The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) Select Committee has written to business secretary Vince Cable seeking reassurances over the Post Office mediation scheme that was set up to help subpostmasters who claim they have been wrongly punished for false accounting or theft as a result of problems with a computer system and its supporting processes.
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The Select Committee chair’s letter follows an evidence-gathering meeting in February, when representatives of the Post Office, including CEO Paula Vennells, and subpostmaster campaigners met MPs.
In 2009, Computer Weekly revealed the stories of subpostmasters who had received heavy fines and even jail terms for alleged false accounting, which they blamed on the Horizon accounting system provided by the Post Office. Thousands of Post Offices use the IT system, developed by ICL/Fujitsu Services, for their accounts.
On 11 March 2015, the Post Office said it had completed its investigation and shut an independent working group overseeing progress – the day before it was due to receive a final report from independent investigation company Second Sight. The first report, which was leaked to the BBC in September 2014, raised concerns about the computer system and suggested the technology was not fit for purpose in some branches.
Independent mediation to continue
In his letter to Vince Cable, BIS committee chair Adrian Bailey MP expressed the committee’s concern that the mediation scheme was not working as originally planned. He also said there were concerns the Post Office was not engaging as constructively as it could in the process and there were suggestions the Post Office was being overly legalistic.
Responding to Computer Weekly's request for more information on each point in the BIS letter, the Post Office cited a report into the mediation scheme it completed itself.
The Post Office said that while it has completed its investigations, Second Sight is continuing to work on some cases.
“We are working with Second Sight to ensure they continue to complete case reviews where they have had not already done so,” said a spokesman. “Second Sight continues to have access to the information required to carry out its role reviewing the cases in the scheme.” There were originally 150 claims lodged by subpostmasters, of which 80 remain open. The Post Office said most of these will go to mediation (see table below for progress of all cases).
“The mediators – all from the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR) – are independent and reputable mediation experts. CEDR [mediators] were appointed to conduct the mediations specifically to ensure that mediations are undertaken in line with best practice,” said the Post Office. “In all cases where Post Office has attended mediation it has done so in good faith, giving each applicant the opportunity to voice their concerns and attempted to address those concerns. We have ensured that funding is available to applicants involved in mediation so that they can have the support of their independent professional advisor at mediation.”
The second independent report was due to be completed by Second Sight and delivered to the Post Office earlier this month, but not made public. The Post Office told Computer Weekly it is not yet complete and it has therefore not received a final copy. Computer weekly understands the Post Office has received a version.
The Post Office said: “This is the final version of a document [Second Sight] produced last year for mediation purposes. Although all the cases in the scheme are different, some share certain features and the report's aim is to help understanding about these. The report will be shared with scheme applicants and their advisors, but is not, and never has been, intended for wider publication. It concerns only the cases in the scheme.”
Bailey recommended Cable ensures BIS receives a copy of the final independent report carried out by Second Sight.
Information will not be destroyed
In the letter, Bailey also asked for assurances that all documents relating to investigations be retained, contrary to his understanding that documents would now be destroyed.
The Post Office pointed out that it had “repeatedly said [we] will not destroy information relating to the scheme”, adding that it is not alone in holding records about the cases. “The scheme applicants and their advisors have been provided with copies of the Post Office and Second Sight reports and all of the supporting documents and evidence – this is up to 80 documents in some cases. The Second Sight reports prepared for mediation purposes ('part one' and the initial 'part two') have also been provided and the report currently being prepared by Second Sight will be shared with them too.”
Bailey's letter went on to question whether people who had pleaded guilty in the past were eligible for mediation, because there is some confusion.
The Post Office said: “All the remaining cases in the scheme will be put forward for mediation with the exception of those which have been subject to a previous court ruling – those cases will continue to be considered on an individual basis, as they have been to date. In all cases, including those subject to court rulings, (if applicants give their consent) the Post Office continues to be prepared to discuss individual cases, in confidence with relevant members of Parliament or indeed to meet separately with individual applicants to discuss their cases.”
The MP’s letter claimed the Post Office should provide more support to subpostmasters when the initial inaccuracies and accounting are revealed. The Post Office said it “continues to improve its training and support for postmasters – we have acted on what we have learned through the scheme as part of that. We set up a business support programme, involving our postmasters in helping us to improve the effectiveness of the support we provide. Our progress on this is set out in our report.”
The BIS select committee also asked for reasons why Second Sight had not been provided with all the information it needed. The Post Office said it is not aware of any outstanding information.
|Total applications to the scheme||150|
|Applications rejected (ineligible)||4|
|Cases resolved prior to entry into the scheme||10|
|Cases resolved during investigation||5|
|Cases resolved prior to the mediation meeting||2|
|Cases Post Office declined to mediate against working group decision||6|
|Cases not approved by working group for mediation||2|
|Cases recommended for deferred mediation||10|
|Cases with CEDR (mediators)||16|
|Cases closed due to withdrawal or applicants' whereabouts being unknown||3|
|Cases left in the scheme||80|
|Source: Post Office Complaint Review and Mediation Scheme|
Computer Weekly timeline of events
September 2009: Postmasters form action group after accounts shortfall
November 2009: Post Office theft case deferred over IT questions
January 2013: Post Office announces amnesty for Horizon evidence
December 2014: MPs to debate subpostmaster IT injustice claims