Government left monitoring of Post Office to ‘luck’

The government left it to “luck” to monitor the Post Office management, which meant it missed opportunities to prevent the Horizon scandal and the suffering it caused, the public inquiry has been told.

As an arms-length body, 100% owned by the government, the Post Office was free to run its business as it chose, with little government involvement.

According to evidence given in the latest Post Office Horizon scandal public inquiry hearing, the Post Office board of directors was the only check on the organisation, with the government shareholder relying on “luck” should the Post Office board miss things.

Post Office executives were aware of problems with the Horizon system, but stood back as subpostmasters were blamed for unexplained accounting shortfalls that could be caused by these flaws. Many were financially ruined and convicted of crimes.

During the latest hearing, barrister Christopher Jacobs, representing former subpostmasters, asked Mark Russell, former CEO of UK Government Investments – the body that oversees the government shareholding in the Post Office – what mechanisms were in place for “detecting and dealing with situations such as in this case where senior executives acted in bad faith in covering up matters?”

Russell said: “The principle answer to that has to be the Post Office board because they are our oversight. They have the time, they have the capacity, they have the knowledge and their function is to hold the executive to account. If they miss it, then we might just catch it, but I would have to say it is sort of luck. That said, we have missed things here, and it was a catastrophe.”

Russell also admitted that the government should have been “more sceptical and curious,” but said he would have “relished” uncovering what happened. He also confirmed that the Post Office’s arms-length status did not prevent ministers from intervening if needed.

Over the years, the government has repeatedly said that the Post Office is an arms-length organisation and the government leaves it alone to get on with its day-to-day business. 

Campaigners have criticised the government for not preventing the Post Office from wrongly prosecuting subpostmasters, as a member of government sits on the board of the organisation. There are also questions for the government about why the Post Office was allowed to spend millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money fighting a court case against subpostmasters in 2018/19, despite being aware of problems with Horizon.

Alan Bates, the former subpostmaster who spearheaded the legal challenge which the subpostmasters won, said: “As the government was relying on luck, I suppose it was unlucky for them that we caught it.”

Bates, who was recently knighted for his campaigning, added: “It comes down to what are these civil servants actually doing. Is it not their role to keep an eye in these issues?”

During his appearance at the public inquiry in April, Bates took a swing at  the civil service as well as the Post Office, accusing them of influencing government ministers over the scandal.

He told the inquiry: “A lot of ministers come in for stick, but I hold the civil service more to blame in a lot of the instances and [for the reasons] why things didn’t progress at the time. I am sure between [the civil service] and the Post Office, they were briefing ministers in the direction they wanted.”

The Post Office scandal was first exposed by Computer Weekly in 2009, revealing the stories of seven subpostmasters and the problems they suffered due to accounting software. It is one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British history (see below for timeline of Computer Weekly articles about the scandal, since 2009).

Also read: What you need to know about the Horizon scandal.

Also watch: ITV’s documentary – Mr Bates vs The Post Office: The real story.

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