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MPs' investigation into Post Office Horizon IT scandal bares teeth

Select committee chair writes to former Post Office CEO demanding answers over her role in IT scandal

The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) select committee investigation into the Post Office Horizon scandal has restarted, with letters being sent to executives at the Post Office and its IT supplier Fujitsu.

The select committee had planned to question individuals, including former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells, face to face, but due to the Covid-19 coronavirus, it is conducting interviews via correspondence.

Many felt Vennells, who was scheduled to be questioned at a BEIS committee hearing before the Covid-19 pandemic caused it to be cancelled, would be getting off lightly by avoiding direct questioning about the scandal, recently described as the biggest miscarriage of justice in modern history.

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 forced to pay back the losses and some even going to prison (see timeline below).

In a High Court judgment in December 2019, subpostmasters were vindicated after a judge ruled that, contrary to what the Post Office had said over the years, faults in the Horizon IT system had caused the unexplained accounting shortfalls that many were blamed for.

Vennells was CEO at the Post Office from 2012 to 2019, during a period when hundreds of subpostmasters suffered at the hands of errors in the Horizon IT system.

She left the Post Office after earning millions of pounds. She received a CBE for her services, while hundreds of subpostmasters are still counting the cost of bankruptcy, ill health and criminal records.

Peer James Arbuthnot, previously Conservative MP for Hampshire East, described the behaviour of the Post Office under the leadership of Vennells as “both cruel and incompetent”.

In January, after the High Court case ended, Arbuthnot, who has campaigned for justice for affected subpostmasters for many years, called for Vennells, who is chair of Imperial College Healthcare Trust, to step down from public roles.

“The hallmark of Paula Vennells’ time as CEO was that she was willing to accept appalling advice from people in her management and legal teams. The consequences of this were far-reaching for the Post Office and devastating for the subpostmasters. However, there seem to have been no consequences for her,” he said.

Hard-hitting questions in black and white

Darren Jones MP, who replaced fellow Labour MP Rachel Reeves MP as BEIS committee chair, has written letters to the former Post Office CEO and Fujitsu vice-president Rob Putland. The answers will be published along with the government’s response.

In his letter to Vennells, Jones showed no signs of going easy on her.

He asked Vennells about her only public apology for the scandal. In December 2019, she said: “I am pleased that the long-standing issues related to the Horizon [computer] system have finally been resolved. It was and remains a source of great regret to me that these colleagues and their families were affected over so many years. I am truly sorry we were unable to find both a solution and a resolution outside of litigation and for the distress this caused.”

Jones asked her to explain what the source of her regret is and, if she is sorry, what she is sorry for.

He challenged her on the attitude of the Post Office Investigation Branch, which appeared more interested in asset recovery than finding the source of errors in Horizon.

Jones also asked whether Vennells was comfortable with the Post Office prosecuting subpostmasters without recourse to the Crown Prosecution Service and what checks were in place to make sure prosecutions were based on sound evidence.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) this week called on the government to formally review the circumstances where a private prosecution can be brought when the victim of the alleged crime is also the prosecutor, which is what happened in the Horizon prosecutions.

When announcing that it was sending 47 subpostmaster prosecutions to the Court of Appeal to be reviewed for potential miscarriages of justice, the CCRC said: “In the context of Post Office’s combined status as victim, investigator and prosecutor of the offences in question, the CCRC considers that there are reasons for significant concern as to whether the Post Office at all times acted as a thorough and objective investigator and prosecutor, ensuring that all reasonable lines of inquiry were explored.”

“I was impressed by how hard-hitting [the questions] were – they do not leave much wriggle room for the respondents even if someone is assisting them. I look forward to the responses from the witnesses”
Mark Baker, Communication Workers Union

The Communication Workers Union’s postmaster branch secretary Mark Baker, who is a serving subpostmaster, has been an ardent supporter of Horizon victims over the years. He said he was disappointed that executives like Vennells would avoid face-to-face questioning, but said he was reassured after seeing Jones’ line of questioning.

“When I first heard that the select committee was to resume its oral evidence sessions via correspondence rather than face to face using technology, I was very disappointed. Other select committees are using video conferencing successfully,” he told Computer Weekly. “I felt it gives the witnesses the opportunity to collaborate together in formulating their responses. Marking each other’s homework, if you like.”

“However, when I read the questions, I was impressed by how hard-hitting they were, and they do not leave much wriggle room for the respondents even if someone is assisting them,” added Baker. “Feedback from our postmaster members shows that they are also impressed with the quality of the questions posed.

“I look forward to the responses from the witnesses.”

While the Post Office and its mistreatment of subpostmasters became headline news after the High Court judgment, Fujitsu, the IT services company behind the Horizon system, faces further questions.

In his letter to the IT supplier’s vice-president, Jones asked detailed questions about Fujitsu’s awareness of problems with Horizon and questioned the company’s fitness in delivering IT to government departments following revelations about the company in the recent High Court trial. He asked: “Do the issues surrounding Horizon raise questions about your ability to carry on providing IT to the Post Office but also to other public bodies?”

Fujitsu did not escape criticism during the High Court trial. Before handing down his judgment, judge Peter Fraser announced his concerns over the accuracy of evidence given in court by Fujitsu in previous trials of accused subpostmasters.

“Based on the knowledge that I have gained both from conducting the trial and writing the Horizon issues judgment, I have very grave concerns regarding the veracity of evidence given by Fujitsu employees to other courts in previous proceedings about the known existence of bugs, errors and defects in the Horizon system,” said Fraser.

“These previous proceedings include the High Court in at least one civil case brought by the Post Office against a subpostmaster and the Crown Court in a greater number of criminal cases, also brought by the Post Office against subpostmasters and subpostmistresses.”

Fraser sent papers from the case to the director of public prosecutions, Max Hill, to consider whether the matter should be the subject of any prosecution. This could lead to criminal prosecutions for crimes such as perjury.

This was then referred to the Metropolitan Police, which is assessing evidence.

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

 

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