A government minister has been told he has an opportunity to make a difference with justice for subpostmasters who had their lives ruined by a faulty IT system and bullying by the Post Office, but must stop parroting the civil service line to do so.
Ever since subpostmasters won a huge court battle against the government-owned Post Office, they have been campaigning for justice with demands for a judge-led public inquiry, fairer damages and the quashing of criminal records for subpostmasters wrongly prosecuted for theft and false accounting.
MPs are also calling for the executives at Post Office IT supplier Fujitsu, who allowed the scandal to happen, to face justice, including potential criminal prosecutions.
During a business debate in the House of Commons on Thursday 19 March, Kevan Jones, MP for North Durham,who has for years campaigned for the subpostmasters affected, told Paul Scully, minister for small business, to be brave and “please put this right – no matter what obstructions you get from your officials, challenge them”.
Following Scully’s statement, which sounded like it was from a script with little new information, Jones warned him: “Do not just parrot what your civil servants say.”
Jones added: “[The minister] has an opportunity here. I have been a minister and it is a great privilege. It is not about sitting on that front bench or carrying that red box, it’s about making a difference. He has an opportunity here to make a difference, a real difference, and put a wrong right. What he can’t do is just carry on with what his predecessors have done and ignored the truth.”
In 2009, Computer Weekly revealed that subpostmasters were being blamed for losses that they claimed were caused by computer errors. The Post Office always denied this and prosecuted subpostmasters, with many forced to pay back the losses and some even going to prison (see timeline below).
Following the conclusion of a High Court battle that proved that subpostmasters had been wrongly blamed and punished for accounting shortfalls caused by the computer system used in Post Office branches, campaigners have been seeking justice beyond the financial settlement that doesn’t even come close to covering losses.
During the Commons debate in which MPs, including Lucy Allan, MP for Telford, and Karl Turner, representing Hull East, gave passionate speeches in support of subpostmasters fighting for justice, Scully gave a statement.
During the debate, MPs sought answers about the costs incurred by subpostmasters in the court battle. Because of the Post Office’s insistence on defending itself in the face of resounding evidence against it, costs were high. The only option available to subpostmasters was group litigation and private funding. Of the total of £57m awarded by the judge, only about £11m will be left for damages for the 550 subpostmasters involved in the legal action.
In 2013, a mediation scheme in which forensic accountants completed quantum loss calculations for 39 cases revealed an average loss of nearly £700,000. Most of those 39 cases were in the group of 550 subpostmaster claimants.
Adding further fuel to demands for more money since the court case finished, the Post Office has settled with two subpostmasters who were not part of the group action but were also affected by the Horizon problems, with a total of £300,000 awarded to them. Campaigners want the government, which is responsible for the Post Office, to pay the legal costs of the claimants so they are left with a fairer financial settlement.
Calls for judge-led inquiry
MPs also pressed the minister about progress in getting the criminal records of subpostmasters prosecuted by the Post Office quashed. There were also further calls from MPs for a judge-led public inquiry to get to the bottom of who knew what, when and why it was allowed to happen.
MPs welcomed this during the debate and there were also calls for former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells to lose the CBE she was awarded for her service to the organisation. Vennells earned millions of pounds as Post Office CEO from 2012 to 2019, leaving just before the court ruling.
Vennells has now been forced to quit as a government adviser and concerns over her appointment as a director of a major NHS trust are currently being reviewed in line with the NHS’s Fit and Proper Persons regulation. This followed concerns being raised by a former NHS doctor.
MP Karl Turner told Computer Weekly recently that he does not think anything other than prosecution is good enough for “the individuals who knew the what, when and why”.
Turner said nobody concerned should be allowed to avoid detailed questioning. “If the DPP [Director of Public Prosecutions] gets a file back from the police saying certain people are potentially culpable for offences, I am confident the DPP will authorise prosecutions against those individuals,” he said.
During the Commons debate, minister Scully said: “I will not hide or wash my hands of this because it is important to get as much done as possible, even if we can’t do everything that has been asked.”
He described the out-of-court settlement as a comprehensive resolution, but this was roundly criticised by subpostmasters and MPs.
Scully said a scheme yet to be announced by the Post Office would address historic shortfalls for subpostmasters not in the group litigation.
In reference to an independent inquiry, Scully only referred to an “independent review”.
He added: “We talked about the independent review, and the prime minister mentioned this a few weeks ago. We are looking at ways to do this and there will be an announcement in the very near future.
“I want to make sure we get it right, rather than rushing into terms-of-reference details at this point.”
But nothing short of a judge-led public inquiry will be acceptable to campaigners.
Turner told Computer Weekly recently that government investigations are all well and good, but have limited powers. “I am happy there is a department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) investigation, but that is not good enough for me,” he said. “It has got to be judicial and an inquiry that has teeth. It has to be led by a judge who can summons people to give evidence.”