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Young & dumb
Post Office scandal , Issue 1615
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LEGAL SHIELD: Former Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells tried to hide from criticism behind expensive lawyers
FEW statements reveal the Orwellian levels of misinformation put out by senior Post Office officials as clearly as the swift riposte to the Eye's very first report on the failing Horizon IT system – in which we reported the prosecutions of Jo Hamilton and Seema Misra – in September 2011.

"The Post Office takes meticulous care to ensure the Horizon computer system in branches nationwide is fully accurate at all times," wrote the organisation's then chief operating officer, Mike Young.

Referring to convictions for false accounting and/or theft, he added: "In some cases, the sub-postmaster pleaded guilty; in others, the Post Office had to provide robust evidence otherwise the cases would have failed."

Blackmail notes
The guilty pleas were, of course, effectively blackmailed out of sub-postmasters like Jo Hamilton in order to avoid jail, while the "robust evidence" that sent a pregnant Mrs Misra to prison for fraud was simply the lie that Horizon was "robust".

As the judge at her trial put it, there was "no direct evidence of her taking any money" and "no evidence of her accumulating cash anywhere or spending large sums of money or paying off debts, no evidence about her bank accounts at all".

The Post Office knew full well by this stage that the system had not been reliable since its first use a decade earlier; and by 2010 at the latest it was aware of specific bugs, according to a report from investigators Second Sight – whom the Post Office then tried to silence.

Key strategist
As with others, Mike Young's exact personal knowledge of the affair is not yet clear, though if the head of operations didn't know, it has to be wondered who would.

On his LinkedIn page Young notes that he was "board member with specific responsibility for delivering the end-to-end operational strategy and support mechanisms and the technology requirements of a 12,000-branch network and 8,500 central employees".

But, as with so many others, the episode did Young's career no harm. After a stint as chief information officer of Centrica, he is now a non-executive director on BT's technology advisory board. Well done, Mike.


Hollinrake's progress

"SO IT is not the case," insisted postal services minister Kevin Hollinrake in the Commons last week as he announced plans for the blanket overturning of Post Office IT-related convictions, "that this TV series, excellent though it is, has resulted in these changes."

His government had "started to look at different ways of overturning convictions long before the TV series was aired". Really?

Hollinrake had long been warned that the system for addressing convictions going back a couple of decades was not working. By December, three years since the first conviction was overturned, just 93 of 700 prosecutions led by the Post Office had been overturned. Only five more were being considered by the appeal courts.

Stasis update
This stasis had been emphasised to Hollinrake by the government's Horizon Compensation Advisory Board in August.

"We believe that there is already sufficient evidence to demand a positive presumption that unless clear evidence to the contrary exists, all Post Office convictions are unsafe," wrote the board's chair and law professor Christopher Hodges in response to a report by the ongoing statutory inquiry, copying in Hollinrake.

Criminal appeals legislation was "severely restricting", with this and other problems meaning "that the legal system as it stands will never expunge hundreds of unjust convictions – and overturning the rest is taking far too long".

So the clear reality that hundreds of people would die before getting justice could be seen. Yet, in a set-piece announcement a month later on 18 September, Hollinrake merely announced the £600,000 compensation offer and nothing that would unblock the road to justice.

Then, lo and behold, ITV airs its Mr Bates vs the Post Office drama, the story takes over the news agenda for the second week of an election year and a brand-new approach to overturning convictions is unveiled! Nothing to do with the telly programme? That's about as believable as a senior Post Office or Fujitsu official in a courtroom.

More poison
Hollinrake's churlishness extended to a bitter note about the possibility that guilty people would be exonerated. "I cannot tell the House that all of those prosecuted were innocent or even that it was 90 percent, or 80 percent, or 70 percent" he added, somewhat unnecessarily.

Small wonder one or two victims would still like to have their cases considered individually – which could undermine the exoneration of others – when even a minister standing up to "do the right thing" drips in just a bit more poison.


Mishcon failure

AS THE flak started to explode following ITV's Post Office drama, former chief executive the Rev Paula Vennells resorted to an age-old tactic. The sainted Vennells employed libel-law heavies Mishcon de Reya to send newspapers a legal notice that reporters should stop belabouring her.

There were no such qualms from Vennells, however, when it came to harassing sub-postmasters, including the one who the ongoing public inquiry heard was subjected to 60 calls in a day by one particularly aggressive investigator. She, and the thousands of other victims, could alas not afford expensive "reputation management" lawyers.

Still, Vennells' use of Mishcon wasn't an unbridled success: the furore was such that a couple of days later she caved in and relinquished her gong.

More top stories in the latest issue:

UNFAIR DISMISSAL
Rishi "details man" Sunak made a number of inaccurate statements to the BBC's Laura Kuenssberg about the Post Office scandal.

TEES TEASER
Michael Gove gave a ringing endorsement of Tees Valley mayor Lord (Ben) Houchen to a select committee looking at the Teesside regeneration project.

FRESH HORIZONS...
One of the government's top civil servants has delivered a half-hearted verdict on its use of artificial intelligence to uncover benefit cheats.

FUJITSU FAN CLUB
Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi said Fujitsu chiefs should face charges of "corporate manslaughter" – but he did not mention his party's close links to the firm.

DISPOSABLE BRIEFS
As responsibility for the Horizon scandal is belatedly apportioned, there is no shortage of senior figures who should really be held to account.

WIDER HORIZONS
On top of the estimated 3,500 sub-postmasters who were subject to allegations of theft, the Horizon system also hit others who had to wrestle with its foibles.

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