An Open Letter to the Chairman of Post Office Ltd – Mr Tim Parker
I note with interest your initial comments on the findings of Justice Fraser with regard to the first trial of the Group Litigation Order (GLO) brought against the company you chair Post Office Ltd (POL) by the group of claimants known as the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA).
We share at least two things in common. Our first name of course but also a love for the Post Office Network (and I use the word Network not Limited advisedly). It is the first of many sad reflections on my part that we seem to share no other common ground and your statement is testament to that.
This will be a long letter no doubt. I have many points to make for you to consider but let me first dissect your statement to see exactly where we disagree and perhaps why.
You have had a week or so to consider your response to this very lengthy judgement and I have had only the weekend to do so; but have I? I have been considering these matters for several years, fought hard against some including the role of the National Federation of Subpostmasters (NFSP) and as far as I can see my thoughts on these matters have been correct all along. However I am the first to accept that my thoughts are, have been, and will be, of little consequence to the future of POL but I hope you take the time at least to consider what I have to say now.
I have been and will continue to be critical of POL until certain things change for the better but first I must apologise because in the past I have been rude and disrespectful to the management of POL and in this letter I will continue in that vein because I can find no other way of expressing a) my deep dissatisfaction in what has transpired here at the hands of a management team that should have done a lot better and b) my anger at the continued unnecessary suffering for hundreds of claimants whose lives are getting shorter each day and some of whom have already passed away without the knowledge that their claims have been vindicated. The Judge in his decision has made this point perfectly clear for you to consider and time, Sir Tim, is of the essence.
You have made a statement on the Judge’s decision but you also were signatory to the annual report last year where Ms Vennells stated:
“On 11 April 2016, a High Court claim was issued on behalf of a number of postmasters against Post Office in relation to various legal, technical and operational matters, many of which have been the subject of significant external focus for a number of years. Post Office is robustly defending the claim, believes it lacks merit, but welcomes the opportunity to have these matters resolved through the Court managed Group Litigation Order.”
Obviously you seriously believed that the claim lacked merit, but now you know the truth. Why Sir, did you believe the claim lacked merit? Yes your QCs fought hard in court to win, and truth be told, to win at all costs, but in doing so, as I pointed out in one of my blogs, POL lost the battle before the result was known. Everything the Judge has laid down in his decision notice is now the real truth of the matter whether you think he is right or not. You remain in charge of an organisation that has let this happen and now by your own admission in yesterday’s statement you say you intend to change as a result of what he has said.
You say you are considering an appeal. Against what I do not know but have you considered the consequences? By appealing you lose whether you win the case or not and I am not sure why you do not understand that. Surely the media coverage over this first decision is enough to persuade you that public opinion of you and your management will be completely destroyed should you act to delay a fair settlement for each of the claimants. Some of these claimants have died already without hearing the result of their innocence being proven. Sadly more will do so should you seek to extend the life of this court hearing for several years using money I might add that comes one way or another from the public purse.
You have issued this statement in response to the verdict:
“We take this judgment and its criticisms of Post Office very seriously. While the culture and practices of the business have improved in many ways over the years, the Judge’s comments are a forceful reminder to us that we must always continue to do better. We have taken his criticisms on board and will take action throughout our organisation.
“Post Office will continue to defend the overall litigation, which has been underway since April 2016 and is scheduled to continue through four trials until at least March 2020.”
Let me dissect this piece by piece.
I find the use of the word ‘Culture’ particularly abhorrent. How can anyone in your organisation currently, who oversaw, supported and implemented all the flaws in your company over the years, be expected to change their way of doing things particularly given the culture that exists in your Head Office which perpetuates a ‘them and us’ relationship between Head Office staff and Subpostmasters? Look around you in your Head Office and see how many former subpostmasters are employed there. You know the kind – successful businessmen and women with commercial retail experience that know the challenges of running a post office branch inside and out. There are none.
You have taken the Judge’s criticisms on board but what of the people that over the years have pointed out your company’s failings and have now been proved correct in their assessment by a distinguished Judge? Is there not a place for them at the top table to oversee the changes that need to be made? The culture in your organisation has, at the moment, no place for criticism. External criticism is rejected out of hand and I can only presume internal criticism receives the same treatment. Most notably an internal POL document presented before the court highlights the Horizon system as not fit for purpose while you have said in the last year or so that changing Horizon would be so full of risk it is not worth doing and nothing has therefore been done about the inadequacies of the system that may now result in hundreds of millions of pounds worth of damages.
Had you listened to these critics – I noted with interest from the trial that Ms Venells advised her subordinates to take my report of an error in Horizon seriously then abruptly cancelled the investigation into an error that is at the forefront of this current trial – then surely sir you can see that you would never have been in this position. This trial reflects only a small part of what is wrong in your organisation and only critics have the answers you need to make it fit for purpose.
It seems sir that while taking the Judge’s decision and criticisms seriously you are not considering the consequences of his decision carefully enough. Take the claimants cases that are currently before the CCRC and awaiting the decision of this trial.
I understand why the CCRC will wait now for the decision from the current trial but I am certain that with this decision they now no longer need to wait because the Judges own words in this decision provide more than reasonable doubt that these convictions are unsafe on a number of grounds. I cannot go into detail about these matters here but if you were to give me 30 minutes of your time in private I could easily convince you that what I am saying is true. Surely it is in your power now to avoid the further embarrassment of POL, by intervening and recommending that these claimants’ cases be now returned to the court of appeal where POL will offer no evidence. It is not though the only consideration you should give to this matter. By far the most important reason for contacting the CCRC is to not extend the excruciating delay that the claimants have faced in waiting for their convictions to be overturned. I cannot understand and have never understood, despite repeated reminders to your previous CEO Ms Vennells, that her Christian beliefs did not encourage her to investigate on her own these obvious miscarriages of justice and ensure they were overturned earlier. Any delay on your part now not to do the same will be met with derision and only increase the public humiliation your company and your personal reputation will deserve.
Finally on this matter, a few years ago I reported certain elements of the evidence before the CCRC to the police and they opened a case file. I was interviewed by two detectives who took my evidence seriously and who investigated the matter further. They found that as some of the evidence they required was in the hands of the CCRC they would put the investigation on hold until the CCRC had decided on the case in question. I am as certain as I can be that a criminal investigation into the conduct of some of your employees will eventually take place and I believe that custodial sentences will follow. I ask you why it should fall to the likes of me to report such alleged offences? It smacks of conspiracy that the management of POL have failed to raise the same concerns to the Police having had the evidence presented to them many times, one of which was a TV programme watched by millions.
Your immediate action is also required with the National Federation of Subpostmasters who you fund. Justice Fraser has correctly identified the lack of independence of the NFSP and criticised this organisation’s involvement in these matters. I am certain you have never given much thought to this organisation’s role in the network but what was once a strong and reliable representative body for subpostmasters has become, at the top levels, a group of people more interested in themselves than the people they were meant to serve. Over the years they have systematically quelled justified criticism of their organisation from within as well as choosing to ignore the wishes of their members in order to promote POL and projects such as Network Transformation which were from the very start detrimental to existing subpostmasters that at that time were paying for the privilege of belonging to that organisation. From a Horizon perspective , as early as 2000, from NFSP Executive committee minutes, they adopted POL’s approach to criticism of the system saying that to publicly decry the reliability of Horizon would be to put at jeopardy the public’s trust in the Post Office network. They are as complicit in this case as POL and I imagine lawyers will be considering the advice they have given new entrants into the network over the years carefully.
There is more to say about the NFSP, some of it deeply unsavoury and to do with certain individuals within that organisation – mostly long gone now – but to be fair the vast majority of the people that have served in meaningful roles over the years have devoted their time and efforts into making the network a better place for all to work in and I applaud them for doing that. However there is no turning the clock back. The independence of the NFSP has gone as has the trust that subpostmasters must place in that organisation in order for it to have any purpose at all in the future of the network.
Funding must be withdrawn from this organisation immediately and no assistance provided to settle the mess they are responsible for getting themselves into. They have no future as a representative body and any statements they now make one way or another will be met with the ridicule they deserve if indeed they are not ignored completely. Given the amount of money you have agreed to provide them with over the next few years that will be a considerable saving to POL and will help meet your funding requirements for the cost of this litigation.
In not dealing with criticism properly, in not accepting that the reason it was brought to your attention was for the benefit of the company not its destruction, you have opened up a minefield that requires exploration for large scale cover ups. At the centre of this investigation will be how you dealt with Second Sight, who it appears were getting too close to the truth when they were relieved of their duties and who are now gagged from telling the truth by a non-disclosure agreement. Public trust in Post Office Ltd is paramount for you, and whoever succeeds you, in trying to sort out this mess so it is of vital importance that Second Sight be reappointed to finish the job they started and their gagging order lifted. I am certain the Judge will have something to say about that particular item in his decision on this current trial.
In conclusion, the action you need to take within your organisation immediately is clear.
- Consider immediate settlement to the claimants – prolonging this trial will only lead to further embarrassing disclosures and more importantly will prolong unnecessarily suffering for the claimants
- Contact the CCRC to insist they send back all cases before them to the Appeal Court
- Re-instate Second Sight to complete the work they started
- Withdraw funding from the NFSP
- Appoint appropriate subpostmasters into senior management positions to start the process of culture change
At the very least sir, sit down with a glass of whisky or similar and consider carefully your rationale for not taking any of the above actions, which I think is the most likely outcome, and think of the consequences when the result of not doing so will come back and haunt you.
With best regards