Parliament Matters – The inside story: Parliament and the Post Office Horizon scandal (Episode 15)

12 Jan 2024
A branch of the Post Office. ©Adobe Stock

The Post Office Horizon scandal is the largest miscarriage of justice in British history. James Arbuthnot is one of the ‘heroes’ at the heart of the drama unveiled in ITV’s Mr Bates Vs The Post Office. This is Parliament’s inside story.

A Conservative MP and now a Peer in the House of Lords, James Arbuthnot championed the plight of his constituents for over a decade, leading a parliamentary campaign to investigate malpractice at the Post Office.

As the public and media debate about the scandal continues to rage, James Arbuthnot joins Ruth and Mark to discuss how the campaign in Parliament started, why Ministers failed to respond, and why it has taken so many years – and a television drama – to galvanise the Government into action.

Parliament Matters is produced by the Hansard Society with the support of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, a Quaker trust which engages in philanthropy and supports work on democratic accountability.

Parliament Matters episode 15

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You are listening to Parliament Matters, a Hansard Society production, supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. Learn more

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Hello and welcome to Parliament Matters podcast from the Hansard Society. About the institution at the heart of our democracy, Parliament itself. I'm Ruth Fox and I'm Mark D'Arcy. Coming up, the Post Office Horizon Scandal is the largest miscarriage of justice in British history. Much of the recent debate has focussed on government oversight of the post Office and the legal proceedings at the time.

00:00:38:06 - 00:01:01:10

How did members of Parliament help uncover the scandal? To explain this, we're joined by James Arbuthnot. Lord Arbuthnot, the former MP for North East Hampshire, immortalised in ITV drama Mr. Bates versus the post Office. He championed constituents concerns about the Horizon system and led a parliamentary campaign to investigate malpractice in the post office. We also look at Parliament's role in tackling other long term scandals.

00:01:01:10 - 00:01:38:11

The Windrush thing, Hillsborough contaminated blood. Why does it take so long to resolve them? Plus, there's plenty of other action in Parliament this week. So we'll start with a canter through some of the developing events. Ruth One of the things that didn't happen was the petroleum licensing bill was dropped amidst all sorts of action. Conservative MP Chris Skidmore has resigned the party whip and is now going to quit Parliament because he opposed encouraging more fossil fuel extraction.

00:01:38:11 - 00:02:07:13

And now the bill's not even in front of MPs. Is it become too hot to handle for the Government? Well, the bill essentially ran out of time on the first day back after the Christmas recess. I mean, it's an interesting thing that first day back, so much news, so many statements that ministers had to make to parliament, so many questions that MPs handled by the situation in the Middle East, the post office scandal that essentially ministers were looking at having about half an hour left at the end of the day to deal with the with the offshore bill.

00:02:07:14 - 00:02:30:04

So they've they've, you know, shelved it. They're going to take it in in about ten days time. But of course, it did mean that Chris Skidmore, who had resigned the whip, he found himself resigning from parliament that same day. So he didn't actually get to vote against the bill that he was so opposed to. But he now is out of parliament and the government's now facing another by election.

00:02:30:06 - 00:02:58:19

He never will vote against it in Parliament now anyway. But what's interesting about this for me is that the comparatively modest tribe of green conserve stiffs seem to be shaking themselves out of the conservative coalition a bit. Sir Alok Sharma, the Conservative MP, former cabinet minister who chaired the last conference, which attempted to find a global solution to some of the questions around global warming and climate change was also pretty against this bill and he may be one of the voices raised against it.

00:02:58:21 - 00:03:38:17

But if you think back to the days when David Cameron travelled to the North Pole and hugged Huskies as well as hoodies and was very concerned about climate change and had a windmill in his garden generating a little bit of power and all the rest of it. That strain of conservatism seems to be rather withering, perhaps in the heat of climate change now, especially since the axbridge byelection, when what was seen as a rebellion against green measures like the ultra low emission zone from the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, was turned into an election losing issue again, weaponised against Labour, and that's now got the Conservatives going into this almost anti green tack and that's

00:03:38:19 - 00:04:01:04

perhaps something that some of them won't put up with for much longer. Yeah, I mean, I think the situation, as you say, is with Elis and that the by election was a lesson to some Conservative MPs. The cost of living energy crises, the cost of energy bills. It sort of pushed this whole agenda about the speed and price of decarbonisation for net zero right to the top of their their agenda.

00:04:01:06 - 00:04:23:10

And on this bill the pragmatists say, look, the offshore petroleum licensing Bill is about providing annual licensing for oil and gas drilling. The regulatory body can do that anyway if it wants, so that this this bill is actually not that important. It was it's a very slight measure. It gives the government a duty to do something it already has the power to do.

00:04:23:11 - 00:04:59:10

So it's it's a build it as a wedge issue, rather than as actual sort of useful legislation. And that's one of the arguments that people have been making against it, that this is actually more about trying to make a case against Labour and put them on the spot rather than actually dealing with any substantive policy question. On the other hand, Chris Skidmore and Alok Sharma make the argument that it's a bad signal in terms of all role, in terms of international leadership, the at the COP, the fact that we are one of the first of the G20 nations to to halve our carbon emissions, we're seen as a global leader.

00:04:59:12 - 00:05:22:11

We've we've positioned ourselves internationally. Successive governments are positioned as internationally as a global leader on this question and that we're now seeing to sort of be rolling back and that that's a bad signal in Alok Sharma words to send to two international partners. He said he won't vote for the bill as ever. The question is will he vote against it or will he just abstain, not be present for the vote?

00:05:22:12 - 00:05:50:02

Well, we'll see. And again, I'm quite interested to look at how many Conservative MPs might not toe the line on this one, just how big a section of the parties actually so engaged in these issues that they might be prepared to defy the whip in the immediate run up to a general election. Well, watch that space. And the other point to say about this, though, is that when the government set its decarbonisation targets and made them more stringent, this was all done by statutory instrument.

00:05:50:02 - 00:06:10:09

This is done with a very minimal debate for an incredibly far reaching policy issue. And this is one of the dangers of trying to sort of flimflam things through with the minimum possible engagement in Parliament because it comes back to bite you when people can complain. There hasn't been proper discussion of a very, very far reaching policy decision.

00:06:10:09 - 00:06:25:14

It's all been sort of slipped through in a relatively small debate in the blink of an eye. Yeah, the net zero target, the statutory instrument that it was Chris Skidmore that signed it, of course. And this is why he feels so strongly about it and got a 90 minute debate in the House of Commons. What does it do?

00:06:25:14 - 00:07:00:14

It committed the country to billions and billions of pounds of expenditure. Now there's a principle question about whether a statutory instrument and a debate of 90 minutes that attaches to a statutory instrument should be something that can be used to permit expenditure on that scale. Is that beyond what a statutory instruments purpose is? For the counterargument to that and the Government's argument would be, well, the Act permitted it in the drafting of the power in the Act gave the power to ministers and in effect what you'd got was a sort of a uprating of the target that had been agreed through.

00:07:00:14 - 00:07:21:00

I think it was the Climate Change Committee, some climate body that the Act provided for that said all that consultation, that consideration had been dealt with and therefore this was perfectly normal practice in relation to the powers that Ministers had in the Act, the Climate Change Act, to do this. That's right, too. Well, it's certainly correct in terms of that.

00:07:21:00 - 00:07:43:00

That's what the bill said they could do. So they could do it. But it's the besetting sin of our times in terms of lawmaking, which is that the actual core decisions that a bill enables are so often now pushed through this way with a minimal debate, 90 minutes on the statutory instrument or proceeding under a bill. And that's not how it should work.

00:07:43:00 - 00:08:00:16

In my view. I just do think that when you have mega policy questions and this is mega, mega policy question, it should be a little bit more than 90 minutes in the chamber. Most of which will be taken up with frontbench speakers. And Parliament doesn't really get a chance to sink its remaining teeth into the issue. Well, you're speaking to my hobbyhorse.

00:08:00:16 - 00:08:30:12

I mean, this is something that I've worked on for ten years, making the case that the treatment of this is what we call delegated or secondary, or if you're a lawyer, you might call it subordinate legislation powers in acts which grant powers to ministers to make law with minimal parliamentary scrutiny, if any, and the boundary between what used to be in primary legislation in the bill that becomes an act of Parliament and what is now increasingly in secondary legislation in a statutory instrument has shifted.

00:08:30:18 - 00:08:50:16

In the good old days, statute or instruments were to make kind of operational tweaks to the working of a law. You bring a speed limit down by ten miles an hour or something like that through a statutory instrument. You don't do huge changes in policy that way or at least you didn't do. Now, apparently you do. Yeah. And to be clear, this is not a recent change.

00:08:50:16 - 00:09:13:19

This has been a shifting trend by ministers putting ever broader powers into bills for the last 30 years at least. And successive governments of different political stripes have done it. The boundary has now shifted that nobody really knows where it lies. It's very clear that there is a rising tide of concern in Parliament and I think increasingly outside Parliament, as more and more people become aware of this.

00:09:13:21 - 00:09:43:05

Our delegated legislation review, which has been looking at this now for 18 months or so, shortly be reporting this spring, we'll have substantive proposals about how this can be reformed and we hope that the next government will take them on board. Well, that's the question, isn't it? Imagine if it's Labour in power after the next election, having doubtless condemned this sort of thing at every possible opportunity for the last 18 years, will Labour once empowering what lovely power we can get stuff really done this way and do exactly what it used to condemn?

00:09:43:08 - 00:10:01:19

Or will it actually stick to it and see a case for reform and enacted, even if it's inconvenient for ministers, it's ministers later on. Yeah, and that is the big question and it's the big question that confronts new governments every time in opposition they say they're against things, they get into government and it's suddenly very convenient and they lose the reforming zeal.

00:10:01:20 - 00:10:19:00

The sweet spot for reform is basically the first year to 18 months of the absolute outside before power corrupts. And they tell you, we, you know, we've got to move ahead quickly. We we haven't got time to do this sort of thing. This will have to wait and wait some wait. And it never gets done. They lose ministerial office, they leave.

00:10:19:00 - 00:10:36:00

They go back into opposition or they get back onto the government backbench and all of a sudden they find their reforming zeal about reforms, which is great. And again, is it all about to be cynical, isn't it? It's the big question, I think, for the Labour Party in the next Parliament, If they win, are they prepared to reform some of these problems?

00:10:36:00 - 00:11:05:01

Seriously? I would make the argument that there's an incentive for them because some of these problems that the government of the last ten years has faced has arisen from what I would call these these poor governance problems. The lack of engagement with Parliament create these political peaks, these sort of political crises around, you know, where the temperature rises about a particular issue and you find it's a statutory instrument and the scrutiny process doesn't allow for the political concerns to be aired properly.

00:11:05:01 - 00:11:22:04

Yeah, and they become bigger issues in the might otherwise have been. But I think it's also just about good governance and about having people, more people, more MPs being able to look at the detail of some of these laws, rather than assuming that as soon as you put it through the Whitehall process, it's fine and it shouldn't be touched.

00:11:22:07 - 00:11:53:16

John Tom Yeah, and off the back of that whole environmental issue, there's another distinct issue, which is should. Chris Skidmore really have resigned his Bristol Kingswood seat as it exists now, is being completely divvied up by the Boundary Commission and so won't exist at the next election. So the winner of the impending byelection, there will be an MP for a few months and then may just disappear forever in the wash at the next general election because the constituency they serve simply won't exist anymore.

00:11:53:16 - 00:12:10:13

And they might get not get into one of the successor constituencies. Couldn't he have just gritted his teeth and stuck it out until Rishi Sunak blows the whistle and starts the next election? Well, certainly what a number of his conservative colleagues thought he should have done, both at Westminster and in his constituency party. I mean, you can understand it.

00:12:10:15 - 00:12:40:13

Chris Kimball's argument was, look, this is a principled resignation. I cannot vote for this legislation. I object to it. I'm giving the whip up. And he says he's always been an opponent of MPs who give up the whip, move to another party or give up their party role, not resigning. So from his perspective, he was maintaining that commitment that if an MP effectively shifts party position, they should resign and give their constituents an opportunity to choose another MP.

00:12:40:15 - 00:13:02:10

So once he's gone, the alternative argument which his Conservative colleagues would put is, look, you know, you are putting the electorate in your constituency. I'm you're putting the local council that's going to have to pay the costs of this byelection, which will not be insubstantial, putting them to an awful lot of trouble potentially just months away before they have to go to the polls again for a general election.

00:13:02:13 - 00:13:21:03

You could see some being elected in February and out of a job in May potentially. So, you know, a bit of a mayfly existence for the next MP for Bristol Kingswood. But on the other hand, don't underestimate the electoral significance of this. Bristol. Kingswood was a Labour seat right up until 2010, when David Cameron didn't quite win the 2010 general election.

00:13:21:03 - 00:13:40:02

But Labour lost an awful lot of seats, so it gives Labour a very symbolic chance to get back into the Territory that it lost. Then. So to that extent it's just another unwelcome electoral test for the government and a chance for Labour to score some brownie points from the voters. They're leaving. Aside the other parties may feel that they have a bit of it.

00:13:40:02 - 00:14:03:10

They know the Greens are quite strong in Bristol and might fancy their chances on an election caused by an environmental issue. But the politics of that election are not to be ignored. But as you say, you do wonder if if Chris Skidmore was so against this bill, couldn't he have just sat as an independent for a couple of months perhaps trying to get on the bill committee or try to make speeches at revolt stage and try and influence its content rather than simply go away?

00:14:03:14 - 00:14:30:02

Now, he's a man with plenty of other things that he might want to do. He's accomplished, too. A historian. And I understand he's got a contract to write at some point a full dress biography of King Henry the seventh. So he's got other things that he could quite easily do. He's a professor at Bath University. There's talk that he may be doing work for various green organisations in his MP after life, so there are plenty of reasons why he may think that he should just get on with the rest of his life and stop being in politics now.

00:14:30:02 - 00:14:46:16

But all the same, I can't imagine there's not a bit of a weary sigh in Bristol. Kingswood. On the other hand, if you're the Labour candidate. So Labour's chosen Damian Egan, who is, he's actually currently the Mayor of Lewisham, but was chosen for one of the Bristol seats that's going to be. He's in one of the successes. Yeah.

00:14:46:16 - 00:15:04:18

He's going to emerge out of the, the boundary changes. So they've selected him on the understanding that he that he then will be in part of whatever the new seat is going to be quite easy after the boundary change. So they've obviously got their sights set on this and think that they've got a got a good chance. So watch this space.

00:15:04:18 - 00:15:24:18

The by election probably will be sooner rather than later. I think I should probably just say going back to the interviews we did with Michael Crick earlier this early this year, that although I said he was the mayor of Lewisham, he's actually a local candidate. He does actually come from the Bristol area. So he's stressing his local roots, as Michael's was very keen to, as all good candidates must.

00:15:24:19 - 00:15:51:14

Yes. And talking of MP scrutinising the work of government, the Select committee corridor is entering a rather old pre-election phase. Now you get a feeling that the air is slowly deflating out of their normal work because employees are increasingly preferring to spend more time dealing with their constituents, shoring up their position back in their constituency, and less time sitting in committee rooms in Westminster quizzing ministers or experts or whoever it is.

00:15:51:14 - 00:16:17:05

And that manifests itself in several ways a couple of vacancies have arisen in important select committees that don't seem to be being filled. Ruth Yeah, I mean, this was something that the Conservative Minister, Andrea Leadsom, was taking up on social media earlier this week. She was pointing out that the Labour Party have not yet filled one of their seats on the Treasury Select Committee that's been vacant for a few months now since Keir Starmer did his frontbench reshuffle.

00:16:17:07 - 00:16:34:03

That's normally a pretty plum post as well. Absolutely. And she was making the point that, you know, this is sort of indicative, of course, of Labour not taking seriously value for public money and so on. So she was having a sort of political dig. But there's a broader point that some of the Select committee places are taking quite a long time to fill.

00:16:34:03 - 00:16:55:04

As you say, even plum posts on really important committees. Another one that's been vacant for a few months now is the Intelligence and Security Committee, which is not a parliamentary select committee. As such, it's appointed by the government. It's the body that oversees the intelligence services. So in my Friday, my six search queue and so on, incredibly important.

00:16:55:06 - 00:17:14:10

They have to sign the Official Secrets Act. So, you know, only senior MPs get chosen for it. But there are vacancies on that committee that have not yet been filled. Now, whether the problem is with the opposition not selecting them, not nominating people, or whether it's taking a very long time for them to be security cleared, we don't know.

00:17:14:10 - 00:17:52:15

But who knows? Still taking a long time. Is it a general unwillingness? Do they want to coin a phrase, die another day? Or do you could resist it? Sorry, but I mean, in this committee, perhaps a subject we need to come on to in a in a future episode. But I mean, it's a committee that is incredibly important given the nature of its work and it has, you know, produced just before Christmas some incredibly important reports raising serious questions about the government's approach to security matters, by the way, in which, you know, they're accountable to parliament, the way in which they're dealing with security around things like use of technology like WhatsApp and so on.

00:17:52:17 - 00:18:10:05

Obviously a challenging time internationally, incredibly important. But there is this this gap. I think Labour's only got two seats on that committee at the moment, so it's not fully functioning in terms of its membership and that's not the only example of a sort of international committee committee with that kind of security dimension being in a bit of difficulty.

00:18:10:05 - 00:18:29:12

The Defence Select Committee has had quite a lot of churn as well. I mean you listeners start here back in October. Tobias Ellwood, the former defence minister who used to chair it, got into trouble with his committee members for making some comments about how Afghanistan's security situation had improved, which seemed to praise the Taliban and got him into all kinds of difficulty.

00:18:29:14 - 00:18:54:05

He then resigned. He was replaced by another conservative former minister, Robert Courts. Robert Courts was there for about three femtoseconds before a government reshuffle pulled him back in. A solicitor general. And so they're having to have another by election to find another chair for the Defence Select Committee and so that the merry go round continues there and it's very difficult for that committee to keep on doing serious work.

00:18:54:05 - 00:19:16:12

I mean, some interesting candidates running as so far as we know at the moment. There are two Conservative backbencher Raymond Fischetti, who was very briefly a minister in the dog days of Boris Johnson's regime, but is perhaps best known for having contemplated running for the Conservative leadership. How seriously? We're not quite sure. But he was sort of putting himself I think he thought it was serious.

00:19:16:13 - 00:19:41:08

I'm not sure anybody were. I was trying to be polite. I said, but but he's he's put himself up for this. And then there's Jeremy Quin. Jeremy Quin came in in 2015 and has had a career as a whip. He because he'd been chair of the Conservative Association in Buckingham, which was once John Bercow's constituency, he was kind of the designated Bercow whisperer from the Conservative whips for a while, trying to maintain some kind of channel of communication with the Speaker.

00:19:41:10 - 00:20:02:15

John Bercow Over. Listen to very interesting question, to which I do not know the answer, but then he had on a sort of upward ministerial trajectory, culminating in being Paymaster General with a seat in the Cabinet. But in between time and this is where it's relevant to the Defence Select Committee. He was Minister for Defence Procurement, one of those very important policy heavy medium sized ministerial jobs.

00:20:02:15 - 00:20:20:01

So he was in charge of all those weapons systems that the country spends billions of pounds on. And one of the jobs of the Defence Select Committee is to look at those soldiers where they commissioned a weapon system and it's years overdue and his billions over budget and that still doesn't actually work. Those are the sort of things that that committee investigates.

00:20:20:01 - 00:20:35:08

And Jeremy Quin would be in the chair, potentially marking his own homework as Minister for Defence Procurement, which brings to mind the example of another Jeremy, Jeremy Hunt, who was the longest ever serving health secretary, and then went onto chair of the Health Select Committee. So there was at least a precedent. Yeah, I mean, it's interesting, isn't it, when you get this.

00:20:35:08 - 00:20:52:10

I mean, I remember Margaret Hodge saying the thing about former ministers coming into sort of committee areas that they know from the department experience is that they know where the bodies are, you know, they know where to look. But there is that sort of discomfort that they are marking some of their own homework. Yeah, well, we'll have to see.

00:20:52:10 - 00:21:10:21

I'm not quite sure when this election is actually going to take place and whether indeed any other Conservative MPs, because this is a committee that has to be chaired by a Conservative MP, if any other Conservative MPs will appear and declare that kind of sense to me, I think it's likely something like 17th or something like that. So not much time for that at the moment.

00:21:10:21 - 00:21:31:02

I think my money would be slightly on Jeremy Corbyn, who's quite a well-liked figure on the Conservative benches, but who will sell. And one other minor nuance on this is, is the little remote Horsham connection in this local angle, because Jeremy Irons, the MP for Horsham Market Town in Sussex, and Raymond Christie was went for it in 2005.

00:21:31:02 - 00:21:52:18

The Labour candidate for Horsham in that constituency. And the story is that he was more or less converted to the conservative cause on the platform of the declaration in the 2005 election by the previous MP for Horsham, Francis Maude. Well, how true that is. I really don't know how I missed that, but. But the burghers of Horsham will be watching with, I suspect, great interest to see what unfolds from this.

00:21:52:20 - 00:22:16:02

So at this point, Mark, I think we should take a break because James Arbuthnot is going to join us to discuss the Horizon Post Office scandal. So stay with us. If you're enjoying the pot and think like Mark and I do, that Parliament matters. Why not join the Hansard Society? This year we celebrate our 80th anniversary, and throughout the year we'll have a number of special events to mark this important milestone for as little as a cup of coffee Each month.

00:22:16:04 - 00:22:32:19

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00:22:32:21 - 00:23:01:01

You can join by going to Hansol Society. TalkTalk UK Slash Membership. The big news this week in Parliament, as elsewhere, has been the fallout from ITV's Drama, Mr. Bates versus the Post Office. The story of the Post Office Horizon scandal and how hundreds of people were wrongfully prosecuted. Many went to jail, some ended their own lives. It's been an absolutely horrific example of a miscarriage of justice, the biggest in British history.

00:23:01:06 - 00:23:23:04

And one of those instrumental in bringing it to Parliament's attention is James Arbuthnot. Now Lord Arbuthnot, former Conservative MP who's with us now. James, welcome to the pod. Thank you very much. First of all, what first brought this to your attention? Because I can imagine. MP get a lot of very aggrieved people turning up at their constituency surgery and telling tales of bad things that have happened to them.

00:23:23:10 - 00:23:46:00

What made this issue stand out and persuade you to take it up as effectively as you did? The postmaster from Odiham, a man called David Bristow, said that he'd had a problem, that he'd been accused of losing something like £40,000 from the Odiham post office, and he thought it was a problem with the new accounting system that they'd been made to bring in.

00:23:46:02 - 00:24:17:17

He said that Joe Hamilton was Subpostmaster from the neighbouring village of Southbourne. Brett had a similar problem and she'd actually had to go to court and she'd been convicted of false accounting and would I go and see them? So I did. And they both were transparently honest people, warm and friendly and yet here was Joe Hamilton, a convicted criminal, and David Bristow, having been accused of losing over £40,000.

00:24:17:19 - 00:24:43:09

And the problem was at that stage that I couldn't see where we could take Joe Hamilton's case because she'd pleaded guilty. So she couldn't appeal. It wasn't until about 18 months later when David Bristow's replacement as the Subpostmaster in Odiham was also removed for the same sort of reason. I thought, This is absurd. It can't be a coincidence.

00:24:43:09 - 00:25:06:12

It must be something systemically wrong with the post office accounting system. So I wrote to the minister and I said, Where are we? This can't be right. I had written to the minister back in 2009 when Joe Hamilton and David Bristow first approached me and I was told, actually, this is a contractual separate matter for the post office.

00:25:06:16 - 00:25:29:08

We've got a hands off arrangement with the post office, and so it's nothing to do with the government. So that was the problem. So you've got nothing to do with us, guv, from a succession of ministers? Yes. Starting with Labour ministers going on to Lib Dem ministers and going on to Conservative ministers. Nothing to do with us that is a model which I think is profoundly dangerous.

00:25:29:10 - 00:25:56:24

If you have a dangerous dog, you can't declare an arm's length arrangement with your dangerous dog if it bites someone, you can't say nothing to do with me. You've got to take the responsibility of ownership. And the government had been refusing to do that for years. And that is one of the fundamental problems with what has happened. One of the things that strikes you when you look at this is quite how many ministers we're talking about here.

00:25:56:24 - 00:26:20:24

17 ministers have been individually responsible within the business department for the post office over the length of this scandal. If you trace it back to before 2010, indeed into the nineties. So that's quite a lot of people changing chairs very, very rapidly. I can imagine, you know, you become a minister, you suddenly get this land on your desk, you've got to go into the Commons and answer for it.

00:26:20:24 - 00:26:41:03

And you don't really have that much option, do you? But to read what is in the brief the civil servants give you, particularly if the civil servants have told you not to get involved, because this is a hands off arrangement, an arm's length arrangement, and they've got all of this under control. Yes, ministers are all too easy come, easy go.

00:26:41:05 - 00:27:07:19

And they have so many things on their plate that they actually can't oversee everything with the care that is needed. But constitutionally aren't ministers the responsible people for this? The civil servants answers the ministers, the ministers responsible for what comes up in my department. yes, they are. They are constitutionally responsible. They own this damn thing. And so they really need to take responsibility for it.

00:27:07:21 - 00:27:37:20

And so I hope that this horrific saga will result in a reappraisal of the notion of arm's length arrangements. And how would you want that reformed? What changes would you would you think I would bring in I would want simply ministers to feel able to answer to parliament for problems that occur in the organisations that the department's own.

00:27:37:22 - 00:27:58:08

That's a relatively simple matter. They should never say this is entirely for that organisation. They should take responsibility directly themselves. One of the things seems to be that you've said that you think the post office lied to Parliament. Yes, I have. What recourse do you think there is for Parliament in that situation? I mean that is a serious thing, lying to Parliament.

00:27:58:14 - 00:28:26:21

What can be done? What happened with that was that it was clear that people within the post office and I don't know exactly who within the post office, but people within the post office did know that a Fujitsu employee had given evidence to the courts which rendered his evidence and rendered the convictions that arose out of his evidence unsafe.

00:28:26:23 - 00:28:58:22

People in the post office knew that in 2013, and yet the post office, Paula Vennells, Angela Angela van den Bogerd, had went in front of a select committee in February 2015 and said that they had no evidence to suggest that the convictions were unsafe. That was untrue. And so the moment that the advice came into the public domain in 2002, you I think it may have been the moment that advice came into the public domain.

00:28:58:22 - 00:29:25:18

I wrote to the speaker and to the Lord speaker and the chairman of the Business Select Committee to say you have been lied to back in 2015. This is really serious stuff. By that stage, the public inquiry was underway and the select committee felt unable to interfere in the work that was already being done by the public inquiry.

00:29:25:20 - 00:29:49:23

And the speakers of each House felt unable to interfere in something where the chairman of the committee that had been lied to felt unable to interfere. And so it all began to add up to come to anything at this stage. This is the parliamentary sort of position that once things are before the courts, they're subjudice in parliament doesn't take action or interfere in any way that it would be seen to influence what the courts are doing.

00:29:49:23 - 00:30:14:14

So again, sort of usual that proceedings are stymied. That's rather been blown out of the water this week, hasn't it? To talk us through the anatomy of the campaign that took place, because you and I was in a similar position who had their own constituents coming to them with these problems. You all put your heads together and began to cooperate and try and put pressure on ministers who didn't really want to hear what you were saying to them.

00:30:14:15 - 00:30:37:16

Yes, that's right. I wrote to every MP to say, Have you got the same sort of problem? And between 30 and 50 wrote back to me to say, Yes, we have. So I got to there's M.P.s who are able to come to the meeting, along with several subpostmasters who were able to come to a meeting along with solicitors who were who were collecting and collating cases to a meeting.

00:30:37:16 - 00:31:13:00

And we all began to approach. First, the post office, because after all, the government was saying not myGov and we approached the post office and we had a positive, sympathetic, helpful response from the chairman Alice Perkins and Paula Vennells, the chief, the new chief executive and the post office themselves suggested Potevano suggested the appointment of a forensic accountancy firm to look into the problems that we'd identified to see whether there was anything wrong.

00:31:13:02 - 00:31:53:22

They believed, I'm sure, I'm sure. Paula Vennells, that as Perkins believed, that the forensic accountants would establish that the horizon system was robust quite when in the previous history of the post Office they had forgotten that the horizon system came in with many, many doubts, having been rejected by the Department of Work and Pensions and with everybody in the post office at that stage and in Fujitsu, knowing that this was a system with serious flaws, quite one that had been forgotten in the post office history, I don't know, but I'm sure they did want to get to the bottom of it.

00:31:53:24 - 00:32:23:23

And then when they found the answers, that second site, the forensic accountants were producing, those answers weren't to their liking. Then they began to restrict access for second sight, to the documents, to the information they were beginning to clamp down on. This inconvenient investigation, and they produced a mediation scheme which they then set out to sabotage. I suppose they thought we wouldn't notice or something.

00:32:24:00 - 00:32:45:09

And at that stage the employees broke off negotiations and I said that the post office had been duplicitous, which I think it had. And I suggested to Alan Bates, a man I revere and others, that it might be a good idea to get in front of the select committee. And I suggested to the Select committee they might like to look at it.

00:32:45:15 - 00:33:16:09

And they did. And so that's the if if you like, the turning point moment when things began to move. No, the turning point moment actually, that was the moment at which politics failed comprehensively failed. The turning point moment was when the publicity that had arisen out of that political drive I think helped Alan Bates to go to litigation funders to take the post office to court.

00:33:16:11 - 00:33:46:03

And I think it will have helped Alan Bates to collect together. 555 Subpostmasters an astonishing achievement to reform his group Legal Action. And then Mr. Justice, Fraser's absolutely stunningly wonderful judgement made it plain that the post Office was essentially lying through its teeth and trying to bolster its own brand at the expense of fairness and justice for the subpostmasters which it had thrown to the wall.

00:33:46:05 - 00:34:18:11

So when was there a moment in Parliament where the climate changed, the moment in Parliament where the climate changed, was the outcome of Mr. Justice Fraser's judgement, except that there had been a lot of rumbling publicity about this. And during one Prime Minister's questions, Kate Osborne asked a question on behalf of her son, my constituent of Boris Johnson, and Boris Johnson said yes, she had also a public inquiry.

00:34:18:14 - 00:34:44:08

She can have exactly the inquiry that she has asked for. I'm sure he had not the slightest idea of quite what it was that he was letting the government in for. But it was that because I think the civil service in the post office reacted with horror to the idea that they were going to have to face a public inquiry and they tried the utmost to limit it to a review.

00:34:44:10 - 00:35:19:18

The review under Sir Wayne Williams, who is doing an extraordinarily good job, the review had its terms of totally restricted. It couldn't look at compensation or anything like that or anything unpleasant. But then as a result of Mr. Justice Fraser's stonking wonderful judgement, 39 Subpostmasters had their convictions overturned by the Court of Appeal, the largest number of convictions ever overturned on one issue in British history, and it were now up to 95.

00:35:19:20 - 00:35:47:00

It was that overturned meaning of the convictions that made Paul Scully, the new Minister for the post Office, made him change the review into a full blown inquiry, since when it has taken off. But at the same time, Nick Wallace was writing his book The Great Post-office Scandal, which is the most readable and insightful book that you could hope to read on a very complicated and difficult subject.

00:35:47:00 - 00:36:15:00

But it is like Mr. Bates and the Post Office. It is an infuriating and illuminating and gripping read, and so gradually it gave rise to Mr. Bates and the post office. And now we have the vast sort of spasm of parliamentary activity that we've seen this week off the back of that TV series. Is it a bit infuriating to you that so much had been going on before?

00:36:15:00 - 00:36:45:19

But it takes a TV. I mean, I've seen some rather sarcastically suggest that you shouldn't bother going to your MP anymore. You should approach ITV commissioning editor for drama if you want to air an injustice these days. I think actually the parliamentary activity before the legal activity, I think it all came together and helped. I think it informed the the legal activity and I think the particularly the select committee work helped the legal activity.

00:36:45:21 - 00:37:23:23

And there was one other thing as well, because the public inquiry had excluded from its terms of reference the issue of compensation. I went to the new chairman of the business committee, Darren Jones, and said, Look, this is outside the terms of reference of the public inquiry, so you can do an inquiry into it. And he did. And it was his evidence session with Paul Scully in front of it that made Paul Scully agree that full compensation should be given, even though the court cases had been settled.

00:37:24:00 - 00:37:47:22

We've already talked about the enormous succession of ministers who've been theoretically at least responsible for this issue. But there's since there's a bit of a hue and cry about the culpability of those ministers and Ed Davey, the leader of the Lib Dems in particular, how culpable do you think individual ministers have been in this? Should they have said, hang on a minute, I've got serious people like James Arbuthnot and Kevin Jones.

00:37:47:22 - 00:38:10:12

These aren't sort of caped crusader as these are experienced employees and ex ministers coming to me and saying there's a problem. Should they have taken more notice earlier? Yes, they should. I wouldn't single out any particular minister for having failed to do that. I think they all failed to do that, frankly. I got the same response from Ed Davey as I had got from Pat McFadden and as I got from Tolhurst.

00:38:10:14 - 00:38:43:02

I did go and see Baroness Neville Wolf when she was the minister in charge of the post office. I think that was in 2015 and I've spoken to her about this and she said she did tell the post office, you've got to sort this out, which was the result I was hoping for. And I think that what the post Office then did was to go away and do an investigation which wasn't shared with either the minister or the post office board, which I find unbelievable, would find it unbelievable, not the post office involved.

00:38:43:04 - 00:39:05:22

It's an extraordinary series of stories. This the government's now said that it's going to bring forward legislation to exonerate all the postmasters and post mistresses who've had convictions. There is a concern that parliament here taking a role that belongs to the courts and that this might be setting an unfortunate precedent. What's your view of the risks for Parliament?

00:39:05:24 - 00:39:33:19

My view is that I fully understand the concern and for the legislature to overturn cases and decisions that have been before the courts is a difficult thing to do if we have the proper separation of powers. However, the largest number of cases on any one issue that had previously been before the Criminal Cases Review Commission was, as I understand it, ten.

00:39:33:21 - 00:40:02:23

We are talking in the post office case of something like 900 or more and the palaver of bringing people in front of the Criminal Cases Review Commission. They recommending to the Court of Appeal that those cases should be considered hearing all the evidence, each of those cases individually that palaver the system is simply not set up to be able to cope with that, and it never could be.

00:40:03:00 - 00:40:24:07

However much resource we put into it, we would not be able to solve that problem and more. More to the point, Subpostmasters are simply not applying to have their convictions overturned. They are not coming forward. They are so traumatised by the experience of going to authority and of their experience with the post office that they are putting it behind them.

00:40:24:07 - 00:40:50:04

They want nothing more to do with it. It will be difficult as a result of this legislation to find many of the subpostmasters who've been so devastated in order to give them the redress that they need and that they should have because they've been so traumatised. So I think it is an uncomfortable thing to be doing, but I also think that it is the only solution available to us.

00:40:50:04 - 00:41:15:12

As the Minister put it, when he was announcing this, It's the lesser of two evils. And if I may I slightly personal question. So my background by education, you spent three decades or more in Parliament, you've been a minister. You're a sort of most quintessential established figure. One might say, I thought you were going to say I was very old, a quintessential establishment figure, I'll put it that way.

00:41:15:14 - 00:41:43:12

And yet this isn't your first go at challenging injustice. I mean, you had an earlier case in your constituency involving the Chinook helicopter crash in Milliken time, where you were challenging the media about the findings of responsibility for that crash. So this is your sort of second campaign for your constituents against injustice. Has it changed how you feel about the institutions of the state and about politics and parliament and government?

00:41:43:14 - 00:42:14:07

No, I think that members of Parliament have got a duty to do things on behalf of the constituents, and I think that the requirements of fairness are overriding. And even though I'm now 71, in essence, I'm a small boy who cannot stand unfairness and I can't and I won't stop with this until I've done my best to see it Right.

00:42:14:13 - 00:42:31:18

And why does it take the state so long to hear these complaints? Why is it that whether you're talking about Windrush, whether you're talking about contaminated blood, whatever it takes so long for people to come to the state and say there's been a great injustice for the state to cocoon here and actually listen and do something about it.

00:42:31:20 - 00:43:06:19

It's it's awful, but it may be part of the human condition. It may be that we, whether we're in authority or not, we believe what we want to believe. And if all our experience is that you protect the organisation for which you work and you make sure that it sees off all comers, as it were, then I don't it it's hard to defend the post office and I don't it's pretty hard to defend the government and I don't often do that.

00:43:06:21 - 00:43:29:24

But it is part of the human condition that we believe what we want to believe. And we if there is groupthink around, we will probably join it. And that is what has happened in this case. And is this going to be weaponised in the next general election? Now? Almost certainly that's the way things are. James, up north, thanks for joining us on the pod.

00:43:30:01 - 00:44:00:06

So Mark, looking ahead to next week, this is actually following that discussion with James Arbuthnot. There's a couple of things that are relevant to the post office Horizon scandal. They're going to be happening in Parliament. The House of Lords is going to be considering the Post Office Horizon System Compensation Bill, which was the legislation that was promised in the King's Speech and brought forward obviously wait to hear more detail about the Government's plans for its legislation to exonerate the postmasters and post mistresses and what their plans are in terms of the timetable for that one.

00:44:00:06 - 00:44:18:09

We'll see the bill taking it all in a single gulp, though, on Tuesday. At the moment, by all stages, from second reading right through to the compensation bill yet. But we don't know what the plans are yet in terms of when this bill for the exoneration is of the post mistresses and postmasters is going to come, you know, how long is it going to take to draft the legislation?

00:44:18:09 - 00:44:53:11

They're obviously consulting still with the judiciary. So we might get more news on that in the coming days. Well, things bear in mind, it's not it's not much discussion is some if you think that we discussed this on an earlier episode of the podcast that before Christmas Rishi Sunak suffered his first defeat on legislation on the victims and prisoners bill when the Labour MP chair, the Home Affairs Select Committee, Diana Johnson, pushed an amendment through and got the support of sufficient number of Conservative MPs to join the Opposition benches in support of an amendment for a compensation scheme for the victims of the contaminated blood scandal.

00:44:53:13 - 00:45:18:00

What's interesting about this, and this is before the whole post office, you know, ITV drama brought the Horizon scandal to this level of public attention. Diana Johnson and her supporters were insisting on putting that amendment into the legislation to get a compensation scheme for the contaminated blood victims because they could see that the post office had already got a compensation scheme up and running.

00:45:18:00 - 00:45:47:03

And they're concerned that the government have been dragging out the time taken to set up a compensation scheme for the victims of the contaminated blood scandal. So they were not prepared to wear government assurances that this was going to happen down the road. They insisted on putting it into the legislation and that following Royal assent as a result of this amendment, if that if indeed the bill gets through, gets royal assent, within three months, the government will have to set up a statutory compensation scheme for the contaminated blood victims.

00:45:47:03 - 00:46:11:02

So it's interesting that for this drama, MPs were looking at how things were going with that post office scandal and learning lessons for the contaminated blood victims to get support up and running. So I think there may be a more general fallout from from this which will spread over, if you like, other injustices. Other campaigns will be looking very closely at the lessons learned and the battles fought by victims.

00:46:11:02 - 00:46:28:13

The post office horizon. Yeah. And then the other big issue that's of course going to be dominating the Commons in the week ahead is, is the return of the Rwanda bill for its committee stage in the chamber for a couple of days. Yep. Two days of committee of the whole House. So they're not sending it off to some committee upstairs.

00:46:28:13 - 00:46:49:22

Every MP is going to get a chance to weigh in on the detail of this and lots of them already on names like Robert Jenrick, the former Home Office minister, Sir Ian Duncan-Smith, the former Conservative leader. People like that are putting down plenty of amendments and I daresay more will appear. Yes. The big question is, you know, have they got enough support on the Conservative benches?

00:46:49:24 - 00:47:08:01

Seems doubtful. I have to say at the moment this is the really difficult bit about this. I mean, part of this is the government calculating the impact on party unity of having the right of the party really hacked off, that a bill that they think is essential isn't tough enough to do what they want it to do. At the same time, there's another faction.

00:47:08:01 - 00:47:28:13

There's a more one Nation wing who are very worried about the implications for international law commitments by this country, the various conventions that we've signed up to on the treatment of refugees and migrants, might they rebel? Might you win one set of rebels only two only to infuriate it another. So there's a very difficult party management issue here for Rishi Sunak.

00:47:28:13 - 00:47:52:10

But in another way it's kind of asymmetrical because while you can imagine the One Nation crowd funding course is to align with Labour to potentially building up a non-government majority in the House, you can't really see Labour being prepared to back some of the amendments from the Tory, right. So those rebels basically have to fight an internal party battle, whereas the One Nation crown could if they wanted to.

00:47:52:10 - 00:48:10:02

And it's a very open question whether they would, but could potentially line up with Labour and rewrite the legislation, as it were, by force on the floor of the House. Yeah, and Rishi Sunak's sort of on the horns of a Goldilocks dilemma, you know, neither want to be too soft, noting hard in either direction. How does he balance that?

00:48:10:02 - 00:48:36:06

I mean, it may well be that the bill he's got is the sweet spot and actually he's not going to make any concessions. They they've made clear that this is as good as it gets. You know, Rwanda has said that any concessions in respect of international law would mean it couldn't continue with its agreement with the government. As you say, it's very hard to see how the conservative right are going to find any support on the opposition benches except on one point, because, of course, the end of it all, this process, there's the third reading vote.

00:48:36:06 - 00:49:00:07

So if the bill in its final form is unacceptable to the conservative right, they could then vote with Labour to throw it out. But that that's that's beyond the nuclear option. That's the kind of thermonuclear mega Armageddon option for a Conservative MP to vote against a Conservative government's legislation, especially something of this magnitude, of this political salience would be a huge, huge step to take.

00:49:00:07 - 00:49:16:23

And somehow I think they probably won't quite be able to do that, certainly not in sufficient numbers. Yeah, and it's hard to see how if you're the Prime Minister you wouldn't strip them of the whip. Yeah, they're stripped of the whip and they're not standing in the next election. I and some of them may not care about that because I may be standing down, but there will be some who do care about that.

00:49:16:24 - 00:49:39:01

There will be some who do care about that. And there are several considerations in this. I mean, if you get Conservative MPs voting down a piece of legislation of this magnitude, it would be noticed outside the precincts of Westminster. This would be another sort of Tory chaos story that would dominate the government's coalition. And that doesn't exactly help them in a general election either.

00:49:39:01 - 00:50:05:17

So there's that side of it. And as you say this, there's the prospect that people might lose the whip Labour would certainly relish. I think being able to sort of score a coup of that dimension against Rishi Sunak because it would undermine the sort of competence call that he's busy trying to play. Yeah, I'm of course in second reading we had all of this, this, this taking us up to the top of the hill that they've got the numbers, you know, the five families of, the conservative right appearing before the TV cameras.

00:50:05:19 - 00:50:26:04

I love the way they've gleefully adopted mafia titles and mafia language in their self-description. Yeah. What about gather? Some of them are falling out like families do because some of them want to sort of put a distance between themselves. So they may not be quite as united as they were in the second reading, but at the end of the day, they haven't got the votes.

00:50:26:06 - 00:50:45:02

And that was perfectly clear. It was clear months ago on the was it the Windsor framework deal? They haven't got the votes there, neither. So I think the reality is there will be an awful lot of of huffing, huffing and puffing. A lot of talk. But they won't blow the house down. Yeah, a lot of stuff in the media and social media.

00:50:45:06 - 00:51:05:07

And at the end of the day, it'll go through probably with little or no amendment and it'll end up in the Lords and that'll be the next battle. I think one of the key lessons that the big organisers on the conservative right learned people like Steve Baker before he was a minister learned, was that you had to get all of the right to kind of jump together.

00:51:05:07 - 00:51:41:02

If they were going to rebel, they had to maximise their numbers or not do it at all. And I think we were in not to do it at all territory here. Yeah. Wait and see. You have to turn on, tune in, drop out. Well that's all from us for this week's episode of Parliament Matters. We think the follow or subscribe button in your podcast app to get the next episode as soon as it lands and help us to make the podcast better by leaving a rating or review on Apple or Spotify and sharing your feedback, our producer tells us it's important for the algorithm to give the show a boost and tell us more about

00:51:41:02 - 00:52:04:05

the algorithm. I know about algorithms. You know, I write my scripts with a quill pen on the vellum and then send it in by carrier pigeon. Well, before we go, a quick reminder also that you can send us your questions on all things Parliament by visiting We'll be discussing them in future episodes, including our special Urgent Questions editions dedicated to what you want to know about Parliament.

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