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Post Office executives used ‘grotesque predatory capitalism’ throughout Horizon IT scandal
Labour MP Karl Turner tells Computer Weekly that the Post Office Horizon scandal is the most grotesque version of predatory capitalism he has ever seen
Karl Turner, MP for Hull East, typifies the determination in some quarters of parliament to get justice for subpostmasters that suffered at the hands of a faulty IT system and Post Office management. He told Computer Weekly he will not stop campaigning until justice is done.
As well as backing calls for a judge led public inquiry into the Horizon scandal, the quashing of criminal records of subpostmasters wrongly prosecuted and for the government to cover the costs of the legal battle which cleared then of wrongdoing, Turner is also calling for executives at the Post Office to face justice.
Following the High Court ruling that proved that subpostmasters were wrongly blamed for accounting shortfalls caused by computer errors, Turner wants executives that allowed this to happen to face criminal prosecution. “Officials at the Post Office have, from the very get go, misled everybody. They have misled subpostmasters and their own lawyers and potentially told lies to the government,” he told Computer Weekly.
In 2009, Computer Weekly revealed that subpostmasters were being blamed for losses that they claimed were caused by computer errors. The Post Office always denied this and prosecuted subpostmasters, with many paying back the losses and some even going to prison (see timeline below).
Turner said the Post Office’s denial that the Horizon IT system from Fujitsu, introduced in 2000, could be to blame for unexplained accounting shortfalls was a cover up. “Alarm bells must have been ringing [when shortfalls began happening regularly] because you have a situation where all of a sudden it appears you have hundreds of people thieving,” said Turner.
Turner said the Post Office must have known there were computer problems but was prepared to make innocent subpostmasters pay for them. “They continued to cover it up to the point where it didn’t matter for the tiny people, the individuals (subpostmasters) to be prosecuted, with their reputations tarnished for ever more, their mental and physical health suffering, and some serving custodial sentences,” he said.
“That didn’t matter as long as [Post Office executives’] backsides were covered. And they almost stopped it from getting out in the public domain by outspending the subpostmasters in court. I want answers and I want people to go to jail. That’s what I am after and I am not going to let it rest,” said Turner.
To get answers from everyone involved, there needs to be a judge-led public inquiry, said Turner. “You have to find out who was misleading who, where and why? Hence the fact we need a judge led public inquiry. It will last for months, probably more than a year, evidence will be collated and the judgment will decide who, if anyone is culpable.”
He said government investigations are all well and good but have limited powers. “I am happy there is a department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) investigation, but that is not good enough for me. It has got to be judicial and an inquiry that has teeth. It has to be led by a judge which can summons people to give evidence.”
“I do not think anything is good enough other than prosecution for the individuals that knew the what, when and why,” said Turner.
He said nobody should be allowed to avoid detailed questioning. “If the DPP gets a file back from the police saying certain people are potentially culpable for offences, I am confident the Director of Public Prosecution will authorise prosecutions against those individuals,” said Turner.
“I don’t want to cast aspersions on anybody in particular, 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.”
He said people at the Post Office must have raised issues about the computer problems, but the message coming from the top of the chain must have been ‘these people are thieving’.”
This, he said, was because executives that had paid millions of pounds of tax payers money for a new IT system, were hiding its problems and their failure at the expense of subpostmasters. “This is utterly despicable because the malice in this is they thought ‘let’s cover our backsides because we have invested millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money for the IT system, which isn’t working’.”
An abuse of the law
Through its denial of problems, described by High Court judge Peter Fraser as amounting “to the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the Earth is flat”, the Post Office also abused the law by misleading lawyers.
Turner said the lawyers that have represented the Post Office in trials over the years were not given a true picture by their client. “These lawyers that were reviewing the cases for prosecution have been misled and mistreated by the Post Office. A barrister in criminal proceedings doesn’t get up in the morning wanting to shaft some poor innocent whether they are prosecuting or defending. The profession is clean. Practitioners do not mislead each other, it’s honest and up front.”
He slammed the Post Office’s strategy of offering those accused of theft the chance to plead guilty to false accounting. If they agreed they would have a criminal record and pay the money back, but would avoid jail. “They were sure that if they offered the subpostmasters that were accused of theft the option of pleading guilty to false accounting at the last second, they would take it to avoid prison,” said Turner, a lawyer by profession. These people were innocent, but fear of prison made many of them plead guilty.
The Post Office pushed the law to the limits to cover its tracks. During the group litigation the Post Office threw millions of pounds at the case to ramp up costs beyond what claimants could pay. The Post Office even attempted to have the judge remove himself from the case for alleged bias. While it failed this failed it increased up the costs for both sides. The Post Office also applied to appeal damning judgments for the first trial in the litigation, which was also rejected and added to the costs.
“This was a predatory capitalist reaction when they tried to outspend and smash these ‘tiny people’ to cover their own backsides. It is grotesque in the extreme and I want answers and I want people to go to jail. That’s what I am after and I am not going to let it rest.”
Turner believes a judge with a detailed understanding of the case and technology would make the deal individual to head the inquiry. Judge Peter Fraser, the managing judge of the group litigation between the subpostmasters and Post Office is the perfect example, he added.
“I have read the judgments of Judge Fraser and I am incredible impressed by his obvious technical understanding of this area. Thank goodness he was chosen for this case because he is probably one of only a couple of judges in the entire judiciary of getting to the nitty gritty of this. He spotted the wool being pulled over his eyes on every occasion.”
Miscarriage of justice
Turner said the Post Office Horizon scandal, described recently as one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in history in the UK, by MP Andrew Bridgen, justifies a full judge led public inquiry.
“Somebody asked me the other day if it is justified to give a judge led inquiry,” he said. “People died. Lives were ruined. People never worked again. Members of some subpostmasters’ families don’t associate with some of the subpostmaster victims because of the crimes they were blamed for. There have been suicides attributed to it, there have been deaths as a result of anxiety and stress leading to heart attacks. It is utterly deplorable.”
Before a judge led inquiry Turner said those prosecuted should have their names cleared and the government should pay the legal costs amassed by the claimant subpostmasters during the legal battle.
The Post Office agreed to pay those in the claimant group a total of £57.75m. But after legal costs are taken out there is just £11m for the 550 claimants to share, which leaves the subpostmasters with damages that hardly begin to pay the money they lost, never mind taking other suffering into account such as serving prison sentences, living with criminal records and experiencing ill health due to the stress caused.
“The government should be coughing up that money,” he said. “All the lawyers and legal costs should be paid by them and the subpostmaster victims should get a proper share of the settlement.”
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: 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”.
- March 2020: MPs told to hold to account those responsible for Post Office Horizon IT scandal.
- March 2020: The Post Office has sparked anger with secret settlements with subpostmasters outside the recent legal action against it.
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