Kevan Jones – 2020 Speech on the Post Office Following the Horizon Settlement

Below is the text of the speech made by Kevan Jones, the Labour MP for North Durham, in the House of Commons on 19 March 2020.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Horizon settlement and future governance of Post Office Ltd.

Innocent people jailed; individuals having their good name and livelihoods taken away from them; the full use of the state and its finances to persecute individuals. Those are all characteristics of a totalitarian or police state. But that is exactly what we have seen in the 21st century in the way the Government and the Post Office have dealt with sub-postmasters and their use of the Horizon system. The Horizon system was the biggest non-military IT project in Europe. It cost over £1 billion to install and affected 18,000 post offices throughout the UK.

Before I go on, I would like to pay tribute to some individuals who I have been working long and hard with on this campaign. The first is the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen), who cannot be here today because, unfortunately, a family member is ill and he has had to self-isolate. He has been with me from the start in trying to get justice for sub-postmasters, and I will refer to some of his work later. He would like to have been here and sends his apologies; that he is not here does not mean that he is not interested in the outcome. I also thank James Arbuthnot, the former Member for North East Hampshire, who, despite being moved to God’s waiting room further along the corridor, has still consistently pressed the case for justice for sub-postmasters. I pay tribute to the work that he has done in the past and is doing now.

I want to mention two other individuals. Alan Bates is the lead claimant in the class action. Alan has been a stalwart and stuck by his principles—knowing, as he said, that “I am right and I am going to make sure we get the truth out.” The other person is someone who has very helpfully shone a spotlight on the issue, and has spent many hours sitting through long court cases: Nick Wallis is a journalist who has kept this story in the public domain. Alan and Nick both deserve credit for their continued actions now and their work in the past.

I first came to be involved in the issue when a constituent came to see me in my surgery. That constituent was Tom Brown. Tom, like many other thousands of sub-postmasters, was a hard-working and well-respected individual. He had won awards from the Post Office for fighting off an armed robber in his post office, but because of the introduction of the Horizon system, he was accused of stealing £84,000 from the Post Office. Even though he said and demonstrated that that was not the case, the Post Office took him to court, and he went through the agony of being publicly shamed in his local community—we must remember that a lot of these individuals are the stalwarts of their local communities.

Tom went to Newcastle Crown court, and on the day of the trial the Post Office withdrew the case, but the damage had already been done. His good name had been ruined, and he had lost—because he had had to go bankrupt—in excess of nearly half a million pounds in the form of his business, the bungalow that he had bought for his retirement and some investment properties. ​He now lives with his son in social housing in South Stanley. The man who should have had a nice retirement, and who was well respected in his community, has been completely ruined and is destitute. Despite that—he came to see me last week—he is an individual who still has integrity, because he has always insisted that he is innocent of what he was accused of, and he has not been alone. Despite that—he came to see me last week— he is an individual who still has integrity, because he has always insisted that he is innocent of what he was accused of, and he has not been alone. The estimate from the class action that has been taken is 555, and there are many others, some unfortunately who have died since the case was taken forward.

The scandal of this—what makes me so angry and why I have persistently hung on to the campaign—is that the Post Office knew all along that the Horizon system was flawed.

Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) (Con)

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Is not the other scandal in this that the courts time and again failed the victims? In the prosecutions that were taken forward by the Post Office, the courts found in favour of the Post Office, despite it being unable to properly evidence its case. It is absolutely wrong. We must stand up for David versus Goliath in our courts.

Mr Jones

I will come back to that, which is something that I think my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) will refer to in his contribution.

The board minutes from 1999 show that the Post Office knew there were bugs in the system and software problems. It denied all the way through that, for example, the amounts that sub-postmasters inputted could be changed. That was just not true. It could be remotely done, and the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire and his constituent Mr Rudkin, who visited the headquarters where the data was being stored, proved that. In classic style, when he raised that the Post Office denied that he had ever visited the data centre in the first place, until he proved that he had. It was just one cover-up after another. The denial culture in the Post Office was described by Judge Fraser, in what I thought was a very good his judgment, as

“the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the earth is flat”,

because the evidence was there all the way through. There is no way that anyone who took an objective look at the system, in terms of the Post Office or Fujitsu, the contractor, could argue that it was perfect.

Duncan Baker (North Norfolk) (Con)

It has also come to light that the people who were fixing the system from behind the scenes, as the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, and who could go in and balance the tills as it were, were incentivised and paid to be speedy and quickly fix the issues, which made a lot of these cases even worse, so that balances that were already poor got even worse.

Mr Jones

It was even worse than that: for many years the Post Office denied that that could ever be done. It was only in 2011, after campaigning by me and others, ​that the Post Office had the forensic accountants Second Sight take a look, and it discovered exactly what the hon. Gentleman has just outlined. But what does the Post Office do? It set up a mediation service, but still denied that there was any problem, even though the evidence was there.

As for the operator, Fujitsu, it knew that there were glitches. Indeed, I have to say that it is as guilty of the cover-up as the Post Office. I cannot comment on the judgment—I think the judge has possibly referred the case to the Crown Prosecution Service to get its involvement, so I do not really want to go into the detail—but Fujitsu has a lot to answer for.

John Spellar (Warley) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend is outlining a litany of maladministration at the very least. Have any individuals at management level in either at Post Office Ltd or Fujitsu ever been held accountable for this?

Mr Jones

I shall come to that, which is a very good point. The complete opposite: most have been promoted or, in one case, appointed as a Government adviser when she left the Post Office.

That denial then led the postmasters to get the group action together, with 555 taking the Post Office to court. The Post Office was still denying that there was a problem when it went into court; indeed, its consistent approach has been to deny any type of liability.

Let me turn to the role of the Post Office and that of Government. The Post Office is an arm’s length body from Government, but the sole shareholder is the Government. They have a shareholder representative on the board. Despite that, millions of pounds of public money are spent every year. In fact, it is a nationalised company, whether we like it or not.

But we are unable, as parliamentarians, to scrutinise the Post Office. For example, in spite of what it knew, it is estimated that the Post Office spent between £100 million and £120 million defending the indefensible in court. That was basically designed to whittle down the case, so that the other side ran out of money. Trying to scrutinise the Post Office and get it to account for that is virtually impossible. When I have asked parliamentary questions, they are referred to the Post Office. I will come on to the role of Ministers, but I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) is no longer in his place, because I would have liked him to answer for his role—or lack of role—when he was the Minister.

The Post Office falls somewhere between a private company and a public company, but then there are the individuals involved, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) said. Paula Vennells was the chief executive of the Post Office. She left last year. Obviously, as a board member she knew what was going on, including the strategy in the court case and the bugs in the system. What happened? She got a CBE in the new year’s honours list for services to the Post Office. That is just rubbing salt into the wounds of these innocent people. There is a case for her having that honour removed, and I would like to know how she got it in the first place when the court case is ongoing. Added to that, she is now chair of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust. Again, I would like to know why and what due diligence was done on her as an individual.

Lucy Allan (Telford) (Con)

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his excellent speech and his stoical determination in trying to get to the bottom of this. Is he also aware that the head of Fujitsu UK is now working in the Cabinet Office?

Mr Jones

I do not know whether the hon. Lady has read my speech, but I am just coming on to the Cabinet Office, because lo and behold, guess where Paula Vennells also ended up? She was a non-executive member of the Cabinet Office. I am told that she was removed from that post yesterday; I do not know whether it was because of this debate. I welcome that, but why is someone who has overseen this absolute scandal still allowed to hold public positions? Worse than that, she is a priest. I respect those who have religious faith, and she does, but the way that she has treated these people cannot be described as very Christian—she certainly would not pass the good Samaritan test, given the way she has ignored their pleas. I hope she thinks about people like Tom, who have lost their livelihoods and are now living in social housing because of her actions. It angers me that these individuals have gone scot-free, and they need to be answerable for their actions.

John Spellar

Maybe she fulfils the role of the Pharisee in that parable. Does this not also speak to a deeper problem in our society, where relentlessly, time after time, the great and the good look after each other and hand out these positions to each other, irrespective of whether they have been successful or a massive failure? We see that particularly in the health service, where people move from job to job, taking payments each time they go and leaving catastrophic failures. Is this not a deeper failure in the system?

Mr Jones

It is, but how could somebody be given a CBE when this scandal was out there? How could somebody be appointed to the non-executive board of the Cabinet Office and a healthcare trust, given what is coming out of this court case? I find that remarkable.

Then there is the role of Government. When the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton was the Minister, he said that the Post Office

“continues to express full confidence in the integrity and robustness of the Horizon system and also categorically states that there is no remote access to the system or to individual branch terminals which would allow accounting records to be manipulated in any way.”

That is despite a board minute of 2009 which said that remote access was possible. What his role in it was I do not know, but he clearly did not ask many searching questions of the Post Office.

I turn to how we scrutinise the Post Office. I have tabled numerous written parliamentary questions, but because the Post Office is an arm’s length body, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy shift them over to the Post Office—it is at arm’s length, and therefore it is nothing to do with the Department. There is a question here about how we can scrutinise the Post Office. This week, I asked a question about what the complex case review team in the Post Office is. My able assistant rang BEIS and asked, “What is it?” BEIS did not even know about it. The parliamentary question has now been given to the Ministry of Justice, but it does not know what that team is. I know that last week two cases were settled out of court, each for £300,000. This is public money we are talking about here, and we ​need full scrutiny. I would love to see whether the Minister can shed some light on what this organisation actually is.

Then we come to the role of Ministers. I have already mentioned the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton, but Jo Swinson, Claire Perry and the Minister’s immediate predecessor the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) were all involved. They all completely believed what they were being told by the Post Office, never asked any questions about how public money was being spent and allowed the Post Office to continue what it has been doing. The Government cannot say that they never knew about this, because when the new Government came to power in 2010, myself, James Arbuthnot and the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire went to see Oliver Letwin, then a Cabinet Office Minister, to put our case to him. He had sympathy for it, because he had a similar case in his constituency. What happened to that? Nothing happened at all. Clearly there is an issue that the Government cannot hide from it.

Dame Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend is making an excellent case. I want to raise with him this issue about MPs not being able to find out what happened. In the Hillsborough inquiry, the Bishop of Liverpool talked about

“The patronising disposition of unaccountable power”.

This is a classic case of exactly that.

I also want to put on the record how grateful my constituent Janet Skinner is that MPs such as my right hon. Friend and others have pursued this matter for many years to try to get justice for the people involved.

Mr Jones

I thank my hon. Friend for that. She uses a great description.

We then come on to the issue of compensation.

Mr David Jones (Clwyd West) (Con)

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the issue of Ministers. Of course the Post Office has a non-executive director appointed by the Government. One must assume that that non-executive director is reporting to Ministers. Would that not be an interesting topic for the inquiry?

Mr Jones

Yes, and I was going come on to that, because I would love to know who those non-executive directors have been over the years and what they said to Ministers. If I had been the Minister, I would have had that person in and scrutinised what was going on, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would. That would certainly have applied in the past few months, given the hundreds of millions of pounds that have been spent defending the indefensible.

In December, the Post Office agreed a settlement worth £57 million. Unfortunately, most of that has been swallowed up in the fees and the after-the-event insurance that the litigants had to afford. I do not criticise the lawyers—the people who funded this—because without them we would not have got justice, but that leaves about £15,000 for each of the successful people in the class action. We must recall that my constituent has lost more than half a million pounds, and the Post Office is settling cases outside this settlement for £300,000. What has to happen now is that a scheme has to be set up to compensate individuals properly. We must remember that £15 million of those costs were legal costs for ​pursuing the case, and £4 million of that is VAT, which will go straight back to the Government. Over the time that Paula Vennells was at the Post Office, she earned nearly £5 million, which just shows how the individuals who have been affected are not having happy retirements and peace of mind, but have been put through this system. The issue is clear to me: the figures that are being paid out now privately need a scheme.

I wish to make a couple of further points before I finish. The first is that the National Federation of SubPostmasters needs winding up now. It is not independent, nobody joins it—sub-postmasters are auto-enrolled. It is basically an arm of the Post Office and is paid for by the Post Office. Surely if it is going to be an independent voice for sub-postmasters, it should be that.

If anyone saw the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee hearing last week, they will have seen the chief executive, who could not answer on how many of his members had been affected by Horizon or what his organisation had done about it. I will tell the House exactly what it did: nothing. In Tom Brown’s case it just said that the Post Office must be right. The organisation is a sham and it needs to be wound up now. We need an independent organisation to represent sub-postmasters—including through the recognition of the Communication Workers Union, which some people are members of—that can actually be an independent voice for sub-postmasters.

The other thing that I, the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire and James Arbuthnot did was to take some cases to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, because there are people who have been found guilty and in some cases jailed unfairly. I pay tribute to that body, which took the issue seriously and took on a number of cases. It has stayed those cases—quite rightly, in my opinion—until the outcome of the civil litigation. It is important that those cases are now moved on and considered, because there are miscarriages of justice in some of those cases that need to be put right very quickly.

The right of the Post Office to take forward its own prosecutions needs to be removed. This issue goes back many centuries in the Post Office’s history. When Tom Brown asked whether he could get the police or the Crown Prosecution Service involved in looking at the evidence against him, he was told no. Likewise, it was the same for everyone else. Removing that right is something that the Government could do straight away, because there is no adequate oversight of how cases are being prosecuted. In Judge Fraser’s summing up, he described the contract and the way in which the Post Office acted as

“capricious or arbitrary ways which would not be unfamiliar to a mid-Victorian factory-owner”,

and said that the Post Office appears to

“conduct itself as though it is answerable only to itself.”

That is the case: it was answerable only to itself, with little or no insight in terms of oversight from Government.

Let me say what needs to be put right now. I have already mentioned that compensation needs to be put in place. We now need a full independent inquiry, and in ​a response in Prime Minister’s questions on 26 February, the Prime Minister indicated that that might be the case, calling the issue a “scandal”. In response to Lord Arbuthnot in the other place on 5 March, Lord Callanan said that the issue would be under consideration. We need as a matter of urgency an inquiry to cover not just what has gone on but how we can improve the situation for the future, and it has to be independent of Government. The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee is looking into the matter, and I give credit to it for doing that, but we need some recommendations about what went on in the past. I am sorry, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley said, we need to expose who did what. I have to say, if in some cases what I would argue was criminal activity took place, people have to be prosecuted. Given their involvement, they certainly need to be removed from any public bodies on which they currently serve.

The Minister’s predecessors have not been good at looking into this issue. They have not asked the right questions—they have not asked questions of their officials or the Post Office. The Minister now has a chance to put this right. I know that he spoke to Alan Bates yesterday, and I know that he is hiding behind the court case in terms of compensation—his officials are saying that they cannot get any more. I have to say: please do not do that. It is now time for bold action. If we do not take action, this injustice will continue.

Let me finish with this: my constituent Tom Brown should be enjoying a happy, well-funded retirement, but he is not. He is still a proud man, as I said—he is a man who has not lost his dignity—but he is living in social housing with his son, and that is not his fault; it is down to people such as Paula Vennells and the board at the Post Office, and the failure and cover-ups that have been perpetrated by individuals. The Government, who should have stood up for him, have turned a blind eye.