Post Office accused of lying and being in contempt of Parliament in IT scandal

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Peer James Arbuthnot has demanded that parliamentarians be given access to a document that potentially puts the Post Office in contempt of Parliament for providing misleading evidence to an earlier inquiry into the Horizon IT scandal.

Arbuthnot said the document could reveal that the Post Office “lied to, and was in contempt of, Parliament” during an inquiry into the scandal that saw subpostmasters  prosecuted for financial crimes such as theft, which proved to be accounting shortfalls caused by computer errors.

In the Court of Appeal on 18 November, during a hearing that saw subpostmasters convicted of crimes begin their court battle to clear their names, a document from 2013 was referred to which allegedly contains information that could have undermined the prosecution of subpostmasters for financial crimes.

The disclosure, which has not been made public, is from a barrister to the Post Office about evidence given by an expert witness in the trials of subpostmasters who blamed the Horizon computer system for accounting shortfalls.

In 2009, a Computer Weekly investigation revealed that subpostmasters, who run Post Office branches, were being blamed for unexplained financial losses, which they claimed were caused by errors made by the Post Office’s Horizon retail and accounting system. The Post Office always denied this, and many subpostmasters were prosecuted for theft and false accounting, with prison sentences, community service, criminal records and heavy fines among the injustices they suffered as a result (see timeline below). 

The document allegedly suggests that evidence given by a key expert witness, a Fujitsu technology expert, for the Post Office in the trials of subpostmasters was incorrect.

After hearing about the development in the Court of Appeal, Arbuthnot wrote to Conservative peer Martin Callanan, a UK government minister, demanding that the document, which he said MPs should have seen in 2013 when they were in discussion with the Post Office about potentially unsafe subpostmaster convictions, should be made available to members of both Houses of Parliament.

Arbuthnot wrote: “On Wednesday 18 November, the Court of Appeal considered a piece of advice written by a barrister, Simon Clarke, in 2013 for the Post Office. According to Brian Altman QC, acting for the Post Office, this advice – which was apparently to the effect that the evidence of Gareth Jenkins (a former senior Fujitsu Horizon engineer) was wrong – was disclosed.

“In 2013, I and other MPs were in full flow of the discussion with Post Office management [including then CEO Paula Vennells] about the unsafe nature of the Horizon convictions. We should have been told about this document, but I have not yet seen it. Please will you immediately send me a copy, and place it in the library of both Houses?”

Following a reply from Callanan informing Arbuthnot that the matter was being looked into, Arbuthnot sent a follow-up email, which he copied to the Speaker of the House of Commons, to the Lord Speaker and other interested parties.

He told Callanan that in February 2015, the BEIS Select Committee took evidence in its inquiry into the Post Office mediation scheme. Evidence given in the form of written submission by the Post Office said the organisation would act upon any evidence that emerged that suggested a subpostmaster conviction could be unsafe.

In his email, Arbuthnot pointed Callanan to one Post Office statement in the inquiry, which said: “Post Office is under an absolute duty to disclose any evidence that might undermine a prosecution case or support the case of a defendant. It takes its responsibilities in this regard very seriously and Post Office’s investigations have been carried out with this important duty firmly in mind. Post Office writes to everyone who has suggested they have or have seen evidence that a conviction is unsafe and asked them to disclose this so that it can be acted on. To date, no such evidence has been provided.”

Arbuthnot added that the late disclosure of the advice by Clarke, which he said should have been in the public domain in 2013, “establishes that the Post Office lied to, and was in contempt of, Parliament”.

Arbuthnot has been a staunch supporter of the postmasters since helping a member of his former constituency in Hampshire, Jo Hamilton, who had a grocery store with a Post Office attached. When she was unable to explain accounting shortfalls and faced the prospect of a prison sentence, Hamilton pleaded guilty to false accounting, although she had done nothing wrong.

In December last year, a High Court judge confirmed that allegations made by subpostmasters about the reliability of the computer system they used were right. The Post Office agreed to pay £57.75m compensation and apologised. But due to the Post Office, which is government owned, fighting the case at a cost of over £100m, subpostmaster claimants were left with only about £11m compensation to share between more than 500 people. 

In June, a total of 47 cases of potential miscarriages of justice in which subpostmasters were prosecuted were sent to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission in England. This was the biggest group referral in history.

Two former Fujitsu staff are currently under investigation by police for potential perjury in the trials of subpostmasters prosecuted for financial crimes.

In February, the government said it had been misled by the Post Office. In the House of Lords, UK government minister Callanan said at the time: “The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy relied on Post Office management to investigate the issues with the Horizon system and the government was assured that the system was robust and the issues being raised by the postmasters were being handled appropriately. BEIS pressed management on these issues and was given consistent advice from the company’s experts that appeared to verify these claims at that time.”

But he added: “In hindsight, of course, facts have come to light through the litigation that has revealed that advice given during that period was flawed.”

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