Orcadian Column, 18 Jan 2024

18 Jan 2024

James Stockan’s announcement on Monday that he is stepping down from Orkney Islands Council caught most people by surprise, certainly in its timing. Indeed, the echoes with a similar, sudden resignation almost exactly a year ago are uncanny, though there is no suggestion that police tents will be popping up in Stromness or that motorhomes at Rackwick are at risk of being impounded.

In all seriousness, the reasons James cites for his decision are ones I fully understand and respect. He has been an energetic leader of the Council over the past six years, at the end of two decades serving our community as a councillor. Over that period, the role has expanded in complexity and been made considerably more challenging by a prolonged squeeze on local authority budgets. OIC, Scotland’s smallest council, has fared particularly badly, given the added handicap of having to contend with a lower per capita budget settlement than the two other island authorities.

The First Minister’s reckless Council Tax freeze has compounded such problems, while also further emasculating local government, which has not fared well in the face of the SNP’s centralising tendencies. Even the much-vaunted Islands Act has offered precious little protection and failed to live up to the grand promises made by Ministers during its passage through parliament.

Further evidence of this can be found in the SNP/Green government’s plans to centralise care services at an estimated cost of £1billion. Already roundly condemned as a ‘power grab’ by councils of all political persuasions, and ignoring the specific needs of island communities, the National Care Service bill has now been attacked by the Royal College of Nurses, who wrote to the Health Committee this week calling for the legislation to be halted.

Despite this significant development, it is certain to be eclipsed by the Post Office ‘Horizon’ IT scandal, which rightly continues to dominate much of the political and media attention. Most of that attention remains centred at a UK level, but a specific Scottish dimension has emerged over recent days, resulting in the Lord Advocate being called to make an emergency statement at Holyrood on Tuesday.

While in England & Wales, the Post Office took forward private prosecutions of sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses under their own statutory powers, under Scots law this role fell to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS). Since 2015, no prosecutions have proceeded solely on the basis of Horizon evidence, following concerns raised by the Post Office itself. Yet of the 100 or so successfully prosecuted in Scotland prior to that point only two have since had their convictions quashed, including one postmaster in North Uist who has sadly passed away.

All of which speaks not just to the overwhelming injustice suffered by those who fell victim to this appalling scandal, but also the painfully slow pace at which efforts to address it have moved, if indeed they have moved at all. That is thankfully if very belatedly changing, thanks to the ITV drama, Alan Bates vs the Post Office, and credit is due to all those involved in that production, as well as the small number of journalists, notably at Computer Weekly and Private Eye, whose investigative work over many years helped pave the way for that drama. The lion’s share of plaudits, however, must go to Alan Bates and his fellow campaigners for their tenacity and perseverance.

Of course, serious questions remain as to how this happened, who was responsible and what more could have been done to prevent or at least address these miscarriages of justice sooner. The independent inquiry already underway under the chairmanship of Sir Wyn Williams, alongside the inquiry being run by the Business & Trade Committee at Westminster, will continue taking evidence in an attempt to arrive at answers, although it is already clear that primary responsibility rests with Post Office and Fujitsu.

Meantime, there is now hope of an expedited process for quashing hundreds of outstanding convictions and offering compensation to thousands of victims around the country, including here in Orkney. The tragic fact is, however, that all this will come too late for some, while for most no amount of compensation can undo the damage done to lives and livelihoods.