Post Office scandal: FDA and PCS slam claims civil servants lied

Government officials are under scrutiny for their role in the scandal, inquiry chair warns
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By Jonathan Owen

12 Jan 2024

Union leaders have accused former ministers of launching “outrageous” and “cowardly” attacks on civil servants over the Post Office scandal.

PCS and FDA's general secretaries have hit back at criticism of civil servants earlier this week by former postal affairs minister Sir Ed Davey and ex-business secretary Peter Mandelson over the Horizon IT scandal.

Davey said that he had been lied to by civil servants at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills when he raised concerns over the convictions of subpostmasters.

“I put those concerns to officials in my department, to the Post Office and to the National Federation of Postmasters and it’s clear they all were lying to me,” he said.

And ex-business secretary Lord Mandelson argued that civil servants “should have been much more focused and cognisant of what was going on.” He added: “Their job is to, in a sense, both to protect ministers and serve the wider public interest, and in this instance that failed."

But PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka branded the remarks as “just another cowardly example of politicians scrambling to blame others for their own mistakes”.

He accused politicians of being “quick to take credit when things go well” and said: “They should be humble and honest enough to take responsibility for their mistakes.”

 Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA, described Davey’s comments as "outrageous" and an "act of desperation from a former minister trying to save his own skin".

"Ed Davey goes beyond what is reasonable to expect from a former minister," he told Sky News yesterday. "If he's going to repeat this he needs to back up his accusations." Penman added: "Civil servants should rightly be held to account for what they did and didn't do, but they need an opportunity to defend themselves."

More than 700 subpostmasters and subpostmistresses were convicted of theft, false accounting and fraud after Fujitsu’s defective Horizon accounting software, introduced in 1999, made it appear as though money was missing at their branches.

One civil servant who raised serious concerns over the Horizon IT system was Sir Geoff Mulgan, ex-head of Tony Blair's Strategy Unit and a former member of the Horizon Working Group.

In a blog this week, he recalled warning that “the system was seriously flawed” and should be scrapped.

“It was obvious that poor decisions were being made and that the processes for making them were far from optimal,” he said.

The ex-civil servant had written a minute to prime minister Tony Blair and cabinet secretary Sir Richard Wilson in 1999, in which he warned that the project “was misconceived from the start” and that “nearly all the facts presented to ministers turned out to be unreliable.”

There are important lessons to be learned about government processes in the wake of the scandal, according to Mulgan. “A quarter of a century ago it was clear that Horizon was an accident waiting to happen…The Post Office deserves much of the blame - but government needs to learn hard lessons and own up to its responsibilities too.”

Civil servants should expect greater scrutiny in the coming months, Sir Wyn Williams, chair of the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry, warned yesterday. "It is not just the Post Office who will have an important obligation in relation to disclosure because we will be delving in the phases to come, in the activities of government departments and civil servants and senior people of that kind. So there will be important disclosure to be made by government as well as Post Office.”

The prominence of the issue, driven by the interest generated by ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office, has prompted swift action by the government in recent days. Prime minister Rishi Sunak announced on Wednesday that hundreds of subpostmasters could have their names cleared by the end of the year under new legislation to be introduced within weeks.

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