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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?”
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.
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
- May 2009: Bankruptcy, prosecution and disrupted livelihoods – postmasters tell their story.
- September 2009: Postmasters form action group after accounts shortfall.
- November 2009: Post Office theft case deferred over IT questions.
- February 2011: Post Office faces legal action over alleged accounting system failures.
- October 2011: 85 subpostmasters seek legal support in claims against Post Office computer system.
- June 2012: Post Office launches external review of system at centre of legal disputes.
- January 2013: Post Office admits Horizon system needs more investigation.
- January 2013: Post Office announces amnesty for Horizon evidence.
- January 2013: Post Office wants to get to bottom of IT system allegations.
- June 2013: Investigation into Post Office accounting system to drill down on strongest cases.
- July 2013: Post Office Horizon system investigation reveals concerns.
- October 2013: End in sight for subpostmaster claims against Post Office’s Horizon accounting system.
- October 2013: Former Lord Justice of Appeal Hooper joins Post Office Horizon investigation.
- November 2013: 150 subpostmasters file claims over “faulty” Horizon accounting system.
- September 2014: Fresh questions raised over Post Office IT system’s role in fraud cases.
- December 2014: MPs blast Post Office over IT system investigation and remove backing.
- December 2014: Why MPs lost faith in the Post Office’s IT investigation, but vowed to fight on.
- December 2014: MPs to debate subpostmaster IT injustice claims.
- December 2014: MP accuses Post Office of acting “duplicitously” in IT investigation.
- January 2015: MPs force inquiry into Post Office subpostmaster mediation scheme.
- January 2015: Post Office faces grilling by MPs over Horizon accounting system.
- February 2015: Post Office CIO will talk to any subpostmaster about IT problems, promises CEO.
- March 2015: Post Office ends working group for IT system investigation day before potentially damaging report.
- March 2015: MPs seek reassurance over Post Office mediation scheme.
- March 2015: Retiring MP aims to uncover truth of alleged Post Office computer system problems.
- April 2015: Post Office failed to investigate account shortfalls before legal action, report claims.
- April 2015: Criminal Courts Review Commission set to review subpostmasters’ claims of wrongful prosecution.
- May 2015: IT system related to subpostmaster prosecutions under review by CCRC.
- June 2015: Post Office looking to replace controversial Horizon system with IBM, says MP.
- July 2015: Campaigners call for independent inquiry into Post Office Horizon IT system dispute.
- October 2015: James Arbuthnot takes Post Office IT fight to House of Lords.
- November 2015: The union that represents Post Office subpostmasters has warned of a problem with the Horizon accounting system.
- November 2015: An email from Post Office IT support reveals a problem with the Horizon system and supporting processes that could lead to accounting errors.
- November 2015: Group litigation against Post Office being prepared in Horizon dispute.
- February 2016: Post Office faces group litigation over Horizon IT as subpostmasters fund class action.
- June 2016: Post Office chairman Tim Parker says there would be “considerable risk” associated with changing its Horizon computer system.
- November 2016: The legal team hired by a group of subpostmasters will take their case to the next stage.
- January 2017: The group action against the Post Office that alleges subpostmasters have been wrongly punished for accounting errors gets a green light from the High Court of Justice.
- March 2017: 1,000 subpostmasters apply to join IT-related group litigation against Post Office.
- April 2017: Investigation into claims of miscarriages of justice in relation to a Post Office accounting system has appointed a forensic accountant firm.
- May 2017: Hundreds of subpostmasters have applied to join IT-related legal action since March.
- July 2017: Post Office defence in computer system legal case due this week.
- August 2017: Campaigners submit initial evidence in group litigation against Post Office over controversial Horizon IT system.
- October 2017: Subpostmasters’ group action against the Post Office reaches an important milestone.
- November 2017: An end is in sight for subpostmasters’ campaign against alleged wrongful prosecution, which they blame on a faulty computer system.
- November 2017: The High Court judge managing the subpostmasters versus Post Office legal case over an allegedly faulty computer system tells legal teams to cooperate.
- January 2018: Forensic investigation into Post Office IT system at centre of legal case nears completion.
- April 2018: Criminal Cases Review Commission forensic examination of the IT system at the centre of a legal case against the Post Office has raised further questions.
- May 2018: Post Office branches unable to connect to Horizon computer system for several hours after morning opening time.
- October 2018: After over a decade of controversy, next week marks the beginning of a court battle between subpostmasters and the Post Office.
- November 2018: Case against Post Office in relation to allegedly faulty computer system begins in High Court.
- November 2018: High Court case in which subpostmasters are suing the Post Office has revealed a known problem with a computer system at the core of the dispute.
- November 2018: A High Court trial, where subpostmasters are suing the Post Office for damages caused by an allegedly faulty IT system, ends second week.
- November 2018: Post Office director admits to Horizon errors and not sharing details with subpostmaster network.
- November 2018: The High Court trial in which subpostmasters are suing the Post Office has reached an important stage.
- December 2018: CCRC may hold off subpostmaster decision until after Post Office Horizon trial.
- December 2018: Court case where subpostmasters are suing the Post Office set to span at least four trials and extend into 2020.
- January 2019: Subpostmasters’ campaign group attacks Post Office CEO Paula Vennells’ New Year honour amid ongoing court case.
- January 2019: Thousands of known errors on controversial Post Office computer system to be revealed.
- March 2019: Tech under spotlight at High Court in second subpostmasters versus Post Office trial.
- March 2019: Post Office considered Horizon IT system “high-risk”, court told.
- March 2019: CCRC watching Post Office Horizon trial closely.
- March 2019: Judge rules that Post Office showed “oppressive behaviour” in response to claimants accused of accounting errors they blamed on Horizon IT system.
- March 2019: Post Office “lacked humanity” in the treatment of subpostmasters, says peer.
- March 2019: A High Court judge heard that the Post Office did not investigate a computer system error that could cause losses, despite being offered evidence.
- March 2019: The Post Office legal team in the case brought by more than 500 subpostmasters has called for the judge to be recused after questioning his impartiality.
- March 2019: A senior civil servant asked the Post Office to repay public money it had wrongly allocated to paying legal costs.
- April 2019: Subpostmaster claimants’ legal team makes application for the Post Office to pay millions of pounds of costs associated with trial.
- April 2019: Post Office to appeal judgment from first Horizon trial.
- April 2019: The Post Office’s claim that the judge overseeing the case concerning its controversial Horizon IT system was biased has been dismissed – but will now be considered by the Court of Appeal.
- April 2019: MP questions government over Post Office Horizon case.
- April 2019: Government says no conflict of interest in trial despite Post Office chairman’s dual role.
- May 2019: The Court of Appeal has refused the Post Office’s application to appeal a major decision in the Horizon IT trial.
- May 2019: The Post Office has applied for permission to appeal judgments from the first trial in its IT-related legal battle with subpostmasters.
- May 2019: The judge in the Post Office Horizon trial has ordered the organisation to pay the legal costs of its courtroom adversaries, and refused to give permission to appeal a major judgment.
- June 2019: Post Office asks Court of Appeal for permission to appeal judgment in first Horizon trial.
- July 2019: The Post Office has admitted that some subpostmasters are at risk of accounts not balancing due to an error it does not understand.
- July 2019: Problem revealed during High Court trial left subpostmaster with £18,000 surplus after IT system failed to register full amount of cash scanned in.
- August 2019: Subpostmasters suffering slow running and frozen terminals while Post Office searches for a fix to issues apparently caused by a software update.
- August 2019: The Post Office has fixed the latest problems with its Horizon system, affecting hundreds of branches.
- October 2019: A High Court judgment for a trial that focused on the Post Office’s IT system at the centre of a multimillion-pound litigation will be announced early next month.
- November 2019: The Court of Appeal has rejected a Post Office application to appeal judgments made in its multimillion-pound battle with subpostmasters over IT system failures.
- November 2019: Peer calls for clear-out of Post Office board after Court of Appeal confirms major court defeat.
- December 2019: The Post Office has settled its long-running legal dispute with subpostmasters, and will pay £57.75m in damages.
- December 2019: Subpostmasters ended their legal battle with the Post Office at the optimal time, according to the lawyer that managed the High Court action.
- December 2019: Subpostmasters proved right on IT system failures as calls for full public inquiry mount.
- December 2019: Criminal Courts Review Commission to review Horizon judgment “swiftly”.
- December 2019: National Federation of Subpostmasters cries foul after court ruling on controversial computer system.
- December 2019: Former Post Office CEO apologises to subpostmasters over Horizon scandal.
- December 2019: Call for former Post Office CEO to step down from public roles after IT court battle lost.
- January 2020: Fujitsu must face scrutiny following Post Office Horizon trial judgment.
- January 2020: Subpostmaster group calls for government to pay legal costs for Horizon trial.
- January 2020: Why subpostmasters are calling on the government to pay Horizon trial costs.
- January 2020: Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy says it did not make decisions in the Post Office’s recent court battle.
- January 2020: Government should not be allowed to dismiss subpostmasters’ claims over Horizon IT scandal.
- January 2020: Police sent information about potential Fujitsu staff perjury in subpostmaster prosecutions.
- January 2020: Prosecutions are a significant step closer to being sent to the Court of Appeal as Criminal Courts Review Commission forms a group of commissioners to review them.
- January 2020: Alan Bates: The “details man” the Post Office paid the price for ignoring.
- February 2020: The government has refused to pay the huge legal costs subpostmasters incurred in their battle with the government-owned Post Office, which they won.
- February 2020: Members of Parliament seeking a public inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal face huge challenges, but pressure and time could force justice.
- February 2020: Calls for inquiry into Post Office IT scandal increase in Parliament, with cross-party support.
- February 2020: Care Quality Commission to review concerns over Paula Vennells’ appointment after they were raised by a former NHS consultant psychiatrist.
- February 2020: Government admits it was too passive managing Post Office as parliamentary pressure builds.
- February 2020: Minister says Post Office IT experts misled the government when it asked questions about subpostmasters’ concerns over Horizon IT system.
- March 2020: Boris Johnson commits to “getting to the bottom of” Post Office Horizon IT scandal.
- March 2020: Boris Johnson’s commitment to inquiry into Post Office scandal in doubt.
- March 2020: MPs call on PM to commit to full public inquiry into Post Office Horizon IT scandal.
- March 2020: Those who did not play by the rules in Post Office Horizon scandal “should face prosecution”.
- March 2020: MPs told to hold to account those responsible for Post Office Horizon IT scandal.
- March 2020: The Post Office has sparked anger with secret settlements with subpostmasters outside the recent legal action against it.
- March 2020: Labour MP Karl Turner tells Computer Weekly that the Post Office Horizon scandal is the most grotesque version of predatory capitalism he has ever seen.
- March 2020: MP Kevan Jones has warned a government minister not to repeat the mistakes of predecessors in relation to the Post Office Horizon IT scandal.
- March 2020: Criminal Cases Review Commission to use Microsoft Teams to ensure review of subpostmaster prosecutions is held on time.
- March 2020: Post Office postpones subpostmaster compensation scheme amid Covid-19 crisis.
- March 2020: Meeting reviewing subpostmaster applications to appeal criminal prosecutions moves into second day.
- March 2020: Subpostmaster prosecutions to be considered by Court of Appeal for miscarriages of justice.
- March 2020: How subpostmasters made legal history with biggest referral of potential miscarriages of justice.
- April 2020: Met Police examines information about evidence given in court by Fujitsu staff on the Horizon IT system.
- May 2020: Subpostmasters who had their lives ruined by the Post Office’s faulty IT system have received their damages after a High Court victory.
- May 2020: A senior Post Office executive at the centre of an IT scandal, who tried to mislead a High Court judge in relation to it, has left the organisation without fanfare despite many years of service.
- May 2020: Post Office re-examines hundreds of prosecutions that could have resulted from faults in Horizon IT system.
- June 2020: A campaign group representing subpostmasters who were wrongly prosecuted for theft and false accounting by the Post Office is raising money to help clear the names of victims of the scandal.
- June 2020: Subpostmasters to force scrutiny of government’s role in Post Office IT scandal.
- June 2020: The Criminal Cases Review Commission sends 47 more subpostmaster cases to Court of Appeal and asks government to review private prosecution powers.
- June 2020: Select committee chair writes to former Post Office CEO demanding answers over her role in IT scandal.
- June 2020: The government has been accused of launching a review that fails in getting to the bottom of one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in UK history.
- June 2020: Subpostmasters will not cooperate with government review into IT scandal.
- June 2020: The government’s proposed review of the Post Office IT scandal has received a further setback as forensic accountants join subpostmasters in refusing to back it.
- June 2020: Call for government review of Post Office Horizon scandal to have the power to force individuals to give evidence under oath.
- June 2020: Subpostmasters seeking justice in the Post Office Horizon IT scandal are regaining momentum in Parliament.
- June 2020: Healthcare regulator will be discussing concerns about former NHS boss chairing an NHS trust at an upcoming meeting.
- June 2020: Second Sight is working with law firm in appeals by subpostmasters against criminal convictions in Horizon IT scandal.
- June 2020: Post Office and Fujitsu blame each other for many of the failings in the Horizon IT scandal that wrecked lives.
- June 2020: Parliamentary Justice Committee to hold short inquiry into the rules and regulations surrounding private organisations’ ability to initiate criminal proceedings.
- July 2020: 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.
- July 2020: 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.
- September 2020: The government repeats that it won’t pay victims’ legal costs and confirms review into the scandal will not have the power to call witnesses.
- September 2020: Subpostmasters still not being told about all the known errors in the controversial Post Office branch accounting and retail system that they use.
- October 2020: The Post Office has chosen not to contest 44 out of 47 appeals, meaning most are likely to have their names cleared, but others still face a Court of Appeal battle for justice.
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