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Government deaf to loud calls for statutory public inquiry into Post Office scandal

MPs are demanding the government holds a full statutory public inquiry into the Post Office IT scandal

As the number of MPs demanding justice for subpostmasters affected by Horizon IT system errors increases, calls for a full public inquiry into the scandal to be held on a statutory basis grow louder.

Despite the government’s claims that it wants to get to the bottom of the scandal, which destroyed many subpostmasters’ lives, those campaigning for justice for its victims claim the review announced by the government will protect those responsible from the scrutiny and repercussions they deserve. Campaigners also claim the inquiry will not help their efforts to secure victims the compensation they deserve.

The government has announced a non-statutory review, chaired by a former judge, which falls well short of the demands of campaigners for a statutory-based judge-led public inquiry, continuing down a path described as a “sham” by subpostmasters who battled for years to make the truth public.

According to the government, the proposed review will be quicker, taking as little as a year, compared with a full judge-led statutory inquiry that could take a decade. But the very people whose lives were ruined by the scandal are refusing to be part of it.

Following a debate in Parliament – triggered by an urgent question from Labour MP Kevan Jones – former subpostmaster and founder of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) campaign group Alan Bates, who led the litigation against the Post Office, told Computer Weekly that although there was growing support in Parliament, the government is not giving victims the inquiry they want.

“While we are clearly gaining incredible support in Parliament, the minister is continuing on his pointless path that we won’t support,” said Bates.

The government review lacks important powers, including summoning witnesses. Senior officials in the Post Office, the government and Fujitsu have all avoided courtroom-level scrutiny.

During the debate in the House of Commons, postal affairs minister Paul Scully pleaded for subpostmasters to get involved in the inquiry chaired by former High Court judge Wyn Williams.

“It is important, first, that Wyn Williams engages with the subpostmasters, led by Alan Bates, as part of the group litigation, to explain how he intends to investigate and take evidence, and I hope that they will therefore engage.”

But the review’s current scope rules out participation by Bates and subpostmaster victims. “They will not look at the settlement that the group had, and this is one of the key things we want,” said Bates.

He added that subpostmasters faced huge obstacles and expense to bring the scandal to the light of day: “We have given them 1,000 pages of court-tested evidence, what more do they want?”

Wrongfully prosecuted

The plight of the subpostmasters was made public in 2009, when a Computer Weekly investigation revealed they were being blamed for unexplained financial losses, which the subpostmasters claimed were caused by errors made by the Horizon retail and accounting system. The Post Office denied this, and subpostmasters were prosecuted for theft and false accounting (see timeline below). 

A few MPs later stood up for subpostmasters in the corridors of power. James Arbuthnot, former MP for Hampshire East and now a Conservative peer, Labour’s Kevan Jones and Conservative Andrew Bridgen took the case to the government.

A High Court judgment in December 2019 vindicated subpostmaster claims that Horizon was causing shortfalls. The judge, Peter Fraser, slammed the Post Office’s business practices, describing its denial that Horizon could be to blame for accounting shortfalls as amounting “to the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the Earth is flat”.

This month, more than 40 subpostmasters wrongly convicted of crimes as a result of errors in the Post Office’s accounting system are set to have their convictions quashed after the Post Office decided it would not contest appeals.

Proposed review ‘not good enough’

Speaking during this week’s debate, Jones aired his disappointment with the continued obstruction to a full judge-led public inquiry.

“I had high hopes for the minister when he was appointed, but unfortunately he is reverting to type, like all his predecessors I have had to deal with over the last eight years,” he said. “I cannot get over the fact that this scandal – that is what it is – is still being treated as somehow an issue of the Post Office. The government is the single shareholder in the Post Office.

”The review announced by postal affairs minister Paul Scully is not good enough. A full public inquiry is needed. Without that, we will not get to the truth of what is a national scandal”
Kevan Jones, Labour MP

“I am sorry, but the review he has announced is not good enough. It may have a retired judge at its head, but he does not have the powers to summon witnesses and cross-examine them. A full public inquiry is needed. Without that, we will not get to the truth of what is, as I have already said, a national scandal.”

Scully said he believed the review announced would get answers, and “do it in a quick way that hopefully satisfies the subpostmasters and gets the answers they want”.

But the Conservatives’ Arbuthnot, who has campaigned for justice for subpostmasters for many years, described the review announced as “a cynical cop-out”.

“It is nothing like the judicial inquiry we need. The terms of reference have been mildly tweaked, but not in such a way to bring in the key issues of the role of the government and the role of Fujitsu,” said Arbuthnot. 

“It is all very well for the government to say it and Fujitsu will cooperate, but the terms of reference don’t envisage any investigation into their behaviour, which is essential. Without those questions being asked, the review might as well not take place,” he added.

During the House of Commons debate, Gareth Thomas, Labour/Co-op MP for Harrow West, said: “The truth is that ministers have set up a half-baked inquiry in response to this extraordinary scandal, without the ​powers to fully get to the bottom of this mess.”

Scottish National Party (SNP) MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, Drew Hendry, said affected subpostmasters “will be sceptical” about the reasons the government doesn’t want a statutory inquiry.

“This government and previous governments have been central to an epic scandal. The Prime Minister promised a full independent inquiry,” he added. “Why is that promise now being broken, like so many others by his government?”

Responsible parties should pay

Calls for a statutory public inquiry are also fuelled by demands that those responsible for the scandal and subsequent suffering of victims be held to account and punished appropriately.

For example, former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells, who spent seven years at the helm of the Post Office, earned millions of pounds while hundreds of subpostmasters were wrongly blamed for accounting shortfalls that the Post Office failed to investigate. In 2019, Vennells was awarded a CBE for services to the Post Office and charity. She was appointed by Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust in February 2019.

Gavin Newlands, SNP MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire North, said one of his constituents’ life was in tatters and asked, “Who is going to be held responsible?”.

Scully was asked by Julian Lewis, independent MP for New Forest East, whether he accepted “that those present or former Post Office officials who perpetrated this disaster and perpetuated the agony of the victims must be punished, not promoted, and shamed, rather than rewarded with honours, as I believe happened in at least one prominent instance”.

Scully said the Honours Committee and any future employers needed to look at the background of any person involved in this.

Campaigners are also demanding that senior executives at Fujitsu, which supplies the Horizon system, answer questions and face justice.

In January 2020, the director of public prosecutions (DPP) referred the concerns of a High Court judge about the accuracy of evidence given by Fujitsu staff in criminal trials to the Metropolitan Police. This began after judge Fraser announced the referral of his concerns to the DPP. 

Telford MP Lucy Allan asked Scully what action would be taken “to ensure the Post Office and Fujitsu are properly held to account” and whether he would “commit to determining who knew what and when during this shameful saga”.

Members of the government during the scandal should also face questions. The Post Office is fully publicly owned and a member of the government sits on its board.

The government describes the Post Office as an arm’s-length body and constantly states it does not get involved with Post Office operational matters.

But Labour peer Peter Hain recently said the government had ultimate responsibility for the scandal. “The permanent secretary of the department is the accounting officer for the Post Office, the government has a representative on the board and the government is ultimately responsible for this scandal. It is not good enough to keep delaying this with lots of processes and reviews, they have got to be compensated fully,” he said.

Labour’s Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle Upon Tyne Central, asked why, as its only shareholder, the government allowed the Post Office to continue to oppose the subpostmaster appeals for so long: “Far from it being merely an operational matter, as the minister has said, will he admit that this represents a gross failure of oversight, and will he tell us how much this has cost the Post Office and, ultimately, the taxpayer?”

Scully said: What happened when – whether there was any government involvement in terms of the government shareholder, the board’s appointee, as well as the Post Office – will come up in the independent inquiry, and it is right that they are questioned so that we find out what happened and when.”

But campaigners doubt these claims, said Kate Osborne, Labour MP for Jarrow, who in February asked Boris Johnson to commit to a full public inquiry.

During the debate, Osborne said: “Campaigners have labelled the review into the Post Office as a whitewash and a betrayal, and instead are calling for a full independent inquiry with statutory powers, as agreed by the Prime Minister in response to my question to him in February.”

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

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