zgphotography - stock.adobe.com

Post Office CEO refused to meet government minister without her lawyer after 2015 Horizon report

Post Office statements on the Horizon system, whether to journalists or the government, were routinely carefully crafted by lawyers

Former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells refused to meet a government minister without a lawyer in 2015 when he insisted on a briefing to discuss the damaging findings of a landmark investigation into the Post Office Horizon system.

This set the tone for the Post Office, which has relied heavily on lawyers to keep a lid on the Horizon scandal over the past two decades.

In 2015, George Freeman, who was minister for life sciences in the Department of Health and Department for Business, said he initially refused to read out a speech prepared by officials stating that Horizon was reliable, but did so after meetings with the Post Office CEO, which she refused to attend without her lawyer.

Covering for absent postal minister Jo Swinson, Freeman made the speech following the publication of a report from forensic investigation company Second Sight. He said in the House of Commons: “Second Sight produced two independent reports – one in 2013 and the other earlier this year [2015] – both of which found there was no evidence of systemic flaws in the system.”

But Second Sight’s report, published in April 2015, said there were systemic problems for users. “As we have previously stated, when looking at the totality of the ‘Horizon experience’ we remain concerned that, in some circumstances, Horizon can be systemically flawed from a user’s perspective and Post Office has not necessarily provided an appropriate level of support,” it said.

“When told by officials to read out the speech they had written, I refused – and insisted on a briefing meeting with [Post Office CEO] Paula Vennells”

George Freeman, minister

Freeman, who never held ministerial responsibility for the Post Office, accepts there were systemic problems with Horizon, but said Paula Vennells and officials told him otherwise.

“When told by officials to read out the speech they had written, I refused – and insisted on a briefing meeting with Paula Vennells,” Freeman told Computer Weekly.

He said she refused to meet him without her lawyer: “She and officials told me that there was no evidence of a systemic failure in the software, and the department’s lawyer insisted I mustn’t accept liability for the department or Post Office (as an arm’s length body ‘quango’ with an independent legal status).

“I was uncomfortable and raised concerns with the minister responsible at the time. We now know that there was a systemic failure in the software. Lessons must be learned and reforms made to ensure that arm’s length bodies like this can never escape ministerial scrutiny.”

Freeman was not alone in being duped into believing Horizon was reliable.

Picture of Stephen Timms’ letter to Alan Bates’ MP Betty Williams
Stephen Timms’ letter to Alan Bates’ MP Betty Williams

Stephen Timms was Labour’s minister at the Department for Trade and Industry from 2002 to 2004. In January 2004, while minister for energy, e-commerce and postal services in the Labour government, Timms reassured the MP of former subpostmaster Alan Bates that the Horizon system was okay, because the Post Office said so.

Bates had contacted Betty Williams, Labour MP for the constituency of Conwy, about the problems being experienced with the Post Office emanating from unexplained losses in his branch. Bates, who had his contract terminated by the Post Office for refusing to settle his accounts because he did not agree with them, described to Williams the problems he had experienced with the Horizon system.

In a letter to Williams, Timms wrote: “The government invested £480m in this project and so I take very seriously Mr Bates suggestion that the Horizon system is in an ‘appalling condition’.

“I understand that the management of the Post Office do not share Mr Bates’ concerns and are fully confident as to the reliability of the Horizon system.”

He added: “[Post Office managers] have found no evidence to suggest there is any fault with the Horizon system and maintain that the decision to terminate Mr Bates’ contract was legitimate.”

Timms told Computer Weekly his letter to Williams was “setting out the assurances” he had received from the Post Office.

He said, “I haven’t seen any other correspondence I was involved in about Horizon. The department tells me it has no records of my correspondence on the subject – not even those letters I know about. Looking back on this correspondence, it didn’t provide a basis for me taking the matter further at that stage. If, for example, I had received a response to my second letter, I could have enquired further, but, since I don’t appear to have done, there was no reason for me to do so. I was reshuffled to a different job in September 2004.”

Computer Weekly first exposed the scandal in 2009, revealing the stories of seven subpostmasters, including Bates, and the problems they suffered as a result of the Horizon system. Subpostmasters were prosecuted, sacked and expected to make up for phantom shortfalls, which were later proved to be caused by computer errors.

Bates led the campaign for justice for subpostmasters, which exposed the widest miscarriage of justice in UK history and accompanying cover-up (see timeline of Computer Weekly articles below).

Picture of Ed Davey’s letter to Alan Bates in May 2010
Ed Davey’s letter to Alan Bates in May 2010

Liberal leader Ed Davey recently received criticism for his refusal to meet Bates in 2010, when he was postal minister in the coalition government.

In the letter, Davey wrote that a meeting “would not serve any useful purpose”. He later met Bates. He said when he put his concerns to the Post Office, he was “lied to” over the Horizon system’s reliability.

There are also questions being asked about which government minister knew about the Post Office’s strategy in the group litigation order with subpostmasters in 2018. The Post Office blew more than £100m on legal costs in an attempt to silence subpostmasters and prevent the truth about the Horizon system being revealed.

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

• Also watch: ITV’s Post Office scandal documentary: The real story.

Timeline: Computer Weekly articles about the scandal since 2009

Read more on IT for retail and logistics

Data Center
Data Management