Post Office Management Culture

Ronnie Cowan Excerpts
Thursday 8th February 2024

(3 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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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.