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MPs demand urgent compensation for Post Office scandal victim group

MPs have called for the government to urgently provide fair compensation to a group of victims of the Post Office Horizon scandal who have so far been left out of compensation schemes

MPs are demanding urgent action by the government to provide full compensation to a group of 555 Post Office Horizon scandal victims who have so far been left out of compensation schemes.

The MPs said there is no valid reason to exclude these victims from being fully compensated and that the government must provide the funding.

In a Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee report, MPs demanded that these victims are compensated on the same basis of others receiving financial redress for the suffering and financial losses they have suffered after being wrongly blamed and punished for accounting shortfalls that were caused by the Post Office computer system that they use.

The group of 555 Horizon victims – members of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) – have so far been left out of compensation schemes that have been set up because they defeated the Post Office in a multimillion-pound litigation that exposed the Post Office IT scandal. The 555 were awarded £57.75m after their court victory, but were left with just £11m between them after they had paid their legal costs, with victims who had seen their lives destroyed and lost everything left with derisory sums.

Since then, affected subpostmasters who were not part of the group of 555 have been offered compensation, as have those who have had criminal convictions overturned following the court judgment – 72 so far.

The government has repeatedly said that the £57.75m payment to the court victors was a "full and final settlement" and there was nothing more it could do.

Darren Jones, chairman of the BEIS Committee, said: “Everybody seems to agree that they should have access to the new and wider compensation scheme and the frustrating thing from the evidence we took was that the BEIS minister [Paul Scully] didn’t seem to think it was easy to allow the 555 access to the compensation.”

Jones said given that it was the government and the Post Office that were parties to the settlement with the 555, he did not understand why they can’t just reopen it and include the 555 in compensation schemes. “Paul Scully said he was looking for a mechanism to allow the 555 access to compensation, but I don’t really know what that means, because all he has to do is to unwind the settlement agreement,” said Jones.

Peer James Arbuthnot said the government is dealing with the 555’s claim for fair compensation in a “slow, plodding and niggardly way”.

He slammed the government’s continued use of the expression “full and final settlement” for a settlement that he said was “grotesquely unfair”.

“It was forced on the subpostmasters by a Post Office backed by the taxpayer with a limitless fund for litigation, which the subpostmasters could not match,” said Arbuthnot. “This settlement must be set aside, and I believe it will be, but the government is being far too slow to recognise the reputational damage it is doing to itself by continuing to rely on that settlement.”

Arbuthnot has campaigned for justice for the subpostmasters for over a decade after helping an affected subpostmaster, Jo Hamilton, in his former constituency of North-East Hampshire.

Former subpostmaster and victim of the scandal Alan Bates, who set up the JFSA in 2009 and led the subpostmasters to victory in the High Court in 2019, said the “excellent BEIS Committee report” has simplified a complex issue and clarified the steps that now need to be taken.

“It is insightful and detailed and can plainly see the injustice in the way the 555 are being treated,” he said. “Any subpostmaster involved with the Historic Shortfall Scheme shouldn’t agree to anything further until they have read this report. There are serious questions about the validity of the scheme that need to be answered as a matter of urgency.”

As revealed by Computer Weekly, the government-owned Post Office received a £1bn taxpayer subsidy last year for its Horizon scandal compensation scheme.

There is an urgent need for justice. A recent report revealed that 33 victims of the scandal died before they received justice and many others are elderly with some suffering ill health, often as a result of the suffering they have endured.

BEIS minister Paul Scully has repeatedly said the group of 555 performed a public service in exposing the scandal and said the government is looking at ways to compensate them fairly. But so far, those victims who have written to him about compensation are greeted with the same response – that the payment they received was full and final.

JFSA member Sue Palmer, a former subpostmaster in Essex, was prosecuted by the Post Office in 2004 for financial crimes following unexplained losses, but was found not guilty. Subpostmasters who were prosecuted but found not guilty, still lost their businesses, homes, thousands of pounds and had their lives turned upside down.

In his latest correspondence with Mrs Palmer, Scully wrote: “The position of people who form part of this group [555] is that they have already fully settled their claims against the Post Office. I recognise your deep frustration at the fact that because the group agreed the settlement with the Post Office, that it would be a full and final one.”

In 2009, Computer Weekly told the stories of seven subpostmasters affected by the problems, which led many more who had suffered losses to come forward, leading to the establishment of the JFSA (see timeline below of Computer Weekly’s coverage since revealing the scandal in 2009).

The BEIS Committee also said in its report that it had “deep concern” that so few subpostmasters who had potentially unsafe convictions have come forward since the first convictions were overturned. It also recommended that the government set up an independent body as a trusted first point of contact for those wrongly convicted because of Horizon. A total of 576 convicted subpostmasters have not yet come forward. A total of 736 were convicted based on Horizon data.

Solicitor Neil Hudgell, at Hudgell Solicitors, whch re[resent a large group of victims, said the recommendations of the Select Committee are “very encouraging”.

“It is imperative they are adopted by Government in full,” he added. 

This week, Horizon scandal victims have been telling their devastating stories to the statutory public inquiry chairman, former judge Wyn Williams.

The first set of victim hearings began on Monday 14 February and go through to Friday 25 February in London, with events broadcast on the inquiry’s YouTube channel. In the week beginning 28 February, evidence will be taken from witnesses in Cardiff, followed by witnesses in Leeds from 7 March.

Williams welcomed the BEIS Committee’s short inquiry on the specific and pressing issues around compensation, and said the committee’s evidence would be used to further inform his work. 

Hudgell said the public airing of victim statements this week should inject some urgency into the government’s response. “As reinforced during the first few days of this week’s highly-emotional impact hearings at the Inquiry, there are a number of pressing matters that need resolving quickly." 

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

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