“Freedom Of Information. Three harmless words.”
The Post Office Horizon scandal serves as a prime example of how, when official channels have failed, determined investigators can eventually unpick the truth and ensure that justice is served.
Horizon, the computerised system on which sub-postmasters were required to balance their tills, was riddled with technical faults that led to inaccurate accounting. These faults could be exacerbated by technicians undertaking remote access without the knowledge of staff, overnight. But incompetence and denials from the top — even as far as government — meant that the blame fell on innocent sub-postmasters.
Justice has been a long time coming. Staff were subject to fines and even unfair imprisonment; families and friendships were destroyed. Years of diversions and cover-ups have now finally come to light, as you may have seen in the extensive media stories.
One person who has been persistent in uncovering the details of the case over the years is Eleanor Shaikh, who has used WhatDoTheyKnow extensively in the pursuit of truth — you can see her requests here.
We asked Eleanor to tell us more about her ongoing work in this area, starting with why she got involved: in response, she pointed us towards a letter on Nick Wallis’ Post Office Scandal website.
It begins: “I learned of the Post Office Horizon scandal through being a regular customer at my local post office in Farncombe, Surrey. My ex-Sub-Postmaster, Chirag Sidhpura, was hit by an alleged £57,000 shortfall in October 2017 and it did not take long to see that his case belonged to a more widespread and disturbing pattern.”
She goes on to explain, “I have seen first hand the silent devastation that this scandal has wrought upon three generations of this decent, hard-working family.” You can read the full letter here.
Findings through FOI
Freedom of Information has been a very effective mechanism for many of those involved in this investigation — a cover-up like this is a perfect demonstration of why we need the rights it confers.
As Eleanor explains, “Over the years, a number of campaigners and journalists have turned to FOI as a tool for obtaining more information and joining the dots of this vast but well-concealed miscarriage of justice. Chipping away at the cover-up was one small way that outsiders could assist Sub-Postmasters on their long road to the truth, exoneration and redress.”
Eleanor’s 150+ requests have led to some significant findings. She started off with a curiosity about how much had been known, but not publicly shared, by government.
“My initial focus was on what government knew of Horizon’s flaws”, she says; “how responsibly it monitored the unfolding scandal, and what was the extent of its involvement in the group litigation.
“The FOI disclosures I received suggested that central government was not as oblivious to events as it would have us believe; the heavy redactions on these reports themselves bore witness to the fear of reputational damage to the department to which the documents alluded.”
As time went on, Eleanor started uncovering more and more salient facts:
“Probably the two most significant documents I’ve been able to unearth have been the 2016 Swift Review and an undated Post Office Security Team Compliance Document.
“The review would seem to have suggested a moment of alignment when both government and the Post Office were committed to investigating Horizon issues beyond all doubt.
“It took seven months to receive a response, but disclosure was made by both parties along with requested email correspondence which showed that the PO’s CEO, Paula Vennells, was aware that the review was being undertaken in 2015 but that the PO Chair, Tim Parker, declined to share its findings with the Post Office Board even as the spectre of litigation loomed in 2016.
“This was despite the review’s strong warnings that miscarriages of justice might have taken place, its clear identification of Horizon’s fundamental operational problems and an acknowledgment of the possibility of remote access.”
These were all crucial details in understanding the full picture, and fed into news coverage of the scandal. There was also something Eleanor hadn’t been specifically looking for that recently made headline news.
While requesting information on the way in which the Post Office monitored its investigations, Eleanor happened across something rather shocking:
“What was disclosed was a document which used deeply offensive racial identification codes, so inflammatory that it attracted widespread media coverage.” You can see, for example, the BBC’s coverage of this revelation here.
“Thanks to the WhatDoTheyKnow website, once it caught the attention of social media, any journalist could get instant access to the original document.”
FOI was necessary
One thing that this investigation highlights is that the checks and balances built into our justice system are sometimes inadequate. The Horizon case was examined in High Court, and has been the subject of two governmental inquiries, one of which is ongoing. But it is citizen reporters using their Right to Information that have filled some of the gaps.
“Despite much crucial information having been released into the public domain during the 2018-19 High Court litigation, many details of the scandal remained hidden”, explains Eleanor.
“The BEIS Select Committee Inquiry, which heard evidence from early 2020, afforded a brief window of opportunity. But its independent work was abandoned soon after it began when the Department for BEIS (now DBT) put in place its own inquiry.
“The Government was adamant that this inquiry would not have statutory powers, meaning it had no authority to command witnesses to give evidence, nor powers to demand the disclosure of documents. Moreover BEIS could keep its own failures of oversight beyond public scrutiny by restricting the scope of the inquiry.
“At this moment there was a very real danger that the true depths and extent of the scandal might never reach public consciousness and that those who’d facilitated the miscarriage of justice may never be identified.
“Ministers and Whitehall officials were attempting to shield themselves from scrutiny and to diffuse an information time-bomb by behaving as if it wasn’t there. But questions needed answers and if the government was refusing to launch a full public inquiry in 2020, then it had to be inquiry by FOI.
WhatDoTheyKnow played a part
We asked Eleanor how integral WhatDoTheyKnow was to her investigation.
“The WhatDoTheyKnow website proved itself to be an invaluable resource. Through its gateway, information and correspondence with authorities is released directly into the public domain in a way which is both transparent and accessible to all; that’s really important in the context of the Horizon scandal.
“Disclosures are easily accessed by others and can be shared on social media. WhatDoTheyKnow has enabled intrepid journalists who follow the scandal — such as Nick Wallis, Karl Flinders and Tony Collins — to extend the reach of any new and significant information.”
A turning point
“Thankfully”, continues Eleanor, “in June 2021 the inquiry was elevated to a statutory footing in response to ground-breaking rulings at the Court of Appeal. This was a turning point and teams of formidable lawyers set to work in supporting Sir Wyn Williams in his long-awaited public inquiry; the Chair now had the power to determine its scope of issues and assumed far greater powers to elicit the disclosure of evidence.
“But there was still a role for FOI research in areas which may lie beyond the inquiry’s remit or which haven’t yet come under its scrutiny.“
And FOI also had another significant, but unexpected outcome:
“One release prompted a review of the Post Office’s entire disclosure processes to the public inquiry. That a key document had never been passed to inquiry lawyers triggered a remedial disclosure exercise so significant that it resulted in the release of thousands more documents and a temporary suspension of the inquiry’s work.
“A single FOI disclosure triggered a wholly unforeseeable domino effect.”
Three harmless words
At the start of all this, Eleanor says, “FOI was an unfamiliar avenue for me.” Since then, she’s clearly become something of an expert, with FOI being a major part of her investigations.
Reflecting on the rights that FOI confers, she says: “There is some irony that the Government which oversaw the launch of the doomed Horizon project in the late 1990s was at the same time drawing up legislation which granted our right to Freedom of Information. It’s poignant too that Tony Blair who decided that the flawed Horizon project must proceed at all costs, was at the same time doing all he could to delay the implementation of the FOI Act.
“In his memoirs, Blair revealed his regret over the decision which gave the public the right to probe the Government’s shortcomings. He feared information would be weaponised by opponents:
‘Freedom of Information. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders. You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it…What I failed to realise is that we would also have our skeletons rattling around the cupboard…The Freedom of Information Act was then being debated in Cabinet Committee. It represented a quite extraordinary offer by a government to open itself and Parliament to scrutiny. Its consequences would be revolutionary; the power it handed to the tender mercy of the media was gigantic. We did it with care, but without foresight. Politicians are people and scandals will happen’.1
“Thankfully, many individuals have been making full use of FOI to help prise the rattling skeletons of the Horizon scandal from their cupboard. Each disclosure adds to our understanding of how things went so deeply and disastrously wrong. And, as sub-postmasters continue to dig for information across their multiple battle fronts, long may FOI continue to make its small contribution to their uphill struggle for justice.”
Many thanks to Eleanor for sharing this detailed account. You can read her findings on Horizon’s early years in her report Origins of a Disaster.
1Quote from Blair’s memoirs Tony Blair The Journey Hutchinson, 2010, cited in an article The Blair Memoirs and FOI, also 2010 by Maurice Frankel, Director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, accessed 10.10.23