Experts have been appointed by the inquiry into the UK’s Post Office scandal to produce reports on governance and culture at the organisation. More than 900 workers have been prosecuted for false accounting, based on evidence from a software system that a High Court judge ruled unreliable.
Sir Wyn Williams, chair of the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry, said this week of the experts: “Their work will support Phase 5 and 6 of the Inquiry’s hearings which will include evidence addressing the corporate responses to the scandal and what arrangements were in place within the Post Office and government to ensure appropriate governance, management and oversight.”
The two experts assigned to produce the reports are Dame Sandra Dawson, a professor of management studies at Judge Business School, University of Cambridge and Katy Steward, a visiting fellow at Judge.
Steward has experience of examining hospital boards, and advising on governance, leadership and culture. Her LinkedIn profile reveals she is a current non-executive with the UNHCR and was previously non-exec with Oxfam and a non-exec and chair of the quality assurance committee at Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust.
Dame Sandra’s research focus includes information systems and organisational change, as well as digital innovation and corporate social responsibility. She is a former chair of a mental health trust but also previously served as a non-exec at TSB Bank, Barclays, JP Morgan and the Financial Services Authority.
Most notably, Dame Sandra was the expert member on leadership on the advisory panel for the review that looked at lessons to be drawn from the Windrush scandal.
Board Agenda is aware of submissions to the Inquiry that raise questions about the application of corporate governance at the Post Office in relation to both section 172 of the Companies Act 2006, which sets out directors’ duties, and the UK’s 2018 Corporate Governance Code.
One governance change at the Post Office since 2021 is the appointment of two sub-postmasters to the company’s board. The Post Office also says oversight and risk management have improved.
Board relied on Fujitsu assurances
However, the inquiry is likely to look closely at the relationship between the board and its understanding of IT. Former chief executive Paula Vennells, who this week handed back her CBE, said in a witness statement to a House of Commons committee, that she “believed that it was reasonable for the board to rely” on assurances from Fujitsu, makers of the Horizon software, that it was “fundamentally sound”.
This week, Karl West, a senior consultant at the Institute of Directors, writes in a blog: “Fundamentally, it would appear that the board lacked the ability to exercise informed, independent judgements over the functioning of their key IT system.”
Nick Gould, a lawyer with Aria Grace Law, who represented three sub-postmasters, says in his statement to the inquiry: “Corporate governance and the duties of directors, or an inability to comply with them, wrecked lives and worse.”
The Post Office inquiry was convened in 2020 to examine failings in the Horizon IT system which had been piloted and rolled out to post offices from 1999. The system was used both as an accounting system and to handle over-the-counter transactions.
Based on evidence from Horizon, more than 700 cases of false accounting and theft between 1999 and 2017 were brought against sub-postmasters by Post Office prosecution teams. The BBC reports that an additional 283 cases were pursued by other bodies, including the Crown Prosecution Service.
In 2019, a High Court judge ruled that Horizon contained “bugs, errors and defects”, during a case brought by 550 sub-postmasters who claimed they had been wrongly accused by the Post Office.
A group of 39 sub-postmasters had their convictions for theft quashed by the Court of Appeal in April 2021. As of January this year, 93 convictions have been overturned and £32.4m paid in compensation.
This week, following the broadcast of a dramatised version of the Post Office scandal on UK television, prime minister Rishi Sunak announced the government would introduced legislation to overturn the rest of the wrongful convictions of sub-postmasters. The government said individuals would be “entitled” to “at least” £600,000 in compensation to “rebuild their lives”.