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The Post Office continues to review around 900 historical convictions of sub-postmasters linked to the Horizon accounting scandal, MPs have heard – with the Business Minister promising it "will not be a whitewash".
Paul Scully said the Government recognises the Horizon “dispute” has had a “hugely damaging effect” on the lives of sub-postmasters and their families, adding: “Its repercussions are still being felt today.”
The Post Office last week conceded 44 appeals by former sub-postmasters to overturn convictions linked to the scandal, meaning their convictions are likely to be overturned.
They included Rubbina Shaheen, 55, who kept Greenfields Post Office in Shrewsbury, jailed for 12 months in 2010 over an alleged £40,000 shortfall in the accounts; Tracy Felstead, 38, from Telford, an 18-year-old counter assistant at the time of her arrest, sentenced to six months in prison in 2001 for allegedly stealing £11,500; Tahir Mahmood, who kept Selly Oak Post Office, jailed for nine months in 2005 for false accounting; and former West Bromwich postmistress Neelam Hussain, jailed for 21 months in 2011, has also been granted an appeal.
The Post Office has apologised for its role in the matter.
Sub-postmasters were wrongly accused of theft, fraud and false accounting after the Horizon IT system was introduced to Post Office branches in 1999.
Mr Scully, replying to an urgent question, said the Post Office’s decision was an “important milestone” before telling the Commons: “The Post Office continues to co-operate fully with the CCRC (Criminal Cases Review Commission) and are in the process of reviewing about 900 historical prosecutions.
“Should they find any new information which may cast doubt on the safety of a conviction, they’ve confirmed they will disclose that information to the person who is convicted.”
Labour former minister Kevan Jones highlighted the “agony and torment” experienced by sub-postmasters and called for a full public inquiry.
He added: “I can’t get over the fact that this scandal is still being treated as somehow an issue for the Post Office – the Government is the single shareholder in the Post Office, they’re the ones that can make some changes.”
Mr Jones said “not a penny has been paid out” for historical compensation claims before criticising the Government’s judge-led inquiry examining the scandal, adding: “It may have a retired judge at its head but he does not have the power to summon witnesses and cross-examine them – a full public inquiry is needed, without that we will not get to the truth of this national scandal.”
Minister Paul Scully said the Post Office’s historical shortfall scheme has received more than 2,200 claims and they are being assessed.
On the inquiry, Mr Scully said: “We have Sir Wyn Williams as a former judge at the head of that, he will be an independent chair to ask the questions, be able to push back at Government, push back at the Post Office and get evidence.”
Mr Scully said it would be a “backward-looking” review which can seek evidence, adding: “I believe this is the inquiry – albeit on a non-statutory basis – that will actually get the answers but do it in a quick way that will hopefully satisfy the sub-postmasters to get the answers they want.”
Telford's Tory MP Lucy Allan called on the minister to “commit to determining who knew what and when during this shameful saga”.
She added: “How did a respectable organisation like the Post Office, a major software company like Fujitsu and the great and the good in the civil service and ministers from all parties fall prey to group-think on such a grand scale, that despite this computer error occurring across the country it was assumed the only possible explanation was that all sub postmasters affected were dishonest?”
And Sutton Coldfield's Tory MP Andrew Mitchell said: “It is clear, is it not, that a monstrous injustice by the state has been visited upon these poor post masters and poor post mistresses, leaving us all, I would hope, extremely uneasy?
“By refusing to allow the inquiry even to consider the compensation they should be given, isn’t the Government which owns, funds and directs the Post Office in danger of making an already truly dreadful situation even worse?”
Andrew Bridgen, Tory MP for North West Leicestershire, said: “With regard to the review he announced last week, what level of confidence does he have that it’ll gain the support and participation of all the stakeholders involved in this issue?
“Will it have the ability to hold to account and responsible those people who allowed this gross miscarriage of justice to occur? And if it can’t do the first two, what confidence can he have that it will ensure that this intolerable situation will never ever be repeated?”
Independent MP Dr Julian Lewis asked: “Does (he) accept that those present or former Post Office officials who perpetrated this disaster and perpetuated the agony of the victims must be punished, not promoted, and shamed rather than rewarded with honours, as I believe happened in at least one prominent instance?”
Shadow digital minister Chi Onwurah said the scandal “may well be the largest miscarriage of justice in our history”.
Tory MP Jason McCartney sought assurances from the Government that the voices of victims will be heard as part of the inquiry.
He said: “Can (Paul Scully) assure me that my constituent, who is one of the victims of this scandal, and all the other victims will be able to give evidence to this inquiry, they will be heard and that we will get a conclusion to this inquiry within the next year?”
Mr Scully responded: “It’s up to Sir Wyn Williams how he wants to frame that inquiry, but it’s absolutely set up for people to have their voices heard, for sub-postmasters to have their voices heard and reported back within around a year, so absolutely.”
Another Conservative MP, Marcus Fysh, said: “I welcome the establishment of the inquiry but can the minister please assure us that this is not going to be a whitewash. Many sub-postmasters in my constituency are very anxious to know that.”
Mr Scully responded: “Yes, I can assure him that it will not be a whitewash. I am determined to get the answers to the questions that we need.”