Labour politicians are calling for the government to give the Post Office Horizon scandal inquiry the power to force witnesses to give evidence if they don’t cooperate.
Campaigners for justice for subpostmaster victims of the scandal fear that the government will “brush it under the carpet” through its inquiry, which “lacks teeth”.
A letter to postal affairs minister Paul Scully was sent by former Labour leader David Miliband, shadow business minister Chi Onwurah and peer Charles Falconer, after a meeting with subpostmasters campaigning for justice.
The current inquiry does not have statutory powers to call witnesses from organisations that played a part in allowing one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in UK history to happen.
Campaigners say Post Office and Fujitsu executives, as well as government ministers and civil servants, must be questioned if the truth is to be revealed and justice is to be done.
The plight of the subpostmasters was made public in 2009, when a Computer Weekly investigation revealed they were being blamed for unexplained financial losses, which the subpostmasters claimed were caused by errors made by the Horizon retail and accounting IT system. The Post Office denied this, and subpostmasters were prosecuted for theft and false accounting (see timeline below). Some were sent to prison, many were bankrupted and others suffered stress-related ill health as a result.
In 2018, hundreds of subpostmasters took the Post Office to court in a group litigation action to prove the computer system was to blame for unexplained losses. They won the multimillion-pound High Court battle, which concluded in December 2019, proving that the Horizon computer system was to blame for unexplained accounting shortfalls.
The call for a judge-led public inquiry came after High Court judge Peter Fraser ruled that 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”.
Labour’s call mirrors that of the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) campaign group. Its founder, former subpostmaster Alan Bates, told Computer Weekly last week that the inquiry need not be statutory when it starts, but there should be a mechanism to make it statutory if organisations and individuals do not cooperate.
In the letter to Scully, the Labour politicians expressed their disappointment with the government inquiry after initially being convinced by the government that it wanted to get to the bottom of the scandal.
“We are profoundly disappointed that your proposal for a judge-led inquiry gets nowhere near that,” they wrote. “There is no point wasting the subpostmasters’ time or that of the distinguished retired judge with something which risks being doomed to fail.
“The JFSA said they will not cooperate with the inquiry unless there are substantial changes to the terms of reference. We have met them, and we share their concern.”
The politicians warned that without powers to compel witnesses, the organisations involved will only have to provide “minimum co-operation”, which will ensure no further information beyond the judgments in the High Court trials emerges. “We have absolutely no doubt that is how their lawyers would advise them to approach the inquiry,” they wrote. “They only have to hold out till mid-2021 on the proposed timetable.”
The JFSA is also demanding that the government pay subpostmasters’ legal costs. Subpostmasters were awarded £47.5m in the High Court, but only about £11m was left after costs were taken out. The Post Office spent more than £100m on fighting the subpostmasters in court.
In a recent interview with Computer Weekly, Bates questioned what more the JFSA could do after forcing the truth out through the courts – something he said would have been unnecessary if the government had done what it should have. Instead, through the Post Office, the government spent well over £100m on defending the case, despite the fact that it was known within the Post Office that computer errors were causing unexplained losses.
“They already have over 1,000 pages of court-tested evidence from the judgments from the trials, which at the moment we have paid £46m for, but the judgments show exactly what went on – incompetence and cover-up by Post Office management, supported blindly by the board and the government,” said Bates. “It is utterly pointless our taking part in their whitewash review, there is nothing in it for us and all we would be doing is giving our stamp of approval to their pointless internal whitewash review.”
As regards the compensation, the Labour politicians’ letter to Scully said: “Subpostmasters suffered material damage to their income and assets, including reputation. They were forced to abandon their litigation because the cost risks made it prohibitive. The compensation received as part of that settlement primarily went on legal costs, with only derisory amounts paid to the postmasters as compensation.
“If justice is to be done, the inquiry must be able to consider what further payments should be made to them. As such, compensation is an important part of resolving this injustice and should be included in the inquiry.”
Onwurah said: “Any inquiry worth its salt must get to the bottom of what happened, identify who was responsible, and make recommendations to ensure the injustice is put right.”