Business committee MPs have asked politely for a judge-led inquiry over the Post Office IT scandal. But they also conditionally welcome the business minister’s announcement of a “review”. Whose side are they on?
The House of Commons’ business committee BEIS is supposed to oversee the Post Office. But in the stand-off between ministers and sub-postmasters over whether there ought to be a judge-led inquiry into the scandal or a review, the position of the BEIS committee is not obvious.
The two sides agree on the scale of the scandal: hundreds of sub-postmasters were wrongly blamed for money shown to be missing on the Post Office’s Horizon system whose flaws were kept hidden. Up to 900 sub-postmasters might have been wrongly prosecuted. The Post Office took away hundreds of livelihoods and made numerous sub-postmasters bankrupt. Many lost their life savings which have still not been returned.
But while everyone agrees the scandal represents one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in legal history, a gulf separates the two sides on what to do about it.
On one side stands the business minister Paul Scully, the Post Office and civil servants at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Scully has announced a government “review” and refuses to support calls for a judge-led inquiry. He says that he will make sure the Post Office cooperates fully with a review.
But MPs in general, together with peers and sub-postmasters, insist on a judge-led inquiry. Sub-postmasters will boycott Scully’s review, as will forensic accountants 2nd Sight who have reported in-depth on flaws in the Horizon system.
The boycott would leave a shortage of useful participants in the government review. But where do MPs on the House of Commons’ business committee stand? Review or judge-led inquiry?
The answer is that nobody is quite sure. The committee’s MPs sympathise with the scandal’s victims whose losses remain in the tens of thousands of pounds. The MPs appear to advocate a judge-led inquiry. But they have also given a conditional welcome to Scully’s announcement of a review.
Yesterday, the committee’s chairman Darren Jones wrote a letter to Scully which set out an impressive and forceful argument for a judge-led inquiry. Jones said,
“It is imperative that, if wrongly convicted or accused, sub-postmasters and postal staff are to receive justice that those who took key decisions in relation to Horizon at Post Office Ltd, Fujitsu and within government are held to account.
“You yourself, in the written evidence you supplied to the Committee in March, noted that the advice Post Office Ltd provided to BEIS was ‘flawed’, while Lord Callanan [business minister] stated in the Lords on 5 March that BEIS officials were “clearly misled by the Post Office”. Bearing in mind the number of successful litigants in Bates v Post Office Ltd and the number of cases referred by the CCRC [Criminal Cases Review Commission] to the Appeal Court, centering on people who went to jail or who lost their careers, homes and, in some cases their lives, this is not just a matter of learning lessons. This is also about establishing facts. If there was maladministration or deliberate withholding of evidence that might have had a material impact on the outcome of these cases and convictions, those responsible should be held to account. This in turn will allow lessons to be learnt but will also send a powerful signal that if the highest standards in our public institutions are not adhered to there will be serious consequences.
” I urge you to put this Independent Review on a statutory basis so that it can summon Post Office and Horizon staff, past and present, who made key decisions related to this case. It is also important that past and current UK Government Investments (UKGI) and Departmental officials give evidence. UKGI sat on the Post Office Ltd Board and the BEIS Permanent Secretary is the Accounting Officer for arms-length bodies, including Post Office Ltd. It is crucial that those who were supposed to be scrutinising Post Office Ltd decisions and/or who were privy to board level discussions are also held to account. A statutory judge-led Public Inquiry needs to be able to establish the truth and give closure to those who have lost so much and who have waited for justice for so long.”
No justice without truth
In last week’s debate on the scandal MP Chi Onwurah also set out a strong case for a judge-led inquiry. She told the House of Commons,
“Nine hundred prosecutions, each one its own story of dreams crushed, careers ruined, families destroyed, reputations smashed and lives lost—innocent people bankrupted and imprisoned. Does the Minister agree that Monday’s “Panorama” adds to the sense of a cover-up on a grand scale in the Post Office, a trusted national institution? And all because of the failings in the Post Office Horizon system.
“For over a decade, the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance campaigned to get at the truth, but the Post Office denied all wrongdoing, imposing huge lawyers’ fees on the claimants. Mr Justice Fraser’s High Court ruling in December paved the way finally for justice for some, but the mediated settlement means the truth remains hidden. Does the Minister agree that there can be no justice without truth?
“So many questions remain unanswered. When did the Post Office know that the Horizon system could cause money to disappear, and what responsibility did the developer, Fujitsu, have? What did Ministers, to whom the Post Office is accountable, do, and what did they know? Who was responsible for innocent people going to jail? Have they been held accountable? Will all the victims be properly compensated?
“Three months ago, the Prime Minister committed to a public inquiry, but we now hear that that is to consider whether the Post Office has learned the necessary lessons. We need an inquiry not simply to learn lessons but to get to the truth. Only a judge-led inquiry can do that, with the Post Office compelled to co-operate. Will the Minister now agree to the judge-led inquiry we need? It is the very least the victims deserve.
“We need answers, not more delay. We will not rest until we get that and justice for all those wronged in this scandal.”
The BEIS committee
Last year, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy committee did not launch an inquiry into the Post Office Horizon IT scandal because High Court litigation between 550 sub-postmasters and the Post Office over Horizon’ was continuing.
The litigation ended in a settlement n December and, in March 2020, the committee duly launched an inquiry into the scandal but changed its mind on calling as witnesses the Post Office, its IT supplier Fujitsu or the civil servants whose job was to oversee the Post Office.
Instead, the committee gave them the option of answering written questions, which gives them time for answers to be checked and polished, if necessary, by lawyers. The move left some sub-postmasters asking whether the BEIS committee was on the side of the Post Office and the civil service or victims of the scandal.
Last week, the committee appeared again to go against the wishes of sub-postmasters when it sided with Scully in giving conditional support to a government “review” of the scandal.
Committee chairman Darren Jones told the House of Commons, “The sub-postmasters who have suffered such a depth of injustice, such a wide range of harm, will no doubt welcome the news today of the Minister’s inquiry, but will he confirm to the House that that inquiry will have sufficient power to compel the disclosure of documentary evidence and to compel witnesses to come before it to give evidence in public?”
Scully gave no such assurance. Yesterday, after it emerged that sub-postmasters did not welcome the minister’s announcement of a review – and indeed would be boycotting any review – the committee set out strong grounds for a judge-led inquiry but stopped short of demanding one. Its letter to Scully referred only to a “need” for such an inquiry. The committee’s letter to Scully said,
“A statutory judge-led Public Inquiry needs to be able to establish the truth and give closure to those who have lost so much and who have waited for justice for so long.”
Campaign4Change asked the committee whether its letter to Scully amounted to a call for a judge-led inquiry. The committee did not reply.
The committee’s apparent ambivalence seems to suggest it is keen to maintain the support of postal ministers, the Post Office and civil servants in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
The BEIS committee’s support for Scully’s announcement of a review, even though conditional, is remarkable when it is only too obvious to campaigners for justice that a review is worse than pointless. It is a delaying tactic.
Why would the Post Office after centuries of being answerable to nobody suddenly, in the year 2020, in response to a government review, become open, truthful and humble? It is not necessary to read carefully Mr Justice Fraser’s two main judgements on the Horizon High Court trials to realise that he was appalled at the Post Office’s poor conduct, lack of truthfulness and secretiveness.
Therefore Scully is naïve if he supposes he can ensure the full cooperation and openness of the Post Office in a voluntary, non-statutory review when it behaved the way it did in several statutory High Court hearings.
But can sub-postmasters rely on the BEIS MPs to demand a judge-led inquiry when the committee hasn’t even called the Post Office, Fujitsu, the civil service and ministers to give verbal evidence to its Horizon inquiry?
The apparent reluctance of the committee to do anything that upsets ministers, civil servants or the Post Office even when the subject in question is one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British legal history, reinforces the need for an independent investigation by the Parliament Ombudsman. Donations to enable a QC to make a powerful case for such an investigation can be made here.
Key forensic accountants refuse to support government review of Post Office scandal – Computer Weekly’s Karl Flinders
Scandal at the Post Office – BBC Panorama