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Prime minister yet to respond to serious subpostmaster concerns over Horizon IT scandal inquiry

Subpostmaster victims who have spent millions bringing the Post Office IT scandal to light have received no reply to their concerns from Boris Johnson

Prime minister Boris Johnson has not responded to two letters from subpostmasters expressing their concerns over the government-instigated inquiry into what has been described as the biggest miscarriage of justice in UK history.

The first letter, sent at the beginning of February, outlined the concerns of the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) over a government inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal and the second letter, sent on 22 February, said there was new evidence of a potentially “widespread conspiracy to pervert the course of justice”.

The scandal saw hundreds of subpostmasters wrongfully prosecuted for theft and false accounting, with some locked up in prison, because of unexplained accounting shortfalls that a High Court trial proved were actually caused by the Horizon computer system used in Post Office branches.

Neither letter has received a response other than an automated confirmation of receipt, despite Johnson making it clear that he would address the issues. “I am indeed aware of the scandal to which [Kate Osborne MP] alludes and the disasters that have befallen many Post Office workers, and I am happy to commit to getting to the bottom of the matter in the way that she recommends,” the prime minister said in Parliament last year.

The government launched a review of the scandal caused by the Post Office, which it 100% owns, following High Court litigation and the referral of about 50 subpostmaster prosecutions to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

On 3 February, the JFSA, through its solicitors Howe & Co, wrote to Johnson asking him to pause the government inquiry into the scandal and requested a meeting with him to discuss their concerns. The non-statutory inquiry, led by retired judge Wyn Williams, does not have the power to call witnesses under oath. According to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the inquiry was designed “to ensure that lessons are learned, and that concrete changes take place at the Post Office”.

But this does not go far enough, according to campaigners for justice for the affected subpostmasters, and the JFSA has described it as a “whitewash”.

In its 3 February letter to Johnson, the JFSA wrote: “A non-statutory inquiry with limited terms of reference and with limited powers, under the sponsorship of a government department with a clear conflict of interest, will not suffice to redress the unprecedented and historic injustices of which the subpostmasters are victims.”

Having received no response to the letter other than an automated acknowledgment of receipt, the JFSA’s legal team sent a second letter, which highlighted more evidence that had emerged since the first.

The second letter, dated 22 February, highlighted new information revealed by Computer Weekly, with an interview with a former senior Horizon developer providing more evidence that senior people at Fujitsu knew the IT system had serious problems when it went live in 1999.

The JFSA’s legal team wrote: “Our clients have been passed evidence that alleges that Fujitsu was fully aware of profound flaws in the Horizon system over 20 years ago, and that the flaws in the system were widely known at a senior managerial level at that time and thereafter. If true, this may provide evidence of a concerted conspiracy (within senior management at Fujitsu and possibly also the Post Office) to pervert the course of justice on an extraordinary scale.

“There appears to be significant and mounting evidence that hundreds of hard-working small businesspeople were prosecuted by a government-owned company on the basis of flawed and potentially perjured evidence. It now appears that there may be evidence that could amount to a widespread conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. The responsibility for investigating this lies with you and your government.

“The current non-statutory inquiry is not commensurate with the seriousness, breadth and public importance of the matters involved. The current inquiry, as it is constituted, is incapable of compelling evidence and hearing evidence under oath, which is a fundamental requirement given the central issues involving extensive criminal prosecutions, flawed and potentially perjured evidence and a potential widespread conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.”

In 2009, a Computer Weekly investigation revealed the stories of subpostmasters who had suffered losses they said were due to errors in the retail and accounting software they used in branches, known as Horizon. The Post Office denied this, and about 900 subpostmasters were prosecuted for theft and false accounting, with some sent to prison, in what has been described as one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in UK history (see timeline below).

The JFSA was set up in 2009 by former subpostmaster Alan Bates and other victims of the Horizon scandal after a Computer Weekly report alerted subpostmasters, who had suffered unexplained losses, to the fact that they were not alone despite the Post Office telling them they were isolated cases. A multimillion-pound High Court legal battle, which concluded in December 2019, proved that the Horizon system had many bugs that could cause unexplained losses.

Commenting on the first letter sent last month, a spokesman at BEIS, which is sponsoring the government inquiry, said: “The government’s independent inquiry – led by a retired High Court judge with over 28 years’ judicial experience – will ensure that lessons are learned, and that concrete changes take place at the Post Office.

“The inquiry has made swift progress already, announcing that it will hold public sessions to probe human impact and the institutional settings, and launched a call for evidence to invite views about, and gather evidence relating to, the IT system.”

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

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