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Former Post Office chair ‘regrets’ keeping critical Horizon report secret

Former Post Office chair Tim Parker said he “regrets” taking advice from the organisation’s legal chief to keep secret a critical report that could have supported the claims of subpostmasters wrongly accused of theft and false accounting.

Parker was questioned about the report during the latest hearing at the Post Office scandal public inquiry. Like many previous witnesses, his responses often relied on the passing of time for him to say he could not remember certain details about which he was questioned. In his 158-page witness statement, Parker used the phrase “I do not recall” 64 times.

He was appointed as part-time chairman of the Post Office board in 2015 as accusations were accelerating that flaws in the Post Office’s Horizon IT system had caused accounting errors for which subpostmasters had been blamed.

In August 2015, a BBC Panorama documentary had revealed further information about supplier Fujitsu being able to access and edit financial records in Post Office branches – which Post Office had denied was possible. A month later, then minister Baroness Lucy Neville-Rolfe asked Parker to prioritise looking into the allegations around Horizon upon taking up the post.

At the time, the Criminal Cases Review Commission was already considering a number of cases raised by subpostmasters who had been prosecuted.

Parker commissioned a barrister, Jonathan Swift, to review Horizon and the convictions that relied on evidence from the system.

Swift suggested that the Post Office may have “bullied” subpostmasters into pleading guilty to false accounting by charging them with the higher crime of fraud despite having insufficient evidence of fraud being committed. Swift said that the issue was of “real importance to the reputation” of the Post Office and a “stain on the character of the business”.

He also found that Horizon did “occasionally suffer from bugs which have caused losses in some branches” and warned that miscarriages of justice may have taken place.

Swift’s review made a series of recommendations to further investigate Horizon – but Parker was advised by Post Office general counsel Jane MacLeod that he must not share the review with the board of which he was chair, because the document was legally privileged.

As a result, the review was also not made available in evidence during the 2018/19 High Court case that proved bugs in Horizon were responsible for the phantom accounting losses in the system.

In October 2020, Parker was chastised in a letter from Sarah Munby, then permanent secretary at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial strategy – the government department that owned the relationship with Post Office and was responsible for appointing him as chair – about his decision to keep the Swift review from the board.

“We consider it was a mistake not to have ensured that the whole board has an opportunity to see and discuss the detail of its findings and agree what any next steps should be. With hindsight, this information should have been seen by the board and we are disappointed that it wasn’t,” wrote Munby.

“As a rule, we think it is quite difficult to envisage any circumstances where issues of legal privilege or confidentiality should prevent relevant information being shared with a company’s board.”

Questioned by inquiry barrister Jason Beer, KC, Parker said, “It was always envisaged that the Swift review would be legally privileged,” adding that he was advised of this by “general counsel”, meaning MacLeod.

Parker said his understanding was that the document would be shared more widely once the recommendations had been acted upon.

“It’s one of my regrets that I got that advice and I took it,” he told the inquiry.

“My view at the time – and perhaps this was somewhat naïve – was that the recommendations would come out pretty quickly and we would be able to talk about the report as completed, but that didn’t happen, unfortunately… Could we have shared it? I wish we had.”

He said MacLeod told him that only four copies of the report would be made and they would all be kept within her legal department.

To maintain legal confidentiality, MacLeod took responsibility for following up on the recommendations of the Swift review, but before that could be completed, campaign group Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance started its legal action against the Post Office.

Parker was subsequently advised in 2016 by MacLeod and the Post Office’s external legal advisors that work on the Swift review should be stopped, because the upcoming litigation would consider the issues raised by the review – and that legal privilege over the review should be maintained.

The Swift review remained secret until 2022, when freedom of information campaigner Eleanor Shaikh requested it to be released. MacLeod now lives in Australia and has refused to appear as a witness before the inquiry.

The Post Office scandal was first exposed by Computer Weekly in 2009, revealing the stories of seven subpostmasters – including Alan Bates – and the problems they suffered due to accounting software. It’s one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British history (see below for timeline of Computer Weekly articles about the scandal, since 2009).

• Also read: What you need to know about the Horizon scandal •

• Also watch: ITV’s documentary – Mr Bates vs The Post Office: The real story •

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