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A scandal where hundreds of sub-postmasters and postmistresses were accused of stealing money after the Post Office installed a new computer system should be investigated through a judge-led inquiry, a Yorkshire MP who defended one of the victims has said.
Hull East MP Karl Turner, who is also a barrister, represented victim Janet Skinner in a 2006 case and has campaigned for justice for those caught up in the saga.
On Wednesday, the Government announced the terms of reference of an independent review into the events, but many critics - including Tory MPs - have said it will not go far enough for victims who were convicted, made bankrupt, and some even took their own lives.
Last year, the Post Office paid a £57.75m settlement after more than 550 claimants brought group legal action over the Horizon system, which was found to contain software defects that caused financial shortfalls in the subpostmasters’ branch accounts over a number of years.
And a BBC Panorama investigation reportedly discovered Post Office managers knew problems existed with the Horizon computing system at the time.
But the Government has been told victims will be failed again if a judge does not head up their review.
Mr Turner said the row was not political, as he said Governments of both colours had failed to tackle the issue.
But he said: “This Government can be criticised on the basis that around 2010 it was blatantly obvious to anybody that something was going wrong.
“The Post Office continued to dig their heels in and mislead civil servants and Government ministers. And the failing of Government was simply not asking enough questions.”
Mr Turner said those postmasters caught up in the scandal were stuck between a rock and a hard place, and when the issue came to court they were often advised by lawyers to plead guilty to a charge of false accounting, because by the letter of the law that was what had occurred.
But he said this was because when postmasters would call a Post Office helpline to report a shortfall, they were instructed to tell the system there was no shortfall because it would “sort itself out” when the missing sum was located.
Mr Turner likened it to the reasonable excuse defence linked to criminal damage, and gave the example of if a person was stuck in a building which was ablaze and the fire service told them to break a window to escape, they would not expect to be prosecuted for breaking the window as they had been officially instructed to do so.
He said they were also disadvantaged by the probation system which would record that they did not have any remorse for the situation and were likely to do it again, but that was because they had followed the guidelines they were given and had not done anything wrong.
He said: “The review is nonsense because it's not being done by a judge.
“The person who's going to be chairing the review doesn’t have any powers to summons witnesses, doesn't have any powers to refer lying witnesses to the criminal court for perverting the course of justice, it’s utterly toothless and utterly powerless and the Government knows that, and the Government is making the same mistake as previous governments have done and are just allowing this to go undiscovered.”
But Business Minister Paul Scully said the independent review would be “the same as a judge-led inquiry” and that the latter would be too long.
He said: “If we have a public inquiry, we tend to get a lot of expense, with both sides lawyering up, to use the vernacular. That is why £600m has been spent in the last 30 years on public inquiries.
“We can either spend a lot of time in working on such a case, or we can get through a review, build on the work of the independent judge who has already looked at this case and has already built up the foundations, and make sure that we add to that by listening to the voices of those people who have gone through absolute hell.”
But Mr Turner said: “It is negligent in the very extreme of this minister refusing a judge-led inquiry.”
Victims of the scandal have also called for the inquiry to be judge-led, Mr Turner said.
He said: “It’s the biggest miscarriage of justice that I can ever remember and it’s appalling that this Tory government are still allowing the Post Office to pull wool over their eyes. It's shameful and the minister should be ashamed.”
Mr Scully said: “The Post Office has said that it will comply fully with this review. I will push fully for that compliance, and I am sure that the independent chair will want to get right to the bottom of things, however long that takes. We need to get on with the review and get it started now.
“On the Government’s actions over the past few years, this issue happened over 20 years, and with hindsight facts have come to light in the litigation that some of the advice received was flawed. However, we have pushed for many years to make sure that we can get a settlement, and I am glad that we are at the point at which we can start to get some answers.”
The Post Office previously said its new CEO Nick Read “is making his number one priority the wholesale reform of Post Office’s relationship with its postmasters”.
The Post Office added it had launched a scheme “to consider the cases of all postmasters who experienced shortfalls which they believe were caused by bugs in historical versions of Horizon.”
In Wednesday's debate former Conservative minister Dr Julian Lewis said the prosecution of postmasters over missing money is “one of the worst disasters in public life since the contaminated blood scandal”.
Fellow Tory Jerome Mayhew (Broadland) agreed and urged “individual culpability of senior management figures” to be considered following the scandal which left some postmasters being made bankrupt while others were prosecuted and jailed.
Dr Lewis (New Forest East) said: “Does the minister agree that if it is proven that Post Office executives were aware of the software faults that allowed innocent people to rot in jail then they were guilty of criminal negligence, and possibly criminal conspiracy, and therefore ought to be brought to justice?
“Will the proposed inquiry allow that to be done?”
Mr Scully replied: “Mr Justice Fraser considered what happened … and set out his findings in considerable detail and, as I said, he has referred some individuals towards the Criminal Prosecution Service as well.”
In response to Mr Mayhew’s call for “individual culpability of senior management figures within the Post Office” to be part of this review, Mr Scully said: “When looking at what went wrong, that will by necessity need to look at who took what decisions and when.”
Former Tory cabinet minister Sir John Redwood called for the Post Office to apologise to wronged sub-postmasters and for the business to pay “generous” compensation.
Mr Scully said: “The terms of reference of this review is the same as a public inquiry. It is to work out who is to blame, can it happen again, how can we prevent it from happening again, what the wrongs were and let’s get those righted.”
Lib Dem Alistair Carmichael said an independent review “just isn’t going to cut it”.
He said: “The minister says that this is a complex case spanning a long period of time, and he is absolutely right about that, that is why it requires a judge-led inquiry. That is what will happen eventually, so why not just cut to the quick and do it now?”
Mr Scully replied: “The point is that the terms of reference within this review are the same as a judge-led inquiry.
“Because what I do not want, is I do not want an inquiry that is going to last 13 years for sub-postmasters who are going to come back time and time and time again with no justice.”
MPs added that compensation is too late for those who have tragically taken their lives due to the scandal.
Labour’s Kim Johnson (Liverpool Riverside) said. “Sadly, one of my constituents tragically took his own life after being falsely accused of financial impropriety, leaving his family destitute and without their business.
“It’s too late for an apology or compensation for this family.”