Ed Davey and the Post Office Scandal: Unraveling the Tangled Web of Neglect and Profits
By Paul Knaggs
As Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey rushes to distance himself from the Horizon Post Office scandal, his murky past keeps popping up to haunt him. The Post Office affair, described as the most widespread miscarriage of justice in UK history, resulted in hundreds of sub-postmasters being wrongly prosecuted between 1999 and 2015.
More than 700 Post Office operators were prosecuted for theft, fraud and false accounting. Lives were ruined, families destroyed, and reputations shattered. Four suicides were linked to the scandal.
And all this happened on Davey’s watch. For two years, from 2010 to 2012, he served as Postal Affairs Minister in the coalition government. This period coincided with the growing realisation that sub-postmasters had become victims of a terrible injustice perpetrated by the Post Office.
Flaws in the Post Office’s Horizon IT system caused unexplained financial losses in sub-postmasters’ accounts. Yet rather than investigating, the Post Office accused them of theft and false accounting, ruthlessly pursuing criminal prosecutions.
In May 2010, shortly after his appointment as Minister, Davey was contacted by Alan Bates, of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA). Mr Bates, who had lost his own Post Office contract after questioning Horizon’s defects, pleaded with Davey to meet campaigners and hear their stories.
The correspondence also reveal Sir Ed was warned 12 years ago that legal action against the Post Office over the scandal could leave the taxpayer exposed to “astronomical” costs. Mr Bates warned him of the huge potential “financial liability” in a 2011 letter – one of at least five letters sent to Sir Ed between 2010 and 2012, according to the Sunday Times.
In December 2010, Mr Bates cut off contact for eight months after Sir Ed wrote him a letter saying the Post Office “continues to express full confidence in the integrity and robustness of the Horizon system”. In 2011, Mr Bates notified Sir Ed that solicitors acting on behalf of the campaign group had issued pre-action letters to the Post Office. He told Sir Ed: “Having nailed your colours to the POL’s [Post Office Ltd] mast from the JFSA standpoint there was little point in continuing a dialogue with you or your department at that point.”
Davey’s response was callous in the extreme. In a letter to Mr Bates, he bluntly stated: “I do not believe a meeting would serve any purpose.” The Minister washed his hands of an unfolding tragedy. Mr Bates recalls feeling Davey’s comments were “offensive.” At a time when lives were being ruined, the Minister could have intervened, yet chose not to.
Now, with the inquiry in full swing, Davey accuses Post Office bosses of misleading him over Horizon. He regrets not helping victims and claims executives blocked him from meeting JFSA. Crocodile tears now, but where was his compassion back then?
Ed Davey’s Payday: £275,000 from Legal Firm Involved in Post Office Scandal
Most damning of all is how Davey later personally profited from the scandal. In 2017, the year sub-postmasters launched group litigation against the Post Office, Davey became a highly paid consultant to law firm Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF). HSF were hired by the Post Office to aggressively fight the litigation.
For this work, Davey pocketed an astonishing £275,000 over five years, until January 2022. That’s £833 an hour for his services. So while sub-postmasters battled for justice, their former Minister who ignored them was now on the Post Office’s payroll by default.
Mr Bates expresses astonishment at Davey’s earnings from an organisation JFSA was fighting. He asks why Davey remains silent on his role in the scandal, rather than using his platform to demand justice.
The Lib Dems insist that when Davey took up his consultancy with HSF he had no knowledge of the Post Office connection. A spokesman for the party said: ‘Ed had no knowledge that HSF held this account and never had any conversations about the Post Office or Horizon scandal at any occasion with HSF.
‘Ed was exclusively contracted to HSF to advise on renewable energy and the UN climate change talks. He no longer does any consultancy work. It is on the record that Ed feels the Post Office failed in its duty to report the Horizon scandal to ministers. Ed totally endorses the inquiry into this miscarriage of justice.’
The recent ITV drama, “Mr Bates vs the Post Office: The Real Story,” has played a crucial role in bringing attention to the issue and encouraging new cases to come forward.
People’s lives were ruined. In 2019, former Post Office operators won a high court case in which their convictions were ruled wrongful. That was after a prosecution process that had ruined lives and had been linked to four suicides. Dozens of victims have died without receiving compensation.
“Some have been waiting over 20 years and suffering for far too long,” said Mr Bates. “It’s money they are owed. Don’t extend the deadline for payments because you can’t extend people’s lives.”
Noel Thomas, who was sentenced to nine months in prison in 2006 but whose conviction was quashed in 2021, said: “I might never see [full compensation] because a lot of my friends have gone. A lot of people I met from this process have passed away.”
Others have told heartbreaking stories about the financial and personal ramifications of being prosecuted and convicted to the public inquiry into the scandal.
Siobhan Sayer was separated from her distressed six-month-old daughter when investigators visited her home in 2008 seeking £18,000 in funds missing from her Post Office business.
Pauline Thomson, who ultimately avoided jail, spoke of how she was sentenced on the day her granddaughter was born.
Lee Castleton, who called the Post Office’s helpline 91 times as he suspected the Horizon IT system was at fault, had to represent himself in court as he could not afford a lawyer and was made bankrupt after a two-year legal effort to clear his name.
A member of the Post Office’s legal team told the inquiry that it knew Castleton would not be able to pay costs of £321,000 if he lost but the state-owned company wanted to “show the world” it would defend the Horizon system.
The 2019 ruling paved the way for millions of pounds of future payouts, and led to the court of appeal quashing the convictions of workers who were wrongly accused of committing crimes.
A Post Office spokesperson said: “We’re acutely aware of the human cost of the scandal and we’re doing all we can to provide redress both in respect of paying compensation and assisting the Horizon IT Inquiry. The inquiry was set up to establish independently what went wrong in the past and accountability for it. It would be inappropriate to comment separately from the proceedings of the inquiry.”
Indeed, many questions remain unanswered from those responsible. As for the former Post office minister Ed Davey, questions not just of his actions as post office minister but of his consultancy work for the law firm Herbert Smith Freehills. Questions about what “advice” did he provide? Was his appointment not a gross conflict of interest? How can someone who failed so badly as a Minister profit so handsomely from the aftermath?
With a criminal investigation now underway into potential Post Office fraud relating to prosecutions, Davey may yet have more uncomfortable questions to answer. He cannot hide from scrutiny forever. This scandal has already claimed lives and livelihoods. Justice must be served, even if that means former Ministers facing consequences for their failures.