Call to prosecute Post Office bosses over ‘biggest miscarriage in British legal history’
Post Office bosses should be prosecuted for overseeing the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history, MPs and victims said last night.
After 39 subpostmasters were cleared of theft, fraud and false accounting by the Court of Appeal, it emerged that the Horizon scandal could end up costing the taxpayer more than £350 million in compensation payments.
There were calls for Paula Vennells, the former chief executive, to be stripped of her CBE, awarded in 2019 for services to the Post Office, and for her to repay bonuses of more than £2.2 million she received as part of her £4.5 million earnings during her seven-year tenure.
Boris Johnson welcomed the Court of Appeal ruling, saying it was “an appalling injustice which has had a devastating impact” and that “lessons should and will be learnt to ensure this never happens again”.
The Court ruled that the convictions were unsafe because they had been based on flawed evidence from the now discredited Horizon accounting computer system installed in Post Office branches in 1999.
Following the convictions, some of the 39 went to prison, lost their homes, were shunned by their communities and even failed to get insurance. A number of those convicted died before their names were cleared.
In a damning ruling, three senior judges said the company had “steamrolled” subpostmasters in its pursuit of prosecutions, despite knowing there were serious questions over the reliability of Horizon.
The judges said: “Post Office Limited’s failures of investigation and disclosure were so egregious as to make the prosecution of any of the ‘Horizon cases’ an affront to the conscience of the court.”
The ruling opens the door for civil compensation claims against the Post Office, which has already paid out £58 million to 550 subpostmasters who won group litigation in 2019 and has had a further 2,400 claims on a historic shortfall scheme which the company has admitted could exceed £300 million in payouts.
One lawyer close to Friday’s case said compensation for those involved could start at £250,000 and go as high as £1 million each in some cases, “such is the scale of damage to their lives”.
The Government, which owns 100 per cent of the shares in the company, has admitted that the Post Office does not have the cash to cover the claims and taxpayers will fund the shortfall.
But those whose lives have been ruined by the wrongful prosecutions said that compensation was not enough to repair the damage.
The Communication Workers Union and MPs have backed lawyers in the call for Post Office officials who “maliciously ruined the lives of innocent people by prosecuting them in pursuit of profits” to be investigated. Ms Vennells should be among those to face questions from police, it was said.
Harjinder Butoy, a former subpostmaster in Nottingham who was convicted of theft and jailed for three years and four months in 2008, said it had “destroyed my life for 14 years – that’s not going to be replaced”.
Speaking outside the Royal Courts of Justice, he said those responsible are “just bullies” who “need to be punished, seriously punished”.
Karl Turner, Labour MP for Hull East, who as a solicitor represented one of the accused, said: “The court quashed the convictions of 39 people today. Three of those people are dead and will never get to see their characters restored.
“There has to be a proper investigation by the police into how this happened.”
The Metropolitan Police are conducting an ongoing investigation into Fujitsu workers after Mr Justice Fraser wrote to the Director of Public Prosecutions expressing “grave concern” about the evidence provided in earlier court hearings. Fujitsu developed the Horizon system, which was was used for tasks such as transactions, accounting and stocktaking.
A government inquiry into the scandal is expected to report in the autumn. But fears have been raised that it will be a “whitewash” amid calls for it to be replaced with a judge-led public inquiry with the powers in law to force witnesses to attend.
The call was backed by Margot James, a former business minister who oversaw the Post Office, who claimed to The Telegraph that Ms Vennells had tried to “sweep it under the carpet” during meetings about the scandal between 2016 and 2018.
“The gravity of what has occurred, does call, I think, for an independent inquiry with some considerable resources and powers to subpoena witnesses,” Ms James said.
“I think that some pressure must be brought on the Government to commission an independent inquiry into it and to ensure that levels of compensation fits the grave disservice and the grave situation that was visited on these poor people.”
Ms Vennells put out a statement after the ruling saying that she was “truly sorry for the suffering caused as a result of their convictions” and that she was fully committed to complying with the Government’s inquiry.
However, Jo Hamilton, 63, who was given a 12-month supervision order after she admitted false accounting when she was wrongly accused of stealing £36,000, called for Ms Vennells to go further in giving back her bonuses and CBE.
“What did when she was in charge was terrible,” she told The Telegraph. “I was given a 12-month supervision order and have a criminal record. But I did nothing wrong. I was 45 when this started. It’s taken up nearly a third of my life.”
The cleared subpostmasters
Here is the full list of the sub-postmasters and mistresses whose convictions were quashed as unsafe by the Court of Appeal:
Josephine Hamilton, Hughie Thomas, Allison Henderson, Alison Hall, Gail Ward, Julian Wilson (deceased), Jacqueline McDonald, Tracy Felstead, Janet Skinner, Scott Darlington, Seema Misra, Della Robinson, Khayyam Ishaq, David Hedges, Peter Holmes (deceased), Rubina Shaheen, Damien Owen, Mohammed Rasul, Wendy Buffrey, Kashmir Gill, Barry Capon, Vijay Parekh, Lynette Hutchings, Dawn O’Connell (deceased), Carl Page, Lisa Brennan, William Graham, Siobhan Sayer, Tim Burgess, Pauline Thomson, Nicholas Clark, Margery Williams, Tahir Mahmood, Ian Warren, David Yates, Harjinder Butoy, Gillian Howard, David Blakey and Pamela Lock.
Timeline of the Post Office scandal
May 1996: After a pilot, the £1 billion contract for the Horizon computer system was rolled out across all Post Offices in the UK, as part of an arrangement between the Government’s Benefits Agency and ICL/Fujitsu.
May 1999: Labour ministers at the Department of Social Security decided to withdraw from the Horizon arrangement, which left it in the hands of Fujitsu and ICL.
September 2009: The stories emerge of postmasters who have been convicted and jailed, including Noel Thomas, from Anglesey, who spent his 60th birthday in prison. Others, including Somerset postmistress Julie Ford, are suspended for up to 18 weeks, pending investigation.
November 2010: Seema Misra, a pregnant postmaster, received a 15-month jail sentence for theft. This was despite the judge saying that there was “no direct evidence”, and “nothing incriminating” at her home, just a discrepancy between cash reserves and the Horizon system.
October 2011: Eighty-five subpostmasters who have been dismissed, fined or jailed begin legal action over their cases.
May 2012: MPs raised their concerns about the Horizon IT software system amid claims that more than 100 employees were unfairly “dragged through the mud”, amid fears one case led a victim to take their own life.
July 2012: The Post Office launches a legal review of its Horizon software, as it continues to bring prosecutions against postmasters for fraud and similar offences. It brings an average of one successful prosecution a week against a staff member between 1999 and 2012, data will eventually reveal.
July 2013: As the dispute between the Post Office and some of its staff escalated, a report commissioned by forensic investigators Second Sight found that while the system did not have systematic problems, it did contain bugs.
April 2015: A further report found no evidence of theft by postmasters, as Second Sight director Ian Henderson accused the Post Office of “institutional blindness” and whistleblowers told BBC Panorama that widespread glitches caused the missing cash.
December 2019: The Post Office agreed to pay out £58 million in compensation, split between 550 subpostmasters who it had wrongly accused of false accounting and theft.
February 2020: Asked about the issue in the House of Commons, Boris Johnson pledged to hold a public inquiry to “get to the bottom” of the Post Office scandal, describing the experiences of affected employees as “disastrous”.
October 2020: Dozens of former subpostmasters were told by the Post Office that it would not contest their appeals against their convictions.
December 2020: In a landmark moment, six postmasters wrongly accused of fraud and theft became the first to have their convictions quashed at the Court of Appeal, as the Post Office admitted the original verdicts were “unsafe”.