Post Office Horizon scandal: SNP's 'blame Westminster' line shows lack of contrition – Brian Wilson

Humza Yousaf insists ‘the real questions are for the Post Office’ which is ‘a wholly reserved institution directly accountable to UK Government ministers’ but the Scottish prosecution service played a part too

There is something pretty distasteful about the auction of political indignation over the Post Office Horizon scandal when it is not accompanied by contrition, humility and acceptance of responsibility. Without a television programme that induced an explosion of public outrage, the process would still be chuntering along just as it has been year after year at a pace which suited government rather than victims, without any decisive political intervention to bring it to a conclusion.

That shameful fact puts all promises of action that have flowed over the past week into necessary perspective. To all intents and purposes, when there was no political price to be paid or gain to be made, nobody in power cared sufficiently to bring the scandal to a just outcome. Yet they all knew about it.

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All this is as true in Scotland as elsewhere. As is gradually emerging, the Scottish Government and Crown Office have their own serious questions to answer. Attempts to deflect or minimise that responsibility will not be well received and should cease forthwith, if the humility is genuine. Asked by Douglas Ross if he agreed “Scotland’s Crown Office has serious questions to answer”, Humza Yousaf replied that “the real questions are for the Post Office” which is “a wholly reserved institution directly accountable to UK Government ministers”.

It took the ITV drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office for the scandal of wrongfully convicted sub-postmasters to become a priority issue (Picture: Scott Barbour/Getty Images)It took the ITV drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office for the scandal of wrongfully convicted sub-postmasters to become a priority issue (Picture: Scott Barbour/Getty Images)
It took the ITV drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office for the scandal of wrongfully convicted sub-postmasters to become a priority issue (Picture: Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

It would have been more encouraging if he had simply concurred rather than inferring that “real questions” can reside in only one domain. The SNP leader in the Commons, Stephen Flynn, was less subtle. Everyone was to blame “at Westminster” without acknowledgement of any Scottish dimension. “The reality is that sub-postmasters never stood a chance against the Westminster establishment,” he sneered. Well, the 100 Scottish sub-postmasters pursued under Scots law don’t seem to have stood much chance against the Edinburgh establishment either, do they?

Post Office acted as law unto itself

If what everyone truly cares about is finally securing justice and closure for sub-postmasters and those who survive them, maybe they could just get on with delivering these outcomes. There is plenty of blame to go round and no party of government is immune. Of course, the primary responsibility rests with the Post Office which is accountable to the UK Government. These were the desks on which the political buck should have been recognised from when it first became apparent that Horizon was malfunctioning and prosecutions were unnaturally high.

In England and Wales, these were private prosecutions brought by the Post Office. One of the wider questions within these jurisdictions is whether the wholesale use of private prosecutions needs curtailed. An entity which has a huge vested interest is likely to be more interested in convictions than justice, as was certainly true of the Post Office which acted as a law unto itself.

In 2020, the House of Commons’ Justice Committee heard evidence from an investigator of the Horizon affair that sub-postmasters “were routinely threatened with the charge of theft, which would not be proceeded with, provided they pleaded guilty to false accounting, made good all losses and did not mention any problems with Horizon”.

That is exactly what appears to have happened across the UK. Scotland’s legal system should have acted as a safeguard against such flagrant malpractice – but didn’t. In each case, a procurator fiscal must have weighed the evidence before going to court. If that process amounted to taking the Post Office’s word that everything was OK with Horizon, when contrary evidence was available, then the Scottish system failed.

Later this month, the public inquiry chaired by Sir Wyn Williams will look forensically at several case studies – one involving a sub-postmaster in North Uist who in 2010 pleaded guilty to an offence he did not commit in order to avoid imprisonment, died two years later and is now one of only two Scottish victims whose convictions have been quashed. It will hear from Post Office investigators and lawyers involved.

Perhaps these case studies will bring to light not only how Post Office tactics were deployed but also how decisions to prosecute were arrived at in Scotland under an independent prosecution system which repeatedly became party to unjust outcomes. I doubt if Mr Flynn will be paying attention.

Failure to re-open cases

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In 2013, according to Mr Yousaf, the Post Office told the Crown Office about “challenges around the Horizon evidence” and two years later, which seems quite a long delay, the Crown Office “issued instructions to all prosecutors not to proceed with any Post Office case in which a sufficiency of evidence was dependent on the Horizon system”. What it did not do, as far as we know, was re-open pre-2013 cases in order to establish if convictions had been safe. Doing so would have put Scotland ahead of the field; instead, we have taken even longer than elsewhere in the UK to address the consequences of Horizon.

Last October, when two Scottish convictions were finally quashed, a lawyer representing victims commented: “It is a very significant moment but it should have happened years ago. Back in 2021, we had 52 convictions quashed in London. Why have we had to wait two more years for Scottish postmasters to have their convictions overturned?” And still only two!

In a letter to the Horizon Compensation Advisory Board, the Crown Office itself admitted that Scotland “is very much closer to the start of its journey” in overturning miscarriages of justice than the rest of the UK. Would even Mr Flynn agree it might be reasonable to ask: “Why?” On the face of it, our rightly independent prosecution system has failed to deliver outcomes that might reasonably have been expected of it. Only the most obtuse political partisan could fail to recognise this as an issue for Scotland to address which in no way diminishes the culpability of others elsewhere.



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