Retiring MP James Arbuthnot is determined to get to the bottom of problems with the Post Office accounting system and supporting processes that led to subpostmasters being blamed for account shortfalls.
Arbuthnot (pictured), Conservative MP for Hampshire North East who is stepping down from parliament after 28 years, has been the most vocal of a group of 140 MPs campaigning for redress of subpostmaster grievances.
The Post Office's Horizon system has been cited by many subpostmasters who claim they were wrongly charged and even jailed for accounting shortfalls. Others have had to make up thousands of pounds in cash discrepancies following prosecutions. The Post Office denies system-wide problems with Horizon.
Speaking to Computer Weekly this week, Arbuthnot expressed disappointment that a written answer to his question during prime minister’s questions on 11 March, which subsequently came from business secretary Vince Cable, followed the Post Office’s line closely.
In response to the written answer to his question, written by Cable, Arbuthnot told Computer Weekly: "The secretary of state has chosen to listen carefully to his advisors and the Post Office on this matter rather than seeking to understand why over 140 of his fellow MPs have outstanding cases and unresolved concerns about the matter. This is a shame. I remain quietly confident that the truth will be revealed in due course and I intend to pursue this matter until that happens."
Horizon: The subpostmasters' view
In 2009 Computer Weekly interviewed some of the subpostmasters involved in the Post Office Horizon allegations to hear their views.
Arbuthnot questioned whether Second Sight, the independent investigation company appointed by the Post Office, has been able to conduct its investigation as thoroughly as it wants.
"I am not alone in doubting the claim made by the Post Office that the independent investigators had access to all the information they needed to conduct a thorough investigation of all cases. This suggestion was rejected by one of the investigators in his evidence to the BIS Select Committee in January. It is not the Post Office but the independent investigators who should determine what the investigators need.”
In response, the Post Office told Computer Weekly: “[We have] continued to provide Second Sight with information relevant to its role of reviewing cases in the mediation scheme. We have offered to discuss individual cases with relevant MPs or indeed to meet separately with individual applicants to discuss their case and that offer remains open.”
No system-wide problems
The Post Office said it outlined its stance in a recent report into the investigation, separate to the independent Second Sight report, earlier this month. It said all remaining 80 claims that have not been completed, out of 150 originally made, will go through to mediation except those which have been subject to a previous court ruling. It said no system-wide problems have been found with Horizon.
During the BIS select committee evidence gathering session on 3 February, Ian Henderson of Second Sight was critical of the Post Office's approach. He said important data requested by the investigation team, including prosecution files, had not been delivered, months after they were requested.
At prime minister’s questions Arbuthnot asked: “Is my right honourable friend aware that in connection with the Post Office mediation scheme, the Post Office has just sacked the independent investigator, Second Sight, and told it to destroy all its papers? Does he agree that it is essential that Second Sight’s second report should not be suppressed, but should be supplied to sub-postmasters and MPs, starting with the member for West Bromwich West (BIS chair Mr Bailey) and the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee?”
Prime minister David Cameron replied: “My right honourable friend makes an important point. I know that he has consistently raised the concerns of some sub-postmasters about the operation of the Post Office IT system and the matter of the Post Office mediation scheme. BIS is currently taking evidence on this issue, and it should be given all the relevant information. The government should not interfere with the independent mediation process, but I will ask the business secretary to write to my right honourable friend about his concern and to ensure that the Business Committee can do its job properly.”
Vince Cable's letter
Vince Cable’s letter in response to Arbuthnot, said: "The Post Office has not closed the scheme and the Post Office remains committed to working with Second Sight through the remaining period of their contract, and have stated that they will seek to continue to make available to scheme applicants an independent review by Second Sight (where one has not already been provided), and provide funding accordingly.”
Regarding the allegation that the Post Office will destroy evidence Cable wrote: "All parties involved in the mediation scheme are bound by confidentiality agreements and these include the requirement to appropriately store information and dispose of it when it is no longer needed (such as termination of a contract) or return it to the information owner. Post Office have confirmed repeatedly that they will not destroy documentation relating to the scheme, including information provided to (and returned by) Second Sight.”
In regard to Second Sight’s second report being supplied to sub-postmasters and MPs, Cable wrote: “Post Office have stated they will work with Second Sight to support the completion of this further report, so that it can be provided to applicants in the scheme and used to inform the ongoing mediation progress. The government cannot compel its publication and nor would we do so given the confidential nature of details within it.”
Cable concluded: “I note that, through Second Sight’s report and the subsequent investigations, there is no evidence of system-wide problems with Horizon and the conclusion has stood firm through nearly two years of investigation, As such, the priority must be to ensure that those applicants remaining in the scheme can have their cases considered swiftly and fairly, and I am hopeful that all parties involved will continue to work constructively to ensure this can happen.”
Computer Weekly timeline of events
September 2009: Postmasters form action group after accounts shortfall
November 2009: Post Office theft case deferred over IT questions
January 2013: Post Office announces amnesty for Horizon evidence
December 2014: MPs to debate subpostmaster IT injustice claims