On Monday the government finally came up with a “take it or leave it” compensation offer to the subpostmasters. £600,000. It was described by Kevin Hollinrake, Minister for Postal Affairs, as “providing a generous uplift” on compensation payments already made. Let’s see how generous it really is.
- Some subpostmasters were convicted as long as 23 years ago, between 2000 – 2015, the majority in the earlier years. That is compensation of between £26,000 and £75,000 pa. The sums on offer are less than what they would have earned had they not been wrongly convicted.
- It is an uplift only by reference to compensation payments described as inadequate and criticised by the Inquiry judge.
- It takes no account of the losses suffered by those made bankrupt and those who lost homes and businesses.
- Nor does it compensate for time spent in prison / injury to reputation and legal costs incurred in fighting criminal cases and appeals.
- Will it be tax-free? One subpostmaster who managed to get compensation then found that much of it was taken away in taxation and payment of bankruptcy leaving him with so little he was unable to heat his home last winter. The structuring and tax treatment of compensation payments and how this has been misdescribed to subpostmasters has been one of the (many) criticisms made of the Post Office’s lawyers, Herbert Smith – now resigned.
- It is also unclear whether this is a floor – leaving some able to pursue the Post Office through the courts for more to reflect their actual losses. If this were the case, it might have some merit. If not, it is effectively presenting subpostmasters with Hobson’s choice: inadequate compensation or the prospect of spending more time and money trying to fight an organisation determined to do the minimum possible and unable (or unwilling) to comply with its legal requirements.
- Above all, it is limited to those who manage to overturn their convictions in the courts. Note that the Post Office is still opposing many of these appeals, even where the evidence came from the Horizon system. This also excludes those who pleaded guilty because they felt unable to challenge the Horizon evidence and were unaware of the Post Office’s disclosure failings. Despite all the evidence about Horizon’s failings and unfitness for purpose, despite knowing – as the Minister put it – that Horizon data was “unreliable” (a gong please for the civil servant coming up with that description for data more accurately described as “untrue“), despite all the failings in its disclosure to defendants, the Post Office is still trying to argue its case.
- Finally, compare it with the bonus of £485,000 the Post Office CEO recently received for one year, a part of which was for complying with the inquiry, a compliance which did not occur, infuriated the judge, was lied about in its accounts and signed off by the Board which then commissioned a report which managed to say that everything was tickety-boo but, no, they could not identify any actual human being who had signed off or written the untrue statements in the accounts. Then it promised not to pay bonuses at all before admitting under cross-examination that this too was another lie – as all executives were in fact eligible for bonuses for complying with an inquiry necessitated by their previous wrongdoing.
The Minister insisted in Monday’s debate that the government wanted to ensure “swift and fair” compensation. Whatever this process can be described as, “swift and fair” is not it. The government presents itself as above the fray, generously funding the Post Office. In reality, the government has been responsible in a number of ways:
- Its supervision of the Post Office and its management;
- Its relationship with Horizon (the correspondence between Harriet Harman and Tony Blair about Horizon’s inadequacy at a very early stage is worth reading to see how early matters started to go wrong and how);
- The failures of the criminal justice system; and
- Its control over how the Post Office has responded to the miscarriages of justice and the government’s own inquiry.
The compensation offer came as a surprise yesterday. Why? Well, on Tuesday we had one of the Post Office auditors, Helen Rose, giving evidence. She audited one of the subpostmasters who reported problems with Horizon and sought help. This lady had no qualifications or training as an auditor; no training or experience as an investigator and no training on the Horizon system (that she could remember). She gave written evidence to the High Court supporting the case against the subpostmaster (despite her original report showing flaws in Horizon). From her evidence now it is clear that she left out key information, removed anything true which might have helped the defendant, put in incorrect information and inserted defamatory and untrue statements about the person being investigated. She signed it as true but accepted that it wasn’t. She could not, however, remember how this came about. She could not even remember whether she had been subject to a disciplinary process as a result of the suicide of a subpostmaster she had met and audited. This convenient memory loss is likely to be repeated during this phase as various professionals – from auditors to IT experts and lots and lots of lawyers – give evidence.
When hearing evidence like this from people plainly not up to their job, utterly careless of their obligations and seemingly lacking any sense of professionalism, I think of the words of one bereaved Aberfan mother listening to the evidence of NCB officials: –
“What I heard there was very difficult for me to accept. Because most people who were brought to the stand seemed to think it was somebody else’s fault. Not theirs at all. I believe one of the engineers got on the stand and he didn’t seem to realise his dreadful part in this happening. And when I heard what he had to say it made me feel sick because it looked to me as though he couldn’t have cared less about what had happened on account of his neglect. It was a good thing that I wasn’t on the stand or wasn’t talking to him, you know, because I’d have floored him.“
If we are ever to have a hope of preventing this or any injustice reoccurring, if we are ever to provide some justice to those so grievously harmed, those responsible need to suffer consequences – and soon. If not, “flooring” them may be the only option. It feels like a vain plea. But I make it nonetheless.