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MPs told to hold to account those responsible for Post Office Horizon IT scandal

10 Mar 2020, 15:04

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

Subpostmasters who had their lives destroyed by a faulty IT system and mistreatment by the Post Office have asked MPs to hold to account the people responsible for the injustices

Subpostmasters attending a Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) committee meeting told MPs to hold those responsible for the Post Office Horizon scandal to account.

During the committee hearing, subpostmasters wrongly punished for accounting shortfalls caused by the IT system used in Post Office branches answered questions from MPs, and further doubt was cast over prime minister Boris Johnson’s commitment to a public inquiry into the scandal.

Former subpostmasters Wendy Buffrey, Tracy Felstead and Alan Bates gave evidence to the committee investigating what happened to them and hundreds, possibly thousands of others.

Computer Weekly first reported problems with the Horizon IT system in 2009, when we revealed the stories of a group of subpostmasters who had suffered as a result of unexplained accounting shortfalls (see timeline below).

Following the Post Office conceding defeat in a group litigation brought by the wronged subpostmasters and agreeing to pay £57.75m in damages, victims are seeking further redress for their grievances. The BEIS hearing is part of an investigation into what went wrong at the Post Office.

During the BEIS hearing, Buffrey told MPs that they had an important role in holding the people responsible for the scandal to account. “Nobody has been held to account and we need your help to do that,” she said. “I want someone to be held to account for what they have done to us.”

Buffrey was prosecuted for false accounting, had to do 150 hours of community service and paid the Post Office £36,000 that it claimed she had lost. Her business was ruined and she has lived with a criminal record since 2010.

Felstead was sent to prison for theft – something she always denied and, following a recent High Court judgment, was proven right about. Bates lost his business and suffered losses, before driving a campaign for justice, which led to the court case and defeat for the Post Office.

The High Court judgment in December 2019, part of a multimillion-pound litigation brought by 550 subpostmasters against the Post Office, confirmed that allegations made by subpostmasters about the lack of robustness of the computer system they use were right.

Calling for prosecution
Executives at the Post Office were criticised by the judge, Peter Fraser, in his judgment. Fraser referred his concerns over the accuracy of evidence given in court by staff at IT supplier Fujitsu to the director of public prosecution. The Metropolitan Police Service has since been asked to consider the information and potentially investigate.

Former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells will also inevitably come under the spotlight in any public inquiry. She was CEO between 2012 and 2019, a period when many subpostmasters suffered at the hands of Horizon. After earning millions of pounds at the Post Office and being awarded a CBE for services to it, Vennells moved to Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, which she chairs.

“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”
Lucy Allan, Conservative MP

Lucy Allan, Conservative MP for Telford, recently told Computer Weekly that individuals who have not played by the rules should face prosecution.

“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.

Karl Turner, Labour MP for Hull East, said a judge-led public inquiry was needed to prove who, if anyone, is culpable.

“If the DDP gets a file back from the police saying that certain people are potentially culpable of the following offences, then I am fairly certain the DDP will authorise prosecutions against those individuals,” he said.

“I don’t want to cast aspersions on any individual directly, but if you are the CEO or ex-CEO [of the Post Office], you ought to be worried about whether you will be finding a summons to appear at Westminster Magistrates’ Court sometime in the next 12 to 18 months. That is a fear I would be living with if I was any of those senior individuals at the Post Office.”

Seeking a public inquiry
Subpostmasters and many MPs are now demanding a judge-led public inquiry as the only way to get to the bottom of the scandal.

In the BEIS meeting, Buffrey criticised Boris Johnson for the manner in which he avoided directly answering a question about a public inquiry.

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. “Like many other subpostmasters, my constituent Christopher Head fell victim to the Horizon IT system scandal. This has resulted in bankruptcy, imprisonment and even suicides,” she said. “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.

But as it transpired this was not a commitment at all. During the BEIS committee meeting, Buffrey said: “If he had said yes, that would have been great, but he did the usual politician thing of skirting around it, almost making the point that he will but not actually saying yes.”

Recouping legal costs
In addition to calls for a judge-led inquiry, subpostmasters demand that their legal costs be paid by the government, which fully owns the Post Office. After costs are taken from the £57.75m awarded, only about £10m is left for subpostmasters. This does not even get close to covering the money they lost, without taking into account other suffering such as the loss of businesses, the ability to work, living with criminal records and ill health.

During the BEIS debate, Bates said the claimants amassed total costs of about £15m, but because they were funded through a litigation funding company they had to pay it £3 for every £1 spent. He also said for all the money spent there was £4m in VAT to be paid to the government.

Bates said the investors and legal teams took on huge risks and had taken part for reduced fees because “they could see the wrongs that had been done”.

He said there was now a formula to work out how to share the remaining money, but admitted “no one will be happy”, which is why the group is calling on the government to pay the costs. Bates said the Post Office, which is 100% publicly owned, amassed legal costs of over £100m.

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