Post Office exec regrets 'malcontents' comment

Patrick Bourke
Patrick Bourke said he now regretted describing sub-postmasters as self-indulgent "malcontents" [BBC]

A top Post Office executive has expressed regret for referring to sub-postmasters seeking to challenge their criminal convictions as self-indulgent "malcontents".

Patrick Bourke wrote in a briefing for Post Office boss Paula Vennells that the issue of the safety of sub-postmasters’ convictions "pales into insignificance" compared to the organisation's "social mission".

He made the comments in September 2014 briefing referring to Alan Bates and the Justice for Sub-Postmasters’ Alliance group.

Mr Bourke said he now regretted a "poor choice of language".

On Wednesday, the official inquiry into the scandal heard that Mr Bourke also wrote a briefing for ministers that suggested it was impossible to alter sub-postmasters’ branch accounts remotely - when he’d received evidence that the opposite was the case.

Mr Bourke wrote and edited the briefing on 13 January 2015 which said there was "no functionality" which allowed the Post Office or Fujitsu to edit or remove transaction data.

But the inquiry heard on Wednesday that he had been sent a briefing about an investigation by Deloitte, that found remote tinkering was possible.

"There is no functionality in Horizon for either a branch, Post Office or Fujitsu to edit, manipulate or remove transaction data once it has been recorded in a branch’s accounts," he wrote in the briefing.

It said it was possible to do "transaction corrections" but said they would always be "fully visible" to sub-postmasters.

But Mr Bourke accepted before the inquiry that he was aware it was possible for Fujitsu to insert "balancing transactions" without sub-postmasters’ approval or knowledge.

He said his understanding was that any such transactions would be visible to a sub-postmaster in the audit trail.

He accepted he had seen reports detailing one such transaction since 2010, and was aware that the Post Office had not explored how many times they might have been used before then.

He said he was aware of the Deloitte briefing but told the inquiry he had not read its contents.

More than 900 sub-postmasters were wrongly prosecuted for theft and false accounting because of incorrect information from a computer system called Horizon.

The Post Office itself took many cases to court, prosecuting 700 people between 1999 and 2015. The organisation insisted that the Horizon software could not be used to alter branch accounts remotely - something which later was found to be false.

Mr Bourke, who in 2015 was government affairs and policy director at the Post Office, also left out any mention in the briefing for ministers of issues raised by expert witness Gareth Jenkins, who has been described in the inquiry as "tainted".

The inquiry previously heard Mr Jenkins had failed to disclose information about bugs in the Horizon IT system to defendants. Such information might have helped sub-postmasters who had been found guilty to challenge their convictions.

The inquiry saw evidence that just five days before the briefing was completed, Mr Bourke received an email from Post Office criminal lawyer Jarnail Singh that Mr Jenkins was aware of bugs in Horizon which he had not mentioned when sub-postmasters were prosecuted.

On 8 January 2015, Mr Singh wrote: "The difficulty here is made worse by the fact that Gareth Jenkins, an employee of Fujitsu, has been making statements for use in criminal proceedings which made no references to the very bugs which it is understood he told Second Sight about.

"People were prosecuted and pleaded guilty following the receipt of his statement which implied no bugs had been found."

Yet in his briefing for ministers five days later, Mr Bourke wrote: "No evidence has been identified by Post suggest that the conviction of any applicant to the scheme is unsafe."

Mr Bourke accepted that with the benefit of hindsight, he ought to have included the information about balancing transactions, software bugs and a discredited witness in his briefing for ministers.

"In retrospect, that was not the right call. And if I had my time again, I would have included it in this briefing," Mr Bourke said.

However, asked whether Richard Callard, the government representative on the Post Office board, would have been aware of the issues about Mr Jenkins, Mr Bourke said that given how well known it was that they could not proceed with prosecutions due to problems with the expert witness, he couldn’t imagine that he would not have been informed.

The current, fifth phase of the public inquiry, expected to run until the end of July, is looking at a number of issues including whistleblowing, redress, complaints and the monitoring of the Horizon software.

The Post Office has come under huge scrutiny in the wake of an ITV drama, Mr Bates Vs The Post Office, which put the human cost of the scandal back in the spotlight.

Many victims are still waiting for full redress despite the government announcing that those who had had convictions quashed are eligible for £600,000 payouts.