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Calls for inquiry into Post Office IT scandal increase in Parliament, with cross-party support

Many MPs might not yet fully understand the suffering subpostmasters have endured because of the Post Office’s faulty IT system and its oppressive behaviour, but they will soon

Most new MPs are unaware of the Post Office Horizon IT scandal, which resulted in subpostmasters being sent to prison for crimes they did not commit, but there are signs of growing support for justice for the victims of the faulty IT system, among MPs of all parties.

Support in the Houses of Parliament will increase as more MPs learn the full details of the suffering subpostmasters’ experienced at the hands of the Post Office.

Over the past 20 years, the Post Office has prosecuted subpostmasters for theft and false accounting, when the losses were actually caused by faults in the computer system. Some subpostmasters were sent to prison, and hundreds, potentially thousands, were forced to cover losses that were not their doing. Computer Weekly made the problems public in 2009 (see timeline below).

December 2019 saw the end of a court battle, when the Post Office settled out of court with 550 subpostmasters for £57.75m. High Court judge Peter Fraser slammed the Post Office for its oppressive behaviour towards subpostmasters and its denial that problems with Horizon were to blame for the accounting shortfalls. The court case ultimately vindicated subpostmasters and proved the Post Office had been wrong in many ways.

Subpostmasters seeking justice

After subpostmasters won the multimillion-pound legal battle, the campaigners began seeking justice, beyond the current damages that don’t even cover their losses and the Post Office’s weak apology.

Campaigners want a full public inquiry and for the government to pay the huge legal costs of claimant subpostmasters, which consumed a large proportion of the damages awarded. After the claimants paid legal costs, there was only about £10m left, which doesn’t even get close to covering the losses experienced by subpostmasters, let alone the damage caused to their lives and livelihoods.

To understand why subpostmasters believe they deserve more to cover quantified losses, a rough guide to what the subpostmasters were claiming can be estimated from figures calculated during the Initial Complaint Review & Mediation Scheme. This scheme, which was set up in 2013 by the Post Office and later prematurely ended, saw claimants use forensic accountants to examine their cases, produce a report of what had taken place and calculate the quantum loss (what a court is likely to award).

There were 150 cases in the mediation scheme, of which 39 had their quantum losses calculated by forensic accountants. Adding up the figures available for the cases in that scheme produces a total of just over £27m, or an average loss of nearly £700,000. Most of the 39 are in the group of 550 subpostmasters that brought the case against the Post Office.

These figures put into context the £10m that claimants will be left with after costs following the settlement.

But the government’s large majority and the potentially high costs of compensation mean the government is under no pressure to call an inquiry, or pay the legal costs. The government has so far said it will not pay the legal costs for subpostmasters, despite their court victory highlighting serious failings at the Post Office, which is publicly owned.

Getting MPs on board

Pressure from MPs across parties is therefore vital if an inquiry is to be won and costs are to be paid, but with many new MPs in the House of Commons, there needs to be a period of education.

On the Conservative benches, there have always been some loud voices. James Arbuthnot, former MP for Hampshire North East and now peer in the House of Lords, and Andrew Bridgen, Conservative MP for North West Leicestershire, have campaigned for subpostmasters for a number of years.

On the Labour benches, Kevan Jones, Labour MP for North Durham, has stood up for subpostmasters over the years, and has now called for a back bench business debate on the matter.

“I am fully supportive of an inquiry, and I think it will turn out to be one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in history in the UK. We need to do the inquiry so nothing like this ever happens again”
Andrew Bridgen, Conservative MP for North West Leicestershire

Bridgen wants more than an apology – he wants the subpostmasters to receive more compensation, as well as a full public inquiry.

“I am fully supportive of an inquiry, and I think it will turn out to be one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in history in the UK. We need to do the inquiry so nothing like this ever happens again,” he said, adding that serious mistakes have been made and lessons need to be learned.

Bridgen is working closely with Jones. “We are going to put pressure on the government and will have some debates to educate new MPs about what has gone on. I hope we are going to get colleagues to support putting pressure on for an inquiry,” said Bridgen.

He said the public also needs to apply pressure on their local MPs if they want an inquiry. “MPs respond to public pressure, so we also need to get the people on board, and I think they will see this as a travesty of justice,” he added.

Bridgen added that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which the Post Office is part of, seems to think the issue is dealt with, “but I don’t think it is”.

“For Post Office to drag the hearing out, spending over £100m on its defence when it was quite obviously bang to rights at the beginning, needs investigating. We need an inquiry to see who made these appalling decisions,” he said.

Labour’s Jones said he doesn’t think people have fully worked it out, but added that this is the worst example he has seen of the state trying to cover up what went wrong, leading to peoples’ lives being completely ruined. “Unless you have some kind of public inquiry into it, I don’t think you can get to the bottom of what went wrong,” he said.

More supporters of an inquiry are likely as MPs from all parties start to debate the issue and the mainstream media increases its coverage of the scandal.

For example, Lucy Allan, Conservative MP for Telford, is just learning about it and has already demanded a debate on the matter in the House of Commons.

“Most MPs know nothing about this. I only became aware of the issue today [Wednesday 12 February]. Each victim must contact their MP to secure their support. All convictions need to be overturned and it should not be for the individual victims to do this independently,” she said.

“I was notified of a particularly shocking case in my constituency of a young post office clerk being jailed in 2001, having been wrongly accused of theft. She now will receive compensation, but justice will not be done until she has her name cleared and receives a public apology,” added Allan.

“I am particularly concerned by the way the Post Office fought this issue for 20 years, trying to deny responsibility for destroying lives.”

In the House of Commons Allan asked Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg whether there could be a debate in government time to consider what is fast becoming a national scandal.  

Rees-Mogg said: “Innocent people do appear to have suffered because of IT flaws in the Post Office systems and that is entirely wrong and improper and they ought to be compensated fairly and I think to have a debate on it in Westminster Hall would be very suitable.”

Diana Johnson, Labour MP for Hull North, has been contacted by a constituent, who is one of the subpostmasters affected. She said she “is calling for a public inquiry”.

Last week, Gill Furniss, Labour MP for Sheffield Brightside & Hillsborough and shadow minister for steel, post and consumer protection, asked the government whether it would call a full inquiry into the “circumstances that led to this tragedy”.

Appealing against convictions

Justice for subpostmasters will need to go far further than financial damages, with demand for criminal records to be quashed and for Post Office executives to be held to account.

The Criminal Courts Review Commission (CCRC) is reviewing subpostmasters’ applications to appeal against convictions for offences, including theft, that led to some being sent to jail. They look more likely to be approved after the CCRC announced last month that it had arranged for a committee of commissioners to meet to consider the cases.

There are now more than 50 applications, after about 20 more were made after the epic legal battle ended between subpostmasters and the Post Office over the controversial Horizon IT system. 

The CCRC meeting of commissioners will be held at the end of March, when they will review whether cases of possible miscarriages of justice should go to the Court of Appeal, where they could be overturned.

According to a CCRC document, the calling of a committee signals a possibility of appeals being referred. “If a referral for appeal seems possible, the case review managers (CRM) will put the results of their review to a committee of three commissioners,” says the CCRC guidance. “If it seems there is no prospect of a referral, the CRM will put it to a single commissioner.”


Click here 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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