Post Office scandal public inquiry finally begins after chances to address problems were ignored

The Post Office Horizon scandal inquiry begins with subpostmaster campaign group waiting for full details before committing its support

The statutory public inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal begins today, 12 years after it was first called for, and following many missed opportunities to put a stop to the serious mistreatment of subpostmasters.

The Horizon scandal saw the Post Office blame and punish subpostmasters for unexplained losses that were actually caused by errors in the computer system used in branches, known as Horizon.

Many were prosecuted with some sent to prison, the lives of many subpostmasters and their families were ruined, and there is a suicide linked to the scandal.

Former subpostmaster Alan Bates, the founder of a group of 555 subpostmasters who were some of the victims in the scandal, has met with the inquiry chair, Wyn Williams, and advised members to prepare to contribute if the inquiry now delivers what victims demand. This is a significant move, as the group would not engage with the previous non-statutory inquiry, describing it as a “whitewash” and an attempt to “sweep it under the carpet”.

Bates has been calling for a public inquiry since the first time he raised his head alongside six other victims, to tell his story. In his first interview with Computer Weekly over 12 years ago, Bates, who set up the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) three months later, called for a public inquiry. Twelve years later, he got one.

The inquiry is now on a statutory footing with the power to call witnesses and demand documents.

Bates said, before committing the JFSA’s support for the inquiry he is waiting for inquiry chair Williams, a former judge, to publish details of what the inquiry will cover, the Statement of Approach No 4, as it is known.

Statement of approach

In a circular to JFSA members, Bates told members it will be about 14 days before they can see the inquiry’s Statement of Approach No 4, but advised members to be ready to contribute.

He wrote: “So now it’s a matter of wait and see, but in the meantime we need to get organised and be ready to become part of the inquiry should [the statement] deliver the opportunity we are looking for, i.e. to provide the Inquiry with the full facts of what the Post Office, the department of business energy and industrial strategy (BEIS) and the government has done to us over the years.”

“With it now being a statutory inquiry, Wyn Williams has the power to address any issues he deems important and one comment I do recall from the meeting with him is that he hopes to do so ‘reasonably, sensibly and proportionally’,” added Bates.

Had the government or Post Office acted following the revelation in Computer Weekly in 2009, rather than doubling down and covering it up, the damage done by the Post Office, to many subpostmasters could have been avoided.

Many suffered at the hands of Horizon’s errors after that date and the Post Office continued to prosecute, despite the clear doubts over Horizon’s raised by Computer Weekly. Subpostmasters were prosecuted and given criminal records, based on Horizon evidence, for about six years after the article, which questioned Horizon’s robustness, was published.

A total of 47 have had their criminal records overturned and hundreds more are expected to appeal.

Public inquiry

Bates also called for a public inquiry in 2019, after a High Court judge ruled in favour of the 555 subpostmasters that sued the Post Office and proved the computer system, not them, was to blame for the account shortfalls.

The subpostmasters and campaigners that have supported them, including MPs and journalists, have brought the government kicking and screaming to a statutory inquiry. People in high places made decisions that meant the scandal and the devastation it cased continued

In the JFSA circular Bates wrote: “You know we can never let them get away with what they have done to everyone, so get your applications off asap so we can start to hold the really guilty to account, and we know who most of them are.”

Kevan Jones, MP for North Durham and longtime campaigner for justice for the victims of the scandal welcomed the announcement that the inquiry was being put on a statutory footing.

However, he said the terms of reference and scope of the inquiry must be expanded. “They should include the Post Office’s prosecution function, matters of criminal law, the Horizon group damages settlement, the conduct of current or future litigation relating to Horizon and/or the engagement or findings of any other supervisory or complaints mechanisms. Only then does he have a chance of bringing all relevant parties into this review.”

Jones also called for the inquiry to be taken out of the hands of BEIS. “As BEIS owns and directs the activities of Post Office and may be found culpable in many respects, including the conduct of its ministers who were supposed to be providing oversight, it is vital for public confidence that the owner of the Post Office is not also the owner of this Inquiry. It therefore must be passed over to the MOJ.”

Gaps remain

Peer James Arbuthnot said the announcement of the inquiry being statutory is an improvement, but he added that gaps remain. “For example, the inquiry will obtain ‘all available relevant evidence from Post Office, Fujitsu, BEIS and UKGI’, but there is no mention of those who used to work for Post Office, Fujitsu, BEIS or UKGI.”

“And the huge gap is that of compensation. The minister may be right to say that an inquiry cannot of itself make legally binding recommendations about compensation, but he is wrong to say that therefore it has to go through the courts. If the government or a Government-owned entity behaves badly (let alone as spectacularly badly as both have done in this case), it can and should compensate those whom it has wronged. It doesn’t have to wait to be sued.”

Karl Turner MP for Hull East, who described the scandal as the most grotesque version of predatory capitalism he has ever seen, said a statutory inquiry was inevitable.

“Regrettably, the Government have been complicit in protecting the Post Office throughout and the fact that Johnson’s Tory Government have been dragged kicking and screaming to this statutory inquiry speaks to this in my view. From the outset the Post Office have used their power over those innocent men and women by lawyering up, the Government must now guarantee that all legal costs for representatives acting for the victims in the inquiry are fully met by the Treasury.”

Questions remain unanswered

Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle Upon Tyne Central, said she was pleased that the inquiry has been put on a statutory footing, but added: “We believe there is so much more that needs to be done and so many questions that remain unanswered.

“First, we are concerned that the scope of the terms of reference of the inquiry are not wide enough and we support a public consultation into them.

“Just this year, the Horizon software contract has been renewed handing Fujitsu £42m despite them providing faulty software with no review or assessment into Fujitsu specifically. This new contract has been provided at the same time as victims remain inadequately compensated, the compensation won at last year’s high court battle was absorbed by legal fees, these victims should be considered for appropriate compensation.”

She said those responsible must also be held account. “The CEO of the Post Office at the time, Paula Vennells, still has her OBE, the government has refused to comment on whether this will be removed. And finally, we are still waiting for an official direct apology from the Government to the victims for the government’s failure of oversight despite being the Post Offices only shareholder.

“These points need addressing if we are to ever see justice for the victims, and the Government must learn the lessons of their own failures to ensure a scandal like this can never happen again.”

In 2009, Computer Weekly told the stories of seven subpostmasters affected by the problems, which led to many more who had suffered losses coming forward (see timeline below for Computer Weekly articles about the scandal since 2009).

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