The years of dishonesty that enabled the Post Office to cover up the real cause of accounting shortfalls that saw innocent subpostmasters convicted of crimes, make the need for a statutory public inquiry overwhelming.
A Court of Appeal decision to overturn the criminal convictions of 39 subpostmasters, wrongly prosecuted for financial crimes, has amplified calls for such a statutory inquiry, with the power to call witnesses under oath.
Campaigners for the affected subpostmasters say the current Horizon scandal inquiry, set up by the government and chaired by former judge Wyn Williams, lacks the teeth of a courtroom. It cannot call witnesses to give evidence under oath or summon all documentation.
Subpostmasters were prosecuted for crimes including theft and false accounting after being blamed for unexplained accounting shortfalls that appeared on the Horizon accounting system they used. But the apparent losses, which the Post Office did not investigate, were caused by computer errors.
The Post Office knew there were problems with the Horizon system, but did not reveal them until it was forced to do so in court. Subpostmasters served prison sentences, received criminal records, were made bankrupt, lost life savings and homes, and families were ruined.
Three of the most senior judges in England found that the wrongful prosecutions of subpostmasters by the Post Office were not just operational incompetence, but “egregious” and an abuse of the court’s processes. In fact, they were an “affront to the conscience of the court”, the judges said.
A total of 45 former subpostmasters have now had their convictions overturned, including 39 in the Court of Appeal and six in Southwark Crown Court in December. And there will be more. Between 2000 and 2015, 736 subpostmasters were prosecuted by the Post Office based on evidence from the Horizon system.
Justice has been a slow process. It has taken 20 years, since the first subpostmasters were prosecuted, for the first group of convictions to be overturned. In that time, the people whose decisions led to the miscarriages of justice have continued their careers. Paula Vennells, Post Office CEO from 2012 to 2019, earned millions of pounds and was awarded a CBE for services to the Post Office and charity, while Tim Parker, chairman since 2015, has been unscathed by the scandal. Then there are civil servants and ministers who were apparently either deaf to the concerns being raised or were part of the problem.
Subpostmasters, campaigners and, increasingly, the public demand a statutory inquiry as the history of this long and painful episode has revealed that it takes the courtroom to get to the truth. The Post Office deceived subpostmasters, the courts and the public for years in its attempts to keep a lid on the Horizon problems. Even the government admitted it was misled by the Post Office through constant reassurances that the Horizon system could not cause unexplained losses.
The government said its current inquiry is making good progress and that it wants to avoid a full public inquiry because it would take years to complete and subpostmasters have already waited long enough. It said it would change the inquiry if the people involved failed to cooperate.
But the Post Office’s behaviour over the past two decades means the current inquiry is not enough, according to peer James Arbuthnot, who has campaigned for justice for subpostmasters for over a decade. He told Computer Weekly that the inquiry’s lack of power to call witnesses under oath was a major problem.
“The government says it doesn’t need such power because everyone is giving evidence willingly,” said Arbuthnot. “But the Post Office has been so mendacious, secretive and unhelpful over the entire course of this matter that anyone who trusts them is displaying either naivety or a cynical willingness to collude with them.”
Another long-term campaigner for the subpostmasters, Labour MP Kevan Jones, said a statutory public inquiry with the powers to summon individuals to give evidence was necessary. “Without it, the government is relying on people’s good will in coming forward to explain their roles in the Horizon scandal,” he said. “The current government inquiry also lacks the power to summon documents from the Post Office or reluctant government departments.’’
Deceit began early
It didn’t have to be that way, but the Post Office management went to great lengths trying to cover up the known IT problems, which, if made public, would have undermined their prosecutions of subpostmasters. It chose this course of action rather than listening to subpostmasters, investigating their problems and trying to fix them.
Computer problems were known about from the beginning of the Horizon system’s introduction in 2000 – and they had been brought to the Post Office’s attention. But the organisation was determined not to undermine Horizon and it decided to mislead and isolate subpostmasters who were experiencing problems. Many subpostmasters who were experiencing unexplainable losses suspected that the accounting system was in error because the problems began soon after its introduction. But the Post Office policy was to deny the existence of computer errors and tell any subpostmaster who raised issues that they were the first to do so.
But through separate subpostmasters contacting Computer Weekly, years apart, the Post Office’s Horizon defences were breached for the first time. In 2009, a Computer Weekly investigation revealed the stories of seven former subpostmasters who had had their lives devastated after being blamed for unexplained cash shortfalls (see box below for Computer Weekly’s coverage of the story since 2009).
This broke the Post Office’s first line of defence in its strategy to keep a lid on the Horizon problems. Every subpostmaster interviewed told the same story, that when they went to the Post Office for help, they were told they were the only one having trouble.
In that article, the Post Office denied that it had received any complaints from subpostmasters. It also denied that any IT-related fault could have caused the systems to show incorrect sums of money owed by some branches. But after the article was published in 2009, subpostmasters across the country realised they were not alone and began making contact with each other.
A few months later, Alan Bates, a former subpostmaster in North Wales and one of the first group of subpostmasters interviewed by Computer Weekly, set up a campaign group. The Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) was created and the fight for justice began.
In another article that same year, the Post Office told Computer Weekly: “Horizon is an extremely robust system which operates over our entire network and successfully records millions of transactions each day. There is no evidence that points to any fault with the technology. We would always look into and investigate any issues raised by subpostmasters.”
Looking at the evidence today, it is difficult to believe that response to a journalist’s question was approved by any organisation, let alone one owned by the government.
The subpostmasters now had strength in numbers, the support of MPs and with journalists investigating, but the Post Office battened down the hatches and the deceit became endemic. In 2013, instructions were given to Post Office staff, by its head of security, to shred documents that could undermine Horizon’s robustness, and that same year a lawyer, commissioned by the Post Office, warned that its expert IT witnesses during subpostmaster trials were not being honest. In 2015, it even rubbished a report by forensic accountants Second Sight, which it had commissioned to look at the Horizon system, because its conclusions didn’t fit with the Post Office’s assertions that Horizon was robust.
Government was misled
The government, which has the power to set up a statutory inquiry, said it was itself misled by the Post Office. In February last year, Martin Callanan, a UK government minister in the House of Lords, said: “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.”
Callanan added: “In hindsight, of course, facts have come to light through the litigation which has revealed that advice given during that period was flawed.”
But all this was kept quiet and had it not been for disclosure and the cross-examination of witnesses, it might never have come to light. Subpostmsters had to do it the hard, and expensive, way. In 2017, after years of campaigning, the JFSA, which by then had more than 500 former subpostmasters as members, received permission for a group litigation order (GLO) against the Post Office. In 2018, the multimillion-pound trial began in the High Court.
It was this High Court battle that was to lay bare the extent of the cover-up by the Post Office over the preceding 17 years. Two trials revealed the extent of the scandal through the disclosure of thousands of documents and questioning of witnesses from the Post Office as well as the claimant subpostmasters. In fact, after 20 years, the Post Office’s claim that Horizon was robust was rejected in the High Court in 2019, when Judge Peter Fraser ruled that it was not remotely robust. He also said the Post Office had engaged in “oppressive behaviour” when demanding sums of money that could not be accounted for by subpostmasters.
That obfuscation was even evident in the High Court itself, with former Post Office director Angela van den Bogerd trying to mislead Judge Fraser during the trial. He wrote in his damning judgement: “There were two specific matters where [Van den Bogerd] did not give me frank evidence, and sought to obfuscate matters and mislead me.”
In December 2019, the Post Office conceded defeat in the High Court case, apologised and agreed to pay £57.75m damages. But this was after spending more than £100m on legal fees and forcing the subpostmaster claimants to themselves spend £46m on legal fees, which was paid to litigation funders, who initially funded the action.
It was soon after this that the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) referred the first group of subpostmasters to the Court of Appeal to have their convictions reviewed. This was the biggest group referral in history. In March this year, the Court of Appeal heard the appeals against wrongful prosecution on two grounds. The first (Limb 1) was that the computer evidence on which the prosecutions were based was unreliable and the second (Limb 2) was that the Post Office knew the defendants couldn’t get a fair trial, but prosecuted them anyway.
The first ground could be the result of incompetence on the Post Office’s part, and due to a lack of understanding of computer systems. But the second suggested the Post Office’s actions were premeditated and opened up Post Office and government executives to scrutiny.
On 23 April, three judges in the Court of Appeal ruled that the Post Office had used its private prosecution powers against subpostmasters blamed for accounting shortfalls, despite knowing they could not get a fair trial. A total of 39 convictions were overturned on both grounds. The court had previously heard evidence that the Post Office knew the Horizon IT system was flawed, but continued to prosecute subpostmasters regardless.
In a ruling devastating for the Post Office, the judges wrote: “We conclude that the Post Office knew there were serious issues about the reliability of Horizon. It had a clear duty to investigate all reasonable lines of enquiry, to consider disclosure and to make disclosure to the appellants of anything which might reasonably be considered to undermine its case. Yet it does not appear that [the Post Office] adequately considered or made relevant disclosure of problems with or concerns about Horizon in any of the cases at any point during that period.
“On the contrary, it consistently asserted that Horizon was robust and reliable. Nor does it appear that any attempt was made to investigate the assertions of subpostmasters that there must be a problem with Horizon. The consistent failure of the Post Office to be open and honest about the issues affecting Horizon can, in our view, only be explained by a strong reluctance to say or do anything which might lead to other subpostmasters knowing about those issues. Those concerned with prosecutions of subpostmasters clearly wished to be able to maintain the assertion that Horizon data was accurate, and effectively steamrolled over any subpostmasters who sought to challenge its accuracy.”
Paul Marshall, a barrister at Cornerstone Barristers, who worked on appeals for three of the subpostmasters, said the judges’ ruling on Limb 2, “an affront to the conscience of the court”, makes a full public inquiry much more likely.
“What the Court of Appeal decision on Limb 2 does is say the entire course of prosecutions that were concerned with Horizon issues and the Post Office’s entire strategy around them, for which [Paula Vennells] was ultimately responsible, were an abuse of the court’s process,” he said.
A judgment as devastating as this, and Judge Fraser’s ruling before it, add weight to demands to know who made what decisions.
Helen Pitcher, chairman of the CCRC, which reviewed all the appeals before they went to the Court of Appeal, said a statutory public inquiry is likely to result in the end because of public pressure. “There is a huge body of opinion that says there should be a full statutory public inquiry,” she said. “Currently that is being resisted, but I suspect public outcry will take it there at the end of the day.”
Pitcher said that Vennells, who was CEO of the Post Office between 2012 and 2019, either “knew what was going on or wasn’t doing her job”.
She added: “I have served on company boards and these are the kinds of reports I would expect to come to the board. There should have been a whole host of questions asked. I don’t have any evidence to say they were asked but if they were and they said ‘OK then’, they were asleep at the wheel.”
Karl Turner, Labour MP for East Hull, who is current shadow justice minister and former shadow attorney general, said senior civil servants and ministers were consistently lied to or, worse still, were themselves culpable in the cover-up by the Post Office. “We cannot allow a whitewash review chaired by a retired judge, appointed by the government – the owner of the Post Office – to carry out any meaningful review,” he said. “Only a judge-led inquiry with the powers to compel witnesses to give evidence under oath, with powers to hold those giving evidence to account, will get to the bottom of this scandal.”
Turner described the current inquiry as “pathetic” and said the government knows it will fail to hold those responsible to account, and is “tantamount to letting Post Office Ltd (the government) mark its own homework”.
He added: “If the prime minister is sorry for what these innocent former subpostmasters were put through, he should dump this whitewash and order the proper inquiry the victims truly deserve. Once that inquiry is completed, those responsible for this scandalous cover-up should face investigation and potentially prosecutions and if convicted, should be themselves expecting prison sentences.”
£100m legal costs
There were opportunities for the Post Office to sort out the problems, but it chose to fight the subpostmasters all the way, amassing over £100m in legal costs. Jo Hamilton, who had her criminal conviction overturned, said the victims of the scandal could have had their lives back almost decade ago if Vennells had not ignored their claims and reports that Horizon was potentially at fault for the accounting shortfalls.
“From the disclosure in court, it is clear she knew almost a decade ago what was happening and yet she chose to stay and tough it out,” said Hamilton. “She allowed two High Court trials to go ahead at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds and only when it was clear we were winning did she step down from her Post office role. We could have had our lives back 10 years ago.”
Bates, who set up the JFSA in 2009, has refused to cooperate with the current inquiry, describing it as a “whitewash” and an attempt by the government to “sweep everything under the carpet”. He said a statutory public inquiry is the only way to get to the truth and it need not take years, because a lot of the work has already been done.
“Don’t forget they have got a huge amount of court-tested evidence, which the Post Office agreed it is not going to contest,” he added. Bates said that the reasons given by the government for not holding a statutory judge-led public inquiry, with the power to call witnesses under oath, were just excuses.
Arbuthnot said it is hardly surprising that the JFSA has no faith in the current inquiry. “I have nothing to say against Wyn Williams himself – but he is trying to do an extremely difficult job with his ankles and wrists bound together behind his back,” he said.
Meanwhile, support for subpostmasters is growing among the general public as the details of the Horizon scandal emerge. Richard Coles, vicar of Finedon, has been supporting subpostmasters’ calls for a full statutory inquiry after being shocked by their treatment. He said the case for a full statutory inquiry is “overwhelming”.
“All you need to know about the present inquiry is that the subpostmasters don’t want to engage with it, and that tells you it doesn’t have the confidence of the people that are most profoundly affected by the scandal,” he said.
“It is a very murky story indeed, and only a judge with the power to call witnesses stands a chance of being able to shine a light where it needs to shine. I also feel this scandal is an affront to the conscience to the nation. For this reason, it needs a full inquiry to give justice to the subpostmansters and confidence that if something like this happens, we have redress and there will be transparency and accountability.”
But public inquiries can drag on, with the parties involved making life difficult. Nick Gould, lawyer at Aria Grace Law, who represented three former subpostmasters in their appeals, said he understands the view that there should be a statutory inquiry. “Unfortunately, I see no alternative,” he said. “I say ‘unfortunately’ because so many of the inquiries get bogged down in details and for some reason are often driven by large law firms that look for ways of delaying and/or finding ways to limit the scope of the enquiry.
“If a public inquiry is to take place, it needs to be properly and fully resourced and its remit should be subject to the overriding comment that as some people waited more than 15 years for their convictions to be overturned, they should not have to wait another 15 years for any inquiry to deliver its report.”
The subpostmaster victims can never get back what they have lost, but they deserve answers and demand the full truth about who did what, where and when.
There are many questions that need to be answered by many individuals. The public, who are footing the bill for the scandal, which will run into hundreds of millions of pounds, might, for example, want to know:
- Who approved the policy of telling subpostmasters who reported problems balancing accounts that they were the only ones having such difficulties?
- Who decided not to investigate reported Horizon problems and constantly tell journalists there were no errors in the Horizon system that could cause unexplained losses?
- Who decided to mislead the government over the reliability of the Horizon system?
- Who approved the policy of threatening subpostmasters with prison sentences unless they pleaded guilty to a lesser charge?
- Who decided to keep information from the courts during the trials of subpostmasters charged with crimes such as theft and false accounting?
- Who approved an article by the head of communications that told the subpostmasters that stories in the press about Horizon problems were untrue and designed to cause alarm?
- Who gave the go-ahead to try to get High Court judge Peter Fraser to recuse himself from the case because they didn’t like what he had ruled?
- Who decided to sack forensic accounting firm Second Sight and dismiss its report into Horizon as wrong, because its findings contradicted the Post Offices claims that it was robust?
- Who decided not to inform the courts when information came to light, after subpostmasters were prosecuted, that could undermine their prosecutions?
- Who ordered the shredding of documents that could undermine the Post Office’s claim that Horizon was robust?
- Who authorised spending £100m of taxpayers’ money on the court cases against subpostmasters?
Each of these actions was approved by somebody and those people need to be held to account. As the various court cases in the scandal have proved, calling witnesses under oath and the disclosure of evidence is the only way to guarantee that this happens.