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Subpostmasters to force scrutiny of government’s role in Post Office IT scandal

The government's role in the Post Office Horizon IT scandal could soon be put under the microscope as subpostmasters take their complaints to the Parliamentary Ombudsman

The government’s handling of the Post Office in relation to its role in miscarriages of justice could soon face major scrutiny, as victims of the Horizon IT scandal prepare to take their complaints to the Parliamentary Ombudsman.

Fresh from their 2019 court victory against the Post Office, a group of 550 subpostmasters will continue their fight for justice by approaching the authority responsible for investigating complaints against government departments.

The Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) wants the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s (BEIS) role in the Horizon IT scandal, which led to potentially hundreds of miscarriages of justice and wrecked livelihoods, to be scrutinised. Although the ombudsman cannot force the government to act, with powers similar to a High Court judge, government failures and those responsible for them could be identified.

In 2009,  a Computer Weekly  investigation revealed that subpostmasters were being blamed for unexplained losses in branches that they claimed were caused by computer errors. The Post Office always denied this and many subpostmasters were prosecuted for theft and false accounting, with prison sentences, community service, criminal records and heavy fines among the injustices they suffered as a result. This has been described as the biggest miscarriage of justice in modern times.(see timeline below). 

In 2018, 550 subpostmasters took the Post Office to court in a group litigation action to prove the computer system was to blame for unexplained losses. They won the multimillion-pound High Court battle, which concluded in December 2019, proving that the Horizon computer system they used was to blame for unexplained accounting shortfalls, and not them.

They won a £57.75m settlement from the Post Office, but after legal costs and money for the litigation funders, claimants were paid only about £11m between them. This came nowhere near covering the losses experienced by the subpostmasters, never mind compensating them for suffering. For example, one subpostmistress who was wrongly found guilty of theft was sent to prison and lost her livelihood, but only received £8000.

The Court of Appeal will soon hear the cases of 39 subpostmaster prosecutions that have been referred by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), which said the unprecedented referral was its biggest ever in terms of numbers. There could be potentially hundreds more cases.

Back in December, after the subpostmasters’ victory in court, former subpostmaster Alan Bates, who led the court action, said he would take the fight for justice to Parliament. Progress was being made towards government action until the  Covid-19 pandemic slowed the campaign. Now the JFSA will make a submission to the Parliamentary Ombudsman to complain about government failures in the way it has managed the publicly owned Post Office.

According to the House of Commons Library Briefing, The Parliamentary Ombudsman: role and proposals for reform: “The Parliamentary Ombudsman can investigate complaints from members of the public who believe that they have suffered injustice because of maladministration by government departments or certain public bodies.”

It continues: “Maladministration can be defined as the public body not having acted properly or fairly, or having given a poor service and not put things right”

The Post Office is an arm’s length public sector organisation, with a member of the government sitting on its board. For over a decade the subpostmaster claims were in public, yet the government did little to investigate, which forced the subpostmasters to take action through the courts.

Bates has already written to the government calling for it to cover the legal costs of the group litigation, to leave the subpostmasters with the full damages, and has been pushing for a judge-led public inquiry. The government has refused to pay the legal costs, but Prime Minister Boris Johnson did commit to an inquiry, although halfheartedly, and the BEIS select committee is doing its own investigation.

In an email to JFSA members Bates wrote: “You will all be aware, that despite having gained significant political support to assist us to recover the costs we have had to bear to expose Post Office in the High Court, the current pandemic has meant we have lost the significant headway we were making in Parliament, at least for the moment.

“Despite all media coverage, undoubtedly the only process that has really worked for us was the courts, but as we have learnt, it takes years to follow and costs a shed load of money, but litigation did work and it worked well, holding people to account and exposing the truth.”

He said the terms of the settlement with Post Office means the subpostmasters are not able to take further civil litigation action against the Post Office: “However our focus presently is on Post Office’s only shareholder, the government, and BEIS that is tasked to oversee and manage it.”  

The JFSA has received advice to at least consider taking the government to court. Bates said the advice, if acted on, would be very expensive and take many years, for which the subpostmasters, who have fought for two decades, have little appetite. But Bates said there is another way. “[Our legal adviser] suggested that there might be a better, quicker and cheaper route to follow, a complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman.”

He said it is free to apply to the ombudsman, although there will be costs associated with building a case.

The submission has to be made by an MP and according to Bates, the JFSA already has a volunteer in the form of Labour MP for North Durham, Kevan Jones.

Conservative peer James Arbuthnot, previously MP for Hampshire North East, and a long-time campaigner for justice for the subpostmasters affected, said the government must face up to its own responsibility for the Horizon scandal: “It owns the Post Office and throughout the saga it has had a representative on the board and has been kept fully informed of what the Post Office was doing.

“And yet government ministers have been refusing to accept this responsibility. They say they have been misled by the Post Office when they were in a position and had a duty to satisfy themselves of the truth of what the Post Office was telling them.  They pretend the relationship between the Post Office and government is an arm’s length one when clearly it is not.”

He added: “The government has a moral as well as a financial duty to stand behind what the Post Office has been doing, and to restore the subpostmasters to the position they would have been in had the Post Office – and the government – been behaving as they should.  That requires full compensation. The subpostmasters who took the government to court have, as the government has acknowledged, done the government and Post Office a service in exposing financial and moral wrong-doing.  They should not bear the cost of doing so.  This is, as the Prime Minister has acknowledged, a scandal.  The sooner the government puts it right, the better for all concerned, including the government.”

The ombudsman has the right to summon people and papers with powers analogous to those of a High Court judge. “So the names will be named and those who took decisions will have to defend what they did, or in many cases probably didn’t do, that finished up with us having to take the Post Office to the High Court,” said Bates.

 If you want to support the subpostmasters taking on the government to redress their considerable grievances you can pledge here. The money is only paid once the target is met.

Timeline of the Post Office Horizon case since Computer Weekly first reported on it in 2009

 

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