The government has confirmed that the inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal will now proceed on a statutory basis, with the power to compel witnesses and evidence.
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) minister Paul Scully told the House of Commons that “nothing is off the table” in the updated inquiry.
The Post Office, former government ministers, Post Office and Fujitsu employees can be called for evidence under oath by the inquiry chair, who can also demand the disclosure of documents. This was not the case in the inquiry in its previous form.
Former High Court judge Wyn Williams will continue as chair of the inquiry, which will report in the Autumn of 2022, rather than June this year as previously planned under its original, more limited scope.
Scully said: “The government has now given notice to convert the inquiry into a statutory inquiry and at the same time amend the inquiry’s terms of reference.”
In a written statement, Scully added: “Government wants to be fully assured that through the inquiry there is a public summary of the failings associated with Post Office Ltd’s Horizon IT system.”
The inquiry will now have the power to look into what went wrong in the Post Office and to examine “any other relevant evidence”.
Campaigners had called for a full assessment of how the Post Office came to prosecute subpostmasters despite knowing that the Horizon IT system could be faulty. Under its new remit, Scully said the inquiry will include “Post Office Ltd’s use of information from Horizon when taking action against persons alleged to be responsible for shortfalls.”
The original non-statutory inquiry was criticised by subpostmaster victims of the scandal and campaigners for justice.
Alan Bates, who set up the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) campaign group, said it was a “whitewash” and Conservative peer James Arbuthnot described it as “a cynical cop-out”
The government had repeatedly said the inquiry would remain non-statutory to ensure it comes to a speedy conclusion – even as recently as a debate in the House of Commons last month.
After the Post Office rolled out its Horizon retail and accounting system across the country in 1999/2000, subpostmasters began experiencing accounting shortfalls they could not explain. Rather than investigating the IT system, the Post Office blamed subpostmasters and prosecuted 736 of them. Many were forced to pay back the money, despite believing the computer system was to blame, and were ruined financially. The lives of hundreds, possibly thousands of people and their families, were destroyed.
After 39 former subpostmasters had their criminal convictions for financial crimes overturned on 23 April, Scully said the government looked again at the inquiry’s footing and scope. But pressure had also been mounting from subpostmaster victims of the scandal, politicians, journalists and an increasingly incensed public.
In 2009, Computer Weekly told the stories of seven subpostmasters affected by the problems, which led to many more who had suffered losses coming forward (see timeline below for Computer Weekly coverage of the scandal).
A total of 47 former subpostmasters have now had their convictions overturned, with many more expected. The Post Office recently wrote to 540 people who were convicted based on evidence from the Horizon computer system, informing them that they might have a case for appeal.
The terms of reference of the inquiry are being negotiated by ministers and Wyn Williams, who asked for more powers and the ability to look further back.
“[Williams] felt it would be better if he could look at this within an inquiry with a statutory footing and with expanded terms of reference,” said Scully.
Kevan Jones, Labour MP for North Durham, who has campaigned for subpostmasters for 10 years, said this is the first time a minister has admitted they got something wrong and changed it.
“It is right now we get full disclosure of the facts and right the wrongs,” he said, and asked Scully if the process would include looking into the role of government ministers.
“Ministers like to hide behind the Post Office, but it is wholly owned by the government and the government have to take some responsibility and can’t blame the Post Office for all of this,” he said.
Scully said: “Nothing is off the table. We want to get answers. We want to make sure we get justice and that does include the government. Questions will be asked in the inquiry and I expect them to be answered.”
Darren Jones, MP, chair of the BEIS select committee which has investigated the scandal, said the move to a statutory inquiry was a victory for campaigners.
“It’s important this review is able to deliver justice for those who have waited for so long and is able to get to the truth. The review’s remit has been extended but crucial issues around compensation and accountability still need to be addressed. Ministers should give Wyn Williams the powers to decide on the inquiry’s terms of reference.”
Post Office CEO Nick Read said there can only be closure for victims of the Horizon scandal by establishing a comprehensive picture of what went wrong.
“As I have said previously, Post Office will support and co-operate with any inquiry the government sees fit to convene, and I welcome the announcement that Wyn Williams’ inquiry will now move to a statutory footing. Post Office will continue to co-operate fully with him and his team.”