Post Office scandal: in defence of Ed Davey


Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, seems to be being set up to take the rap for the Post Office scandal, following the television drama Alan Bates versus the Post Office.

This really isn’t fair.

As a junior minister at BIS, as it was called in those days, in the coalition government, from 2010 to 2012 – for two years – he was advised by his civil servants not to see Alan Bates, the guy who was so heroically holding the feet of Post Office leaders to the fire, and played by Tony Jones on television.

The same is true of Keir Starmer, who has also come under the same spotlight for his role in some of the early prosecutions when he was Director of Public Prosecutions.

Davey was taking up a ministerial role for the first time – so of course he was going to listen to his civil servants. I challenge those Tory MPs who have been accusing him to guarantee that they would have acted differently (I wouldn’t have done myself, for example).

Then, in fact, he insisted on meeting Bates and defying his instructors just five months later, in October 2010.

That seems to me to be showing an almost equally courageous reliance on his own independence of mind.

The real problem was hardly individual junior politicians.

It was the attitude among the richest and most powerful people in the world that computer programmes can never make mistakes.

Those most responsible among politicians were the Labour ministers who embedded that false idea into UK law in 1999 at the start of the Blair government, when they abolished the 1984 amendment that made it clear in Englsh and Welsh law that this was an obvious untruth. This was why it has proved so difficult to clear the 700 sub-postmasters who were prosecuted for stealing money via the Horizon IT system.

I go into why this was in my book Tickbox (though I never used Horizon as an example in the book, because it came out at the beginning of 2020 and was written from 2018-19) and I had not understood by then the full extent of the injustice. And because when you looked at it in that sense, there are so many other examples.

So why are senior managers, management consultants, ministers and civil servants, so convinced that computers never lie?

Because they have grown used to their used to their centralised power, which requires feedback from computers from the frontline staff – just as they did in this case.

Frontline staff always know the real situation too. But they are rarely believed because this isn’t the way the world works.

The share portfolios of the deluded depend on them believing IT hype from the new IT monopolies that rule us.  

Those who run the world urgently need to study the implications of Goodhart’s Law (see Tickbox for a fuller explanation) – that numbers to control staff and people will always be inaccurate.

That’s the real scandal.

We need to stop looking for junior political scapegoats and look instead at those who, according to Ed Davey were lying to ministers ‘on an industrial scale’.

As the Guardian put it last week:

Davey was the first post office minister to meet Alan Bates, the post office operator who led the campaign, despite advice from officials. “Initially I was told not to, but I insisted when I read some of his letters because I could hear his anger. I took his arguments to the Post Office, but I was lied to,” he said.’

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