By Tony Collins
Government and senior civil servants were complicit in the Post Office IT scandal, with Parliament being misled about their role, according to a £100,000 crowdfunded complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman published today.
The complaint refers to the government’s “complicity in the injustices Post Office Limited perpetrated against the Complainants”.
The 72-page report says successive statements in Parliament over the years have amounted to a “continued misleading of Parliament as to what in practice HM Government’s role was in overseeing and regulating Post Office Limited for its heinous actions brought to HMG’s attention time and time again”.
The government wholly owns the Post Office and has had a seat on the board since 2012. Senior civil servants and ministers have a further supervisory role, in part because they provided hundreds of millions of pounds of investment to the Post Office through the business department BEIS.
Almost as soon as Horizon went live in 1999 the system began showing unexplained cash shortfalls in the accounts of some branch post offices.
The Post Office’s head office culture led to an assumption internally that branch shortfalls were to be treated as the fault of sub-postmasters – businessmen and women who ran branch post offices – and not the Horizon system.
Sub-postmasters who complained to the Post Office that Horizon was somehow creating the shortfalls found themselves under suspicion of having stolen the money. The Post Office required more than 2,000 sub-postmasters to make good shortfalls from their own pockets.
But faults in the system that could have caused shortfalls were kept hidden while the Post Office used Horizon’s unreliable data to prosecute sub-postmasters for theft, false accounting and fraud. Some went to prison, most had their livelihoods removed and many had their homes and cars confiscated through Proceeds of Crime orders the Post Office obtained in the civil courts. Juries were given the impression that sub-postmasters were entirely responsible for shortfalls shown on Horizon but jurors were not told of Horizon’s material faults or that Fujitsu IT specialists had the ability to alter, from a remote location, branch transactions and balances. Fujitsu built Horizon and maintains it.
Government knew “at the highest levels”
The complaint to the ombudsman, which was compiled by solicitors Stevens and Bolton, says that government knew at the highest levels that Post Office was carrying out “heinous actions” that were likely to cause harm to sub-postmasters.
The report accuses government of maladministration in “not overseeing and regulating Post Office Limited properly in such manner as to prevent [it] from running amok … and … destroying the lives of the Complainants”.
Former sub-postmaster Alan Bates, a victim of the Horizon scandal, instigated the ombudsman complaint. His 550-strong Justice for Sub-Postmasters Alliance [JFSA] last year won a High Court action against the Post Office. The Alliance’s litigation proved that the Post Office’s Horizon system was not remotely robust and was the cause of numerous shortfalls for which the Post Office wrongly blamed sub-postmasters. The system was built by Fujitsu.
Bates said of the report,
“The Ombudsman complaint is a hard hitting, no holds barred document that we believe utterly condemns HM Government in the way it has conspired with POL [Post Office Limited] over the years to allow it to operate its intimidation of sub-postmasters in order to keep the failures of its Horizon system covered up at any cost.
“The whole matter surrounding Post Office, HMG and the Horizon system will turn out to be the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history. We will not stop fighting until we have exposed the real guilty parties.”
The Alliance’s report asks the Ombudsman to recommend that government pay compensation of £300m to include the direct losses of each of the 550 complainants. The amount also includes the £46m costs to sub-postmasters of the High Court litigation.
Government and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) have accepted no responsibility for the scandal. Ministerial statements to Parliament say the Post Office misled civil servants about Horizon. But the ombudsman complaint says the government and mandarins allowed themselves to be misled.
“… there was a powerful incentive for HMG [HM Government] to collude with or to allow itself to be deceived by POL [Post Office Limited] to ensure that the complaints registered by a “tiny” number of SPMs would not put at risk the prize of building POL for sale, floating or mutualisation, indeed any exit strategy that would remove the expense of the public corporation providing a national service from HMG’s balance sheet and in doing so recoup the billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money spent on the Horizon system and Post Office network generally …” says the report.
The report adds that the Post Office and ultimately government as its owner adopted a litigation strategy of avoiding being held to account for inaccurate or patently dishonest statements and denials over almost two decades in relation the bugs, errors and defects in the Horizon System and remote access to that system by the operatives from Fujitsu who designed it and maintained it on Post Office’s behalf.
The scandal continues and appears to deepen with new disclosures almost weekly by crowdfunded journalist Nick Wallis, Computer Weekly’s Karl Flinders and the Daily Mail’s Tom Witherow.
The latest disclosures are that the Post Office knew that Fujitsu IT specialists had given inaccurate information about Horizon in criminal trials.
At the end of the ombudsman complaint is a long list of unanswered questions put under the Freedom of Information Act.
The government has set up an inquiry into Horizon but its terms of reference in effect rule out any investigation into the misleading of courts, judges and juries over the system’s robustness. The government’s Horizon inquiry is also excluded in its terms of reference from considering any matter related to the Parliamentary ombudsman.
Former Conservative defence minister Lord Arbuthnot who has campaigned for 10 years on behalf of sub-postmasters affected by the scandal, has described the government Horizon inquiry as a “pathetic response to a national outrage”.
He told Computer Weekly “The Prime Minister promised to get to the bottom of the Horizon scandal. This anaemic review will fail to do that, because it fails to ask the important questions.”
He added, “The purpose of an independent inquiry should be to establish the truth, rather than to protect the government from any suggestion of blame.”
Labour peer Peter Hain said in a Lords’ debate on Horizon that the government had ultimate responsibility for the scandal. “The permanent secretary of the department is the accounting officer for the Post Office, the government has a representative on the board and the government is ultimately responsible for this scandal,” he said. “It is not good enough to keep delaying this with lots of processes and reviews – they have got to be compensated fully.”
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has until 30 November to respond to the complaint. It is expected to be submitted to the ombudsman on 1 December 2020.
Ombudsman complaint – Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance
What’s in the 2013 Simon Clarke document? – Nick Wallis’ Postofficetrial website
Fujitsu staff under investigation for potential perjury in Post Office IT trial named – Karl Flinders, Computer Weekly