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Slow government response to Post Office scandal compensation forces new legislation

Subpostmasters who exposed widest miscarriage of justice in UK history still waiting for compensation after decades of fighting

Government’s slow progress compensating subpostmasters who had their lives ruined by one of its organisations, the Post Office, has forced it to legislate to allow it to extend its own deadline.

The government has introduced the legislation to ensure subpostmasters who suffered as a result of the Post Office Horizon scandal can receive compensation beyond the current deadline in August 2024.

But campaigning former subpostmaster Alan Bates claims the government needs to try to pay everyone what they deserve before the current deadline.

Speaking in the House of Commons in December last year, Grant Shapps, then Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, said: “I hope that compensation will start to flow before the summer and that most cases can be resolved before the end of 2023.”

Furthermore, in May 2021, almost two and a half years ago, then minister Paul Scully – who was accompanied by Boris Johnson, at the time prime minister – promised members of the group litigation order (GLO) “fair and speedy” pay-outs during a Zoom meeting with three affected former subpostmasters.

But Bates told Computer Weekly that progress is slow. “I understand that not one of the GLO cases has received their full and final financial redress yet from government,” he said.

Over 550 subpostmasters, who are members of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA), led by Bates, took the government-owned Post Office to court in 2018 to prove its computer system caused unexplained losses they were blamed for. These scandal victims are part of the GLO compensation scheme.

Compensation Bill

The GLO compensation scheme has a deadline of 7 August 2024, but due to slow progress, the government has introduced its Post Office compensation Bill to the House of Commons, to make it possible to pay compensation after this date.

Bates, a former subpostmaster in North Wales who has been fighting the Post Office for over two decades, led the subpostmasters in their action against the Post Office in the High Court.

Following the latest government announcement, he said: “It’s all well and good extending the deadline, but the government has to try to meet the current deadline. The lives of the victims who have lived with this for a long time are not being extended.”

Bates formed the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) campaign group in 2009, made up of subpostmasters who suffered great hardship as a result of errors in branch software which caused unexplained losses and the Post Office’s brutal way of dealing with the issue.

Kevin Hollinrake, minister for postal affairs, said: “I am determined that lessons are learnt from this scandal to prevent anything like this ever happening again. This Bill will ensure postmasters aren’t tied to an arbitrary deadline when making their claims or unnecessarily pressurised.”

The government said it is “determined to make compensation claims as soon as possible, and by the current deadline of August 2024”.

“However, time needs to be taken to assess more complex claims, so postmasters receive full and fair compensation and are not unduly rushed into making a decision on their claims.”

Legislation welcomed

Conservative peer James Arbuthnot, member of the Horizon Compensation Advisory Board, welcomed the announcement of the legislation. “We shall have to look at the precise details, but the Bill confirms that the Government does intend to provide full and fair compensation to the subpostmasters and will not be deflected from that by arbitrary timescales.

“Nevertheless, speed of payment is of the essence, and the Advisory Board will do all we can to ensure that payments are made as early as possible.”

In 2009, a Computer Weekly investigation first revealed that subpostmasters were being blamed for unexplained accounting shortfalls, which they believed to be caused by software errors.

A decade later, the JFSA took the Post Office to the High Court in a Group Litigation Order and exposed the truth about the faulty software, which up until that point the Post Office had claimed was error-free. The judgements in the High Court case triggered the unravelling of one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British history. So far, nearly 100 former subpostmasters have had wrongful convictions for theft and fraud overturned.

The success for the 555 subpostmasters in the High Court saw them awarded £58m in damages, but after their legal costs – provided by a litigation funder that requires repayment with interest – were taken out, they were left with just £11m to share. This left people who had lost homes, businesses and huge sums of money with an average of a few thousand pounds each.

The GLO claimants were originally excluded from the Post Office compensation scheme set up as a result of their court victory, but subsequently had a separate compensation scheme announced in March last year, following another hard-fought campaign.

A government U-turn saw a new GLO compensation scheme for final payments finally announced in March 2022. Its goal is to return victims to the financial position they would have been in had the scandal not happened.

Read all Computer Weekly articles about the scandal since 2009

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