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Government’s refusal of freedom of information request about Post Office scandal ‘deeply concerning’

MP condemns department’s ‘bizarre’ rejection of freedom of information request linked to Post Office IT scandal

The government has refused a freedom of information (FOI) request for copies of emails sent between the former Post Office CEO and the government department responsible for the organisation.

The request was made by an individual with an interest in the Post Office Horizon IT scandal, which saw subpostmasters wrongly punished by the Post Office for unexplained financial losses.

The request for all correspondence sent between former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), then BIS, between 6 June 2013 and 31 December 2013 was rejected on the grounds that the cost of providing the material would exceed the maximum permitted.

This is despite a previous request for emails between Vennells and BEIS between 1 June 2012 and 31 May 2013 – a much longer period – being approved and supplied seven years ago.

MP Kevan Jones described the FOI refusal as “bizarre and deeply concerning”.

Vennells was CEO at the Post Office between 2012 and 2019. During that period, subpostmasters were blamed by the Post Office for accounting shortfalls that were later proved to have been caused by errors in the computer system they used in branches. Hundreds were prosecuted for theft and false accounting through the Post Office’s private prosecution powers, and some were sent to prison.

The Post Office is 100% owned by the government and falls under BEIS’s wing.

In response to a Computer Weekly question, a BEIS spokesperson said: “The cost of complying with the request for information dating back almost seven years would exceed the appropriate limit of £600 set for central government departments under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.”

In 2009, Computer Weekly revealed that subpostmasters were forced to pay back unexplained losses, some received prison sentences and hundreds have had to live their lives with a criminal record. Computer Weekly has followed the story ever since (see timeline below).

A High Court trial in 2019 proved that the Horizon computer system was to blame for the losses and more than 50 subpostmasters subsequently had their criminal convictions sent to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

The affected subpostmasters always maintained that computer errors were to blame, but the Post Office did not accept this until a High Court judge told them the computer system could cause unexplained losses.

What was known within the Post Office, BEIS and wider government about what has been described as the biggest miscarriage of justice in UK history is in the public interest, as the FOI request shows.

Jones, Labour MP for North Durham and long-time campaigner for the subpostmasters affected, said the FOI request rejection was a cause for concern. “It is deeply concerning and frankly bizarre that the department has freely handed over the previous [correspondence], but is refusing to do the same for the latest on cost grounds,” he told Computer Weekly. “People will make up their own minds as to why the department is holding back these emails.”

Jones said he would write to the Procedure Committee and the Speaker’s Office about this matter.

One IT expert told Computer Weekly that gathering the requested information would either be “impossible or very easy”.

“It is a measure of the organisation’s competence, integrity and sustainability that it says it cannot do something as simple as this,” the experts said.

Computer Weekly asked BEIS why the first request was granted but the recent one refused, how much answering the first FOI request cost and why it did not exceed the maximum cost.

BEIS declined to answer, and a spokesperson said the department had nothing further to add.

The government has not admitted fault in the Horizon scandal, describing the Post Office as an “arm’s-length” organisation and stating that it does not get involved with operational matters. It is also refusing to pay the £47m costs that the subpostmaster claimants had to pay to take the Post Office to court, where they won their case.

Campaign group the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) has lodged a complaint with the Parliamentary Ombudsman.

In its complaint against BEIS, the JFSA said: “We say that the government is guilty of maladministration in not overseeing and regulating the Post Office properly in such a manner as to prevent it from running amok as described in the judgments [in the court case] and, in doing so, destroying the lives of the complainants.”

The JFSA is demanding £300m as part of its complaint to recover the huge costs incurred in the court battle that exposed the Post Office’s role in a scandal that ruined lives.

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

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