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Subpostmasters hit funding target to prevent government from burying IT scandal

The government is set to face scrutiny over its involvement in the Post Office Horizon IT scandal, described as one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in modern UK history

Subpostmasters have raised the money needed to prevent the government from burying its failings in relation to the wrongful prosecution and suffering of hundreds and potentially thousands of subpostmasters.

To support a submission to the Parliamentary Ombudsman, the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) has raised over £98,000 in just six weeks using Crowdjustice, a crowdfunding platform focused on raising money for legal cases.

The money enables the subpostmasters to fund legal support to a submission to the Parliamentary Ombudsman to investigate the government’s handling of the Post Office, which it owns, in relation to its role in miscarriages of justice.

In 2009, a Computer Weekly investigation revealed that subpostmasters were being blamed for unexplained losses in branches, but which they claimed were caused by computer errors. The Post Office always denied this, and many subpostmasters were prosecuted for theft and false accounting, with prison sentences, community service, criminal records and heavy fines among the injustices they suffered as a result (see timeline below). 

Alan Bates, the former subpostmaster who created the JFSA, has been fighting for justice since he experienced problems with Horizon in 2000. He said he is pleased that the government will not be able to bury the scandal.

“This is what they probably would have done if we hadn’t moved on with this,” he said. “Now it is about holding the government to account for all of its failures in this. There could be a number of Whitehall manderins who might be somewhat concerned about what might come out.”

Victory for subpostmasters

In 2018, hundreds of subpostmasters, led by Bates, took the Post Office to court in a group litigation action to prove the computer system was to blame for unexplained losses. They won the multimillion-pound High Court battle, which concluded in December 2019, proving that the Horizon computer system they used was to blame for unexplained accounting shortfalls, and not them.

“This is about holding the government to account for all of its failures in [the Post Office scandal]. We will never give up until we recover the costs”
Alan Bates, former subpostmaster

They were awarded a £57.75m settlement from the Post Office, but after legal costs and money for the litigation funders, claimants were left with only about £11m between them. This didn’t even come close to covering the losses experienced by the subpostmasters, never mind compensating them for suffering.

The government is refusing to pay the costs, but Bates said the government was responsible for the problems and should pay. “We will never give up until we recover the costs,” he said.

Campaigners are also determined to identify the individuals who made decisions that caused the scandal, which has been described as the biggest miscarriage of justice in modern times. The government’s role has never been investigated and it is refusing to commit to a judge-led inquiry. Instead, it has planned a review, which has been described as “pathetic” by campaigners who want the inquiry to have the power to force witnesses to give evidence under oath.

Government kept its distance

The Post Office is an arm’s length public sector organisation, with a member of the government sitting on its board. For over a decade the subpostmaster claims were in public, yet the government did little to investigate, which forced the subpostmasters to take action through the courts.

According 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.”

It continues: “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.”

Law firm Stevens and Bolton is managing the submission to the Parliamentary Ombudsman. Bates said expert legal advice was vital if the submission is to succeed at getting to the bottom of the government failings. 

Second win for subpostmasters

Peer James Arbuthnot, who has campaigned in Parliament for subpostmasters who have suffered at the hands of the Horizon system, said hitting the target was another victory for Bates and the other victims.

“What an achievement – another by Alan Bates,” said Arbuthnot. “It was a near-impossible thing to pull off, asking for nearly £100,000, some of which is coming from the very subpostmasters who have been so cruelly treated already. But it has to be done, because it is another step on the road to justice.”

“The government must bear responsibility for the disastrous behaviour of the Post Office, and must compensate the subpostmasters in a way which restores them to the position they would have been in had the Post Office, and the government, behaved properly”
James Arbuthnot MP

Arbuthnot became involved in the campaign when, as an MP, he was contacted by constituent Jo Hamilton, a subpostmaster who was being threatened with jail for accounting irregularities that could not be explained.

“This is justice which ought to be theirs by right,” added Arbuthnot. “The subpostmasters have been battling against the big battalions of the Post Office, which is backed by government money, and now they are taking on the government itself. The government has asked for this, because it has promised an anaemic ‘review’ which fails to ask the right questions and is aimed at hiding the truth rather than ‘getting to the bottom of it’, as the Prime Minister promised.

“The truth is that the Post Office is a government organisation – owned by the government, funded by the government and directed by the government. The recent evidence by [former Post Office CEO] Paula Vennells and the recent answers I have received about the role of the government’s accounting officer make that quite clear. So the government must bear responsibility for the disastrous behaviour of the Post Office, and must compensate the subpostmasters in a way which restores them to the position they would have been in had the Post Office, and the government, behaved properly.”


To support the subpostmasters taking on the government to redress their grievances, you can pledge here

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

 

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