilst stating in the PO’s annual report that he had), may have committed the crime of false accounting (see Qs 7, 10, 13, 55 here).
The Post Office commissioned the incoming chair of its remuneration committee, Amanda Burton, to find out how it managed to put a falsehood in its annual report. Burton wrote an awful review which not only failed to find out how it happened, she couldn’t even identify who at the Post Office made the decision to use HSF rather than seeking sign-off from Sir Wyn. I am of the view that neither the Post Office, nor the Post Office minister should accept this report. It’s not even semi-competent.
Darren Jones has now written to the Post Office asking for the identity of the person who made the decision to accept HSF’s conclusions and allow the falsehood into the annual report. They may now face criminal investigation.
Only a Bit of a Bonus
Don’t forget the Post Office executives who handed back their bonuses after this was all exposed, only handed back a quarter of their bonuses relating to work on the inquiry, despite stating in their annual report that to qualify for their inquiry bonuses all the work had to be approved by Sir Wyn (see page 39 here).
Darren Jones has asked the Post Office execs to consider returning all of the money awarded to them for their work in the inquiry, given they patently failed to meet the target they set. When I asked Post Office CEO, Nick Read if he was prepared to do that, he said: “I don’t think so.”
This disastrous sideshow is distracting from the key job of the inquiry, which is to find out which individuals were responsible for the potential criminal conspiracy to pervert the course of justice which came about when the Post Office realised it had been prosecuting Subpostmasters on the basis of flimsy evidence.
My work on the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry is largely crowdfunded. If you’d like to contribute, please click on the widget you should be seeing to the right of this text (or below if you’re reading it on a mobile). To find out more before donating, please go to my tip jar web page. All contributors will be added to the ‘secret’ email newsletter, which offers irregular, and at times, irreverent insight into the machinations of the inquiry and the wider scandal. If you’d like to buy my book The Great Post Office Scandal, I would be thrilled – it’s available from all good outlets.