What Sir Humphrey Told Swinson

Oh, no, minister… there’s nothing to worry about here…

An enthusiastic follower of the Post Office Horizon Scandal has unearthed a document via the Business department which I am sure will be of interest to Sir Wyn Williams’ statutory inquiry.

John O’Sullivan asked BEIS to send him (via the excellent whatdotheyknow.com website) any briefing documents given to Jo Swinson about Horizon when she took up her role as Postal Services minister in 2012. BEIS has obliged, finding a briefing note on the subject handed to Ms Swinson between August and November 2012.

The document is neither dated, nor authored. It states:

“there has been a small trickle of cases referred to Ministers from or on behalf of former spms [Subpostmasters] who have had their contracts terminated by POL [the Post Office] for financial ‘discrepancies or shortages’ (falling within the range of theft, false accounting or negligence) who have claimed that there are systemic faults with Horizon which have caused the losses rather than theft or other financial malpractice by themselves or members of their staff/family.”

This makes it clear that this “small trickle” of people are claiming miscarriages of justice. One of the most serious harms the state can inflict on an individual.

Turning to Horizon, the document states:

“Over its extensive period of operation the system has proved robust.”

But it does not cite how or why the author has come to this conclusion.

Seven years later, after a proper examination, Horizon was found to be “not remotely robust” by Mr Justice Fraser, a direct contradiction of Sir Humphrey’s damaging assertion.

The document goes on to state that the Post Office “believes that if there were any systematic integrity issues within the system they would have been evident over the past 10 years.”

This is a misleading belief, and a dangerous one to repeat. It does not take a genius to realise that for something to go catastrophically wrong for an individual Subpostmaster, there didn’t need to be systematic integrity issues, just occasional ones.

Reassuringly, the document states: “Both the NFSP and CWU have expressed full confidence in the system”, again without citation. This is perhaps the most damaging sentence in the breifing note, because if there were anything wrong with Horizon, you would have thought the two unions whose members used it would be hopping up and down, yet strangely, they weren’t.

The author of the document goes on to note that during a meeting on 18 June 2012 between MPs and the Post Office, it was decided a forensic accounting firm would be appointed to investigate “a small number of individual cases”. The firm was Second Sight and the conerns became the “Spot Reviews”, four of which were attached to Second Sight’s famous Interim Report, published the following year.

The briefing document to Swinson is interesting because it presents the minister with an important position for the state to adopt. Either what the report calls a “miniscule” number of people are falsely claiming to be innocent of criminal offences, or there is the potential for several serious miscarriages of justice to have taken place.

What Jo Swinson did about this isn’t clear, as she has refused to acknowledge any requests for an interview about her three years as Postal Services minister ever since.

Younger readers may be wondering what on earth the reference to Sir Humphrey is all about. If that’s you, read on, or watch here

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