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Government should not be allowed to dismiss subpostmasters’ claims over Horizon IT scandal

Subpostmasters are stepping up their fight for justice after their huge court victory, with Westminister replacing the High Court as the battleground

Subpostmasters are continuing to campaign on multiple fronts after their stunning victory in a multimillion-pound litigation against the Post Office.

There are calls for a judge-led public inquiry, with affected subpostmasters meeting MPs to take their grievances to the House of Commons.

After the government distanced itself from the behaviour of the publicly owned Post Office, Conservative peer James Arbuthnot, a staunch critic of the Post Office over the Horizon scandal, said: “Parliament must not allow [Government] to get away with it.”

Gill Furniss, Labour’s shadow minister for post, also stepped into the fray with a speech on the matter in Parliament. Meanwhile, an online petition calling for a public inquiry has been set up.

The £57.75m out-of-court settlement between the Post Office and 550 subpostmasters was described as “the end of the beginning” by claimants who are determined for justice beyond being proved right and receiving scant damages. After costs are taken out of the settlement figure, subpostmasters are left with about £10m – well short of the losses they suffered.

There are also subpostmasters living with criminal records after being prosecuted for theft because of accounting shortfalls.

The court case established that the Post Office was wrong in its long-held claim that accounting shortfalls for which subpostmasters were punished, with some spending time in prison, could not have been caused by the Horizon IT system used in Post Office branches.

The criticism of the Post Office and its IT supplier, Fujitsu, by High Court judge Peter Fraser in his judgments, combined with the government distancing itself from the events, make calls for an independent judge-led inquiry compelling.

The Post Office is a publicly owned organisation that is run at arm’s length by the government as part of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). It was this ill-defined relationship that was used by the government to distance itself from the scandal.

When asked about its role in the litigation and management of the Post Office earlier this month, a BEIS spokesperson said: “While publicly owned, the Post Office operates as an independent, commercial business within the strategic parameters set by government. As such, government did not play a day-to-day role in the litigation or on the contractual and operational matters that were at the heart of it.”

Arbuthnot’s response to this statement was: “This is an inadequate response from the owners of an organisation that judges have described as treating subpostmasters in ‘capricious or arbitrary ways which would not be unfamiliar to a mid-Victorian factory owner’. 

“If government ministers were indeed updated regularly with developments, then they must have been complicit in that capricious or arbitrary behaviour.  It is no good their choosing to turn a blind eye to it.  They were the owners. Brushing off responsibility onto their agents, who are answerable only to the government, is a sorry attempt to blame someone else.”

After the case ended in December, Arbuthnot immediately called for a judge-led inquiry. “We need an inquiry and, since the Post Office has repeatedly given inaccurate information, including to me, it needs to be led by a judge,” he said.

To help the push for an inquiry, subpostmasters have been demanding meetings with MPs and the campaign has now moved to the benches of the House of Commons.

Gill Furniss, Labour MP for Sheffield Brightside & Hillsborough and shadow minister for steel, post and consumer protection, gave a speech in Parliament this week in which she said: “Subpostmasters across the country bring a valuable services to our communities. The case brought against the Post Office [by subpostmasters] is now concluded and the court found that the Post Office was at fault for their regressive prosecution of subpostmasters for the errors within the Horizon IT system – prosecutions that saw some subpostmasters unlawfully jailed, many losing their homes, livelihoods and reputations.”

Furniss asked the government whether it would call a full inquiry into the “circumstances that led to this tragedy” and asked: “What support is the government giving to those affected and what is being done to ensure a scandal like this is never allowed to happen again?”

She called for a full review of the governance and management of the Post Office.

Computer Weekly first reported the problems with Horizon in 2009, when it made public the stories of a group of subpostmasters. Soon after this, more subpostmasters came forward. But the dispute dates back further than that.

Former subpostmaster Alan Bates, who fronted the litigation and set up the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, first contacted Computer Weekly in 2004, four years after he had first alerted the Post Office to the problems (see timeline below).

Click this link to sign a petition calling for a full judge-led public inquiry.

Timeline of the Post Office Horizon case since Computer Weekly first reported on it in 2009

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