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Post Office scandal victims have days to raise thousands of pounds or perpetrators go scot-free

Victims of the Post Office Horizon IT scandal need to raise thousands of pounds in a week or those responsible for their suffering will avoid scrutiny

Subpostmasters who are determined to reveal the government’s role in the Horizon IT scandal have only days left to raise thousands of pounds to continue their long fight for justice through a submission to the Parliamentary Ombudsman.

The man who had campaigned steadfastly to bring to light the injustices wreaked upon subpostmasters because of a faulty IT system and Post Office and government failures, has told fellow campaigners that if the target of £98,000 is not reached, it will be the end and the perpetrators “will get away with it”. At the time of writing, more than £65,000 has been raised, with seven days remaining.

The Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance is raising the money to fund legal support for a submission to the Parliamentary Ombudsman.

The Horizon IT scandal, which has unfolded over the last 20 years, saw subpostmasters blamed and punished, some even sent to prison, for accounting shortfalls that were caused by errors in the Post Office computer system used for branch accounts, known as Horizon. It is being described as one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in UK 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).

Former subpostmaster Alan Bates, who has fought the campaign for nearly 20 years, said in an email to subpostmaster victims: “I can’t make it any clearer than this: if the target isn’t reached to enable us to move forward with a submission to the Ombudsman, then that is it, end of day, other than relying on anything our MPs can achieve. If it really is the end of day, then all those faceless and two-faced people who are responsible for what they have done to us, get away with it. So we either raise the money or give up.”

Bates has been a determined campaigner for many years, first contacting Computer Weekly about the Horizon problems in 2004.

The Post Office is publicly owned, with a member of government on its board. People in high places knew that the subpostmasters were innocent – but who knew what and when? The answers to these questions might never come out, with the government determined to avoid a judge-led public inquiry.

Had it not been for the involvement of a judge in a High Court group litigation, which concluded last year, the injustice might never have been proved. High Court judge Peter Fraser chastised the Post Office in his judgments.

He 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”. 

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

“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.”

Since the judgment, the Criminal Cases Review Commission has referred 47 cases to the Court of Appeal, and there are possibly hundreds more potential miscarriages of justice in subpostmaster prosecutions.

Taking complaints to the Parliamentary Ombudsman is an option to get to the bottom of the government’s role in the scandal. The ombudsman has the right to summon people and papers, with powers analogous to those of a High Court judge. Bates said: “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.”

If it is left to MPs, the campaign will be at the mercy of party politics. With a government, which has a large majority in the House of Commons, clearly reluctant to have a judge-led inquiry, there will be little MPs can do.

Other than a handful who have supported the victims, Conservatives are unlikely to back a proper investigation if the government opposes one.

Although prime minister Boris Johnson promised an inquiry to get to the bottom of the scandal, this turned out to be far weaker than expected, with no judge and no powers to force witnesses to give evidence under oath. It has been described as “pathetic” by politicians and campaigners and has lost the backing of the victims and other parties involved in the campaign.

Last month, MPs Kevan Jones and Andrew Bridgen tabled an early day motion 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, only 74 of over 600 MPs had signed the motion, with only six Conservative MPs among them.

To support the subpostmasters taking on the government to redress their grievances, you can pledge here. The money will only be 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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