POST OFFICE: POSTMASTERS: HORIZON INQUIRY GIVEN STATUTORY STATUS
Further to LTB 173/21 dated 27th April. Paul Scully, BEIS Minister with responsibility for Post Offices announced in the House of Commons today that the Horizon Inquiry currently being undertaken by retired judge Sir Wyn Williams will become statutory from 1st June 2021, meaning it will have the legal power to compel witnesses to give evidence. Essentially, the powers, remit and scope of the inquiry have been extended, a position we welcome and indeed called for. Therefore it is pleasing to see the Government has finally listened, albeit belatedly. The full statement to the House is attached to this LTB. Contained within the statement is a revised Terms of Reference for the inquiry. Also attached is a Government press release and a Post Office communication from Nick Read, CEO published this afternoon.
This positive development comes after continued lobbying and pressure from a significant number of MPs, the mainstream media and journalists including Nick Wallis, the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) and other key stakeholders including the CWU. Branches will be aware we have consistently adopted the position of participating in the inquiry (as the only vehicle open to us), whilst continuing to vociferously advocate that it doesn’t go far enough and should be given statutory status in order to really get to the bottom of what happened to the victims of this terrible injustice and to make sure this can never happen again. Indeed we highlighted this position in our written submission to Sir Wyn Williams’ inquiry dated 23rd February 2021. We therefore welcome today’s announcement and will continue to work with Sir Wyn Williams’ team to help the victims get justice and to bring to account those responsible. The inquiry, which was established last year, will now be extended for a further year and will report its findings in the autumn of 2022, although the Minister has asked for an interim progress report from Sir Wyn Williams, to be published this summer.
The announcement was also welcomed by every MP from across all major parties speaking today in the House of Commons in a session that lasted for 45 minutes. The clear message was that MPs were very happy with the Minister’s change of heart in terms of the statutory status of the inquiry, although there was some criticism that it had taken him so long to change the nature and scope, particularly as he gave a statement in the House on 27th April, 4 days after the Court of Appeal’s decision to quash the convictions of 39 Postmasters saying that nothing would change. Seema Malhotra, Labour Shadow BEIS Minister, specifically asked the question as to what had happened since that date when Paul Scully was still insisting that the inquiry would be non-statutory with the consistent message that a full statutory inquiry would take too long to report its findings. However shortly after the Court of Appeal’s judgement, seemingly Sir Wyn Williams himself asked the Minister for more powers and it appears that after further consideration the Minister finally gave in to pressure from many fronts, which led to the turnaround announced today.
Compensation for all Victims
Following the Court of Appeal’s decision on 23rd April to overturn 39 former Postmasters’ convictions, a further 2 have since been quashed and when added to the 6 former Postmasters who had their convictions overturned at Southwark Crown Court last year, this makes 47 people in total who were wrongfully prosecuted with the likelihood of hundreds more to follow.
Many MPs demanded answers today in relation to compensation for the victims of the Horizon Scandal. Not only does the Government have to consider the 47 Postmasters whose convictions were quashed, but serious questions were also raised about how the c.550 former Postmasters who brought about the Group Litigation Order will receive proper compensation. Whilst the settlement for this group was c.£58m, only c.£12m of this was available to distribute amongst the Group due to the associated legal costs. This is clearly completely inadequate when some of the victims lost their livelihoods, their homes and even went to prison because of wrongful prosecutions. There is also the Historical Shortfall Scheme which c.2,500 Postmasters applied for (applications have now closed), which ironically may eventually lead to larger payments for these people than the c.550 who were part of the GLO.
Following a bombardment of questions from MPs today on the matter of compensation the Minister repeatedly told the House that this particular aspect was not covered under the scope of the inquiry. However, the CWU is calling for proper and meaningful compensation to be paid to every single Postmaster who has suffered so terribly as a result of this travesty and we believe that Government, as the owner of Post Office Ltd needs to ensure the money is there to fund this. We will continue to work with the members of the APPG for Post Offices and all key stakeholders including MPs and campaign groups to hold the Government to account in this regard. It should also be noted that Nick Read, Post Office CEO has stated Post Office cannot afford to pay for the compensation.
Fujitsu Also Coming Under Fire
There were questions today over the role of Fujitsu in the Horizon scandal and one in particular from Duncan Baker, Conservative MP for North Norfolk stating Fujitsu “must not be let off the hook” and he suggested they “contribute compensation to the fund”. The Minister said it was Post Office’s role to work out the terms of compensation but he was sure they would hear Mr Baker’s message.
Press and Media Coverage
There were a number of pre-emptive media stories on this matter yesterday including on Sky News and the BBC, the links to which are as follows:
Also, the following BBC article has been published today:
A CWU web article will also be published shortly.
Today’s climb-down by Government is another positive step forward in this unprecedented scandal; however, there still needs to be full accountability for all those senior Post Office Directors who perpetrated this diabolical travesty of justice against so many innocent Postmasters.