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MPs call on PM to commit to full public inquiry into Post Office Horizon IT scandal

05 Mar 2020, 15:55

https://www.computerweekly.com/news/252 ... IT-scandal

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee to investigate the Horizon IT system and will question Post Office executives over subpostmasters wrongly accused of fraud

MPs have launched an investigation into the Post Office Horizon IT scandal and are calling on the Prime Minister to carry out his promise to conduct a formal inquiry.

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The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee plan to interview the current and former Post Office chief executives and a government minister to uncover the lessons learned from the scandal that saw hundreds of subpostmasters accused of fraud.

Committee chair Rachel Reeves, MP, has also written to Boris Johnson to request further details of his apparent promise in Parliament last week to “get to the bottom of the matter” through a public inquiry.

“Horizon raises many questions which need to be answered,” Reeves wrote in her letter to the PM.

“The case raises serious concerns about Post Office management culture, its relationship with subpostmasters, and what support and guidance the latter were given when faced with accusations of fraud. The case also highlights the role of BEIS ministers and officials and UK government investments in providing oversight of the Post Office, both in its decision-making and effective use of public money.”

She added: “I was therefore pleased that… you appeared to commit to a public inquiry into the Post Office and Horizon IT system. Please can you confirm that you will launch a full, independent public inquiry and, if so, when that is likely to be?”

Johnson was asked about the scandal during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons on 26 February, by Kate Osborne, Labour MP for Jarrow, who said, “Will the Prime Minister today commit to an independent public inquiry?”

Johnson replied: “I am happy to commit to getting to the bottom of the matter in the way that she recommends.”

However, when Computer Weekly subsequently approached the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which is responsible for the relationship with the publicly owned Post Office, we were told only that BEIS is “looking into what more needs to be done”.

Pressure on the government is mounting after the scandal was discussed in both houses of Parliament, with MPs on both sides critical of the Post Office.

Computer Weekly first reported the problems with the Horizon accounting system in 2009, when we revealed the stories of a group of subpostmasters. Soon after this, more subpostmasters came forward, but the dispute dates back even further than that (see timeline below).

A multimillion-pound court case, which concluded in December 2019, saw 550 subpostmasters take the Post Office to court in a group litigation, in an attempt to redress the grievances caused to them by the error-prone computer system they used, as well as contract terms described as oppressive by a High Court judge.

Subpostmasters were prosecuted for theft or false accounting as a result of accounting shortfalls that were caused by the Horizon IT system, with some subpostmasters jailed.

In his judgment in the High Court for the second trial in the court case, which focused on the Horizon computer system, Judge Fraser said the Post Office had exhibited “a simple institutional obstinacy or refusal to consider any possible alternatives to their view of Horizon, which was maintained regardless of the weight of factual evidence to the contrary”.

Subpostmasters were awarded £57.75m in damages, but after costs were taken out they were left with around £10m, which means subpostmasters will not even get back the money they lost. Nobody at the Post Office has been held accountable for the organisations’ aggressive approach to its subpostmasters.

“Hundreds of subpostmasters have suffered considerable distress, and many have had their lives ruined by the faults in the Horizon IT system. Following December’s High Court ruling in favour of the subpostmasters, and the finding that Horizon was flawed, it’s right to examine what the Post Office Ltd and the government have learned from this scandal and establish what steps they are taking to ensure something similar never happens again,” said Reeves.

“The case also raises concerns about the damage caused to the relationship between Post Office Ltd and the subpostmasters and about what this means for the future of our post-office network. We will hold executives from Post Office Ltd and [supplier] Fujitsu to account for their handling of the problems around the Horizon IT and accounting system.”

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