The government inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal is set to be made statutory with the power to compel witnesses and evidence.
According to Sky News, the government will soon announce that the current inquiry led by Sir Wyn Williams will be given statutory status, widening the powers available to the former High Court judge. Such a move would temper fears among victims and campaigners that the existing probe is a “whitewash.”
The government has repeatedly said the inquiry will remain non-statutory to ensure it comes to a speedy conclusion – even as recently as a debate in the House of Commons last month. But pressure has been mounting from subpostmaster victims of the scandal, politicians, journalists and an increasingly incensed public.
The Horizon scandal saw the Post Office blame and prosecute subpostmasters for financial crimes when unexplained accounting shortfalls appeared in the computer system they use in branches. Soon after the system was introduced in 1999, subpostmasters began experiencing inexplicable losses.
A total of 736 were prosecuted with many sent to prison and many thousands more had to use their own money to make up losses, many were sacked and livelihoods and lives were ruined. Subpostmasters always claimed the computer system could be responsible for the errors, but the Post Office always denied this was possible. A High Court judge ruled in December 2019 that the subpostmasters were right.
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).
Since 39 subpostmasters had their criminal convictions overturned in the Court of Appeal on 23 April, there has been intense media coverage and after years of campaigning the subpostmasters have finally caught the public’s attention. There have so far been 47 convictions overturned.
A statutory inquiry has always been demanded by the subpostmasters and their supporters. They want the people that made the decisions that led to the scandal to be identified.
Such an inquiry looked likely following Boris Johnson’s promise of one following the December 2019 High Court ruling that vindicated subpostmasters. However, the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry that was subsequently announced does not have the status of a statutory inquiry, meaning it cannot compel witnesses to attend. This has been described as a “whitewash” by subpostmasters and “a cynical cop-out” by campaigning peer James Arbuthnot.
The Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA), which campaigns for justice for those affected by the Horizon scandal, refused to take part in the inquiry believing the current plans will allow the government to “brush it under the carpet”.
The JFSA called for a judicial review of the inquiry. In March, JFSA founder and former subpostmaster Alan Bates sent a formal legal letter, known as a pre-action protocol letter, to Paul Scully, the minister responsible for the Post Office in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), informing BEIS of plans to take it to court over the matter.
In the letter to BEIS in March the JFSA’s solicitors, Howe & Co, wrote: “Mr Bates believes that a non-statutory inquiry (even with revised terms of reference) would not enable obvious and significant matters of public concern to be properly investigated. This is because, inter alia, a non-statutory inquiry has no power to compel the attendance of witnesses or compel the production of evidence, and nor does it take evidence under oath,” it said.
“It is unlikely that witnesses from the Post Office or Fujitsu would voluntarily give evidence as to those parties’ involvement in the scandal, their knowledge of the flaws in the Horizon system at the time the demands for payments to the subpostmasters were made, or their role in the prosecutions of hundreds of subpostmasters on unreliable and potentially perjured evidence.”
The JFSA initially demanded that BEIS decide by the middle of April “as to whether or not to volunteer to restructure the current whitewash [inquiry] as a statutory inquiry, and if not, we will have to apply to the court.” The deadline was extended after requests for more time from BEIS. The JFSA also wrote to prime minister Boris Johnson in February about demands for a statutory inquiry.
In response, BEIS, said: ”Ministers have met with, and heard a number of postmasters’ stories and it is impossible to ignore the horrific impact that the Horizon dispute and court cases have had on affected postmasters.
“The Court of Appeal’s decision to overturn 39 convictions, marks another important milestone for postmasters affected by the Horizon dispute. However, given the very serious impact this has had on many postmasters, more needs to be done. That is why we established the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry, chaired by Wyn Williams, to understand and acknowledge what went wrong in relation to Horizon, and to ensure that there is a public summary of the failings that occurred at the Post Office so that this situation can never be repeated.
“The Post Office Horizon IT inquiry was set up as it is presently constituted, in order to get the answers the affected postmasters are looking for in a timely manner. The inquiry should be as thorough and robust as a statutory inquiry but giving the chair greater flexibility to determine how it is run. With commitments to fully co-operate with the inquiry from the Post Office, Fujitsu, UK Government Investment (UKGI), and of course BEIS, it did not seem necessary to re-establish the inquiry with the powers to compel evidence and witnesses.”
According to Sky News, Whitehall sources said Wyn Williams asked the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng to make the inquiry statutory. Asked about the report, a BEIS spokesperson said: “All parties are committed to cooperating with the independent inquiry underway, which is continuing to make progress under the chairmanship of Wyn Williams.”
Barrister Paul Marshall at Cornerstone Barristers, who worked on three cases of wrongful subpostmaster prosecutions, said: “It always appeared to me, in the light of what the courts have revealed, that a non-statutory inquiry of the kind that BEIS appointed Wyn Williams to undertake was, with no disrespect to Wyn Williams, little more than a toothless political sop to assuage and divert public indignation.
“This is because the remit of the Williams’ inquiry addressed an issue that seems to me irrelevant – essentially the causes of Horizon failure. The real questions made urgent by the Court of Appeal’s 23 April 2021 judgment are nothing to do with why Horizon failed, which is uninteresting and was in prospect as long ago as 1999. The real questions are on the one hand who knew what, when, about its propensity to fail and, on the other, who in the Post Office, in Fujitsu and in the Post Office’s owner – the government – were willing to see people imprisoned and denied justice in a ruthless scheme of deception intended to protect the Post Office brand at almost any cost; a scheme that in a curious fluke of justice has left the brand toxic and possibly valueless.”
Conservative peer James Arbuthnot, who has campaigned for subpostmasters for over a decade, said a statutory inquiry would be “excellent news.”
He added: “Until there is proper compensation and the government accepts that the settlement agreement was unfairly forced on the subpostmasters, we cannot rest.”