Lucy Allan, MP for Telford, has fought for justice for victims of institutional obstinacy before, and is now providing vital armoury for subpostmasters fighting for redress of the injustices inflicted on them by the Post Office, which blamed them for problems emanating from its Horizon IT system.
Allan has become a loud voice in a growing group of MPs who are applying pressure in parliament for redress of subpostmaster grievances beyond the £57.75m awarded to the group of 550 subpostmasters that took on and defeated the Post Office in a huge group litigation, which ended in an out-of-court settlement in December 2019.
All but about £10m of the payout went on legal costs, and the remainder doesn’t get close to even covering the money subpostmasters lost – never mind compensating for the businesses and lives that were destroyed.
This came after many years of pressure from subpostmasters, led by Alan Bates, a former subpostmaster who first alerted the Post Office to problems with Horizon in 2000, just months after it was introduced. In 2004, he contacted Computer Weekly about the problems, but such was the Post Office’s determination to keep it quiet, it was not until 2009 when Computer Weekly had enough evidence to publish an article without fear of Post Office litigation.
After the article was published, subpostmasters that were told they were the only ones suffering unexplained account shortfalls realised this was not the case. If Bates’s early campaign is phase one of the battle, phase two began after the publication of the first article and the creation of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance campaign group in 2009, and ended last year with legal victory.
Phase three has now begun, with MPs key to helping subpostmasters get real justice. Criminal records need to be quashed and compensation that at least covers subpostmaster losses needs to be paid – not to mention a proper apology. As Bates told Computer Weekly following the court victory, the fight is now in Parliament.
The difference now is the judgment handed down by Judge Fraser, which were to many commentators the most damning indictments of a corporate cover-up they have ever seen.
These judgments set in stone that the IT system was at fault and Post Office and Fujitsu management were its accomplices, and give MPs the platform they needed to fight for subpostmasters.
Some MPs have shown support for the subpostmasters over the past years. Former MP and now peer James Arbuthnot is a prominent example, as are Andrew Bridgen and Kevan Jones. But now there are more, and Conservative MP Lucy Allan, who signalled her intent to fight for justice for affected subpostmasters, is one that stands out. Most recently, she secured a debate on the matter in Parliament.
“It is we, in this place, who must now find a solution to this grotesque injustice, a miscarriage of justice of immense proportions, and we must do so, whatever obstacles come our way,” said Allan.
She became involved after being contacted by constituent Tracy Felstead, who was sent to prison for theft – something she always denied and, following the court judgment, was proven right about.
Subpostmasters have a proven campaigner on their side in Allan, who fought for victims of child sexual exploitation in Telford when the authorities said no investigation was necessary, and was involved in forcing investigation into maternity deaths at Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital, which she said were “dismissed, underplayed and said to be historic”.
These have parallels with the Post Office scandal. Thousands of pages of detailed judgments from High Court Judge Fraser, in the Horizon legal dispute, leave any reader shocked and questioning why all individuals and organisations appear to have escaped serious ramifications, while innocent subpostmasters were summarily prosecuted with few questions asked.
Allan is determined to put this right. Speaking to Computer Weekly, she said that when it comes to the injustices inflicted by the Post Office, those that have not played by the rules – regardless of their position – should face justice.
“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,” she said.
Allan recently tweeted: “Those responsible see the settlement as the end. It isn’t.”
There is a great deal of investigation to go through to get to this point, but prime minister Boris Johnson recently appeared to agree that a public inquiry would be held to “get to the bottom of” the scandal. And while his words were ambiguous and subsequent announcements by the government make a public inquiry less certain, Allan is clear about what she heard during Prime Minister’s Questions on 26 February.
“I interpret what he said as a commitment to an inquiry,” she said. “Some very senior people in government believe there to have been a miscarriage of justice.”
Allan recently pushed and got approval for a 90-minute debate on the Horizon scandal in parliament, titled Criminal Cases Review Commission’s process for review of convictions relating to the Post Office and Horizon accounting system. This is part of her plan to have the convictions of those who have been wrongfully convicted overturned – an essential first step.
“I believe there are sufficient grounds, given the judgments handed down by the courts, for government to devise a mechanism for a blanket pardon for all those whose conviction relied on the now-discredited Horizon IT system,” said Allan. “If the evidence relied upon was flawed, it follows that the conviction was flawed.”
She said initial discussions with the justice department have been positive because “they get it and see it as a significant injustice”.
A head of steam
The Ministry of Justice is not the only group that “gets it”. As the 90-minute debate in parliament revealed, there is a head of steam building around this in Parliament, with strong feeling across the House of Commons.
During the debate, Karl Turner, Labour MP for East Hull, described the behaviour of the Post Office as “the most disgusting example of predatory capitalism that I have ever come across”. There were many more passionate speeches during the debate, and the more that this is debated publicly, the more likely justice will prevail.
But the government department responsible for the Post Office, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), seems unlikely to say anything other than what has been said before, said Allan. Meanwhile, the Post Office has its head in the sand.
“I thought that now the courts have ruled on this matter, the Post Office would be interested in helping subpostmasters get on with their lives and having their convictions quashed,” she said. “But, regrettably, this is not the case. They give the appearance of believing that the convictions are still sound despite the courts finding that the evidence used to prosecute the workers was flawed.”
Allan emphasised that names must be cleared as a priority. “Now a settlement has been agreed between the parties, those wrongfully convicted who were part of that settlement will not be getting further compensation.
“After legal costs, some Post Office workers will not even get back the money the Post Office wrongfully extorted from them, with threats of jail if they did not pay up,” she said. “They are not going to get the financial compensation for the loss they suffered, but they could get their convictions quashed and a proper apology.
“This should come before a public inquiry,” said Allan. “A public inquiry will take many years, and while it is an effective mechanism for holding those responsible to account, in the meantime workers still have the wrongful convictions to contend with, which prevents them from getting on with their lives.”
Timeline of the Post Office Horizon case since Computer Weekly first reported on it in 2009
- May 2009: Bankruptcy, prosecution and disrupted livelihoods – postmasters tell their story.
- September 2009: Postmasters form action group after accounts shortfall.
- November 2009: Post Office theft case deferred over IT questions.
- February 2011: Post Office faces legal action over alleged accounting system failures.
- October 2011: 85 subpostmasters seek legal support in claims against Post Office computer system.
- June 2012: Post Office launches external review of system at centre of legal disputes.
- January 2013: Post Office admits Horizon system needs more investigation.
- January 2013: Post Office announces amnesty for Horizon evidence.
- January 2013: Post Office wants to get to bottom of IT system allegations.
- June 2013: Investigation into Post Office accounting system to drill down on strongest cases.
- July 2013: Post Office Horizon system investigation reveals concerns.
- October 2013: End in sight for subpostmaster claims against Post Office’s Horizon accounting system.
- October 2013: Former Lord Justice of Appeal Hooper joins Post Office Horizon investigation.
- November 2013: 150 subpostmasters file claims over “faulty” Horizon accounting system.
- September 2014: Fresh questions raised over Post Office IT system’s role in fraud cases.
- December 2014: MPs blast Post Office over IT system investigation and remove backing.
- December 2014: Why MPs lost faith in the Post Office’s IT investigation, but vowed to fight on.
- December 2014: MPs to debate subpostmaster IT injustice claims.
- December 2014: MP accuses Post Office of acting “duplicitously” in IT investigation.
- January 2015: MPs force inquiry into Post Office subpostmaster mediation scheme.
- January 2015: Post Office faces grilling by MPs over Horizon accounting system.
- February 2015: Post Office CIO will talk to any subpostmaster about IT problems, promises CEO.
- March 2015: Post Office ends working group for IT system investigation day before potentially damaging report.
- March 2015: MPs seek reassurance over Post Office mediation scheme.
- March 2015: Retiring MP aims to uncover truth of alleged Post Office computer system problems.
- April 2015: Post Office failed to investigate account shortfalls before legal action, report claims.
- April 2015: Criminal Courts Review Commission set to review subpostmasters’ claims of wrongful prosecution.
- May 2015: IT system related to subpostmaster prosecutions under review by CCRC.
- June 2015: Post Office looking to replace controversial Horizon system with IBM, says MP.
- July 2015: Campaigners call for independent inquiry into Post Office Horizon IT system dispute.
- October 2015: James Arbuthnot takes Post Office IT fight to House of Lords.
- November 2015: The union that represents Post Office subpostmasters has warned of a problem with the Horizon accounting system.
- November 2015: An email from Post Office IT support reveals a problem with the Horizon system and supporting processes that could lead to accounting errors.
- November 2015: Group litigation against Post Office being prepared in Horizon dispute.
- February 2016: Post Office faces group litigation over Horizon IT as subpostmasters fund class action.
- June 2016: Post Office chairman Tim Parker says there would be “considerable risk” associated with changing its Horizon computer system.
- November 2016: The legal team hired by a group of subpostmasters will take their case to the next stage.
- January 2017: The group action against the Post Office that alleges subpostmasters have been wrongly punished for accounting errors gets a green light from the High Court of Justice.
- March 2017: 1,000 subpostmasters apply to join IT-related group litigation against Post Office.
- April 2017: Investigation into claims of miscarriages of justice in relation to a Post Office accounting system has appointed a forensic accountant firm.
- May 2017: Hundreds of subpostmasters have applied to join IT-related legal action since March.
- July 2017: Post Office defence in computer system legal case due this week.
- August 2017: Campaigners submit initial evidence in group litigation against Post Office over controversial Horizon IT system.
- October 2017: Subpostmasters’ group action against the Post Office reaches an important milestone.
- November 2017: An end is in sight for subpostmasters’ campaign against alleged wrongful prosecution, which they blame on a faulty computer system.
- November 2017: The High Court judge managing the subpostmasters versus Post Office legal case over an allegedly faulty computer system tells legal teams to cooperate.
- January 2018: Forensic investigation into Post Office IT system at centre of legal case nears completion.
- April 2018: Criminal Cases Review Commission forensic examination of the IT system at the centre of a legal case against the Post Office has raised further questions.
- May 2018: Post Office branches unable to connect to Horizon computer system for several hours after morning opening time.
- October 2018: After over a decade of controversy, next week marks the beginning of a court battle between subpostmasters and the Post Office.
- November 2018: Case against Post Office in relation to allegedly faulty computer system begins in High Court.
- November 2018: High Court case in which subpostmasters are suing the Post Office has revealed a known problem with a computer system at the core of the dispute.
- November 2018: A High Court trial, where subpostmasters are suing the Post Office for damages caused by an allegedly faulty IT system, ends second week.
- November 2018: Post Office director admits to Horizon errors and not sharing details with subpostmaster network.
- November 2018: The High Court trial in which subpostmasters are suing the Post Office has reached an important stage.
- December 2018: CCRC may hold off subpostmaster decision until after Post Office Horizon trial.
- December 2018: Court case where subpostmasters are suing the Post Office set to span at least four trials and extend into 2020.
- January 2019: Subpostmasters’ campaign group attacks Post Office CEO Paula Vennells’ New Year honour amid ongoing court case.
- January 2019: Thousands of known errors on controversial Post Office computer system to be revealed.
- March 2019: Tech under spotlight at High Court in second subpostmasters versus Post Office trial.
- March 2019: Post Office considered Horizon IT system “high-risk”, court told.
- March 2019: CCRC watching Post Office Horizon trial closely.
- March 2019: Judge rules that Post Office showed “oppressive behaviour” in response to claimants accused of accounting errors they blamed on Horizon IT system.
- March 2019: Post Office “lacked humanity” in the treatment of subpostmasters, says peer.
- March 2019: A High Court judge heard that the Post Office did not investigate a computer system error that could cause losses, despite being offered evidence.
- March 2019: The Post Office legal team in the case brought by more than 500 subpostmasters has called for the judge to be recused after questioning his impartiality.
- March 2019: A senior civil servant asked the Post Office to repay public money it had wrongly allocated to paying legal costs.
- April 2019: Subpostmaster claimants’ legal team makes application for the Post Office to pay millions of pounds of costs associated with trial.
- April 2019: Post Office to appeal judgment from first Horizon trial.
- April 2019: The Post Office’s claim that the judge overseeing the case concerning its controversial Horizon IT system was biased has been dismissed – but will now be considered by the Court of Appeal.
- April 2019: MP questions government over Post Office Horizon case.
- April 2019: Government says no conflict of interest in trial despite Post Office chairman’s dual role.
- May 2019: The Court of Appeal has refused the Post Office’s application to appeal a major decision in the Horizon IT trial.
- May 2019: The Post Office has applied for permission to appeal judgments from the first trial in its IT-related legal battle with subpostmasters.
- May 2019: The judge in the Post Office Horizon trial has ordered the organisation to pay the legal costs of its courtroom adversaries, and refused to give permission to appeal a major judgment.
- June 2019: Post Office asks Court of Appeal for permission to appeal judgment in first Horizon trial.
- July 2019: The Post Office has admitted that some subpostmasters are at risk of accounts not balancing due to an error it does not understand.
- July 2019: Problem revealed during High Court trial left subpostmaster with £18,000 surplus after IT system failed to register full amount of cash scanned in.
- August 2019: Subpostmasters suffering slow running and frozen terminals while Post Office searches for a fix to issues apparently caused by a software update.
- August 2019: The Post Office has fixed the latest problems with its Horizon system, affecting hundreds of branches.
- October 2019: A High Court judgment for a trial that focused on the Post Office’s IT system at the centre of a multimillion-pound litigation will be announced early next month.
- November 2019: The Court of Appeal has rejected a Post Office application to appeal judgments made in its multimillion-pound battle with subpostmasters over IT system failures.
- November 2019: Peer calls for clear-out of Post Office board after Court of Appeal confirms major court defeat.
- December 2019: The Post Office has settled its long-running legal dispute with subpostmasters, and will pay £57.75m in damages.
- December 2019: Subpostmasters ended their legal battle with the Post Office at the optimal time, according to the lawyer that managed the High Court action.
- December 2019: Subpostmasters proved right on IT system failures as calls for full public inquiry mount.
- December 2019: Criminal Courts Review Commission to review Horizon judgment “swiftly”.
- December 2019: National Federation of Subpostmasters cries foul after court ruling on controversial computer system.
- December 2019: Former Post Office CEO apologises to subpostmasters over Horizon scandal.
- December 2019: Call for former Post Office CEO to step down from public roles after IT court battle lost.
- January 2020: Fujitsu must face scrutiny following Post Office Horizon trial judgment.
- January 2020: Subpostmaster group calls for government to pay legal costs for Horizon trial.
- January 2020: Why subpostmasters are calling on the government to pay Horizon trial costs.
- January 2020: Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy says it did not make decisions in the Post Office’s recent court battle.
- January 2020: Government should not be allowed to dismiss subpostmasters’ claims over Horizon IT scandal.
- January 2020: Police sent information about potential Fujitsu staff perjury in subpostmaster prosecutions.
- January 2020: Prosecutions are a significant step closer to being sent to the Court of Appeal as Criminal Courts Review Commission forms a group of commissioners to review them.
- January 2020: Alan Bates: The “details man” the Post Office paid the price for ignoring.
- February 2020: The government has refused to pay the huge legal costs subpostmasters incurred in their battle with the government-owned Post Office, which they won.
- February 2020: Members of Parliament seeking a public inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal face huge challenges, but pressure and time could force justice.
- February 2020: Calls for inquiry into Post Office IT scandal increase in Parliament, with cross-party support.
- February 2020: Care Quality Commission to review concerns over Paula Vennells’ appointment after they were raised by a former NHS consultant psychiatrist.
- February 2020: Government admits it was too passive managing Post Office as parliamentary pressure builds.
- February 2020: Minister says Post Office IT experts misled the government when it asked questions about subpostmasters’ concerns over Horizon IT system.
- March 2020: Boris Johnson commits to “getting to the bottom of” Post Office Horizon IT scandal.
- March 2020: Boris Johnson’s commitment to inquiry into Post Office scandal in doubt
- March 2020: MPs call on PM to commit to full public inquiry into Post Office Horizon IT scandal.