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Pressure for public inquiry into Post Office IT system scandal begins with mountain to climb
Members of Parliament seeking a public inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal face huge challenges, but pressure and time could force justice
Members of both houses of Parliament will exert pressure on the government to find out why and how the Post Office ruined the lives of subpostmasters, wrongly blamed and punished for accounting shortfalls caused by computer errors.
But achieving a judge-led public inquiry, seen by many as the only way to get to the bottom of the scandal, will be an uphill struggle due to the massive potential financial implications for a government with a comfortable majority.
Kevan Jones, Labour MP for North Durham, has been a supporter of subpostmasters seeking justice for many years. He described the treatment of them as a “national scandal”.
“I don’t think people have fully worked it out, but this is the worst example I have seen of the state trying to cover up what went wrong, leading to peoples’ lives being completely ruined,” he said. “Unless you have some kind of public inquiry into it, I don’t think you can get to the bottom of what went wrong.”
But a full public inquiry cannot be forced, and is, in effect, a gift from a government wanting to be seen as doing the right thing.
If the government wants to avoid an inquiry, there is little campaigners can do unless enough MPs join calls for one and exert pressure in the House of Commons by voting against government on other bills in protest. But with a majority of about 80, it would take all opposition MPs and a significant group of Conservative MPs to back an inquiry.
Defending the indefensible
The government has reason to avoid Post Office methods being further dissected in public and potentially having to pay compensation that could be owed to subpostmasters that have lost money, livelihoods and even their liberty over the years.
Kevan Jones, Labour MP for North Durham
A High Court legal battle between the Post Office and 550 subpostmasters ended in December 2019 with an out-of-court settlement. The Post Office conceded in the group litigation order, brought by subpostmasters, after two trials of four planned were complete, agreeing to pay £57.75m in damages. But this came after the public-owned organisation had spent tens of millions of pounds defending what is now known to be indefensible.
The Post Office made some controversial decisions during the trial, such as its request to have High Court Judge Peter Fraser recuse himself, which he refused, and then appealing this decision, which was also rejected. It also sought permission to appeal significant parts of his judgment from the first trial in the litigation, which was also rejected. All this racked up millions of pounds of extra costs.
In his judgment for the first trial, Judge Fraser slammed the Post Office for its contract with subpostmasters, which was balanced heavily in favour of the Post Office.
“There can be no excuse, in my judgment, for an entity such as the Post Office to mis-state, in such clearly expressed terms, in letters that threaten legal action, the extent of the contractual obligation upon a [subpostmaster] for losses. The only reason for doing so, in my judgment, must have been to lead the recipients to believe that they had absolutely no option but to pay the sums demanded. It is oppressive behaviour,” said the ruling.
In his judgement for the second trial, which focused on the Horizon IT system at the centre of the controversy, Judge Fraser said denials over the potential errors in Horizon causing account shortfalls “amounted, in reality, to bare assertions and denials that ignore what has actually occurred, at least so far as the witnesses called before me in the Horizon issues trial are concerned. It amounts to the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the Earth is flat”.
In the Court of Appeal, Lord Justice Coulson likened the treatment of subpostmasters by the Post Office to the way Victorian factory owners treated their workers.
Computer Weekly first reported the problems with Horizon in 2009, when it made public the stories of a group of subpostmasters. Soon after this, as more subpostmasters came forward, former subpostmaster Alan Bates formed the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) and began campaigning. Bates, who lost his Post Office as a result of unexplained losses, first contacted Computer Weekly in 2004, four years after he had first alerted the Post Office to the problems.
Jones said continued pressure and increased publicity was needed to get the story out in public. “Once the penny drops for people there are huge questions to ask about the running of the Post Office, about a succession of ministers who frankly accepted whatever the Post Office told them without question,” he added.
In Parliament, MPs are becoming aware of the Horizon case and its impact through concerted efforts by subpostmasters meeting their local MPs. Jones is also pushing for a debate in the House of Commons. “We haven’t got it yet, but I have put an application in for a back bench business debate to get some time on the floor of the House of Commons to discuss the entire scandal,” he said.
A committee will meet in a couple of weeks which could allocate time for this debate – this could be an entire afternoon. “We have applied for debates before, but we have been stopped because of the court case, but now that that has finished we can talk about not only what came out of court, but everything around it,” said Jones.
“This is far from over and it is important that we not only get justice for the individuals, but it is also important to expose the way public money is being used,” he added.
Jones is referring to the huge sums of money thrown at the group litigation, which cost tens of millions of pounds. “I think [the Post Office was] working on the basis that the subpostmasters wouldn’t be able to continue funding the case,” he said.
The ultimate goal, he said, will be to achieve a full public inquiry and get the government to pay compensation to the affected subpostmasters.
Signs are that the government has no appetite for further compensation. In a reply to a request for government to pay the subpostmasters’ legal bill, Kelly Tolhurst MP, minister for small business, consumers and corporate responsibility, part of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), wrote: “I note that the settlement agreed with the Post Office included all legal and other costs. In those circumstances, I must respectfully refuse your request for payment.”
But the nature of the action subpostmasters were forced to take meant only around £10m was left after costs.
“Subpostmasters had to fund the action the way they did and it left a small amount of money for compensation,” said Jones. “The government is implicated in this, not just the Post Office.”
MPs up the pressure
The government, through BEIS, confirmed that ministers kept a close eye on and were kept up to date with the case, but added they did not play a role in the litigation.
Gill Furniss, Labour MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough, and shadow minister for steel, post and consumer protection, recently gave a speech in Parliament in which she asked the government whether it would call a full inquiry into the “circumstances that led to this tragedy”, what support the government was giving to those affected, and what was being done to “ensure a scandal like this is never allowed to happen again”.
In the House of Lords, pressure is being applied by James Arbuthnot, former MP for Hampshire North East, and long-time campaigner for justice for the subpostmasters affected. Now Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom, he became a supporter of the subpostmasters when, as an MP, he was contacted by constituent Jo Hamilton, a subpostmaster who was being threatened with jail for accounting irregularities that could not be explained.
He said achieving a full public inquiry would be difficult due to the fact that the government could have to pay out large sums of compensation and was under little pressure due to a large majority in the House of Commons.
Arbuthnot said the only previous campaign for an inquiry he has worked on was for the Chinook helicopter ZD576 crash on the Mull of Kintyre, Scotland, in 1994, when 29 people died. The circumstances of the crash, initially blamed on pilots, needed further investigation after Computer Weekly brought new evidence to light. In 2001, Computer Weekly reported that three fellows of the Royal Aeronautical Society had said that issues with either control or Fadec systems could have led to the crash.
“This ended in an inquiry, though not public, and after 16 years, the pilots were exonerated. But it is impossible to say that that is what would happen here. In the Chinook case, there was no money to be paid out by the government – they had already paid out all the families were asking for. And there was no face to be lost by the government.” he said.
Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom
“In the Horizon case, there are hundreds of people who want, deserve and need substantial compensation. And there are many more out there of which we know nothing, employees of subpostmasters who were not themselves in the frame, subpostmasters who just decided to pay and go away, subpostmasters who decided to sell their businesses at a loss because they could not be sure of the figures the Post Office was giving them, and so on and on,” added Arbuthnot.
He said the money issue was huge and the government would still wish to say that the Post Office is a valuable going concern that should be sold at a profit, but “an inquiry would put that off for years”.
“Select committee inquiries, where committees can go back and back and back with witnesses and reports, can be very influential. And MPs being faced in their constituencies with facts which make very uncomfortable reading is one way to change the tide,” added Arbuthnot.
But the Lords is a very different group. “We feel our lack of legitimacy, in the sense that we are not elected. We too feel the need to achieve good things.”
Arbuthnot recently instigated a debate on the Horizon scandal in the House of Lords earlier this month. “I was very heartened by the number of peers who came in on the questions earlier this month on the side of the subpostmasters. It remains the fact that there has been surprisingly little publicity about this scandalous affair, and it was therefore encouraging to see so many peers both joining in with well-informed questions and making supportive noises in the background,” he said.
Arbuthnot concluded: “This matter is one which requires relentless, persistent questioning and pursuit until the government and the Post Office have nowhere else to go but to put the matter right. In the end justice usually is done, but it takes more time than it should – in fact, sometimes it is the time factor that allows it to happen because everyone involved moved on long ago.”
Timeline of the Post Office Horizon case since Computer Weekly first reported on it in 2009
- May 2009: Bankruptcy, prosecution and disrupted livelihoods – postmasters tell their story.
- September 2009: Postmasters form action group after accounts shortfall.
- November 2009: Post Office theft case deferred over IT questions.
- February 2011: Post Office faces legal action over alleged accounting system failures.
- October 2011: 85 subpostmasters seek legal support in claims against Post Office computer system.
- June 2012: Post Office launches external review of system at centre of legal disputes.
- January 2013: Post Office admits Horizon system needs more investigation.
- January 2013: Post Office announces amnesty for Horizon evidence.
- January 2013: Post Office wants to get to bottom of IT system allegations.
- June 2013: Investigation into Post Office accounting system to drill down on strongest cases.
- July 2013: Post Office Horizon system investigation reveals concerns.
- October 2013: End in sight for subpostmaster claims against Post Office’s Horizon accounting system.
- October 2013: Former Lord Justice of Appeal Hooper joins Post Office Horizon investigation.
- November 2013: 150 subpostmasters file claims over ‘faulty’ Horizon accounting system.
- September 2014: Fresh questions raised over Post Office IT system’s role in fraud cases.
- December 2014: MPs blast Post Office over IT system investigation and remove backing.
- December 2014: Why MPs lost faith in the Post Office’s IT investigation, but vowed to fight on.
- December 2014: MPs to debate subpostmaster IT injustice claims.
- December 2014: MP accuses Post Office of acting “duplicitously” in IT investigation.
- January 2015: MPs force inquiry into Post Office subpostmaster mediation scheme.
- January 2015: Post Office faces grilling by MPs over Horizon accounting system.
- February 2015: Post Office CIO will talk to any subpostmaster about IT problems, promises CEO.
- March 2015: Post Office ends working group for IT system investigation day before potentially damaging report.
- March 2015: MPs seek reassurance over Post Office mediation scheme.
- March 2015: Retiring MP aims to uncover truth of alleged Post Office computer system problems.
- April 2015: Post Office failed to investigate account shortfalls before legal action, report claims.
- April 2015: Criminal Courts Review Commission set to review subpostmasters’ claims of wrongful prosecution.
- May 2015: IT system related to subpostmaster prosecutions under review by CCRC.
- June 2015: Post Office looking to replace controversial Horizon system with IBM, says MP.
- July 2015: Campaigners call for independent inquiry into Post Office Horizon IT system dispute.
- October 2015: James Arbuthnot takes Post Office IT fight to House of Lords.
- November 2015: The union that represents Post Office subpostmasters has warned of a problem with the Horizon accounting system.
- November 2015: An email from Post Office IT support reveals a problem with the Horizon system and supporting processes that could lead to accounting errors.
- November 2015: Group litigation against Post Office being prepared in Horizon dispute.
- February 2016: Post Office faces group litigation over Horizon IT as subpostmasters fund class action.
- June 2016: Post Office chairman Tim Parker says there would be “considerable risk” associated with changing its Horizon computer system.
- November 2016: The legal team hired by a group of subpostmasters will take their case to the next stage.
- January 2017: The group action against the Post Office that alleges subpostmasters have been wrongly punished for accounting errors gets a green light from the High Court of Justice.
- March 2017: 1,000 subpostmasters apply to join IT-related group litigation against Post Office.
- April 2017: Investigation into claims of miscarriages of justice in relation to a Post Office accounting system has appointed a forensic accountant firm.
- May 2017: Hundreds of subpostmasters have applied to join IT-related legal action since March.
- July 2017: Post Office defence in computer system legal case due this week.
- August 2017: Campaigners submit initial evidence in group litigation against Post Office over controversial Horizon IT system.
- October 2017: Subpostmasters’ group action against the Post Office reaches an important milestone.
- November 2017: An end is in sight for subpostmasters’ campaign against alleged wrongful prosecution, which they blame on a faulty computer system.
- November 2017: The High Court judge managing the subpostmasters versus Post Office legal case over an allegedly faulty computer system tells legal teams to cooperate.
- January 2018: Forensic investigation into Post Office IT system at centre of legal case nears completion.
- April 2018: Criminal Cases Review Commission forensic examination of the IT system at the centre of a legal case against the Post Office has raised further questions.
- May 2018: Post Office branches unable to connect to Horizon computer system for several hours after morning opening time.
- October 2018: After over a decade of controversy, next week marks the beginning of a court battle between subpostmasters and the Post Office.
- November 2018: Case against Post Office in relation to allegedly faulty computer system begins in High Court.
- November 2018: High Court case in which subpostmasters are suing the Post Office has revealed a known problem with a computer system at the core of the dispute.
- November 2018: A High Court trial, where subpostmasters are suing the Post Office for damages caused by an allegedly faulty IT system, ends second week.
- November 2018: Post Office director admits to Horizon errors and not sharing details with subpostmaster network.
- November 2018: The High Court trial in which subpostmasters are suing the Post Office has reached an important stage.
- December 2018: CCRC may hold off subpostmaster decision until after Post Office Horizon trial.
- December 2018: Court case where subpostmasters are suing the Post Office set to span at least four trials and extend into 2020.
- January 2019: Subpostmasters’ campaign group attacks Post Office CEO Paula Vennells’ New Year honour amid ongoing court case.
- January 2019: Thousands of known errors on controversial Post Office computer system to be revealed.
- March 2019: Tech under spotlight at High Court in second subpostmasters versus Post Office trial.
- March 2019: Post Office considered Horizon IT system “high risk”, court told.
- March 2019: CCRC watching Post Office Horizon trial closely.
- March 2019: Judge rules that Post Office showed “oppressive behaviour” in response to claimants accused of accounting errors they blamed on Horizon IT system.
- March 2019: Post Office ‘lacked humanity’ in the treatment of subpostmasters, says peer.
- March 2019: A High Court judge heard that the Post Office did not investigate a computer system error that could cause losses, despite being offered evidence.
- March 2019: The Post Office legal team in the case brought by more than 500 subpostmasters has called for the judge to be recused after questioning his impartiality.
- March 2019: A senior civil servant asked the Post Office to repay public money it had wrongly allocated to paying legal costs.
- April 2019: Subpostmaster claimants’ legal team makes application for the Post Office to pay millions of pounds of costs associated with trial.
- April 2019: Post Office to appeal judgment from first Horizon trial.
- April 2019: The Post Office’s claim that the judge overseeing the case concerning its controversial Horizon IT system was biased has been dismissed – but will now be considered by the Court of Appeal.
- April 2019: MP questions government over Post Office Horizon case.
- April 2019: Government says no conflict of interest in trial despite Post Office chairman’s dual role.
- May 2019: The Court of Appeal has refused the Post Office’s application to appeal a major decision in the Horizon IT trial.
- May 2019: The Post Office has applied for permission to appeal judgments from the first trial in its IT-related legal battle with subpostmasters.
- May 2019: The judge in the Post Office Horizon trial has ordered the organisation to pay the legal costs of its courtroom adversaries, and refused to give permission to appeal a major judgment.
- June 2019: Post Office asks Court of Appeal for permission to appeal judgment in first Horizon trial.
- July 2019: The Post Office has admitted that some subpostmasters are at risk of accounts not balancing due to an error it does not understand.
- July 2019: Problem revealed during High Court trial left subpostmaster with £18,000 surplus after IT system failed to register full amount of cash scanned in.
- August 2019: Subpostmasters suffering slow running and frozen terminals while Post Office searches for a fix to issues apparently caused by a software update.
- August 2019: The Post Office has fixed the latest problems with its Horizon system, affecting hundreds of branches.
- October 2019: A High Court judgment for a trial that focused on the Post Office’s IT system at the centre of a multimillion-pound litigation will be announced early next month.
- November 2019: The Court of Appeal has rejected a Post Office application to appeal judgments made in its multimillion-pound battle with subpostmasters over IT system failures.
- November 2019: Peer calls for clear-out of Post Office board after Court of Appeal confirms major court defeat.
- December 2019: The Post Office has settled its long-running legal dispute with subpostmasters, and will pay £57.75m in damages.
- December 2019: Subpostmasters ended their legal battle with the Post Office at the optimal time, according to the lawyer that managed the High Court action.
- December 2019: Subpostmasters proved right on IT system failures as calls for full public inquiry mount.
- December 2019: Criminal Courts Review Commission to review Horizon judgment ‘swiftly’.
- December 2019: National Federation of Subpostmasters cries foul after court ruling on controversial computer system.
- December 2019: Former Post Office CEO apologises to subpostmasters over Horizon scandal.
- December 2019: Call for former Post Office CEO to step down from public roles after IT court battle lost.
- January 2020: Fujitsu must face scrutiny following Post Office Horizon trial judgment.
- January 2020: Subpostmaster group calls for government to pay legal costs for Horizon trial.
- January 2020: Why subpostmasters are calling on the government to pay Horizon trial costs.
- January 2020: Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy says it did not make decisions in the Post Office’s recent court battle.
- January 2020: Government should not be allowed to dismiss subpostmasters’ claims over Horizon IT scandal.
- January 2020: Police sent information about potential Fujitsu staff perjury in subpostmaster prosecutions.
- January 2020: Prosecutions are a significant step closer to being sent to the Court of Appeal as Criminal Courts Review Commission forms a group of commissioners to review them.
- January 2020: Alan Bates: The ‘details man’ the Post Office paid the price for ignoring.
- February 2020: The government has refused to pay the huge legal costs subpostmasters incurred in their battle with the government-owned Post Office, which they won.
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