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Boris Johnson commits to 'getting to the bottom of' Post Office Horizon IT scandal

Prime minister Boris Johnson appears to commit to a public inquiry into the Post Office scandal over its accounting system, but government is yet to offer any details

Prime minister Boris Johnson has committed to “getting to the bottom of” the Post Office Horizon IT scandal through a public inquiry.

During Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons on 26 February, Johnson was asked by Kate Osborne, Labour MP for Jarrow, whether he would commit to an independent inquiry.

Osbourne said: “Like many other subpostmasters, my constituent, Christopher Head, fell victim of the Horizon IT system scandal. This has resulted in bankruptcy, imprisonment and even suicides. Will the Prime Minister today commit to an independent public inquiry?”

Johnson said he has met victims and agreed that the government needed to address the Post Office Horizon scandal.

He said: “I am indeed aware of the scandal to which [Osbourne] alludes and the disasters that have befallen many Post Office workers, and I am happy to commit to getting to the bottom of the matter in the way that she recommends.”

No further details have yet been made available to clarify the detail of the government’s plans or Johnson’s apparent commitment.

The government has acknowledged that it was too passive in managing the Post Office, which saw the publicly owned organisation make decisions that destroyed the lives of people who represented it on high streets across the UK.

Over the past 20 years, the government has failed to address serious mismanagement by the Post Office, despite concerns being raised and made public.

Computer Weekly first reported the problems with Horizon in 2009, when we revealed the stories of a group of subpostmasters. Soon after this, more subpostmasters came forward, but the dispute dates back further than that (see timeline below).

A multimillion-pound court case, which concluded in December 2019, saw 550 subpostmasters take the Post Office to court in a group litigation, in an attempt to redress the grievances caused to them by the error-prone computer system they used, as well as contract terms described as oppressive by a High Court judge.

Subpostmasters were prosecuted for theft or false accounting as a result of accounting shortfalls that were caused by the Horizon IT system, with some subpostmasters jailed.

In his judgment in the High Court for the second trial in the court case, which focused on the Horizon computer system, Judge Fraser said the Post Office had exhibited “a simple institutional obstinacy or refusal to consider any possible alternatives to their view of Horizon, which was maintained regardless of the weight of factual evidence to the contrary”. 

“That approach by the Post Office was continued, even though now there is also considerable expert evidence to the contrary as well, and much of it agreed expert evidence on the existence of numerous bugs,” he added.

“This approach by the Post Office has 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.”

Lord Justice Coulson in the Court of Appeal has likened the treatment of subpostmasters by the Post Office to the way Victorian factory owners treated their workers.

After the subpostmasters won the court battle, which vindicated them and implicated the Post Office with serious failures, their fight for justice continued. Pressure is being put on politicians with calls for the legal costs of subpostmasters to be paid by government and the launch of a judge-led public inquiry.

Subpostmasters were awarded £57.75m in damages, but after costs were taken out they were left with around £10m, which means subpostmasters will not even get back the money they lost. There are also calls for the people responsible for allowing the scandal to happen to face justice.

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