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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.
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.”
- 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.
- February 2020: Members of Parliament seeking a public inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal face huge challenges, but pressure and time could force justice.
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