The British people are waking up to the scandal that happened under their noses

Victims of the Post Office Horizon scandal have been suffering in silence for many years, but the current public inquiry is giving them a voice, and people are listening

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Post Office Horizon scandal enters public conscience – at last

A statutory public inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal has this week heard stories of the mistreatment of Post Office workers scarcely believable in modern times.

The people blamed and punished for accounting shortfalls caused by computer errors going public with their stories will put pressure on the government, the Post Office and IT supplier Fujitsu, “which will become overwhelming”.

At the time of writing, 15 victims of the biggest miscarriage of justice in modern UK history have bravely told their harrowing stories, with many more set to do the same in the next few weeks. The statements have been broadcast to the public live on the Horizon Inquiry’s YouTube channel, where previous statements are also available.

When, in 2019, Lord Justice Coulson, in the Court of Appeal, likened the Post Office’s treatment of subpostmasters to the way Victorian factory owners treated their workers, he was referring to the unfair contract terms, but the statements heard this week also reveal the suffering inflicted on these people as an injustice of another era.

For nearly two decades, subpostmasters were imprisoned, financially ruined and had their lives torn apart in other ways after the Post Office blamed them for accounting shortfalls, which were eventually found to be caused by bugs in the Horizon IT system it introduced in 2000. More than 700 were prosecuted and many hundreds, even thousands, more suffered life-changing financial losses.

Public awareness rising

As victims told their stories this week, the Post Office Horizon scandal finally entered the consciousness of the public. The hearings revealed how subpostmasters were left destitute, had to borrow money to survive, suffered family relationship and friendship breakdowns, were imprisoned leaving children without parents, suffered from ill health, felt humiliated and were ostracised by their communities. The list goes on.

Often pillars of their community, running local Post Office branches, their friendly customer service hid the unimaginable levels of stress they were put through due to errors in the computer system used in branches.

But despite the familiarity of the local subpostmaster to most people, this is a story that has gone under the radar for most of the public.

Things could be changing. This week has seen victims tell their stories. The hearings are painful for those giving evidence and difficult to watch, but essential if justice is to be done. They have already made the front page of a national newspaper, something that has never happened before, which for anyone who has watched the hearings this week is hard to believe.

Computer Weekly has been investigating the scandal since 2008, after being contacted for the second time by a victim. The first contact from a subpostmaster suffering unexplained losses was in 2002, but it was 2009 when the first report was published by Computer Weekly. (See timeline below for all Computer Weekly articles on the scandal.)

Approaching 13 years later, a lot has been achieved. Subpostmasters who said losses were caused by the Horizon IT system were vindicated when they proved in the High Court that Horizon was to blame, wrongful criminal convictions have been overturned, the government has set aside £1bn for compensation, and in May 2021 a statutory public inquiry was announced.

But there is much more to do. Victims are still waiting for compensation, with some being left out, and nobody has been held to account.

Growing pressure

When asked what they want out of the inquiry, almost every victim has said they want those responsible to pay for what they did. The public will demand this after hearing the stories, and pressure on the organisations involved will “become overwhelming”, according to Conservative peer James Arbuthnot.

To date, he said, the government has shown “no urgency” to put things right, but claimed the victim statements should help “build public pressure on the government, the Post Office and Fujitsu”.

“It is absolutely essential that victims get to tell their stories to the inquiry – not just for their own psychological need, but because in many cases it is the first time [the public has] heard the horrendous nature of what has gone on,” said Arbuthnot.

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

He said the victims’ stories were beginning to have an impact and pressure was beginning to build, “although it is still in the foothills”.

According to Arbuthnot, there are some who have not yet been brought into the scandal, such as the regulators and auditors of Fujitsu. “We are going to have to understand their role in all of this. Individuals will be held to account. So far, this has not happened, but I think it is coming down the track.”

Arbuthnot believes that, despite limitations put on him by the inquiry’s terms of reference, retired High Court judge Wyn Williams is doing as good a job as possible. “He seems to have shrugged off those limitations and is, for example, going to look at compensation. I am impressed by the way he is handling the inquiry.”

Kevan Jones, Labour MP for North Durham, began supporting the fight for justice when he took up the case of constituent Tom Brown, a subpostmaster who was blamed for unexplained losses.

He said the government would have to do better and the victim statements would force it to do so. “These statements from the victims are vital. It is good that their voices are being listened to now, because if you go back a decade they weren’t listened to.”

Jones praised victims who have suffered and fought for so long. “What is remarkable about the individuals is how stoic they have been throughout it and have not given up,” he said, adding that it was a tragedy that some died before getting justice.

Victims should get full compensation, he said, but added that no amount of compensation could repair what the Post Office did.

“Individuals have got to be held accountable, including a succession of government ministers who have believed civil servants over the years,” added Jones. “The government has a seat on the Post Office board, so what was being said to ministers by these individuals? These people must be held to account.”

He said there should there be an investigation of the Post Office’s conduct during the High Court group litigation brought against it.

“The thing that really gets me is even after the 2019 Horizon case in the High Court, when we knew lies had been told, the Post Office and its board were still willing to spend tens of millions of pounds defending the indefensible. That money must have been signed off by ministers and senior people in government,” said Jones.

“Deliberate decisions were taken by people in power. We knew the evidence about the system, but the power of the state and money was used to stop the truth coming out. This was not by accident. They were deliberate actions, and the people who took them must be held accountable.”

Uncovering the truth

Andrew Bridgen, Conservative MP for North West Leicester, also became involved after being approached by a constituent in 2010. His constituent, Michael Rudkin, was another victim of the Horizon scandal.

Bridgen told Computer Weekly: “We need to see what the public inquiry comes out with. I believe it will get to the truth, and the truth will be pretty ugly. The public is already horrified and I think people will be aghast when the extent of the cover-up over the years comes out.”

He called for more to be done to identify how many people were affected by Horizon errors.

“We need to see what the public inquiry comes out with. I believe it will get to the truth, and the truth will be pretty ugly. The public are already horrified and I think they will be aghast when the extent of the cover-up over the years comes out”
Andrew Bridgen MP

Bridgen estimated that up to 5,000 subpostmasters had probably been affected by Horizon errors over the years, but many would just have repaid shortages, believing they were at fault.

“It’s not only those who were prosecuted, but probably 4,000-5,000 more who were coerced into paying money back. I know of lots who always said they never took money but were forced to pay.”

Victim statements reveal “harrowing and tragic stories”, said Darren Jones, Labour MP and chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) parliamentary committee . “It is really brave of these victims to go to the inquiry and relive [their experiences], giving public testimony.”

Jones said there would be increased pressure on individuals to explain their roles in the scandal. “The inquiry is not set up to hold individuals to account, but the fact that the inquiry was eventually made statutory means Wyn Williams has the power to call individuals to give evidence.”

He said the BEIS committee will also call these people once the statutory inquiry is completed. “I don’t know what that will mean for those individuals because clearly the statutory inquiry and our parliamentary committee don’t have the power of prosecution, so it would be a question for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to decide if there was any criminal basis for prosecution. I am sure other lawyers will be looking at the civil law implications as well.”

Fujitsu, the supplier of the faulty Horizon computer system, has so far escaped any reprimand, but there are calls for it to be held to account.

“In a normal commercial litigation situation, it would be perfectly normal for a company like the Post Office to counterclaim against a company like Fujitsu to recover costs of claims against them,” said Jones.

“The only difference here is the Post Office is owned by the government, and therefore the Post Office is asking the public to pay, which is the right thing to do because it’s the quickest way to get compensation to the victims, but I would hope that the Post Office and government are considering a counterclaim against Fujitsu.”

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

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