Critics claim government review into Post Office IT scandal does not go far enough to address ‘largest miscarriage of justice in our history’

Written by Sam Trendall on 11 June 2020 in News
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About 900 sub-postmasters were prosecuted and asked to repay large sums of money that IT system wrongly suggested were missing

Credit: PA

The government has launched a review in the Post Office Horizon IT scandal. But campaigners have claimed the exercise does not go far enough to address the miscarriages of justice caused by the episode, and have demanded a full judge-led inquiry.

The Horizon IT system, which was developed by Fujitsu, was implemented by the Post Office in 1999. It has long since been determined that problems with the system caused accounting discrepancies in Post Office branches around the country, with money reportedly simply “disappearing” as a result of software faults.

However, hundreds of sub-postmasters – who operate branches as franchisees – were chased for missing money, with about 900 prosecuted. Many were ordered to pay back thousands of pounds they were accused to have stolen from the Post Office, and some went to prison.

A High Court case brought against the Post Office by a group of 550 postmasters resulted, in December, in the government-owned company being ordered to pay a settlement of £57.75m. In his ruling in favour of the postmasters, justice Peter Fraser was sharply critical of the Horizon system.

Following the ruling, on 26 February this year, prime minister Boris Johnson committed to a further, government-led investigation of the matter.


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In a written parliamentary statement made yesterday, small business minister Paul Scully set out the terms of an independent review, which will be launched shortly.

The probe, which will be helmed by an independent chair to be appointed soon, will be asked to ascertain “what went wrong in relation to Horizon… by drawing on evidence from the Horizon judgments and affected postmasters’ experiences and identify what key lessons must be learned for the future”.

The review will also be tasked with assessing the extent to which the Post Office has already learned appropriate lessons from criticisms made in the High Court ruling and whether sufficient safeguards have been put in place to prevent a similar incident, as well as whether the organisation has made good on the terms of the settlement.

The Post Office’s relationship with postmasters – in particular issues related to disputes and employment issues – will also go under the microscope, as will the efficacy of “governance and whistleblowing controls” in light of the scandal

“The longstanding dispute and subsequent trials relating to the Post Office Horizon IT system have had a hugely negative impact on affected postmasters and their families,” Scully said. “These events have deeply affected postmasters’ lives: their livelihoods, their financial situation, their reputations and, for some, also their physical and mental health. In his judgments… Mr Justice Fraser identified significant failings within Post Office Ltd over nearly two decades, particularly in relation to the treatment of postmasters and in its management culture.”

He added: “Government wants to be fully assured that through the review there is a public summary of the failings that occurred at Post Office Ltd, drawing on the judgments from the Horizon case and by listening to those that have been most affected; that lessons have genuinely been learned; and that concrete changes have taken place at Post Office Ltd to ensure that this situation will never be repeated. For these reasons government has decided to establish an independent review.”

Once the review is complete, it will be present a report to parliament.

Commons criticism
No sooner had Scully announced the review than fellow MPs criticised the exercise for not going far enough. 

Calling for a full inquiry led by a judge – a measure which she claimed had cross-party support – Labour MP and shadow digital, science and technology minister Chi Onwurah said that “the Post Office Horizon scandal may well be the largest miscarriage of justice in our history”.

She added that the need for such an inquiry has been thrown into focus by a BBC Panorama programme broadcast this week which claimed that the Post Office pressed ahead with prosecutions of postmasters despite knowing about issues with the Horizon system. These revelations “add to sense of a cover-up on a grand scale”, Onwurah suggested.

“[There are] 900 prosecutions, each one its own story of dreams crushed, careers ruined, families destroyed, reputations smashed, and lives lost; innocent people bankrupted and imprisoned,” she said. “Justice Fraser’s High Court ruling in December paved the way, finally, for justice for some but the mediated settlement means the truth remains hidden. Will the minister agree there can be no justice without truth?” 

Onwurah added: “So many questions remain unanswered: when did the Post Office know the Horizon system could cause money to disappear and what responsibility did the developer Fujitsu have? What did ministers, to whom the Post Office accountable do, and what did they know? Who was responsible for innocent people going to jail, have they been held accountable, and will all victims be properly compensated? 

"The High Court ruling paved the way, finally, for justice for some. But the mediated settlement means the truth remains hidden; there can be no justice without truth."
Shadow digital minister, Chi Onwurah

“Three months ago, the prime minister committed to a public inquiry. But we now hear that this is to consider whether the Post Office has learned the necessary lessons; we need an inquiry not simply to learn lessons, but to get to the truth. Only a judge-led inquiry can do that, with the Post Office compelled to cooperate.”

The Newcastle Central MP’s calls were echoed by one of her Labour colleagues, Karl Turner.

“Many sub-postmasters were forced to pay back many thousands of pounds to the Post Office. Moneys which were never, in fact, owed or, indeed, missing. That in itself should trigger a criminal investigation,” he said. “How much of that money went to pay the previous chief executive’s £5m salary? And, tell me, minister, why can you not accept that only a judge will get to the bottom of this miscarriage of justice?”

In response, Scully said: “The important thing in this review is: does it find out what went wrong? Who made what decisions when? Does it make sure that it listens to the evidence of those that were wronged, and gets those voices out there to complement what justice Fraser has said, and to make sure that it can never happen again – that is the terms of… inquiry, and that’s the terms of this review. This independent chair will get to the bottom of that.”

 

About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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