Post Office and Fujitsu to ‘fully cooperate’ with government probe of Horizon IT scandal
Government claims it has met demands for full judge-led inquiry but critics remain unconvinced
The government has claimed that both the Post Office and Fujitsu will “fully cooperate” with the newly launched judge-led inquiry into the Horizon IT scandal that had a devastating effect on the lives of thousands of sub-postmasters across the country.
Faults with the Horizon IT system, developed by Fujitsu and implemented by the Post Office in 1999, caused accounting discrepancies that led to thousands of sub-postmasters – who run local Post Office branches as franchises – being wrongly accused of losing or stealing money. In 900 cases prosecutions were brought, with many people ordered to pay back thousands of pounds, and others sent to prison.
A High Court judge last year ordered the Post Office, which operates as a government-owned company, to pay a collective settlement of £57.75m to those impacted by the scandal.
In February, prime minister Boris Johnson pledged that government would conduct a “review” of Horizon.
But critics were quick to criticise the plan for not going far enough. An array of MPs and Lords from across the benches have supported campaign groups in calling for a full public inquiry led by a judge.
The government this week said that it will meet those demands, and announced the appointment of retired High Court judge Sir Wyn Williams to lead the inquiry – the focus of which it claims has been expanded as a result of feedback.
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It is not immediately obvious where the terms inquiry – which will explore what went wrong, the extent to which the appropriate lessons have been learned, and whether any “concrete changes” have been implemented as a result – differ from the exercise proposed earlier this year.
And, although the exercise has been rebranded from review to inquiry, it has not been given any statutory powers – although “it will be able to make any recommendations it sees fit”, the government said.
Both the Post Office and Fujitsu “have committed to fully cooperate with the inquiry”, which “will obtain all available relevant evidence… from the period in question” from both organisations, as well as from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
Sir Wyn Williams said “I am determined that the inquiry will provide the forum for a thorough and rigorous examination of all the evidence presented and that a report will be produced which all participants in the Inquiry and the wider public will recognise as having addressed the terms of reference constructively and in detail. I fully understand that my engagement with participants in the inquiry will be crucial to achieving my aims.”
However, one set of participants that, as things stand, remains unlikely to participate is the influential campaign group the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, which has already indicated that it does not intend to take part in a process that founder Alan Bates told the Daily Mail is “utterly futile [and] another whitewash”.
Politicians that have long supported the JSFA campaign for a full public inquiry, including Conservative peer Lord James Arbuthnot and Labour MP Karl Turner, have also criticised the narrowness of the inquiry’s terms and its lack of focus on the role of government, as well the absence of powers to compel evidence or mandate measures.
Others welcomed the news of the inquiry, including shadow business secretary Ed Miliband.
““It’s right that the government has finally announced a judge-led inquiry into the Horizon Post Office scandal, which Labour called for months ago,” he said. “I pay tribute to the campaign of the sub-postmasters to make it happen. We must uncover the truth about how this appalling miscarriage of justice could ever have happened. The victims need answers, but they deserve so much more than that. The inquiry’s terms of reference should include how those affected will be compensated for the decades-long ordeal they have endured.”
The minister responsible for government oversight of the review, small business, consumer and labour markets minister Paul Scully, said: “The Horizon dispute had a hugely damaging effect on the lives of postmasters and their families, and its repercussions are still being felt today. It is essential that we determine precisely what went wrong at the Post Office during this period, so we can ensure the right lessons have been learnt, and establish what must change to make sure this cannot happen again.”
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