Pressed at Prime Minister’s Questions by one of his own MPs, Boris Johnson has committed to ensuring that those responsible for the Post Office IT scandal are held to account.
During PMQs, in answer to a question from Lucy Allan, Conservative MP for Telford, Johnson said the government wanted those responsible for the Post Office’s mistreatment of subpostmasters in the Horizon scandal to be held to account.
Subpostmasters were prosecuted by the Post Office for crimes such as theft and false accounting, with some serving prison sentences as a result. Many lived and are still living with criminal records for crimes, and many others who were not prosecuted were ruined by having to repay unexplained losses, which have been proved to have only existed on the Horizon IT system.
The Post Office Horizon scandal, which was first made public by Computer Weekly in 2009, saw the Post Office blame subpostmasters for unexplained losses, which were actually caused by computer errors (see timeline below).
Allan became involved after being contacted by constituent Tracy Felstead, who was sent to prison for theft – something she always denied and, following a court judgment, was proven right about. Ms Felstead is in the Court of Appeal this week along with 41 other former subpostmasters appealing to have her conviction quashed. The scandal is possibly the biggest miscarriage of justice in English legal history.
The government recently agreed to pay the compensation of about 2,400 subpostmaster victims, expected to cost hundreds of millions of pounds.
In March 2020, in an interview with Computer Weekly, Allan said: “Anyone found to have deliberately misled the court or to have encouraged others to do so, thus causing a miscarriage of justice, should be prosecuted, no matter how mighty they are – we are all equal under the law and, in such a serious case, a prison sentence should be expected.”
During PMQs, Allan asked Johnson: “Does the prime minister agree with me that for justice to be truly done, those responsible for this failure and its cover-up must be held to account. Does the PM agree that heads should roll?”
Johnson said he understood the strong feelings on the issue. “Yes we do want to learn lessons, yes we do want to make sure the right people are held to account for what happened and that the Post Office never repeats mistakes like this,” he said.
No Post Office executive has been held to account so far. In fact, Paula Vennells, who was Post Office CEO from 2012 to 2019, was awarded a CBE for services to the Post Office and charity, despite publicity about the serious allegations about the Horizon system and the way the Post Office had treated subpostmasters.
During her seven years at the Post Office helm, Vennells earned millions of pounds. She stepped down just before the judgments in the court case in which subpostmasters were suing the Post Office over Horizon. She then took up the role of chair at the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, one of the biggest trusts in the NHS.
The court ruled that the Horizon computer system contained many bugs that could cause shortfalls and subpostmasters were therefore right in their claims. Judge Peter Fraser also heavily criticised Post Office management practices, which over the years had contributed to the mistreatment of subpostmasters.
Vennells has since stepped down from the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust following pressure as a result of her involvement in the Horizon scandal.
If Johnson wants to find the people responsible for the scandal, civil servants and ministers will have to be brought into any investigation because the Post Office is government-owned, with a member of the government on its board.