Those ‘who have ridden roughshod over men and women they should have protected must be held accountable’

Agromenes reflects on the Post Office scandal, and implores that we learn from the mistakes

AGROMENES was among the first to reveal the Post Office computer scandal, but it has taken a brilliant ITV series to make the nation realise what terrible damage it did.

It was here in this column that we highlighted the experience in so many villages and market towns where much-respected local figures were brought low by entirely baseless allegations of dishonesty. This remains an open wound, particularly when country people in close-knit communities were led to believe the Post Office and not their local postmaster.

Decent people lost everything, from their savings, jobs and homes to their friends, families and reputations. Some have died without seeing justice. The call now is increasingly for vengeance on those ministers and executives who failed to act or who doggedly upheld the computer findings despite the growing evidence of system fault.

It’s understandable that Sir Ed Davey, Jo Swinson, Vince Cable and Norman Lamb should be fingered as ministers who ought to have intervened, but what remains a mystery is why no one seems to have questioned why so many hitherto trustworthy people suddenly turned out to be fraudsters. However, we should not allow our anger and astonishment to impede the calm assessment of what went wrong and what must be done to avoid any repetition.

In this, the first port of call, as Agromenes originally demanded, is Fujitsu, the Japanese computer company whose systems produced the errors. It is a matter of public record that it fought tooth and nail to avoid any blame or to provide any compensation. Since then, it has been awarded millions of pounds worth of Government contracts. In turn, those contracts have demanded Fujitsu’s considerable investment in infrastructure and that means it has become one of only a few computer companies capable of delivering big contracts.

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Yet, its record is flawed, particularly because of the wider problems with Horizon, a system signed off by Tony Blair. This means that the Government must take immediate steps to judge the degree to which the company is liable and to get proper compensation for the taxpayer and, at the same time, reform Government procurement practices.

Ministers must also seek an alternative to the UK’s dependence on so small a number of foreign-owned computer firms, including Hewlett Packard, a company that Agromenes two years ago revealed as arrogant with regard to the British legal system.

There are wider lessons, too. Once again, we see systemic failure in the Government’s due diligence. How was it that, immediately upon leaving the Post Office, the chief executive Paula Vennells was appointed to chair one of the most important NHS trusts? That despite the fact that the Church of England, of which she is an ordained minister, had already overlooked her for promotion as a result of its enquiries, which were carried out with much more limited resources.

Ministers must deal effectively with the mess they have inherited. Rightly, they have promised to move quickly to exonerate the individuals who have been traduced, but they must also reassess the compensation that seems to have been both slow and inadequate.

The public will rightly demand that all those involved must face the full rigour of the law. That is not to judge any individual without due process, but it is to insist on the prosecution even of senior figures if they have a case to answer.

This whole drama has undermined our confidence in the conduct of the public service. High salaries, large bonuses and great power must not be seen to buy immunity. Those who have ridden roughshod over men and women they should have protected must be held accountable.