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Post Office Horizon scandal victims keep pressure on government’s doorstep

Subpostmasters fighting for justice in IT scandal are pressuring government on numerous fronts, as momentum is regained after reduced activity due to Covid-19 lockdown

Subpostmasters seeking justice in the Post Office Horizon IT scandal are regaining momentum in Parliament – after the Covid-19 lockdown put the brakes on – with action on multiple fronts.

Following a High Court ruling in December which ended in their favour, subpostmasters took their battle to Parliament to seek further redress of their grievances against the Post Office, which is government owned and has a member of government on its board.

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).

The parliamentary campaign got off to a good start with debates and MPs becoming increasingly vocal in support of subpostmasters. But the Covid-19 lockdown saw early progress lost.

But there has been no let up from campaigners. Activity includes a crowdfunding appeal to raise money to put the government’s role in the scandal under scrutiny, an early day motion application in parliament, regained vigour at the department for business, energy and industrial strategy (BEIS) select committee, and pressure on the government in the House of Lords.

Alan Bates, the former subpostmaster who has spearheaded the fight for justice said: “We were doing well in January and February but then Covid-19 came along and slowed things down but it has regained momentum.”

Although the subpostmasters were proved right in the High Court and the Post Office proved wrong, subpostmasters were left with damages that didn’t even get close to covering their financial losses. On top of life destroying financial losses some were wrongly sent to prison, others served non-custodial sentences and there are cases of subpostmasters taking their own lives.

The end of the beginning

When the court case finished with the Post Office agreeing to pay 550 subpostmaster claimants £57.75m, and change its ways, it was revealed that after legal costs the subpostmasters would only be left with about £11m. Bates said the legal victory was “the end of the beginning” and the next battle would be in Parliament.

A crowdfunding initiative to raise money to investigate the government’s role in the scandal set up by the Justice for subpostmasters Alliance has received pledges from the public worth a total of £48,000, almost half of its target, The funds will be used to build a case to take to the Parliamentary ombudsman.

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,”

While it is free said it is free to apply to the ombudsman, there are 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. 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.

Meanwhile there are also increasing demands for a judge-led public inquiry into what happened, why it happened and how to prevent it happening again.

Toothless review

The government has launched a review, which has been described as “pathetic”, largely due to its lack of teeth. Campaigners want the people that made decisions at the Post Office and in government, which ruined peoples’ lives, to be held liable for them.

MPs Kevan Jones and Andrew Bridgen have tabled an early day motion (EDM) calling for further debate in the House of Commons, and “strongly urges the government to institute a judge-led public inquiry into this matter at the earliest opportunity.”

At the time of writing 54 MPs had signed the EDM.

The BEIS select committee’s new chair Darren Jones MP, has also called for a government inquiry to have more power.

He started his new role by posing difficult questions to former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells as well as a senior executive at the IT supplier behind Horizon, Fujitsu.

The select committee had planned to question individuals face to face, but due to the Covid-19 coronavirus, it is conducting interviews via correspondence.

He also wrote to BEIS Minister Paul Scully, expressing his disappointment that the government inquiry would not have the power to compel witnesses to give evidence under oath. “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?”

Human shield

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.

Jones said that many MPs want a judge led inquiry. He told Computer Weekly: “Sub-postmasters deserve justice and it’s an appalling reality that many have suffered considerable personal distress as a result of the handling of faults in the Horizon IT system. There is clearly a strong feeling among many MPs, from across the House, that a judge-led inquiry is needed to finally get to the bottom of what happened and to deliver justice for those who have suffered.

“It’s important, as a bare minimum, that any inquiry is put on a statutory basis so that it can summon witnesses and compel them to give evidence under oath. As stated in my letter to Paul Scully, the BEIS Minister, I believe a statutory judge-led Public Inquiry is the best method required to establish the truth and give closure to those who have lost so much and who have waited for justice for so long. MPs from across the House will, I expect, use a range of Parliamentary activities to help press the case for a judge-led inquiry.

The government’s stated arguments against a judge-led inquiry appear to be based on concerns around cost or the length of time it is likely to take to conclude. I think to establish the facts and to hold those involved to account that it is necessary to move to a statutory judge-led inquiry.”

The subpostmasters and the forensic accounting form that carried out an extensive investigation into Horizon’s flaws, have both refused to cooperate with the inquiry in its current guise.

This week in the House of Lords, peer James Arbuthnot, long-time campaigner for justice for affected subpostmasters asked government minister Martin Callanan about the government’s announced inquiry, which he had described to Computer weekly as is a “pathetic response to a national outrage”.

During the debate in the House of Lords Arbuthnot said: “May I explain why this review is so inadequate. The terms of reference have been designed to exclude all possibility of blame falling on the government.” Numerous peers spoke in support of subpostmasters and called for a judge led inquiry.

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

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