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Subpostmasters demand more clarity on Horizon public inquiry before committing their support

Subpostmaster campaign group founder demands that financial redress for members be included in public inquiry before it ‘willingly’ participates

The founder of the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) has called for the chair of the Post Office Horizon scandal public inquiry to make clear that it will look into the unfairness of the compensation its members received, before the JFSA “willingly” supports the inquiry.

The 555 former subpostmasters in the JFSA are victims of the Post Office Horizon scandal that saw them wrongly blamed and punished for accounting shortfalls that were actually caused by computer errors. Due to legal costs, these victims were left with compensation described as “peanuts” despite them losing businesses and homes, and suffering massive financial lossess, ill-health and reputational damage.

The public inquiry into the scandal, chaired by former judge Wyn Williams, has now published its provisional list of issue to be covered, but Alan Bates, who founded the JFSA in 2009, has demanded more clarity on whether compensation for the 555 will be considered in the inquiry.

A Computer Weekly investigation in 2009 first revealed the suffering of subpostmasters in interviews with some of those who had suffered because of errors in the Fujitsu-supplied Horizon IT system (see timeline below for more). Hunderds were convicted for financial crimes, with some sent to prison. Many more had their lives thrown into turmoil and were financially ruined.

A decade later, the JFSA members took the Post Office to court in 2018 and won an historic victory when the Post office agreed to settle in December 2019. The subpostmasters claimed the Horizon IT system used in branches was to blame for accounting shortfalls – but the Post Office said this was wrong. High Court judge Peter Fraser confirmed that Horizon errors could cause unexplained accounting shortfalls, and said the Post Office’s denial that Horizon could be to blame was “the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the Earth is flat”.

Since that judgment, 63 former subpostmasters and Post Office branch staff have had their convictions for crimes including theft and false accounting overturned, with potentially hundreds more to come.

Without the JFSA legal action, the scandal that is widely known about today may never have come to light.

The subpostmasters who brought the case also forced the Post Office to open a compensation scheme for any subpostmasters who had experienced losses caused by Horizon errors. The government has also said every subpostmaster with a conviction overturned will receive compensation, with each of them offered an interim sum of up to £100,000 before the final sums are calculated.

If it had not been for the subpostmasters who took the Post Office to court and won, despite the government-owned organisation incurring an estimated £100m in legal costs for defending itself, none of this would have been achieved.

The government said the compensation of £57.75m awarded to the 555 subpostmasters after the High Court battle in 2019 was a full and final payment. What it does not publicise is that after the subpostmasters had paid their legal costs, which were ramped up by the Post Office’s attempts to avoid defeat, they were left with just £11m between them.

In 2020, a non-statutory inquiry into the scandal was set up, which again would never have happened without the JFSA. But the JFSA said it would not cooperate unless there were substantial changes to the inquiry’s terms of reference. It wanted the inquiry to be on a statutory footing, so witnesses could be called to give evidence under oath and documentation could be demanded. In May this year, the inquiry was finally put on a statutory footing.

But that alone is not enough. The JFSA’s Bates expressed doubts about the list of issues to be covered, and said the wording of the inquiry announcement was ambiguous.

The introduction to the provisional list of issues reads: “For the avoidance of doubt, the chair will be guided by the evidence that emerges throughout the inquiry and the completed list of issues will not bind the chair to investigate only those issues set out therein or necessarily to investigate a listed issue irrespective of the sufficiency of evidence that is identified.”

Bates responded on the JFSA website: “​So regardless of the final list of issues, Wyn Wiliams may decide to ignore any or all of them, despite overwhelming evidence being available or in his possession.”

Bates said of the provisional list: “Those with an in-depth knowledge of what has occurred over the years would have recognised that these provisional issues have either been put together by those who have yet to understand the full breadth of what is involved, or has been produced from legal advice designed to swerve around the really tricky points but still present a veneer of thoroughness to the outside world.”

He added: “There are gaping gaps. Obviously the main interest to the [JFSA] victims group is whether or not the inquiry will look at the financial redress it is owed but has failed to receive. However, in the preliminary list of issues, despite ‘redress’ appearing on six separate occasions, is never once accompanied by the word ‘financial’, and it is important to bear in mind that this document was drawn up by the BEIS [Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy]-appointed lawyers.”

Bates has asked for clarity, saying: “In light of this point, we have asked our legal team to write to Wyn Williams for clarification of just one point, ie where he uses ‘redress’, does he mean ‘financial redress’? A yes or no answer from him would be appreciated.”

The JFSA’s willing participation in the inquiry depends on the answer Williams gives to this question, said Bates. “A yes, and only a yes, will ensure we actively engage in a constructive manner going forward,” he said. “Otherwise we could not willingly support the inquiry, as there would be no reason to, because the main issue for the victims group is the financial redress they have failed to receive, and if that is not part of the inquiry, then there is absolutely no point in taking part.  

“Not only that, but we would actively encourage all others who are considering taking any part in the inquiry, should they actually care about the way the victims have been treated, to support the group by not engaging with the inquiry until such time as financial redress is included.”

The JFSA has doubts about the terms of reference because they are set by BEIS, which is responsible for the Post Office. The department should be investigated as part of the inquiry, said Bates.

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

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