Government minister’s plea for subpostmasters to take part in review of IT scandal rejected

Subpostmasters have made it clear in a meeting with the postal affairs minister that they will not consider being part of a government review of a scandal that left some of them in prison for crimes they never committed, unless there is a major shift in the government’s stance.

The review of the Post Office Horizon scandal started by the government falls short of what subpostmasters demand, focusing on ensuring nothing like it happens again, rather than finding out who did what, when and how. It also fails to outline how victims will be properly compensated.

Unless the government agrees to pay the massive legal costs subpostmasters built up in their legal victory against the government-owned Post Office, around £46m, the group said it won’t even begin to participate in the review. The group also wants the review to be given the powers of a statutory public inquiry if organisations and individuals do not cooperate.

Without the participation of the subpostmasters that have suffered for decades, the review will lack credibility.

The government clearly recognises this, and postal affairs minister Paul Scully recently contacted former subpostmaster and founder of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA), Alan Bates, to discuss the review that Bates has made clear the JFSA will not get involved with in its current form.

The plight of the subpostmasters was made public in 2009, when a Computer Weekly investigation revealed they were being blamed for unexplained financial losses, which the subpostmasters claimed were caused by errors made by the Horizon retail and accounting system. The Post Office denied this, and subpostmasters were prosecuted for theft and false accounting (see timeline below). 

Soon after, Bates set up the JFSA once discovering he was not the only subpostmaster being blamed and punished for unexplained accounting shortfalls. He also led the massive High Court battle against the Post Office, which subpostmasters won resoundingly, being vindicated by proof the Horizon system was to blame.

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Despite government pleas for subpostmasters to participate in the review, Bates made clear he will not be part of the review unless it meets certain criteria.

The payment of the legal costs of subpostmastesr is the starting point. Despite the High Court result, the government is still refusing to pay the legal costs of the subpostmaster litigation, which left them with only about £11m to share after the £46m costs were paid. Subpostmasters spent time in prison, were made bankrupt, lost businesses, lived with criminal records and suffered ill health as a result of being blamed for computer errors.

During a recent debate in the House of Commons, Scully pleaded for subpostmasters to get involved in the inquiry chaired by former High Court judge Wyn Williams.

“It is important, first, that Wyn Williams engages with the subpostmasters, led by Alan Bates, as part of the group litigation, to explain how he intends to investigate and take evidence, and I hope that they will therefore engage,” said Scully.

In a newsletter sent to JFSA members this week, Bates said he was recently contacted by [the postal affairs] minister’s office, with Scully requesting a meeting.

“My response was the same as the last time a request had arrived from his office, I replied that any discussion with the minister would first have to be about the mechanism for repayment of the costs the 555 Post Office victims have so far had to pay to expose the truth behind the Post Office scandal,” wrote Bates.

Bates took part in an online meeting where he reiterated the JFSA stance on the review. In the newsletter, he said: “You won’t be surprised to hear repayment [of legal costs] was not discussed, only a very vague reference that if we took part in his inquiry at some point it might be touched upon (however, the very terms of their inquiry specifically exclude such discussion).

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“Needless to say, it was a pointless meeting as he only wanted to talk about the group taking part in his inquiry, something we have told him that we would never do.”    

In a recent interview with Computer Weekly, Bates questioned what more the JFSA could do after forcing the truth out through the courts – something Bates said would have been unnecessary had the government done what it should have. Instead, through the Post Office, the government spent well over £100m defending the case, despite the fact that it was known inside the Post Office that computer errors were causing unexplained losses.

“They already have over 1000 pages of court-tested evidence from the judgments from the trials, which at the moment we have paid £46m for, but the judgments show exactly what went on – incompetence and cover up by Post Office management supported blindly by the board and the government,” said Bates. “It is utterly pointless our taking part in their whitewash review, there is nothing in it for us and all we would be doing is giving our stamp of approval to their pointless internal whitewash review.”

He said the inquiry need not be statutory when it starts, but there needs to be a mechanism to make it statutory if organisations and individuals do not cooperate. He also said the subpostmasters want legal representation and the power to cross-examine witnesses. The government review in its current form does not meet these demands.

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Subpostmasters also want the inquiry to be held in public, but they fear much of the proposed government review will not. “I also understand, and I could be wrong on this, that their whitewash review is going to be held behind closed doors,” wrote Bates. 

“It won’t be available on Parliament TV, no transcripts of the whitewash will be available to the media or anyone, nor will any of the ‘evidence’ that is submitted be available. So it seems openness and transparency are also to be victims of this whitewash.”

Bates reiterated the determination of subpostmasters to get redress for their grievances through their own volition. “Whatever happens behind those closed doors [in the government review] will not make the slightest difference to the position POL and the government have left us in – which is why we are continuing to push ahead with the complaint to the Parliamentary ombudsman. 

The JFSA wants the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s (BEIS) role in the Horizon IT scandal to be scrutinised. Although the ombudsman cannot force the government to act, with powers similar to a High Court judge, government failures and those responsible for them could be identified.

In July, the JFSA completed a fund-raising campaign to allow it to take its case to the ombudsman, with more than £100,000 donated in just six weeks using Crowdjustice, a crowdfunding platform focused on raising money for legal cases.

Bates said the group is now close to making its complaint about the BEIS as the next step in the process.

“At the time of writing, we are less than a couple of weeks away from serving the complaint on BEIS, which is the first step in our submission going to the ombudsman,” said Bates. 

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“Once this has taken place, I should be in a position to give you an idea of what the complaint comprises of and explain the stages it will go through.  But the important point is that the complaint, unless BEIS accepts how wrong it has got everything over the years, will eventually work its way to the ombudsman.”

Recent debates in both Houses of Parliament have shown growing support from MPs and peers of all parties for justice for subpostmaster victims.

“Be assured, we continue to receive much support from many Parliamentarians in both houses. Unlike the government, they can see that we are never going to let this go, while year after year it seems to become worse for the Post Office as revelation after revelation continues to be reported by the media as we uncover them,” said Bates.

“They know that until there is one person appointed to oversee all aspects, and who has an open remit to recommend and do as they see fit and right, this matter will never be over.”

In June, the Criminal Cases Review Commission referred 47 cases of potential miscarriages of justice resulting from private prosecutions of subpostmasters to the Court of Appeal for review. The CCRC said this was the biggest group of probable miscarriages of justice ever referred by the organisation.

This month, the Post Office announced it would not contest 44 of these appeals, meaning they are highly likely to be quashed by the Court of Appeal.

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