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What last week appeared to be a promise of a public inquiry into the Post Office IT scandal, seems in reality to have been the Prime Minister playing to the crowd, as his commitment is watered down in Number 10 statement.
In reply to a question in Parliament last week, prime minister Boris Johnson appeared to commit to a public inquiry into the scandal that saw subpostmasters experience suffering, including prison sentences, after being blamed for accounting shortfalls that were caused by errors in the Post Office computer system they use.
Over the past 20 years, subpostmasters have been prosecuted, jailed, fined and forced to repay accounting shortfalls that had nothing to do with them. 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 recent High Court trial proved that Post Office claims that Horizon could not be to blame for shortfalls were wrong and the subpostmasters were right. A court of appeal judge said the Post Office had treated subpostmasters like Victorian factory workers.
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. She 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: “I am indeed aware of the scandal to which [Osborne] 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.”
This was understood by MPs and subpostmasters to be a commitment to a public inquiry. 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.
Boris Johnson, prime minister
MP Gill Furniss, Labour’s shadow minister for post, said she was “glad the Prime Minister has agreed to a public inquiry on the Post Office Horizon scandal. This is testament to the hard-fought campaign of hundreds of subpostmasters and members of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Post Offices, from all parties”.
Conservative MP Lucy Allan, who has emerged as a strong advocate of justice for the subpostmasters affected, said: “I interpret what [the Prime Minister] said as a commitment to an inquiry. Some very senior people in government believe there to have been a miscarriage of justice.”
But due to the ambiguity of Johnson’s words, Computer Weekly contacted Number 10 for more details, specifically asking if the Prime Minister is committed to a full public inquiry and whether it would be judge led.
The Number 10 response makes clear that a decision has not been made. The final line of the statement confirms that the government is currently looking into what can be done beyond ensuring the Post Office sticks to its commitments, made as part of the court settlement, to change its relationship with subpostmasters.
In answer to Computer Weekly’s question, the government statement said: “We take the Post Office’s relationship with its postmasters very seriously and closely monitored the situation during the legal proceedings. The Post Office, under its new CEO, has since accepted it got things wrong, apologised and has said it aims to re-establish a positive relationship with postmasters. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is working actively with the Post Office on this matter and will hold them to account on their progress. We are also looking into what more needs to be done.”
A public inquiry would put the government, the Post Office and Horizon supplier Fujitsu under the spotlight.
The Post Office is government owned with a member of government on its board. In a recent Lords debate, the government admitted it had been too passive in how it manages the Post Office and said this would change.
During a debate in the House of Lords in early February, Conservative peer Stuart Polak asked Ian Duncan, Conservative peer and parliamentary under-secretary of state in the department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), what the exact role of the department’s representative on the board of directors of the Post Office is.
Duncan confirmed there is a non-executive director who is responsible for representing the department and the government, but said the role has been passive, and will be changed following the court judgments.
The government has also recently claimed the Post Office misled it when asked whether issues raised by subpostmasters about the Horizon system were true.
Responding to questions in the House of Lords debate on 25 February, Martin Callanan, a UK government minister in the House of Lords, suggested the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) had been misled by the Post Office over Horizon IT problems.
Callanan said the BEIS relied on Post Office management to investigate the issues with the Horizon system. “The government was assured that the system was robust and the issues being raised by the postmasters were being handled appropriately. BEIS pressed management on these issues and was given consistent advice from the company’s experts that appeared to verify these claims at that time,” he said.
“In hindsight, of course, facts have come to light through the litigation that has revealed that advice given during that period was flawed,” he added. Callanan was referring to the judgment in the second trial in the recent multimillion-pound litigation.
In his judgment, Judge Fraser said the Post Office had exhibited “a simple institutional obstinacy or refusal to consider any possible alternatives to their view of Horizon”.
“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,” said Fraser.
Arbuthnot, former MP for Hampshire North East, and now Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom, 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.
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.
- 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.
- February 2020: Calls for inquiry into Post Office IT scandal increase in Parliament, with cross-party support.
- February 2020: Care Quality Commission to review concerns over Paula Vennells’ appointment after they were raised by a former NHS consultant psychiatrist.
- February 2020: Government admits it was too passive managing Post Office as parliamentary pressure builds.
- February 2020: Boris Johnson commits to 'getting to the bottom of' Post Office Horizon IT scandal.
- February 2020: Minister says Post Office IT experts misled the government when it asked questions about subpostmasters’ concerns over Horizon IT system.
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