Lord Arbuthnot and the Lies

James Arbuthnot

The former MP who started the Parliamentary campaign to help Subpostmasters in their fight for justice, gave evidence at the public inquiry into the Post Office Horizon IT scandal on Wednesday.

James Arbuthnot told inquiry he was first alerted to potential problems with the Horizon system during a coffee morning in his constituency, in 2009, when he was introduced the former sub postmaster Jo Hamilton.

Arbuthnot at first attempted to raise Hamilton’s case with the government, specifically the Secretary of State for Business, Peter (now Lord) Mandelson. Arbuthnot received a “frustrating” response from Mandelson’s junior, Pat McFadden, effectively washing the government’s hands of the Post Office business, despite being its sole shareholder.

Undeterred, Arbuthnot founded a group of MPs who also had constituents claiming they had suffered life changing problems as a result of their interactions with the horizon IT system, and the Post Office’s punitive practices.

They eventually found themselves, in 2012, face-to-face with Paula Vennells and other senior executives at the Post Office. None of the execs would entertain the idea that there was anything wrong with the Horizon IT system. Paula Vennells went one further. According to the minutes of the meeting, Vennells told the MPs:

“Every case taken to prosecution that involves the Horizon system thus far has found in favour of the Post Office.”

Demonstrably false

Jason Beer KC, who was asking Lord Arbuthnot questions on behalf of the Inquiry, queried this in a series of important rhetorical questions which neatly summarised, and devastatingly undermined Paula Vennells’ assertion.

Jason Beer KC

JB: Would you agree overall that this is a fair summary: the problem is that a small number of postmasters borrow money from the till; the problem is not Horizon; every prosecution involving Horizon has found in favour of the Post Office; and not a single case existed where, on investigation, the Horizon system was found to be at fault?
JA: Yes.
JB: I think it follows that Alice Perkins, Paula Vennells, Angela van den Bogerd and Alwen Lyons did not disclose to you and the other eight MPs or their representatives the following: firstly, anything about the
Julie Wolstenholme case…
JA: No, they didn’t.
JB:… in which expert evidence had been served by a man called Jason Coyne concerning bugs in the Horizon system and which case was subsequently settled by the Post Office?
JA: They didn’t disclose that, no.
JB: They didn’t mention the case of Lee Castleton and the obtaining of a report from BDO Stoy Hayward, which had found errors in the operation of the Horizon system?
JA: No, they didn’t.
JB: They didn’t mention the acquittal of Maureen McKelvey by a jury in 2004, Mrs McKelvey having blamed Horizon for the causing of losses of money which she was accused of stealing?
JA: No, they didn’t.
JB: They did not mention the speedy acquittal of Suzanne Palmer by a jury in 2007, Mrs Palmer also having blamed Horizon at trial for the losses attributable or said to be attributable to her?
JA: No, they didn’t.
JB: A jury question directed at the Post Office to the effect of “What is Mrs Palmer supposed to do if she didn’t agree the figure that Horizon had produced”, which the Post Office had been unable or unwilling to answer, and an order that the Post Office pay £78,000 in costs?
JA: No, they didn’t.
JB: They didn’t mention any of the following bugs, all of which had been discovered and notified to the Post Office by this time, the Callendar Square bug – sometimes known as the Falkirk bug – operative, by the Post Office’s admission, between 2000 and 2006 and, on the findings later of Mr Justice Fraser, until 2010?
JA: No, they didn’t mention.
JB: They didn’t mention the receipts and payments mismatch bug of 2010?
JA: No.
JB: The suspense account bug that was operative between 2010 and 2013?
JA: No.
JB: They didn’t mention the Dalmellington bug, operative from 2010 and the fact that it was still operative at the time of this meeting?
JA: No.
JB: They didn’t mention the remming in bug operative in 2010 or the remming out bugs operative in 2005 and, again, in 2007?
JA: No.
JB: They didn’t mention the local suspense account bug operative in 2010?
JA: No.
JB: The reversals bug operative in 2003?
JA: No.
JB: The Giro bank discrepancy bugs operative in 2000, 2001 and 2002?
JA: No.
JB: They didn’t mention that consideration had been given to the commissioning of an independent expert review and report on Horizon in December 2005, and again in March 2010, but that on each occasion the Post Office had decided against it, on the latter occasion seemingly on the grounds that it might be disclosable in criminal proceedings?
JA: They didn’t mention that.
JB: They didn’t mention problems with the so-called ARQ data and whether those issues should be revealed to criminal courts who are hearing criminal charges against subpostmasters based on ARQ data and of which the Post Office had been notified?
JA: No.
JB: Does it follow that your state of knowledge at this time, based on what the Post Office board member and executive members were telling you, was that you were unfair of any bugs, errors or defects which had been detected in Legacy Horizon or which were then evident and emerging in Horizon Online?
JA: Yes, I was unaware. I think we were all unaware, but Mike Wood was raising the question: is this the only absolutely perfect computer program in existence?
JB: You were unaware of the problems with the so-called ARQ data…
JA: I was.
JB: …and its presentation to criminal courts?
JA: Yes, completely unaware of that.

I was surprised Mr Beer had not mentioned Nicki Arch’s acquittal in 2002. So was she. As Ms Arch was in the room, she approached Beer during the break. After the break, Beer resumed his questioning of Lord Arbuthnot thus:

JB: Lord Arbuthnot, in my list of 16 or 17 things that were not mentioned to you against being told that every prosecution involving Horizon had found in favour of the Post Office and that not a single case existed where on investigation the Horizon system was found to be at fault, I omitted to include one, that of Ms Nichola Arch, who was acquitted [in 2002], so, very early on. Was that something that was mentioned to you?
JA: No, that was not something that was mentioned to me.
JB: I had mentioned the jury acquittal in 2004 of Maureen McKelvey and the jury acquittal of Suzanne Palmer in 2007, that’s a third jury acquittal not mentioned.
JA: Right.
JB: In that list of 16, now 17, issues that were not revealed to you at the meeting that we were talking about in mid-June, does the same apply to all of the meetings you had with senior Post Office managers, and by that I mean the meeting with Alice Perkins and Alwen Lyons on 13 March 2012?
JA: Oh yes, the same applies. I was not told “Here is a list of bugs that you ought to take into account”, no. They failed to do that.
JB: I might divide it into three. One is civil and criminal cases, the second is bugs and the third is consideration in the past of independent investigations?
JA: Absolutely. They did not do that.
JB: Does the same apply to the meeting with Alice Perkins and Paula Vennells on 17 May 2002?
JA: Yes.
JB: In all of this time, did any of them ever mention the facts and matters which I’ve listed, 16 or 17 of them?
JA: No.

Funny that.

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24 responses to “Lord Arbuthnot and the Lies”

  1. The trembling obfuscating ninny and nincompoop Rodric Williams has today been skewered in the Inquiry. Another smash hit by Mr Beer!

    Inter alia, the conspiracy to scare the BBC from platforming or even using one “Nick Wallis” has been exposed to the sanitising effects of sunlight.

    Another batch of names for seats in the tumbrils… I bags to be the driver.

  2. Great summary Nick, thank you.
    The behaviour of the Post Office as an organisation has been so appalling. And without a motive beyond covering up your mistakes, it seems.
    That is bad enough, but why did the legal process in our country also fail so many times? Why was the evidence of previous acquittals not relevant to new convictions in future trials which were also based solely on evidence from the Horizon system? Surely the process of convicting these unfortunate sub-postmasters is worthy of investigation?

  3. Robert Bluffield avatar
    Robert Bluffield

    I thought Lord Arbuthnot was an excellent and truly honest witness and he clearly and concisely exposed the many deceit and lack of openness that were attributed to Vennells and her colleagues. I continually fail to understand why none of those involved in the outrageous prosecutions of these innocent SPMs have not already been thoroughly investigated by the police and charged with perverting the course of justice and other serious criminal charges. I wonder whether any of those involved, in particular Paula Vennells will ever be called to account for what they have done and be sentenced to custodial terms.

  4. Shouldn’t the “2002” in “Does the same apply to the meeting with Alice Perkins and Paula Vennells on 17 May 2002?” be 2012?

    The same typo is in the official transcript.

    1. Fixed at my end. apols

  5. I realise that my previous comment might be open to misunderstanding.

    I don’t believe that the post-masters should have been convicted and that this was a tragic miscarriage of justice that has gone on for far too long. My point was that if the Post Office was so convinced that its postmasters and sub-postmasters were guilty of theft, why has this potentially significant lapse in their own judgement not been reviewed internally? In my opinion, this is another significant blow to the credibility of those at the PO who are responsible for this tragedy.

  6. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the Post Office’s positions are valid, its representatives truthful, and its communications are correct about the robustness and accuracy of their Horizon IT system: why has there been no indication that the Post Office had questions or concerns about their own internal processes that led to the preponderance of apparently corrupt and criminal individuals they were engaging as postmasters and sub-postmasters? For me, this is especially exasperating given the pride expressed by those in Senior Management in the number of convictions they obtained.

    Thank you, Nick, for your hard work on this story: your investigations, book, and the coverage by Private Eye are to be commended.

  7. Cannot believe that as early as 2002 the computer was proved to have been faulty and appalled all those following court cases hidden from Lord Arbuthnot to keep him fooled into believing PO lies.

    Thank you for listing these and why oh why have these people at the PO not yet been arrested as the evidence is clear that they lied, decieved, slandered and libelled sub postmasters and are beyond respect with no moral compass at all.

  8. No doubt they also didn’t mention that in 2003 POL settled the Cleveleys case to try and hide Jason Coyne’s expert criticism of Horizon.

  9. Amidst all the horrors being exposed during these proceedings, am I alone in admiring the sheer professionalism of the lead Counsel, Jason Beer KC ?
    Calm, determined, organised, and blessed with superb timing. A worthy heir to the late and legendary George Carmen QC . Truly a joy to watch his skills put to such good purpose. Judge Sir Wyn Williams is pretty smart too – an excellent choice who is clearly determined that the truth will at last be heard.

  10. I am ignorant about what remedies in law there may be for those , Alice Perkins, Paula Vennells and the others who told those frightful lies to Lord Arbuthnot in his earlier meetings with them. They surely ought to be prosecuted, should they not? But I am afraid I don’t know what offences exist for which these shocking people could be prosecuted. Can anyone with legal knowledge help?

  11. It’s all appalling. Speaks to people inadequate to the task of being decent and sensible….I seem to recall from Nick’s book that the number of prosecutions post introduction of Horizon was 13x the number before Horizon (info he found after FOI). This aught to have suggested to the meanest of intelligences that there was an issue that needed looking into as a matter of some importance. Of course this step change could have been for all sorts of reasons. But to not have had a metric like this front and centre at board level is, quite simply, a deriliction of duty.

  12. Re. POL Directors. Mr Beer should ask them why the Directors never queried the millions of £ shown on the POL accounts for POL Legal Costs (in-house, 3rd party, court trials, etc.). These must have been extremely high. How come a POL director never queried why there were so many costly court cases?
    So simply ask the Directors did they think that POL had contracts with 100s of fraudulent (and stupid!) SPMs that thought they could fool the computer system and steal from the PO and that it was acceptable to allow it to continue?

  13. Ps to my earlier comment: even if direct lies were not told, the errors of omission quoted in Lord Arbuthnot’s evidence to the Inquiry amount to lies in my opinion. I used to believe I the complete integrity of Civil Servants. What I have heard about Alice Perkins during this Inquiry has changed my belief.

  14. I am sickened by the appalling lies told to Lord Arbuthnot by Alice Perkins and the others, including Paula Vennells.
    I was an administrative civil servant colleague of Alice Perkins jn the Department of Health and Social Security in the 1970s. I would have hoped very much better of her. And she is married to Jack Straw. Where are her professional morals???

  15. Vernon Stradling avatar
    Vernon Stradling

    How’s the broken arm, Nick?

  16. Absolutely staggering! Hard to believe this could happen on this scale in this country.

  17. So sorry to reply yet again – but I wonder if anyone else noticed a lady newsreader’s slip-up on TV last night? Talking of Horizon, she called it ‘the bug with systems’. 😀 How much more appropriate that description was than what she (presumably) meant to say – ‘the system with bugs.’

  18. Thank you Nick both for your attendance at a difficult time for you and yet another excellent report. It was, I believe, quite remarkable, in view of everything that has been revealed about his many years of tireless work (and frustration), that Lord Arbuthnot retained his composure so well throughout his long evidence session. I found his final words the most moving of all. He said, in such a calm and understated way, “I think we are moving belatedly to the right place.”

  19. mark o'meara avatar

    Does “the show called ARQ data” mean ‘the so-called ARQ data’?

    1. yep sorry will fix

      1. Sorry another errata – “was that you were unfair of any bugs” unfair should read unaware?

    2. Also ” Does the same apply to the meeting with Alice Perkins and Paula Vennells on 17 May 2002?” Was this not 2012?

      1. Fixed, sorry

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