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Those who did not play by the rules in Post Office Horizon scandal "should face prosecution"

06 Mar 2020, 14:54

https://www.computerweekly.com/news/252 ... rosecution

Telford MP has become a vocal member of the campaign for justice for the subpostmasters who had their lives devastated as a result of being blamed for losses caused by errors in the Post Office’s core retail and accounting system

Lucy Allan, MP for Telford, has fought for justice for victims of institutional obstinacy before, and is now providing vital armoury for subpostmasters fighting for redress of the injustices inflicted on them by the Post Office, which blamed them for problems emanating from its Horizon IT system.

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Allan has become a loud voice in a growing group of MPs who are applying pressure in parliament for redress of subpostmaster grievances beyond the £57.75m awarded to the group of 550 subpostmasters that took on and defeated the Post Office in a huge group litigation, which ended in an out-of-court settlement in December 2019.

All but about £10m of the payout went on legal costs, and the remainder doesn’t get close to even covering the money subpostmasters lost – never mind compensating for the businesses and lives that were destroyed.

This came after many years of pressure from subpostmasters, led by Alan Bates, a former subpostmaster who first alerted the Post Office to problems with Horizon in 2000, just months after it was introduced. In 2004, he contacted Computer Weekly about the problems, but such was the Post Office’s determination to keep it quiet, it was not until 2009 when Computer Weekly had enough evidence to publish an article without fear of Post Office litigation.

After the article was published, subpostmasters that were told they were the only ones suffering unexplained account shortfalls realised this was not the case. If Bates’s early campaign is phase one of the battle, phase two began after the publication of the first article and the creation of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance campaign group in 2009, and ended last year with legal victory.

Phase three has now begun, with MPs key to helping subpostmasters get real justice. Criminal records need to be quashed and compensation that at least covers subpostmaster losses needs to be paid – not to mention a proper apology. As Bates told Computer Weekly following the court victory, the fight is now in Parliament.

The difference now is the judgment handed down by Judge Fraser, which were to many commentators the most damning indictments of a corporate cover-up they have ever seen.

These judgments set in stone that the IT system was at fault and Post Office and Fujitsu management were its accomplices, and give MPs the platform they needed to fight for subpostmasters.

Some MPs have shown support for the subpostmasters over the past years. Former MP and now peer James Arbuthnot is a prominent example, as are Andrew Bridgen and Kevan Jones. But now there are more, and Conservative MP Lucy Allan, who signalled her intent to fight for justice for affected subpostmasters, is one that stands out. Most recently, she secured a debate on the matter in Parliament.

“It is we, in this place, who must now find a solution to this grotesque injustice, a miscarriage of justice of immense proportions, and we must do so, whatever obstacles come our way,” said Allan.

She became involved after being contacted by constituent Tracy Felstead, who was sent to prison for theft – something she always denied and, following the court judgment, was proven right about.

Subpostmasters have a proven campaigner on their side in Allan, who fought for victims of child sexual exploitation in Telford when the authorities said no investigation was necessary, and was involved in forcing investigation into maternity deaths at Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital, which she said were “dismissed, underplayed and said to be historic”.

These have parallels with the Post Office scandal. Thousands of pages of detailed judgments from High Court Judge Fraser, in the Horizon legal dispute, leave any reader shocked and questioning why all individuals and organisations appear to have escaped serious ramifications, while innocent subpostmasters were summarily prosecuted with few questions asked.

Facing justice
Allan is determined to put this right. Speaking to Computer Weekly, she said that when it comes to the injustices inflicted by the Post Office, those that have not played by the rules – regardless of their position – should face justice.

“Anyone found to have deliberately misled the court or to have encouraged others to do so, thus causing a miscarriage of justice, should be prosecuted, no matter how mighty they are – we are all equal under the law and, in such a serious case, a prison sentence should be expected,” she said.

Allan recently tweeted: “Those responsible see the settlement as the end. It isn’t.”

Public inquiry
There is a great deal of investigation to go through to get to this point, but prime minister Boris Johnson recently appeared to agree that a public inquiry would be held to “get to the bottom of” the scandal. And while his words were ambiguous and subsequent announcements by the government make a public inquiry less certain, Allan is clear about what she heard during Prime Minister’s Questions on 26 February.

“I interpret what he said as a commitment to an inquiry,” she said. “Some very senior people in government believe there to have been a miscarriage of justice.”

Allan recently pushed and got approval for a 90-minute debate on the Horizon scandal in parliament, titled Criminal Cases Review Commission’s process for review of convictions relating to the Post Office and Horizon accounting system. This is part of her plan to have the convictions of those who have been wrongfully convicted overturned – an essential first step.

“I believe there are sufficient grounds, given the judgments handed down by the courts, for government to devise a mechanism for a blanket pardon for all those whose conviction relied on the now-discredited Horizon IT system,” said Allan. “If the evidence relied upon was flawed, it follows that the conviction was flawed.”

She said initial discussions with the justice department have been positive because “they get it and see it as a significant injustice”.

A head of steam
The Ministry of Justice is not the only group that “gets it”. As the 90-minute debate in parliament revealed, there is a head of steam building around this in Parliament, with strong feeling across the House of Commons.

During the debate, Karl Turner, Labour MP for East Hull, described the behaviour of the Post Office as “the most disgusting example of predatory capitalism that I have ever come across”. There were many more passionate speeches during the debate, and the more that this is debated publicly, the more likely justice will prevail.

But the government department responsible for the Post Office, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), seems unlikely to say anything other than what has been said before, said Allan. Meanwhile, the Post Office has its head in the sand.

“I thought that now the courts have ruled on this matter, the Post Office would be interested in helping subpostmasters get on with their lives and having their convictions quashed,” she said. “But, regrettably, this is not the case. They give the appearance of believing that the convictions are still sound despite the courts finding that the evidence used to prosecute the workers was flawed.”

Allan emphasised that names must be cleared as a priority. “Now a settlement has been agreed between the parties, those wrongfully convicted who were part of that settlement will not be getting further compensation.

“After legal costs, some Post Office workers will not even get back the money the Post Office wrongfully extorted from them, with threats of jail if they did not pay up,” she said. “They are not going to get the financial compensation for the loss they suffered, but they could get their convictions quashed and a proper apology.

“This should come before a public inquiry,” said Allan. “A public inquiry will take many years, and while it is an effective mechanism for holding those responsible to account, in the meantime workers still have the wrongful convictions to contend with, which prevents them from getting on with their lives.”

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