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Select committee chair demands sharper teeth for review of Post Office IT scandal

Call for government review of Post Office Horizon scandal to have the power to force individuals to give evidence under oath

The chair of the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) select committee is urging the government to give its planned review of the Post Office Horizon IT scandal the power to summon individuals to give evidence under oath.

While the government wants to focus on lessons learnt, there is unfinished business for subpostmaster victims, supported by a growing number of MPs.

Over the years of the IT scandal – described as one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in UK history – government, investigators and victims have been misled by the Post Office.

To get to the bottom of the causes, MPs, campaigners and victims want nothing short of a judge-led inquiry into the scandal, which destroyed the lives of hundreds of subpostmasters, and the power to summon individuals is vital.

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).

Although minister for small business Paul Scully said the BEIS review would have judge-like powers, the terms of reference did not state this.

The planned review was described as “pathetic” and “pointless” by MPs and campaigners.

In his letter to Scully, BEIS select committee chair Darren Jones wrote: “Though the announcement was welcome, I am disappointed that it appears that the inquiry will not be judged or put on a statutory footing with subpoena powers to summon witnesses and compel them to give evidence under oath. Please can you confirm that this is the case?

“You yourself, in the written evidence you supplied to the committee in March, noted that the advice the Post Office provided to BEIS was ‘flawed’, while Lord Callanan stated in the Lords that BEIS officials were ‘clearly misled by the Post Office’.”

It was the High Court group litigation order brought against the Post Office by the subpostmaster victims themselves that made public the true extent of the scandal. Before that, only Computer Weekly and broadcast journalist Nick Wallis covered the scandal in depth.

Executives gave evidence under oath and the truth about Horizon and the Post Office’s abuse of its powers came out, but the organisation’s most senior executives and government officials have escaped interrogation.

In his letter, Jones said the government should go beyond using the review to learn lessons and hold the people responsible to account. “This is also about establishing facts,” he wrote. “If there was maladministration or deliberate withholding of evidence that might have had a material impact on the outcome of these cases and convictions, those responsible should be held to account.

“This, in turn, will allow lessons to be learnt, but will also send a powerful signal that if the highest standards in our public institutions are not adhered to, there will be serious consequences.”

Jones added: “I urge you to put this independent review on a statutory basis so that it can summon Post Office and Horizon staff, past and present, who made key decisions related to this case.”

One key executive is Paula Vennells, who was Post Office CEO from 2012 to 2019, during a period when hundreds of subpostmasters suffered because of errors in the Horizon IT system.

Vennells left the Post Office after earning millions of pounds and 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 Vennells’ leadership as “both cruel and incompetent”.

The perceived weakness of the government’s proposed review is that it will not get to the bottom of the scandal and identify who was at fault, when and how.

This has already seen subpostmaster campaign group the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA), which has been at the centre of the fight for justice since its creation in 2009, refuse to back the review.  Also, forensic accountancy firm Second Sight, which investigated Horizon at the Post Office’s request and brought its problems to light, has also said it will not cooperate with the review in its current form.

The government has admitted that the Post Office was not honest over the years. In February, Martin Callanan, a government minister in the House of Lords, suggested that BEIS had been misled by the Post Office over the Horizon IT problems.

So, too, were subpostmasters, who experienced problems with Horizon for many years. They were told they were the only ones having problems, when in fact there were hundreds.

The Post Office constantly claimed that there were no faults in Horizon, despite the existence of a known errors log, which contained thousands. The known errors log only came to light when the Post Office was forced to reveal it as part of a multimillion-pound High Court trial.

In 2015, while the Post Office continued to deny faults that could cause accounting shortfalls, Computer Weekly and the Communications Workers Union revealed an email from a member of the Post Office tech team that proved this was untrue.

In the email to a subpostmaster, who is also a CWU member, one of the Horizon tech team mentioned a problem, and said it had happened before. This became known as the Dalmellington case, named after the Post Office branch, and was a key piece of evidence in the High Court trial.

Meanwhile, executives at Fujitsu, the supplier of Horizon, are currently being investigated by the Metropolitan Police with regard to the veracity of evidence they gave in court trials of subpostmasters who were accused of theft and false accounting.

Subpostmasters are currently raising funds to take their complaints to the Parliamentary OmbudsmanAccording 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.

“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 subpostmasters are almost halfway to reaching their target of raising £98,000 to take this action, including the cost of legal support. If you want to support the subpostmasters taking on the government to redress their grievances, you can pledge here. The money will only paid once the target is met.

Following their court victory over the Post Office, the subpostmaster claimants were awarded £57.75m in damages, but after legal costs were taken out, they were left with just £11m. The JFSA is demanding that the government pay the legal costs to leave victims with a fairer settlement, but the government has refused.

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

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