The daily grind of recording Brexit downsides has been somewhat overshadowed these past few days by the shocking Post Office Horizon scandal which has kept the nation on the edge of its seat following a four part ITV drama: Mr Bates vs The Post Office. The affair is now being characterised as the most “widespread miscarriages of justice in British legal history”.
It’s as if a great upsurge of the truth that has been slowly bubbling over several decades finally burst through with such force that overnight it swept away all the foot-dragging, obfuscation and downright perjury like a divine tsunami. Hundreds of injustices which would normally be expected to work through Britain’s under-resourced legal system for years, are being collectively rushed through in a matter of days.
It’s impossible for any of us to comprehend the depths of despair into which wholly innocent men and women, model citizens with spotless reputations, who were blamed for ‘unexplained discrepancies’ and ordered to repay money they hadn’t taken, were plunged. Many were relentlessly pursued through the courts by an uncaring Post Office management aided and abetted by the computer supplier Fujitsu. Some served jail terms, others suffered mental health issues and some committed suicide.
The lives of hundreds of people were crushed between the Post Office – a hitherto well-regarded national institution – and Fujitsu, a global computer giant that supplied the Horizon system. Sub-postmasters and mistresses were effectively co-opted into helping to test and debug an expensive computer project riddled with faults – without pay – and then wrongly accused of stealing from their employer.
A high court judge found that:
“Legacy Horizon [the pre-2010 version] was not remotely robust. The number, extent and type of impact of the numerous bugs, errors and defects that I have found in Legacy Horizon makes this clear.”
The post-2010 iteration was better but even that wasn’t perfect.
Truth: the first victim
Whether or not any money ever went missing at all is still unclear (at least to me). The initial Horizon problems could probably have been cheaply and easily resolved with a bit of forbearance and by accepting that sub-postmasters’ accounts of faults were substantially true. Instead, they developed a siege mentality and defended the indefensible, doubling down and threatening legal action against anyone who looked like they might be getting too near the truth.
Last December the Post Office reduced the amount set aside for compensation from £487mn to £244mn. This is in addition to the £58mn they agreed to cough up in 2020, most of which went to pay the legal bills of the then 500 victims. The official inquiry, headed by retired high court judge Sir Wyn Williams, is still ongoing, having cost the Post Office £38mn so far.
This was all before the ITV drama aired and expectations rose substantially. By the end, the total costs will easily be the thick end of £1bn, possibly even more.
The Post Office scandal and Brexit
There is a lesson here for all organisations, large and small. What began as an effort to avoid even the slightest hint of any issues with their expensive computer network leaking out, has ended up with reputations being utterly trashed. The truth now looks like a bargain. It’s difficult to see how the Post Office or Fujitsu can recover.
Blameless victims deserve generous compensation for their financial losses as well as exemplary damages for the appalling ordeals they suffered. However, nobody who was affected by this terrible saga should be satisfied until senior figures and their legal henchmen pay a real price for their failings, including at the very minimum, lengthy spells behind bars.
You may be asking what all this has to do with the Downside dossier, but there is perhaps a link.
Many will see parallels between the Horizon scandal and Brexit; both ill-conceived projects chaotically launched in a fog of optimism by people who had little idea what they were embarking on and sustained for years by a flat refusal to acknowledge difficulties or even accept reality.
A lot of people would like to see a Brexit inquiry one day with the guilty men and women sitting before a judge answering questions under oath and having their breezy assurances and hollow slogans picked apart by experts. The experience of these sub-postmasters is instructive. Never give up.
Despatches from the downside
This week we have recorded 14 new downsides in the Davis Downside Dossier.
The think tank UK in a Changing Europe’s trade tracker shows how persistent and stubborn the gravity model of international trade is. Similar sized economies trade more together the closer to one another they are. Hence, while UK trade overall is struggling, the amount we are doing with the EU as a percentage of the total is actually increasing, hitting 53.3%.
Their report says:
“The growing share of EU trade is further evidence that forming new partnerships and signing new free trade agreements with geographically distant partners will not quickly supplant relationships with closer partners.”
So much for the CPTPP.
Meanwhile, the London mayor Sadiq Khan has commissioned independent analysis from Cambridge Econometrics, which suggests the output of the UK economy is 6% smaller than it would have been without Brexit, amounting to around £140bn a year. London’s economy alone is losing £30bn a year.
Nick Emmerson, the president of the Law Society of England and Wales, says English lawyers working in Europe continue to face ‘huge challenges’ following Brexit and he has warned that it could impact the appeal of working with English law.
An article on Bloomberg claims the British government’s “space superpower” ambitions after Brexit are being undermined by political disarray and weak domestic investment. Instead of leadership and large scale projects, the UK is said to be embracing smaller collaboration with others and mergers.
Brexit has also impacted recruitment, with Lucy Edge, COO of the Satellite Applications Catapult, a government-backed incubator saying:
“It would be a skills challenge anyway without Brexit, it’s just a more acute skills challenge because of Brexit.”
A multi-million pound Liverpool business is closing down with Brexit cited as one of the reasons. Hattons Model Railways both manufactured and supplied model trains to hobbyists across the world but a statement on their website announcing the closure blamed among other things, changing market conditions, supply chain disruption, the increased cost of compliance, plus Brexit.
France is to publish proposals aimed at attracting more financial services firms to Paris. Bruno Le Maire, the French finance minister has openly warned Britain that France will look to “take advantage of Brexit” and lure finance firms away from London.
A trade body representing 100,000 hospitality venues, has warned the Home Office that changes to immigration rules risks damaging the sector. CEO of UK Hospitality Kate Nicholls said:
“There’s an economy-wide shortage of labour. They [migrant workers] are a vital and important component and crucially they are plugging a gap.”
Last year, of the 8,500 migrant workers recruited 95% would now be ineligible for a visa under the new salary thresholds.
Culture and citizens rights
UK based orchestras touring in Europe from 1 April this year, will be unable to claim tax relief on performances in the European Economic Area, as they are currently allowed to do. Hanna Madalska-Gayer, at the Association of British Orchestras said:
“The proposals to remove EEA costs from qualifying expenditure is another post-Brexit barrier to touring in the EEA, which risks making European touring financially unviable.”
A Spanish citizen resident in Britain has been forcibly removed from the UK by border force after she returned from a Christmas holiday near Málaga. The 34-year old designer, had submitted a late application for the EU settlement scheme in 2023 but was refused. She requested a review and carried a certificate of application (CoA) from the Home Office which states “you can work in the UK until you receive a decision on your application to the EU settlement scheme”.
Nobody told her she wouldn’t be readmitted if she went to Spain for a break.
Retail and Northern Ireland
Sellers on Amazon who offer non-food products in the EU or Northern Ireland have been advised that they will be “required to meet the EU’s General Product Safety Regulation (GPSR) requirements” by 13 December this year. The new rules will replace the GPSR directive and will affect “most non-food consumer products” and include the appointment of an EU responsible person.
The new GPSR will not apply in Great Britain but will affect sales in Northern Ireland, under the Northern Ireland Protocol.
UK shoppers are said to be confused by “Not for EU” labels that have started to appear on food products on supermarket shelves in anticipation of new rules set to apply from October 2024. One customer is reported to have said: “I recoil each time I see food in supermarkets with the label: not for EU.” Tim Lang, a professor emeritus of food policy at City University of London, said the labelling “leaves a lot to be desired” and for the government to introduce a ‘not for EU’ is “frankly stupid”.
Goods that have a so-called geographical indication (GI) – such as Comber earlies, or new season Comber potatoes grown around the town of Comber in Co Down will need to display the EU logo if they are sold in Northern Ireland. Post-Brexit rules permit the voluntary use of UK logos on GB goods being sold in Northern Ireland, and on NI goods being sold in GB, but the use of EU logos will be mandatory and enforceable.
Eurostar has confirmed this week that they have no plans to reinstate Eurostar trains making scheduled stops at Ashford or Ebbsfleet this year and would not commit to a return in 2025 either, according to a report in KentOnline. The report says the business case for Kent being a good location for foreign firms setting up in the UK where staff could easily reach Paris or Brussels has dwindled.
More trouble is expected in Kent when Post-Brexit biometric checks at EU entry points begin in October. According to Councillor Neil Baker, Kent County Council’s cabinet member for roads, the new Entry-Exit System (EES) is going to be a “serious, serious mess” with drivers facing ‘massive congestion’ and up to three years of Operation Brock on Kent’s motorways and A roads.