Felix Pergande - Fotolia

Alan Bates and JFSA won’t back down in fight with government and Post Office

Over the past 15 years, Computer Weekly has learnt that Alan Bates and the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance don’t give up, and it would be crass to disregard their plans

The relentless pursuit of justice by Alan Bates and the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) has seen countless battles won out of mainstream view but, with a massive audience backing them today, more are set to be fought.

In October last year, when campaigning former subpostmaster Bates told Computer Weekly the JFSA was in early discussions with lawyers about privately prosecuting the people responsible for the Post Office Horizon scandal, the JFSA’s 15-year fight had yet to become mainstream news. At the time, it seemed raising the millions required would be a bridge too far, despite the campaign group’s proven track record in garnering financial support.

For example, in July 2020, the JFSA managed to raise £100,000, through crowdfunding, in a matter of weeks to fund legal support to file a complaint with the Parliamentary Ombudsman about the government’s handling of the Post Office. But the millions required to privately prosecute people responsible for the suffering of the former subpostmasters would, at the time, have been an impossible task.

Today things are different, and Bates has made it more widely known of his intent to pursue private prosecutions if he and his fellow campaigners deem punishments for these guilty of wrongdoing are not sufficient. It could see the subpostmasters use the same powers to prosecute former Post Office staff as the organisation used to wrongly prosecute hundreds of subpostmasters.

As widely reported, Bates repeated his promise last week, and while it is an expensive process, no one will doubt the JFSA’s ability to raise the funds. It would be crass to disregard Bates’ statement as simply seeking headlines. The ITV drama, which finally saw the scandal catch the public’s attention, would never have been made had it not been for the JFSA’s long campaign.

Alongside the successful crowdfunding of the money for the Parliamentary Ombudsman complaint, there are lesser-known achievements of the JFSA, often not credited to the campaign group.

Converting the whitewash review

One example is pressure for a statutory public inquiry. Without pressure from the JFSA and its campaigning supporters, the inquiry might not have been achieved.

While government politicians slap each others’ backs, claiming credit for implementing a statutory public inquiry, they only did so when they ran out of road.

After the 2019 High Court victory when the JFSA proved the Horizon system was to blame for the unexplained accounting shortfalls – a phenomenal achievement in itself – Bates and the JFSA could have walked away with vindication. But the first thing Bates told Computer Weekly was: “Now I want a public inquiry.”

Supportive parliamentarians immediately came to Bates’ support, but achieving a judge-led public inquiry, seen by many as the only way to get to the bottom of the scandal, was an uphill struggle due to the massive potential implications for the government.

A full public inquiry cannot be forced, and is, in effect, a gift from a government wanting to be seen as doing the right thing. If the government wants to avoid an inquiry, there is little campaigners can do unless enough MPs join calls for one and exert pressure in the House of Commons by voting against government on other bills in protest. But, with a government majority of about 80 at the time, it would have taken all opposition MPs and a significant group of Conservative MPs to back an inquiry.

In February 2020, Kate Osborne, Labour MP for Jarrow, asked then prime minister Boris Johnson whether he would commit to an independent inquiry.

Osbourne said: “[The Post Office Horizon scandal] has resulted in bankruptcy, imprisonment and even suicides. Will the prime minister today commit to an independent public inquiry?”

Johnson said he was “happy to commit to getting to the bottom of the matter in the way that she recommends”.

Due to the ambiguity of Johnson’s words, Computer Weekly contacted Number 10 for more details, specifically asking if the prime minister was committed to a full public inquiry and whether it would be judge led. The response made clear that a decision had not been made. In answer to Computer Weekly’s question, the government statement said: “The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is working actively with the Post Office on this matter and will hold them to account on their progress. We are also looking into what more needs to be  done.”

By June 2020, the government had announced a “review” of the Post Office Horizon IT scandal, quickly described by campaigners as “pointless” and “pathetic”.

Peer James Arbuthnot, former MP for Hampshire East, who campaigned for the subpostmasters affected, said the government review was “a pathetic response to a national outrage”.

“The prime minister promised to get to the bottom of the Horizon scandal. This anaemic review will fail to do that, because it fails to ask the important questions,” he said at the time. “The purpose of an independent inquiry should be to establish the truth, rather than to protect the government from any suggestion of blame.”

Paul Scully, then minister for small business, said the independent review would have similar investigative powers as a judge, but the terms of reference do not imply this.

Back then, Bates described the minister’s independent review as “a pointless exercise in futility”. He added: “We’ll wait for the judge-led public inquiry.”

In an email to its members, the JFSA said it would not engage with what it described as a sham. “We need to know who in government took such disastrous decisions, and who failed to undertake their duties that led to us having to pursue the Post Office through the courts, costing each of us £86,000 (legal costs),” it said. “Who lied? Who knew what? That’s what we want to know, not what lessons have been learned to help Post Office and government going forward – that has no interest to us.”

Another major setback for the government’s plan came when forensic accounting firm Second Sight, which investigated Horizon at the Post Office’s request and in doing so revealed its flaws, also refused to take part in the review. Second Sight said: “We see no point in supporting a review with such inadequate terms of reference – and we will not do so.”

In Parliament, the chair of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) select committee, then Darren Jones, also urged the government to give its planned review of the Post Office Horizon IT scandal the power to summon individuals to give evidence under oath. By October 2020, MPs began demanding the government provide a statutory public inquiry, and in March 2021, after the existing inquiry had already begun, the JFSA applied for a judicial review of a government inquiry into the scandal, which it described as a “whitewash”. This heaped more pressure on the government.

“Please treat this letter as a pre-action letter within the pre-action protocol for judicial review,” read the letter from JFSA solicitors at the time. “Our client intends to challenge the decision dated 9 March 2021 of [BEIS] refusing to pause the current non-statutory Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry, to re-establish this inquiry as a statutory inquiry and to hold a consultation on the terms of reference, to take account of pressing matters of public importance, including inter alia the question of abusive prosecutions of subpostmasters.”

The letter to BEIS was the first formal step in seeking a judicial review, where a judge would review the lawfulness of the Horizon inquiry but not be limited to that alone. By May, the government was cornered, and the inquiry was set to be made statutory with the power to compel witnesses and evidence. Minister Scully said: “The government has now given notice to convert the inquiry into a statutory inquiry and at the same time amend the inquiry’s terms of reference.”

In a written statement, he added: “Government wants to be fully assured that through the inquiry there is a public summary of the failings associated with Post Office’s Horizon IT system.”

Battle for financial redress

But another battle raged – and is still raging. The financial redress of victims might seem to have been sorted out to those new to the scandal, but it’s far from concluded. Furthermore, the government, which is using taxpayers’ money to foot the bill, was dragged kicking and screaming to the position it has adopted today.

After the JFSA won in court and the 555 successful claimants received derisory financial redress after legal costs were paid, the JFSA demanded that the Post Office, and therefore government, paid these costs. The Post Office had set up a compensation scheme for subpostmasters affected, but excluded members of the JFSA because it said the court settlement was “full and final”.

At the beginning of 2020, Bates wrote to Kelly Tolhurst MP, minister for small business, consumers and corporate responsibility, part of the BEIS, demanding the government pay costs so the damages were more appropriate. The government refused. Tolhurst replied in a letter: “I note that the settlement agreed with the Post Office included all legal and other costs. In those circumstances, I must respectfully refuse your request for payment.

“In engaging in mediation, it is almost invariably necessary for the parties to make difficult compromises. It also requires a recognition of the limits that the law places on what sums might be recoverable. I have no doubt that the process was a challenging one, particularly bearing in mind the long history, and I thank you and all the claimants for your participation to finally resolve this matter and enable the parties to move forward.”

In September that year, Conservative peer Martin Callanan, a UK government minister, reconfirmed that the government had no plans to pay the costs racked up by subpostmasters in the legal battle that led to their victory.

In January 2022, the JFSA, still fighting for fair compensation, met with government to discuss their demands. At the time, Labour MP Kevan Jones, who has campaigned for justice for subpostmasters, said: “Without the 555 subpostmasters successfully taking civil action, we would not have discovered the lies, deceit and subsequent cover-up by the Post Office, nor would we have had unsafe convictions overturned or the current judge-led statutory inquiry. It is time for the government to look again at why this group is currently carved out of existing compensation schemes and recognise that appropriate compensation must be put forward.”

The following month, the public inquiry, by now statutory, made the compensation arrangements part of its remit, with inquiry chair Wyn Williams addressing the unfairness.

Following the JFSA’s withdrawal from core participation in the inquiry – in protest at the unfair compensation – the inquiry wrote to the campaign group to confirm it would include its members’ financial redress in the hearings. It said: “On behalf of the chair, I can confirm that paragraph 183 of the inquiry’s list of issues is intended to consider whether all affected subpostmasters, subpostmistresses, managers, assistants, including the 555 claimants in the group litigation of Alan Bates and others vs Post Office case, were adequately compensated for the wrongs they had suffered.”

In March 2022, the government finally agreed to pay 555 Post Office scandal victims fair compensation. The battle is far from over, with just a fraction of the total compensation paid out, and the JFSA will continue until every victim is paid fairly.

More work with louder voice

Another remaining JFSA goal is to see all wrongly convicted subpostmasters have their convictions overturned and criminal records quashed. Since the ITV drama and the public outrage that followed, the government was forced into unprecedented legislation to overturn the hundreds of remaining convictions in a blanket exoneration.

The JFSA achieved historic victories even before the IT drama about the scandal gripped the public’s attention and support, with the government trying to make up for at the neglect it has shown since the 2019 High court victory for the JFSA.

The government and the Post Office will not take Bates’ latest statement lightly. The JFSA has the public on its side.

The Post Office scandal was first exposed by Computer Weekly in 2009, revealing the stories of seven subpostmasters and the problems they suffered due to the accounting software (see timeline of Computer Weekly articles about the scandal below).

• Also read: What you need to know about the Horizon scandal

• Also watch: ITV’s documentary – Mr Bates vs The Post Office: The real story

Read all Computer Weekly articles about the scandal since 2009

Read more on IT for retail and logistics

Data Center
Data Management