Post Office Management Culture

Andrew Bridgen Excerpts
Thursday 8th February 2024

(3 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Marion Fellows Portrait Marion Fellows
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He is acknowledging that.

At this point, it is worth reading out a letter from Professor Chris Hodges, the chair of the Horizon Compensation Advisory Board, who has been similarly scathing. He writes:

“Dear Nick Read,

My colleagues on the Advisory Board and I remain deeply unconvinced by the substance of what you say on legal issues. We continue to hear stories your former Sub-Postmasters and Mistresses are confused, intimidated and hurt by the behaviour of the Post Office and its lawyers in negotiating settlements generally and in continued use of legalistic terminology. This is especially true for the significant number who remain deeply traumatised, and who do not understand the practice of terminology of what they see as an aggressive approach to settling claims. This is irrespective of whether the language or behaviour may or may not be technically permissible, and irrespective of the fact that they may have legal representation. Your reliance of legal argument and legal terminology similarly does not impress us. We do not perceive demonstration of behaviour that is anything like a sympathetic understanding towards the people your organisation has harmed. We suggest that this should give you cause for deep concern.”

Andrew Bridgen Portrait Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Ind)
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The hon. Lady is giving an excellent speech about a sad chapter in the Post Office’s life. As someone involved from the beginning, back in 2012, Ron Warmington’s first investigation into the Post Office Horizon scandal concluded that the Post Office always tended to promote from within, which led to an incestuous management style and the keeping of secrets. Does the hon. Lady think that may be part of the problem?

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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Order. Before the hon. Lady answers the intervention, I have allowed the hon. Gentleman to intervene because the House is quiet, but was he in the Chamber at the beginning of the hon. Lady’s speech?

Andrew Bridgen Portrait Andrew Bridgen
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I was five minutes late.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker
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If the hon. Gentleman was not in the Chamber at the beginning of the hon. Lady’s speech, it is not in order for him to make an intervention in her speech. I have allowed it because the House is quiet this afternoon, but the rules are there for a good reason and they have to be observed. It is perfectly in order for the hon. Gentleman to intervene in another speech, later, after he has been in the Chamber for a while. I have to make that point because if I do not make an example of the hon. Gentleman now, on a quiet day, we will totally lose control on busy days, when lots of people want to do that, and it is not right. There are very few people here this afternoon and there is plenty of time, so in these circumstances I have allowed the hon. Gentleman to make his point and I will allow the hon. Lady to answer it.

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Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
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Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak so early in this debate.

We are today debating the Post Office’s management culture, but I very briefly want to touch on the responsibility that Fujitsu has, because as I understand it, it, too, is culpable and should be part of any agreed outcome. Fujitsu has a role to play in bringing this sorry tale to a speedy end. Every computer system in the world has the potential to contain bugs. People write the code. Errors can happen, but the vast majority are tiny. What matters is how those responsible react once an error has been identified.

I worked in IT for 35 years, most of which were spent developing and implementing computer solutions for business problems. We reviewed code—we pored over it, and we took pride in doing it. Somebody, somewhere, at some point was looking at this particular problem in the Horizon system. Why were they looking at that problem? Who directed them to it, and when were they asked to address it? I have no wish to stereotype my fellow software developers, but I have a vision in my head of somebody with a brain-load of code looking at this problem one morning and then being struck by something. They take off their headphones and put down their fifth cup of coffee of the day and say, “We have a problem here. This is important.” In any system worth its salt, the modification to fix that problem will have been documented, and somebody within Fujitsu will know when it was identified. Therefore, at what point did the staff inform the Post Office? That matters, because then we know when the Post Office stopped acting out of ignorance and belligerence and started lying to people.

Today we have a Government who have been in denial. It is as if this is not a problem of their making. Please correct me if I am wrong, but the Post Office is a limited company owned entirely by the UK Government. The Department for Business and Trade has responsibility for postal affairs. Ofcom is the regulator of postal services. It is a public corporation accountable to Parliament. Can anyone imagine what it is like to be an individual wrongly accused of a crime, humiliated and ridiculed, forced into bankruptcy and knowing that they were innocent for all those years, while the wider establishment stood back and did nothing?

The Post Office proudly boasts that

“at our core we are a business driven and defined by our social purpose”.

Well, here is a chance to prove that, and it has failed. That is despite the contrition, despite the promises to learn from its mistakes, despite admitting that it got it wrong, and despite acknowledging that compensation must be paid. What we see today is the establishment hiding behind very expensive lawyers for whom I can only presume the taxpayer is paying. Fortunately, in my life I have rarely bumped up against the legal profession in its professional capacity. It has usually been restricted to moving house, and that is confusing enough. The mountains of administration and the perpetual legal speak leave most people gasping for air. What must it be like for someone to face a criminal prosecution of which they are innocent, and then, when that innocence is proven, find that same force utilised to slow down the process that should be working for them to receive compensation?

The letter from Professor Chris Hodges, the chair of the Horizon compensation advisory board, to Nick Read, the chief executive officer of the Post Office, which was quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), perfectly encapsulates the current situation. I will not read the entire letter, but I will read a couple of lines:

“Your reliance on legal argument and legal terminology similarly does not impress us. We do not perceive demonstration of behaviour that is anything like a sympathetic understanding towards the people your organisation has harmed.”

I am not for a minute saying that the Post Office does not require legal representation; it certainly does. I am saying that the manner in which it engages with the victims of the Horizon scandal is a measure of its concern, contrition and compassion, and it has failed on all three fronts. That is crucial, because a successful resolution depends on the mindset of the Post Office management changing.

We continually see citizens of the UK being chewed up by large corporate and Government entities. The Equitable Life case, the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign, the blood-borne virus scandal, and the Post Office Horizon fiasco are just a few examples. If citizens of the UK are to have faith in their politicians, we need to get it right and be on their side when big corporations beat down on them.

Andrew Bridgen Portrait Andrew Bridgen
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I would like to put something on the record, and see what the hon. Gentleman thinks. I was in the original Post Office review group. By 2015, a whistleblower from Fujitsu had come forward from the boiler room, as they called it. He had been altering accounts without the knowledge of the sub-postmasters. The MPs in the review group knew. The investigator from Second Sight, Ron Warmington, knew. The Post Office knew that the convictions were unsafe, as did the Government, yet it took another five years of very expensive litigation from the 555 before justice was done.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
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That is an ongoing example of how, historically, the Government of the day thought that they could weather this storm and get away with it. The UK Government have to be part of the solution. Continuing to be part of the problem is unacceptable. They must act swiftly to ensure that all innocent victims have their convictions quashed, and that the correct, acceptable compensation is paid. Anything else is an extension of the ongoing miscarriage of justice that innocent men and women have been subjected to because of the hubris of the Post Office and UK Governments past and present.

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Ian Lavery Portrait Ian Lavery
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The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, and nothing I have said up until now has criticised everyone in the Post Office. We have some fantastic employees in the Post Office, but I am not going to say the same thing about the executive team in the Post Office. I refuse to accept that things have changed, because the management culture within the Post Office has not changed one iota. However, I agree that we have to look forward and take the Post Office forward.

I mentioned that there might or might not be charges in the future, but too many people have been charged already. This whole Horizon scandal is a result of people being sent to prison, people being traumatised and people—kids, men and women—having their lives destroyed because people knew there was something happening at the Post Office.

I sit on the Business and Trade Committee, and the chief executive of the Post Office has been to the House a couple of times. I must be honest: he shows no remorse whatsoever. He believes that, because he was not there at the time, that is right. This individual’s wage is, I think, about £344,000 a year. I asked him, “Why are you getting a bonus in excess of £145,000 in addition to your salary? What makes you so special?” He could not answer. That is at a time when people have suffered so greatly and the Post Office and the Government are reluctant even now to address many people who have suffered as a consequence of this scandal.

I will come on shortly to the question of who has been missed in the compensation. There are three packages, and I have had a chat with the Minister—I am going to call him my hon. Friend, and why not?—about this very issue. I have three heartbreaking examples, and my understanding is that it will be very difficult for these individuals to claim any compensation whatsoever.

The culture has not changed; there has always been a serious cultural problem in the Post Office, which obviously came to the fore with the abuse of power blatantly displayed during the Horizon scandal. As I mentioned before, the management structure, the governance and the culture largely remain unreformed. We have people in post offices now suffering greatly because of low wages. They are not getting the wages from the Post Office to make ends meet. Those people are mainly in newsagents and Spar shops and so on. That is wrong when, as I mentioned before, at the same time Post Office executives are being awarded bonuses of tens of thousands—if not hundreds of thousands—of pounds. That has to be looked at.

It has been suggested, as the Minister will be aware, that a lot of the bonuses that have been paid are for progress on the Horizon scandal. How can anybody get a bonus for that? Is a bonus not supposed to be for additional production or good work? How can the chief executive get a bonus of hundreds of thousands of pounds while this is happening? Who do we blame for that? We have to look at how these remuneration packages are settled and who benefits. We cannot have people getting hundreds of thousands of pounds in one hand and bonuses of 10 times what ordinary sub-postmasters or sub-postmistresses, or postal workers, are getting in the other. It is just not correct. Bonuses should not be paid for failure, and that is what is happening here.

Andrew Bridgen Portrait Andrew Bridgen
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Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, on investigation, it was found that the Horizon system had a suspense account? A suspense account in an accounting package is where transactions are put before they are properly allotted. At the end of most years, there was more than £1 million retained in the suspense account, which was kept for four years and then added back to profit and never resolved.

Ian Lavery Portrait Ian Lavery
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Not only that, but Jo Hamilton had to pay £36,000 back, even though she knew she was in the right. I asked Nick Read, the chief executive of the Post Office, whether it was a possibility that the money paid back by a number of the victims would have been in a place where it could have provided bonuses for senior executives. How perverse is that? The answer from the chief executive, when I pressed him and pressed him, was that yes, it was a possibility, but he did not know where the money actually went. That in itself is so bad that it beggars belief.

Fujitsu, meanwhile, denied any knowledge of bugs or any wrongdoing, but actually knew quite the opposite, and it supplied evidence to the Post Office to prosecute individuals. How bad is that situation? This is not a spy movie—it is worse than a spy movie. They had a dark room in Fujitsu where its employees were communicating with the Horizon computer system in post offices up and down the country. Fujitsu denied it all along, saying that it was impossible it could ever happen, yet people there were changing the amounts of money openly. The Government knew. Fujitsu knew, because it had the operation in its own offices, with employees changing facts and figures in the accounts of ordinary hard-working individuals—again, spy movie stuff. It is unbelievable that that could be the case.

Is it not unreal to think that none of this would have come about if not for the ITV dramatisation, “Mr Bates vs The Post Office”? We would not be discussing it in this Chamber, because it would have been kicked into the long grass. The people would all have suffered the same—those who are in prison, the families who have been destroyed, and the kids who have been brought up with the criticism and abuse that their parents were thieves —but it would not have been unearthed.