Subpostmasters’ complaint about government begins its journey to Parliamentary Ombudsman

Government faces scrutiny of its handling of the Post Office IT scandal that destroyed subpostmasters’ lives and livelihoods

A group of former subpostmasters have taken the first step in making a complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman by submitting it to the government department involved, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

The Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) complaint accuses the government of maladministration in relation to its handling of the Post Office Horizon IT scandal, which saw hundreds, potentially thousands, of subpostmasters wrongly blamed for accounting shortfalls caused by computer errors.

A Computer Weekly investigation in 2009 revealed that subpostmasters, who run Post Office branches, were being blamed for unexplained financial losses, which they claimed were caused by errors made by the Horizon system. The Post Office denied this, and subpostmasters were subsequently prosecuted for theft and false accounting, with prison sentences, community service, criminal records and heavy fines among the injustices they suffered as a result.

This has become one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in UK history. In June this year, the Criminal Cases Review Commission sent 47 cases, in which subpostmasters were prosecuted as criminals based on Horizon data, to the Court of Appeal to be reviewed as potential miscarriages of justice (see timeline below). 

But the government, which owns the Post Office, has not admitted fault, describing the Post Office as an “arm’s-length” organisation and stating that it does not get involved with operational matters.

There are calls for a much closer look at who did what and when, and a review promised by the government has been criticised for not going far enough. The JFSA, along with many MPs, have described the proposed review as a “whitewash” because it lacks the power to call witnesses to give evidence under oath and does not address the financial losses suffered by subpostmasters.

For example, Labour peer Peter Hain said recently that 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,” he said. “It is not good enough to keep delaying this with lots of processes and reviews – they have got to be compensated fully.”

So the subpostmasters are yet again taking the lead in getting to the bottom of the scandal by going to the Ombudsman. It was the subpostmasters who took the Post Office to court, at huge expense, to prove its denials over Horizon problems causing shortfalls were wrong. Because of the huge legal expense in bringing the cases, the £47.5m damages awarded were reduced to about £11m, to share between 500 victims.

In July, to support its submission to the Ombudsman, the JFSA raised £100,000 in just six weeks using Crowdjustice, a crowdfunding platform focused on raising money for legal cases.

In an email to JFSA members on Monday 2 November, the group’s founder, Alan Bates, said this is the formal start of the complaint.

“In order for the Ombudsman to consider a complaint, the department being complained about must have an opportunity of addressing the complaint first,” wrote Bates.

BEIS will respond and unless the government does a huge U-turn, admits its responsibilities and agrees to pay damages, the JFSA will then take its complaint to the Ombudsman.

The House of Commons Library Briefing The Parliamentary Ombudsman: role and proposals for reform, says: “The Parliamentary Ombudsman can investigate complaints from members of the public who believe they have suffered injustice because of maladministration by government departments or certain public bodies.

“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.”

The JFSA has given BEIS a month to respond, so unless there is an about-face, the complaint will go to the Ombudsman at the start of December.

“It is possible for BEIS and the government, in the light of our complaint, to admit they got it wrong and would want to provide us with financial redress, but by the same reasoning it is possible for us to wake up tomorrow morning in Post Offices universe and find out that the Earth is actually flat,” wrote Bates.

The JFSA complaint is about 50 pages long. It seeks to recover the costs of the legal action as well as other losses the group suffered, wrote Bates, adding: “I can assure you that the figure we are asking for is very significantly more than what we had been looking for in order to just recover costs.”

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

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