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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.

Public inquiry

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

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