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Anger as government launches ‘pathetic’ and ‘pointless’ review of Horizon scandal

The government has been accused of launching a review that fails in getting to the bottom of one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in UK history

MPs are demanding nothing short of a judge-led inquiry as the government announces a review of the Post Office Horizon IT scandal, which others have described as “pointless” and “pathetic”.

As the minister for small business, Paul Scully, answered questions from MPs calling for a judge-led public inquiry into the scandal in the House of Commons, the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) released the terms of reference of a planned review into the IT-related scandal.

In 2009, Computer Weekly revealed that subpostmasters were being blamed for losses that they claimed were caused by errors in the Horizon computer system. 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).

The government has had to act following a High Court judgment in the Horizon case that proved that subpostmasters, who have campaigned for more than a decade, were right that the IT system could cause accounting shortfalls.

In the House of Commons in February 2020, prime minister Boris Johnson committed to getting to the bottom of the scandal through an inquiry. But the government’s announced review does not live up to the expectations of affected subpostmasters, campaigners and MPs.

According to the government, its review, which will have an independent chair, will consider whether the Post Office has learned lessons and will assess the work it has undertaken to rebuild its relationship with its subpostmasters.

“Government wants to be fully assured that through the review there is a public summary of the failings that occurred at Post Office, drawing on the judgments from the Horizon case and by listening to those that have been most affected; that lessons have genuinely been learned; and that concrete changes have taken place at Post Office to ensure that this situation will never be repeated. For these reasons, government has decided to establish an independent review,” it said.

“The terms of reference and the final timings for the review are subject to confirmation by the chair, who will be fully independent of Post Office and the government. A chair will be appointed and announced in due course.”

The multimillion-pound Horizon case, which concluded in December 2019, saw 550 subpostmasters take the Post Office to court in a group litigation, in an attempt to redress the grievances caused to them by the error-prone computer system they used.

In his judgment in the Horizon case, where subpostmaster claimants were vindicated, the judge, Peter Fraser, said the Post Office had exhibited “a simple institutional obstinacy or refusal to consider any possible alternatives to their view of Horizon, which was maintained regardless of the weight of factual evidence to the contrary”. 

“That approach by the Post Office was continued, even though now there is also considerable expert evidence to the contrary as well, and much of it agreed expert evidence on the existence of numerous bugs,” he added.

“This approach by the Post Office has amounted, in reality, to bare assertions and denials that ignore what has actually occurred, at least so far as the witnesses called before me in the Horizon issues trial are concerned. It amounts to the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the Earth is flat.”

Campaigners and MPs want much more than the review announced by the government. They want to identify who was responsible for the scandal and want them to face justice. They also want the government to pay the legal costs of the 550 subpostmasters, which when paid left about £12m of their total £57.75m damages. The Post Office is government-owned, described as an arm’s-length body, with a member of government on its board.

“The Prime Minister promised to get to the bottom of the Horizon scandal. This anaemic review will fail to do that because it doesn’t ask the important questions”
Peer James Arbuthnot, former MP for Hampshire East

Peer James Arbuthnot, former MP for Hampshire East, who campaigned for the subpostmasters affected, said the government review “is a pathetic response to a national outrage”.

“The Prime Minister promised to get to the bottom of the Horizon scandal. This anaemic review will fail to do that, because it fails to ask the important questions,” he said. “The purpose of an independent inquiry should be to establish the truth, rather than to protect the government from any suggestion of blame.”

Alan Bates, the former subpostmaster who spearheaded the legal battle against the Post Office, described the minister’s independent review as “a pointless exercise in futility”, adding: “We’ll wait for the judge-led public inquiry.”

A weak government review was what campaigners feared, according to Tim McCormack, former subpostmaster and campaigner for justice.

“Today, Paul Scully confirmed in Parliament what subpostmaster claimants and supporters alike privately feared – that, just like his predecessors, he would be a mere puppet of the civil servants in his department that have been and remain ensconced in this scandal and, now clearly, a cover-up,” said McCormack.

In Parliament, Scully, who was described by one MP as being like “a human shield” for government, said the independent review would have similar investigative powers to a judge, but the terms of reference do not imply this. Scully also cited the high cost and the length of time it takes for judge-led inquiries as reasons to take the review route.

Kevan Jones, MP for North Durham, said the scope of the inquiry announced by Scully was “pathetically weak” and would be received with “huge disappointment by subpostmasters”.

“This type of internal inquiry will not answer to the injustices committed against subpostmasters. It will not assess how individuals occupying senior positions within the Post Office conducted themselves throughout the crisis or reassess the role of the government shareholder on the Post Office board. Only a judge-led public inquiry can ensure justice is served.”

Jones and MP Andrew Bridgen have tabled an early day motion (EDM) calling for further debate in the House of Commons.

The EDM reads: “That this House recognises the life-changing injustices experienced by subpostmasters throughout the Horizon scandal; notes with the deepest sadness that subpostmasters have served custodial sentences and suffered bankruptcy for offences they did not commit; recognises the role of the government in prolonging this crisis through not fulfilling their role of shareholder representation on the board of Post Office; expresses concern at the scope and formation of the inquiry currently outlined by [BEIS]; and strongly urges the government to institute a judge-led public inquiry into this matter at the earliest opportunity.”

During the questioning of Scully in the House of Commons, numerous MPs from across parties called for a judge-led inquiry to get to the bottom of the scandal.

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

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Tricky - because there is also the question of whether there was insider fraud, not just incompetence and cover up, within the Post Office and/or its investigation team - Britain's oldest law enforcement operation.  
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