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What last week appeared to be a promise of a public inquiry into the Post Office IT scandal, seems in reality to have been the Prime Minister playing to the crowd, as his commitment is watered down in Number 10 statement.
In reply to a question in Parliament last week, prime minister Boris Johnson appeared to commit to a public inquiry into the scandal that saw subpostmasters experience suffering, including prison sentences, after being blamed for accounting shortfalls that were caused by errors in the Post Office computer system they use.
Over the past 20 years, subpostmasters have been prosecuted, jailed, fined and forced to repay accounting shortfalls that had nothing to do with them. Computer Weekly first reported the problems with Horizon in 2009, when we revealed the stories of a group of subpostmasters. Soon after this, more subpostmasters came forward, but the dispute dates back further than that (see timeline below). A recent High Court trial proved that Post Office claims that Horizon could not be to blame for shortfalls were wrong and the subpostmasters were right. A court of appeal judge said the Post Office had treated subpostmasters like Victorian factory workers.
During Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons on 26 February, Johnson was asked by Kate Osborne, Labour MP for Jarrow, whether he would commit to an independent inquiry. She said: “Like many other subpostmasters, my constituent, Christopher Head, fell victim of the Horizon IT system scandal. This has resulted in bankruptcy, imprisonment and even suicides. Will the Prime Minister today commit to an independent public inquiry?”
Johnson said: “I am indeed aware of the scandal to which [Osborne] alludes and the disasters that have befallen many Post Office workers, and I am happy to commit to getting to the bottom of the matter in the way that she recommends.”
This was understood by MPs and subpostmasters to be a commitment to a public inquiry. 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.
“I am indeed aware of the [Horizon IT] scandal and the disasters that have befallen many Post Office workers, and I am happy to commit to getting to the bottom of the matter”
Boris Johnson, prime minister
MP Gill Furniss, Labour’s shadow minister for post, said she was “glad the Prime Minister has agreed to a public inquiry on the Post Office Horizon scandal. This is testament to the hard-fought campaign of hundreds of subpostmasters and members of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Post Offices, from all parties”.
Conservative MP Lucy Allan, who has emerged as a strong advocate of justice for the subpostmasters affected, said: “I interpret what [the Prime Minister] said as a commitment to an inquiry. Some very senior people in government believe there to have been a miscarriage of justice.”
But due to the ambiguity of Johnson’s words, Computer Weekly contacted Number 10 for more details, specifically asking if the Prime Minister is committed to a full public inquiry and whether it would be judge led.
The Number 10 response makes clear that a decision has not been made. The final line of the statement confirms that the government is currently looking into what can be done beyond ensuring the Post Office sticks to its commitments, made as part of the court settlement, to change its relationship with subpostmasters.
In answer to Computer Weekly’s question, the government statement said: “We take the Post Office’s relationship with its postmasters very seriously and closely monitored the situation during the legal proceedings. The Post Office, under its new CEO, has since accepted it got things wrong, apologised and has said it aims to re-establish a positive relationship with postmasters. 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.”
A public inquiry would put the government, the Post Office and Horizon supplier Fujitsu under the spotlight.
The Post Office is government owned with a member of government on its board. In a recent Lords debate, the government admitted it had been too passive in how it manages the Post Office and said this would change.
During a debate in the House of Lords in early February, Conservative peer Stuart Polak asked Ian Duncan, Conservative peer and parliamentary under-secretary of state in the department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), what the exact role of the department’s representative on the board of directors of the Post Office is.
Duncan confirmed there is a non-executive director who is responsible for representing the department and the government, but said the role has been passive, and will be changed following the court judgments.
The government has also recently claimed the Post Office misled it when asked whether issues raised by subpostmasters about the Horizon system were true.
Responding to questions in the House of Lords debate on 25 February, Martin Callanan, a UK government minister in the House of Lords, suggested the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) had been misled by the Post Office over Horizon IT problems.
Callanan said the BEIS relied on Post Office management to investigate the issues with the Horizon system. “The government was assured that the system was robust and the issues being raised by the postmasters were being handled appropriately. BEIS pressed management on these issues and was given consistent advice from the company’s experts that appeared to verify these claims at that time,” he said.
“In hindsight, of course, facts have come to light through the litigation that has revealed that advice given during that period was flawed,” he added. Callanan was referring to the judgment in the second trial in the recent multimillion-pound litigation.
In his judgment, Judge Fraser said the Post Office had exhibited “a simple institutional obstinacy or refusal to consider any possible alternatives to their view of Horizon”.
“This approach by the Post Office has amounted, in reality, to bare assertions and denials that ignore what has actually occurred, at least so far as the witnesses called before me in the Horizon issues trial are concerned. It amounts to the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the Earth is flat,” said Fraser.
Arbuthnot, former MP for Hampshire North East, and now Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom, said achieving a full public inquiry would be difficult due to the fact that the government could have to pay out large sums of compensation and was under little pressure due to a large majority in the House of Commons.