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Subpostmasters attending a Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) committee meeting told MPs to hold to account those responsible for the Post Office Horizon IT scandal.
During the committee hearing, subpostmasters wrongly punished for accounting shortfalls caused by the IT system used in Post Office branches answered questions from MPs, and further doubt was cast over prime minister Boris Johnson’s commitment to a public inquiry into the scandal.
Former subpostmasters Wendy Buffrey, Tracy Felstead and Alan Bates gave evidence to the committee investigating what happened to them and hundreds, possibly thousands of others.
Computer Weekly first reported problems with the Horizon IT system in 2009, when we revealed the stories of a group of subpostmasters who had suffered as a result of unexplained accounting shortfalls (see timeline below).
Following the Post Office conceding defeat in a group litigation brought by the wronged subpostmasters and agreeing to pay £57.75m in damages, victims are seeking further redress for their grievances. The BEIS hearing is part of an investigation into what went wrong at the Post Office.
During the BEIS hearing, Ms Buffrey told MPs that they had an important role in holding the people responsible for the scandal to account. “Nobody has been held to account and we need your help to do that,” she said. “I want someone to be held to account for what they have done to us.”
Ms Buffrey was prosecuted for false accounting, had to do 150 hours of community service and paid the Post Office £36,000 that it claimed she had lost. Her business was ruined and she has lived with a criminal record since 2010.
Ms Felstead was sent to prison for theft – something she always denied and, following a recent High Court judgment, was proven right about. Bates lost his business and suffered losses, before driving a campaign for justice, which led to the court case and defeat for the Post Office.
The High Court judgment in December 2019, part of a multimillion-pound litigation brought by 550 subpostmasters against the Post Office, confirmed that allegations made by subpostmasters about the lack of robustness of the computer system they use were right.
Calling for prosecution
Executives at the Post Office were criticised by the judge, Peter Fraser, in his judgment. Fraser referred his concerns over the accuracy of evidence given in court by staff at IT supplier Fujitsu to the director of public prosecution. The Metropolitan Police Service has since been asked to consider the information and potentially investigate.
Former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells will also inevitably come under the spotlight in any public inquiry. She was CEO between 2012 and 2019, a period when many subpostmasters suffered at the hands of Horizon. After earning millions of pounds at the Post Office and being awarded a CBE for services to it, Vennells moved to Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, which she chairs.
Lucy Allan, Conservative MP
Lucy Allan, Conservative MP for Telford, recently told Computer Weekly that individuals who have not played by the rules should face prosecution.
“Anyone found to have deliberately misled the court or to have encouraged others to do so, thus causing a miscarriage of justice, should be prosecuted, no matter how mighty they are – we are all equal under the law and, in such a serious case, a prison sentence should be expected,” she said.
Karl Turner, Labour MP for Hull East, said a judge-led public inquiry was needed to prove who, if anyone, is culpable.
“If the DPP [Director of Public Prosecutions] gets a file back from the police saying that certain people are potentially culpable of the following offences, then I am fairly certain the DPP will authorise prosecutions against those individuals,” he said.
“I don’t want to cast aspersions on any individual directly, but if you are the CEO or ex-CEO [of the Post Office], you ought to be worried about whether you will be finding a summons to appear at Westminster Magistrates’ Court sometime in the next 12 to 18 months. That is a fear I would be living with if I was any of those senior individuals at the Post Office.”
Seeking a public inquiry
Subpostmasters and many MPs are now demanding a judge-led public inquiry as the only way to get to the bottom of the scandal.
In the BEIS meeting, Ms Buffrey criticised Boris Johnson for the manner in which he avoided directly answering a question about 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. “Like many other subpostmasters, my constituent Christopher Head fell victim to the Horizon IT system scandal. This has resulted in bankruptcy, imprisonment and even suicides,” she said. “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.
But as it transpired this was not a commitment at all. During the BEIS committee meeting, Ms Buffrey said: “If he had said yes, that would have been great, but he did the usual politician thing of skirting around it, almost making the point that he will but not actually saying yes.”
Recouping legal costs
In addition to calls for a judge-led inquiry, subpostmasters demand that their legal costs be paid by the government, which fully owns the Post Office. After costs are taken from the £57.75m awarded, only about £10m is left for subpostmasters. This does not even get close to covering the money they lost, without taking into account other suffering such as the loss of businesses, the ability to work, living with criminal records and ill health.
- 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: Minister says Post Office IT experts misled the government when it asked questions about subpostmasters’ concerns over Horizon IT system.
- March 2020: Boris Johnson commits to “getting to the bottom of” Post Office Horizon IT scandal.
- March 2020: Boris Johnson’s commitment to inquiry into Post Office scandal in doubt.
- March 2020: MPs call on PM to commit to full public inquiry into Post Office Horizon IT scandal.
- March 2020: Those who did not play by the rules in Post Office Horizon scandal “should face prosecution”.
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