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Labour MP Calls For Urgent Arms-Length Body Review To Avoid Future Post Office Scandal

A number of MPs have been campaigning on behalf of the Post Office scandal victims for many years (Alamy)

6 min read

Labour MP Kevan Jones has said that a review of arms-length bodies in the UK is urgently needed in order to prevent the Post Office scandal repeating itself.

Since the wrongful convictions of Post Office sub-postmasters were brought back into public attention following the release of an ITV drama highlighting the scandal, attention has begun to turn to how to prevent similar disasters in the future.

Labour MP Kevan Jones was one of a group of parliamentarians who had long been campaigning on behalf of constituents affected by the scandal, and is a member of the independent Horizon advisory board which oversees compensation related to the scandal.

Given the Post Office's status as an arms-length body – a private company owned by the government – Jones told PoliticsHome he believed there was a fundamental issue with the way such bodies are governed. There are hundreds of other arms-length bodies, including state-owned enterprises such as Channel 4, Network Rail, and Ordnance Survey.

"It's funded by you and I and other taxpayers, but it's an arm's length organisation, and I think there are big questions about these organisations which we own that are running this way... there is an urgent need for review," Jones said.

"We’re conning ourselves into thinking that these organisations are separate from Government and are somehow independent. They're not, so therefore we need accountability.

"You need a system whereby they're accountable to Parliament but also whereby the government are able to intervene more directly on occasions. It’s no good just hiding behind the fact that they are arm's length."

The Post Office spent nearly £100m of taxpayer's money, in Jones' words, "to defend the indefensible", which he argued went almost entirely unquestioned by Government at the time. The MP said that this inability to take accountability when "things go wrong" went much further than just the Post Office.

Kevan Jones MP
Kevan Jones has been one of the most vocal politicians advocating for victims of the Post Office scandal (Alamy)

"There is a big issue across the civil service and public sector and that's about how we deal with it when things go wrong," he said.

"There is not an open culture trying to admit when things have gone wrong and to put them right. There seems to be a tendency to not just ignore, but actually try and put off the settlement of some of these cases."

Jones added that there was a "fear" which prevents whistleblowers from across the public sector speaking out about a range of issues.

He argued that arms-length bodies, as well as private firms with multibillion pound contracts with the government, should therefore operate with "full transparency" with Parliament, so they cannot "hide if things go wrong".

He said that more of a key role should be given to select committees, which scrutinise the work of Government. Jones has been a member of a number of committees during his time as an MP, including the Defence Committee and the Armed Forces Committee. 

"We have very good effective parliamentary oversight of a number of organisations through select committees and what we need to do to bolster their role," he said.

"Make these arms-length bodies for example, appear before them more – they should scrutinise the appointments of some of the boards, for example – and I think that is the way that we actually get more accountability in the system.

"People say 'well politics isn't working'; well yeah it does, it works very well if you allow Parliament to actually do its job and actually scrutinise the executive."

The MP for North Durham is also among those calling for a change to the law concerning how computer evidence is considered in court. Hundreds of sub-postmasters were blamed for errors caused by the Horizon accounting system, which Jones said was partly as a result of a method of questioning that assumed "computers are always right".

"There's a need to change the law that when these cases come to court the onus should be on them to be able to actually prove that their systems are robust," he said.

"At the moment computers are just deemed as machines, there's no reference, for example, to coding or software. And that needs to be looked at because the computer can't always be right. Clearly this showed it wasn't."

Jones joins many IT experts in calling for this change, as well as fellow Labour MP Darren Jones who wrote to Lord Chancellor Alex Chalk last year urging him to personally consider the issue. The government had previously stated it disagreed that the rules should be changed.

With many victims still awaiting compensation, the spotlight on the scandal looks to be far from over: Bosses from both the Post Office and Fujitsu, the Japanese technology firm that developed the Horizon programme, appeared in front of the Business Committee and the Horizon IT Inquiry last week.

Jones said he "welcomed" comments by Paul Patterson, Chief Executive for Europe at Fujitsu, who said the company had a "moral obligation" to pay some of the compensation to victims.

However, the MP was irate at the tone of the evidence presented by Nick Read, chief executive of the Post Office. 

"As for the Post Office, Nick Read was just above arrogant and dismissive... but that's what we've come to expect from the Post Office," Jones said.

"Over the many years that both myself and [former Conservative MP] James [Arbuthnot] have been dealing with the Post Office, it's sad, despite all this, that the cultural picture doesn't appear to have changed much. The Post Office culture is rotten to the core.”

Lord James Arbuthnot, Post Office minister Kevin Hollinrake, Kevan Jones Labour MP for North Durham and Professor Chris Hodges
Lord James Arbuthnot, Post Office minister Kevin Hollinrake, Labour MP Kevan Jones, and Professor Chris Hodges, Chair of Independent Advisory Board (Alamy)

Jones said that while the inquiries were doing an “excellent job”, they were still struggling to get information out of the Post Office, which he accused of “dragging their feet” in being slow to release evidence – including refusing to share Whatsapp messages with the claim that the platform had not been used to discuss policy.

“If they're so committed to the inquiry and openness and transparency, everything should be given to the inquiry, without any question," the MP said.

"There's quite a number of individuals that have got serious questions to answer. They’ve clearly got to pass a criminal threshold to get taken to court but I think it'd be very difficult to see how some people will not be taken to court.

"And I think that's the important thing, if you speak to many of the victims, compensation is one thing, but it's never going to replace the heartache that they've been through. But what they more importantly want is the truth and they want people held to account."

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