Friday, 4 June 2021

Marshall spells it out: speech to University of Law

P. Marshall Esq
What follows is perhaps the most important speech given on the subject of the Post Office Horizon IT scandal to date. 

I watched Mr Marshall deliver it remotely yesterday evening on Zoom to a couple of hundred students at the University of Law in London. He has very kindly given me permission to reprint it below.

The text contains a forensic analysis of the legal, ethical, individual and corporate failures that led the Post Office and the legal profession to do significant harms to hundreds of helpless individuals. 

The specific humiliations meted out to Janet Skinner, Seema Misra, Lee Castleton and Tracy Felstead are described in detail. The institutional culpability is laid bare. 

I am hoping the University of Law will soon post a link to a recording of Mr Marshall delivering his speech, which I will put up as soon as I get it. 

   THE UNIVERSITY OF LAW 

3rd June 2021

SCANDAL AT THE POST OFFICE

THE INTERSECTION OF LAW, ETHICS AND POLITICS

PAUL MARSHALL

PART I - INTRODUCTION

The great historian AJP Taylor in his History of England between 1914 and 1945 observed that, until 1914 the only emanations of the state that most English people would have encountered would have been the policeman and the Post Office.   

By 1999 the Post Office had a network of about 17,000 branches. It is still, I believe, the largest retailer in the UK.  A Post Office branch operation is considerably more complicated than those of an ordinary high street bank branch.  It sells stamps to insurance and, like banks, deals in foreign currency.   

I am talking to you today about the most serious series of miscarriages of justice in recent English history.  To put it in tabloid terms, for 20 years the Post Office hijacked the English criminal justice system and used it, essentially as part of the Post Office for its own purposes. In the process, it ruined the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of innocent people.  What I shall try and show, if you can follow my thread, is how ethical failure in business, when it feeds into legal failure by lawyers and judges, becomes incredibly damaging.  When politicians run for the hills and disclaim responsibility for the Post Office, a wholly-owned creature of government, the problem becomes almost insuperable.  If you can’t look to Parliament, what can you do? 

To understand what I am going to say, you need to know that in 2019 there was a settlement of group litigation brought by 550 claimants against the Post Office.  The settlement figure paid by the Post Office was £57 million.  Most of that sum was paid out in costs and expenses.  Sixty-six of the claimants had criminal convictions.   In March 2021 the Court of Appeal heard 42 appeals of convicted postmasters and employees. It quashed 39 of these on grounds that the Post Office had abused the processes of the court: Hamilton and ors. v Post Office Ltd [2021] EWCA Crim 577. https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Crim/2021/577.html. The number of those appeals, arising out of similar facts, is without precedent in English law.

The Court of Appeal judgment is remarkable. This is because, in a finding that is comparatively rare, the Court of Appeal concluded that, not only should the convictions of 39 former postmasters and employees be quashed on grounds of abuse of process, because the appellants did not receive a fair trial, but that, additionally, the Post Office had acted in such a way as to subvert the integrity of the criminal justice system and public confidence in it.  In legal terms this is known as ‘second category’ abuse of process.  It was a devastating finding for the Post Office that it had strenuously resisted.  I claim some credit for this conclusion because, until the end of December 2020, every other lawyer in the case, other than my solicitors Aria Grace Law and my junior, Flora Page, had been opposed to advancing that ground of appeal.  My clients had received a certain amount of flak for persisting in it, because others believed it would fail, even if the Court of Appeal was willing to entertain it, which others thought it well might not. 

The importance of this finding for the appellants was enormous.  The effect of the Court of Appeal’s finding, given effect in slightly anachronistic Victorian language - that the Post Office’s conduct “offended the conscience of the court”, is that the appellant should not only not have been convicted, but should not have been prosecuted. That is to say, complete exoneration. My pursuit of that issue, and perception that the Post Office’s conduct was much worse than merely failing to give proper disclosure of problems with Horizon, that it conceded in October 2020, is what eventually enabled me, with Aria Grace, to elicit from the Post Office the “Clarke Advice”, to which I will refer later.

The day after the Court of Appeal’s judgment, Mrs Paula Vennells, the Post Office’s former CEO, resigned from all her corporate directorial appointments and also gave-up her part-time ecclesiastical appointment.  

But the many hundreds of miscarriages of justice, now estimated to be around 736 or so, came within a hair’s breadth of not being discovered.  

It cost upwards of £150 million for the civil litigation to get close to the truth of only a part of what happened.   

The Post Office and its management were willing to expend vast sums of money, and to instruct the most expensive lawyers that money can buy, to prevent the truth coming out.  They failed, but they easily might not have done. 

Elsewhere I have suggested that were the English criminal justice system to be an airline, no one would fly it, such is the repeated incidence of disastrous failure.  

Miscarriage of justice sounds a bit abstract, so let me introduce you to my former client, Tracy Felstead, to give you a flavour of what a miscarriage of justice really means.  A miscarriage of justice is harm inflicted by the state upon an individual.  That is why the judicial oath is both so important and also onerous.  It is not a judge’s promise to do their best.  

In 2001 Tracy was a recent school-leaver, proud to have secured employment with the Post Office, at that time still a highly respected national institution.  There was a Horizon computer record that showed a shortfall of £11,500 at the till she was working on at her Post Office branch.  Under caution, interviewed by Post Office investigators at Peckham police station, she was asked: "can you demonstrate how you did not steal the money?"  Just reflect on that.  She protested her innocence.  She was prosecuted by the Post Office. There was no evidence she had ever physically taken any money.  The Post Office and Fujitsu objected to the cost of providing the electronic evidence that had been requested by Tracy’s expert witness. In the event the electronic evidence was not provided and her expert, with whom I have spoken and is highly skilled, was not called at her trial.  On 26 April 2002 Tracy was convicted of theft.  She was 19 years old. She refused to apologise when invited to do so by the trial judge, protesting she had done nothing wrong. She was immediately locked-up in a young offenders’ institution.   

In 2020 Tracy received £17,000 compensation out of the eventual settlement of £57 million, most of which went to pay the claimants’ lawyers’ fees and other costs in the group litigation, the largest component of which was funding costs.  

Tracy’s conviction was quashed by the Court of Appeal on 23 April 2021. The court found that the Post Office denied her a fair trial in not providing to her electronic evidence.  Prior to an interlocutory hearing in the Court of Appeal, in November 2020, Tracy suffered a nervous collapse, such was the continuing strain on her. The Court of Appeal held that it was an affront to the conscience of the court that Tracy had ever been prosecuted.  For 20 years, in every job interview since her conviction, Tracy had to declare that she was a convicted thief.  Imagine what that would have done for you.  Not one of you would be listening to this talk.

There are many who bear responsibility for Tracy’s prosecution. Others bear responsibility for it taking 20 years for Tracy, and others like her, to appeal.  The Post Office, including its Chairman, its Chief Executives, its Chief Accounting Officers, its Board, and its Compliance Audit and Risk Committee share responsibility for this catastrophe.  So do a significant number of lawyers and judges who failed to understand and properly evaluate the evidence.  

One of the features of these miscarriages of justice is that, in almost all cases, the only evidence against the defendant in question was a shortfall shown in the Horizon computer system.   If you remember only one thing from this talk, bear in mind that writing on a bit of paper in evidence is only marks on a piece of paper until first, someone explains what it means and, second, if it is a statement of fact, someone proves the truth of that fact.  

The simplest explanation for the Post Office scandal is that documents generated by the Horizon computer system were routinely treated by lawyers and judges as though statements of fact that were true, without bothering to consider how their truth should be established.  It was taken as given that what a computer record showed was correct. The shallowness of this approach is reprehensible. 

That apart, some Post Office lawyers knew of information that would have provided a defence to defendants. Other lawyers knew of information that would have enabled convicted defendants to launch appeals to the Court of Appeal long, long before March 2021. I hope that some of them may end up in prison for perverting the course of justice.  

At the outset of your careers you will think you will never do this.  Some of those lawyers would have imagined the same thing in their 20s.  You may ask what is it that caused them to lose their way.   I hope to give you some hints as to where the answer lies.

To start with I need to explain a few dry facts about the Post Office.  Their relevance will become clear.

The Post Office, though it is a private company limited by shares,  is in truth a creature of the government.  Its entire shareholding is owned by a company called UK Government Investments Limited. UKGI is owned directly by HM Treasury.  The duty of the Board of the Post Office under the Companies Act 2006 is to act in the interests of its shareholder, the government.   There is a government appointed representative on the Board. 

The accounting officer for the Post Office reports to the accounting officer of the Department for Business Energy & Industrial Strategy or BEIS.  It was previously called the Department for Business Innovation & Skills (BIS).  

Enterprises such as the Post Office are private enterprises through which the government delivers services.  Sometimes these are called “Arm’s Length Bodies” or more voguishly “Partner Organisations”.  In 2012 the Post Office was separated from the Royal Mail. A key government objective for the Post Office was to make it profitable, because for a long time its activities had been loss-making.  

Twenty-two years ago, in 1999, the then labour government had brought to an end a PPI procurement project. That project had been to run the state benefits system through the Benefits Agency in collaboration with the Post Office.  It was proposed to run the benefits scheme on a grand computer system called Horizon. Horizon became the largest non-military computer system in Europe.  The project did not go happily and incurred wasted cost to the taxpayer of about £700 million.  It was a fairly conventional failed government IT project.  At a Parliamentary Select Committee in 1999 several government ministers, including  the future Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, explained to Members of Parliament that the Horizon computer system was insufficiently tested. It was said that it exposed the government to the prospect of a catastrophe.

The government decided that a whizzo way of dealing with the problem was to offload Horizon on to the Post Office. This was in the name of modernisation, and to salvage something from the failed procurement project. Fujitsu, the Japanese technology company, that earns billions from government contracts, took over the Horizon computer system and supplied it under a service contract to the Post Office.   

Some thinkers

I thought it convenient to mention a couple of thinkers whose thoughts shine a good deal of light upon the Post Office scandal. 

Carl von Clausewitz was one of the great thinkers on warfare.  He cut his teeth as a staff officer in the Prussian Army in the Napoleonic wars. He wrote down his reflections.  Some of these can readily be transferred to other forms of adversarial activity, including litigation.  One of Clausewitz’s insights is that warfare naturally tends towards an extreme, because of ever-greater effort to overcome your adversary.   He thought that the impediments to the tendency to “absolute war” were what he called “frictional” constraints.  Two of the most important were, first, constraint upon the material resources allocated to the contest – in effect, cost; a second constraint is moral – if you like, the stomach for a fight.  These constraints are themselves affected by the stakes that are in dispute. The greater the importance of the subject of the contest, the greater will be the resources likely to be expended.  If core values are in issue and the dispute is existential, there will be a tendency to extreme conflict. 

These principles can be seen in operation in the Post Office scandal.  By 2019 the Post Office was willing to deploy more than a hundred million pounds in costs to defending the group litigation brought by 500 postmasters. That is, literally to spare no expense.  Part of the explicit thinking (that the journalist Nick Wallis has recorded) was to wear out the claimants in costs.  The Post Office had effectively unlimited funds, being backed by the government. The prospect of the postmasters succeeding in their claims constituted an existential threat to the entire Post Office business and its brand.  The Post Office, in effect, bet the farm on defeating the 550 group claimants. It lost that bet.  The result is the insolvency of the Post Office.  This is because, without government support, it cannot meet the claims of some 2,400 others who have claimed under a Historic Shortfall compensation scheme set up last year.

The second thinker I shall refer to is the medieval theologian St Thomas Aquinas.  Aquinas postulated a moral dilemma in a commercial situation. A merchant in a sailing vessel arrived at an island with a cargo that the islanders had not received for many months.  The cargo was accordingly very valuable in the market.  What, however, if the merchant knew that coming behind them was a large number of ships laden with similar cargo?   Were they morally obliged to tell the islanders or could they exploit their ignorance by maintaining a high price?   I will leave that to you to decide,  but what the dilemma illustrates is that ignorance has commercial value.  In law there are a large number of circumstances where the imperative to take advantage of ignorance is powerful.  There is a line that can be crossed.  Ethics can be expensive.  

This problem lies at the heart of an ethical conundrum and a conflict of interest.  A lawyer owes a duty to their client, but they owe a prior duty to the court.  The problem is that these duties may, and sometimes do, collide.   The higher the stakes the greater will be the temptation to ask, not what course of action is right, but ‘what can I get away with?’  

As I shall explain, the Post Office scandal, at a high level of abstraction, is explained by the exploitation by the Post Office of ignorance.  The first kind of ignorance exploited was that the Post Office, for 20 years, failed to give proper disclosure of the many known problems with its Horizon system.   

The second kind of ignorance exploited by the Post Office was in violation of convicted defendants’ Article 6 rights under the ECHR.  Article 6 guarantees a right to a fair trial within a reasonable time. A fair trial includes any appeal. The Post Office concealed from defendants its knowledge, that it acquired in 2013, that would have enabled many appeals long before March 2021.  It did so not by accident, but by a deliberate strategy.  

PART II – TWO STREAMS OF FAILURE

The Post Office scandal defies simple analysis because it resulted from two separate streams of failure that each augmented the other.  

Some will have detected that I stand outside the cheerleading for English justice.  It is indeed the case that if you wish to engage in litigation where expense is of no consequence and you have unlimited resources, English justice will provide the Rolls Royce for your purpose.  For everyone else it provides a mechanism for the resolution of disputes that is ludicrously expensive, fraught with procedural hazard and delivers a result that is frequently unjustifiably unprincipled, and as a result unpredictable.  It also facilitates and encourages what Clausewitz warned of, in connection with war, the tendency to ever greater extremes.  

First stream of failure - misunderstanding how computers fail

The first problem that the Post Office litigation painfully exposes is that English judges and English lawyers commonly do not understand the propensity of computers to fail.   

If you think that’s harsh, in 1997 Lord Hoffmann, universally regarded as a clever judge, loftily declared that no one needs a degree in electronics to know whether a computer is working or not.  The Bates group civil litigation incurred colossal cost in exposing the fallacy of Lord Hoffmann’s observation.  The law treats computers like machines.  But computers are not machines – or at least they are not only machines.  Part of the present problem is that technology advances so rapidly that our means of dealing with it cannot keep pace.  There is more regulation covering the design of a toaster than there is of someone who writes and sells computer software.  

At a more concrete level, in 2010 at Mrs Seema Misra’s trial, prosecuting counsel opened and closed the case for the Crown by telling the jury that, were there to have been a problem with the Horizon computer system, any such problem would have been manifest and obvious to a Horizon computer terminal operator.   That’s, in effect, Lord Hoffmann’s point.  It’s wrong.

The Law Commission expressed a similar view in two reports to Parliament in 1993 and 1997. The Commission recommended that safeguards for evidence derived from computers in legal proceedings be removed.  Until 2000, a person relying on computer evidence at a criminal trial was required to prove that the computer was working properly.  The Post Office Horizon scandal tracks exactly the period since the removal of protections previously provided by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.

The mischief of the prosecution’s contention was that, by sleight of hand, it put the onus on Mrs Misra to explain to the jury the problems she encountered with Horizon.  All she could actually do was point to shortfalls she had experienced at her Horizon branch terminal – that is, all she could show was that the cash that she had received didn’t match the balancing figure on the Horizon computer screen.  In leaps it had escalated to £75,000.  She called the police and suspected her colleagues of theft.  The transcript of her trial shows that she was close to taunted by the prosecution for her being unable to point to identifiable problems:  ‘Mrs Misra says that there must be a fault with Horizon, but she can’t point to any problem she actually had’.   

The jury was invited to infer that the only cause of the discrepancy must be theft.  That should never have happened.  Had her trial been conducted properly, the Post Office should have been required to prove that the Horizon system was working at the time she experienced shortfalls.  As we now know from Mr Justice Fraser’s 2019 ‘Horizon Issues’ judgment (Bates and ors. v Post Office Ltd (‘Horizon Issues’) Rev 1 [2019] EWHC 3408 QB. https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/2019/3408.html), the Post Office could not have done so.  Mrs Misra went to prison. She was 8 weeks’ pregnant and it was her son’s 10th birthday. On being sentenced she collapsed.  

The importance of computer disclosure

The problem with the Post Office’s litigation and prosecution of its postmasters is that, for 20 years, the Post Office gave wholly inadequate disclosure of known problems with its computer system.  

The most astonishing aspect of this to anyone technically half-literate is that, until 2019, the Post Office declined to disclose the Fujitsu Horizon Known Error Log.  In the massive group litigation, reported as Bates and Ors. v Post Office Ltd (Horizon Issues) [2019] EWHC 3408, it had three lines of objection to disclosing the Known Error Log (KEL) – a central log maintained to record, as its name suggests, errors in a computer system, their impact, and fixes undertaken to correct them.   

To start with, the Post Office’s solicitors, in correspondence questioned whether the Known Error Log existed at all.  Mr Justice Fraser concluded that it did.

Once the existence of the Known Error Log was established, the Post Office’s leading counsel submitted to the court that the KEL was irrelevant and the claimants’ demand for its disclosure was “a red-herring”.  Mr Justice Fraser concluded that the KEL was likely relevant to the claimants’ claims.  

Once established as existing and likely to be of relevance, the Post Office’s final contention was that, however relevant it might be, very regrettably it could not disclose it because it was not the Post Office’s Known Error Log, but rather Fujitsu’s.   

Mr Justice Fraser’s response to this, was to point out that, in fact, as a matter of contract between the Post Office and Fujitsu, the Post Office was entitled to the Known Error Log.  

The importance of the KEL is impossible to overstate.   The judge found it not to be a red-herring, but, on the contrary, fundamental in revealing the true and full extent of Horizon’s unreliability over time, the bugs identified in the system, their effects on branch Horizon accounts, and the fixes that were implemented.  

In case you are not already disconcerted, Mrs Misra, on no less than four separate occasions in the course of her prosecution, requested that the court order disclosure by the Post Office of Horizon error records.  

Three different judges dismissed each of Mrs Misra’s applications.  In the last application, at the end of her trial, her defence counsel submitted that she couldn’t have a fair trial without further disclosure.  The trial judge disagreed and said she could have a fair trial without it.  10 years later the Criminal Cases Review Commission concluded that Mrs Misra didn’t receive a fair trial.  Why? Because she was not given proper disclosure by the Post Office.  

This ought to be a matter of acute concern to the judiciary, to the legal profession and also to the public.  

In November 2020 at the personal invitation of the Under Secretary of State, I submitted a paper to the Ministry of Justice contributed to or endorsed by 8 experts, six of whom are, or have been, university professors.  I understand that our recommendations have been submitted for consideration by the Attorney General and by the Chair of the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee, the Lord Chief Justice.

Second stream of failure - Post Office mendacity

What I have called the second complicating stream is Post Office mendacity – institutional ethical failure, if you will.   I will give three examples.

It may come as a surprise to you to know that in September 2010, a month before Mrs Misra’s trial, a significant number of senior employees of Fujitsu and senior employees of the Post Office held a high level meeting at which a bug was discussed called the “Receipts and Payments mismatch” bug.   This bug, it was acknowledged, would cause a postmaster’s receipts and payments to appear to balance at the terminal but not do so on the Post Office’s main servers.   In short, an error caused by this bug would not be apparent or obvious to an operator.  

It was recorded in writing that this might present a problem for the Post Office in its “ongoing legal cases”. A senior Fujitsu employee and computer engineer who was present at that meeting gave evidence a few weeks later at Mrs Misra’s trial.  He said nothing about it. If you are not deeply shocked by that you ought to be.  Mr Justice Fraser described the bug as having been kept “secret”.  If you have been following me, disclosure of that bug would have undermined statements made by the prosecution, both in opening and closing its case against Seema Misra.  

I want to tell you briefly about Lee Castleton.  Lee Castleton invested his life savings in acquiring a branch Post Office in in Yorkshire in 2003.   As explained, Fujitsu acquired the Horizon system and provided it to the Post Office.  It was known to have problems with its reliability.

Recognising the systemic risk that it was shouldering, the Post Office with its lawyers devised an extremely adverse contract that shifted the risk in the system to postmasters.  This was achieved by a contractual term that provided that a Horizon account balance stated by a postmaster to the Post Office was an “account” in law.  An “account” is analogous to acknowledgement of a debt due.   The legal effect is that once stated, the burden is on the paying party, if they want to dispute the account for any reason, to show why the account is wrong.  The postmaster was contractually required to make up, out of their own funds, any shortfall.  If a postmaster’s account was wrong, not by any fault of theirs but because the system had failed, as a matter of contract it was down to the postmaster concerned to show and explain why.

That presented the hapless postmaster with an insuperable evidential and legal problem.  

The first occasion on which the Post Office was required to positively prove that the Horizon system worked properly was in 2019.  It then failed dismally.   The trial judge described the Post Office’s contentions that Horizon was robust and reliable as the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the earth is flat.  

In 2006 Lee Castleton was sued for a shortfall shown at his Horizon terminal of about £26,000.  He was careful and knew he had not made mistakes. 

Mr Castleton was unrepresented by lawyers at his 6-day trial in 2006.  He had run out of money to pay for legal representation.  He had called the Horizon helpline many, many times, complaining that he had problems balancing his accounts.  That cut no ice with either the Post Office or with the judge.  Mr Castleton was persuaded to accept that the balance that he had provided to the Post Office was in law “an account”.  He accepted that at the outset of the trial.  He was doomed from the word go.

In law, the essential feature of an account is that it is the result of agreement.  It took 13 years for Mr Castleton’s concession to be shown by Mr Justice Fraser in 2019 to have been wrongly made. That is because there was no agreement of the account. There was no contractual mechanism for disputing the Horizon computer figure.  The contractual term was, in effect ‘agree the Horizon figure or stop operating your Post Office’.  Neat, but utterly unreasonable and oppressive.  

The contractual provision had the purported legal effect of transferring the risk of Horizon failure to hapless postmasters.  It is unsatisfactory that for 20 years it went unexamined.  Most postmasters could never have afforded to instruct a barrister of sufficient experience to challenge the Post Office.  Lee went like a lamb to the slaughter.

The trial judge, without hearing any expert evidence, rejected Mr Castleton’s defence that the Horizon system might not have been working properly.  The judge concluded that it was working properly.  You may ask yourself how he arrived at that conclusion.  You will remain mystified if you take the trouble to read the judge’s judgment: Post Office Ltd v Castleton [2007] EWHC 5 QB.

(https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/2007/5.html.)

The Post Office obtained a costs order against Mr Castleton for £321,000. 

The costs order made against him caused Lee Castleton to become bankrupt.  For several years he and his family were rendered almost destitute. They lived in accommodation without a hot water boiler because he could not afford one.  Ask yourself how many postmasters the Post Office’s solicitors will have shown that hopelessly flawed reported High Court judgment to, to make them think twice before taking on the Post Office.  

The judgment in Mr  Castleton’s case is now shown to be wrong in virtually every respect, both as to the law and as to its facts.  I have written about that decision in an article entitled ‘The Harm that judges do’.    

The third aspect of ethical failure by the Post Office is what can be called, “the cover-up”.

In October 2020, in one document amongst the many thousands I had looked at, I noticed a remarkable couple of lines that referred to the Post Office main Board, in August 2013, having been told by external solicitors, about concerns about the Fujitsu computer engineer who had given evidence at Mrs Misra’s trial.   I could not for the life of me understand why the Board of the Post Office was receiving notice about one of its expert witnesses.  

My solicitors Aria Grace Law asked a large number of questions about this. These elicited from the Post Office in November 2020 the now famous “Clarke Advice”.  That document revealed that, as long ago as in 2013, the Post Office knew that its principal expert witness had repeatedly given incomplete and misleading evidence to the court. He had thereby put the Post Office in breach of its obligations to the court as prosecutor.  It was suggested he should not be used as a witness again.  It is the single most explosive document I have encountered in 30 years’ practice at the Bar.  

One of the extraordinary aspects of the Clarke Advice, is that it revealed a curious difference.  If you read the judgments of Mr Justice Fraser, you will see that he devotes a good deal of space to the remarkable fact that a Fujitsu expert computer engineer, Mr Jenkins, was the source of much of the Post Office’s evidence in 2019.  But he was not called as a witness.  In their written submissions at the close of the Horizon Issues trial the Post Office gave an explanation for Mr Jenkins not being called as a witness.   The remarkable thing is, that the reason given to Mr Justice Fraser in 2019 by the Post Office is rather different from, and does not sit easily with, an alternative explanation, as suggested by the Clarke Advice.  If you are interested you can pursue this by considering the Court of Appeal’s judgment of April 2021 and the judgment of Mr Justice Fraser of December 2019.

The main point, however, is that in my view, any reasonably competent and conscientious lawyer in 2013, in possession of that information – that is to say the known incompleteness of evidence given to the court by their expert - would immediately have grasped that it could potentially render the conviction of a person, convicted on the basis of evidence given by that Fujitsu employee, unsafe. A prosecutor in the possession of such information has an unqualified duty in law to disclose it to a convicted defendant. 

I had been puzzled, until November 2020, as to why, from 2014, the Post Office had not undertaken any prosecutions of postmasters, when in 2012 it had undertaken more than 40. The Clarke Advice provided my answer. The Post Office in 2013-2014 undertook a major change in its policy.  But it was keeping quiet about the reason.

A question to whet your appetite

I will leave you with a question.  The key is timing, so keep in mind the dates.

On 17 December 2014 there was an adjournment debate in Westminster Hall moved by Mr James Arbuthnot MP, now Lord Arbuthnot.  (An adjournment debate is a debate without a vote. Such debates are usually on subjects of general public importance.) Second Sight Ltd, a specialist firm of forensic accountants, in response to pressure from Members of Parliament, had two years previously been appointed by the Post Office to look into the Post Office’s treatment of its postmasters.  Sir Anthony Hooper, a former Court of Appeal judge, had been appointed to oversee a mediation process.

At the December 2014 debate, Jo Swinson MP, then the government minister for Postal Services, having heard from MPs a series of shocking stories of the treatment by the Post Office of its postmasters, said this to Parliament:

“…in such a situation what I would normally propose doing is to get a team of forensic accountants to go through every scenario and to have the report looked at by someone independent, such as a former Court of Appeal judge. We have a system in place to look at cases … If any information comes to light during the course of the mediation or the investigations, that suggests that any of the convictions that have taken place are unsafe, there is a legal duty for that information to be disclosed…. I fail to see how action can be taken without properly looking in detail at every single one of the cases through exactly the kind of scheme that we have set up... . We have to look at the details and the facts, and that has to be done forensically. That is why Second Sight, the team of forensic accountants, has been employed and why we have someone of the calibre of Sir Anthony Hooper to oversee the process.”

In 2015, the Post Office told Parliament that it had received no evidence that the conviction of any applicant to the mediation scheme was unsafe.  Lord Arbuthnot is on record in 2020 as stating that the Post Office lied to Parliament.  To my knowledge he has not been contradicted.

Be that as it may, less than 6 weeks’ after the minister’s statement to Parliament, on 3 February 2015,  Ian Henderson of Second Sight gave this evidence to the Business Innovation and Skills Parliamentary Select Committee:

Ian Henderson  “we have seen no evidence that the Post Office’s own investigators were ever trained or prepared to consider that Horizon was at fault. That was never a factor that was taken into account in any of the investigations by Post Office that we have looked at.”

“That is a matter of huge concern, and that is why we are determined to get to the bottom of this matter, because we think that there have been prosecutions brought by the Post Office where there has been inadequate investigation and inadequate evidence to support some of the charges brought against defendants … this … is why we need to see the full prosecution files.”

“When we have looked at the evidence made available to us… I have not been satisfied that there is sufficient evidence to support a charge for theft. You can imagine the consequences that flow from that. That is why we, Second Sight, are determined to get to the bottom of this matter, which we regard as extremely serious.”  

So Ian Henderson in February 2015 said that Second Sight wanted to do exactly what Jo Swinson MP, the government minister, in December 2014 had said the government saw to be necessary. 

Within a month of Mr Henderson’s evidence to the Select Committee, in March 2015 the Post Office summarily terminated the engagement of Second Sight and abruptly withdrew from the mediation process.  

I raise this question for you to reflect upon.  Given what the minister had told Parliament on 17 December 2014, is it plausible that the Post Office sacked Second Sight without briefing the government, as its owner, on the reason for it doing so?  I think it inconceivable that it did not. 

Assuming the Post Office did brief the government on those reasons, the Post Office either gave a truthful account of the reason for sacking Second Sight and withdrawing from mediation, or else it gave an incomplete and misleading explanation.    

If the Post Office gave a truthful explanation to the government, that would make the government complicit in a 6 year cover-up. On the other hand, if the Post Office gave a misleading explanation to government, why has there not been the slightest suggestion of this from the government, given the seismic shocks represented by Mr Justice Fraser’s judgment of December 2019 and, even more so, the Court of Appeal’s devastating judgment of 23 April 2021?  

These are very big and important questions.  Until now, I do not believe that they have been raised.

These questions are not academic.  The Post Office’s behaviour has destroyed peoples’ lives.  I have provided the links to two podcasts by The Guardian newspaper on my former client Janet Skinner’s experience.  That her story reduced the journalist interviewing her to tears says enough.  

You might weep too, but weep for English justice.  


© Paul Marshall June 2021


Cornerstone Barristers

2-3 Gray’s Inn Square

Gray’s Inn, London


Further reading: 

Hamilton and ors. v Post Office Ltd [2021] EWCA Crim 577. https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Crim/2021/577.html

Bates and ors. v Post Office Ltd (‘Horizon Issues’) Rev 1 [2019] EWHC 3408 QB. https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/2019/3408.html

Bates and ors. v Post Office Ltd (‘Common Issues’) [2019] EWHC 606 QB. https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/2019/606.html

Post Office Ltd v Castleton [2007] EWHC 5 QB. https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/2007/5.html

The harm that judges do – misunderstanding computer evidence: Mr Castleton’s story, Paul Marshall, Digital Evidence and Electronic Signature Law Review 17 (2020) 25. https://journals.sas.ac.uk/deeslr/article/view/5172/5037

English law’s presumption that computer systems are reliable: time for a rethink? Paul Marshall, Butterworths Journal of International Banking and Financial Law, 7 (2020) 433.

Recommendations for the probity of computer evidence, Marshall, Christie, Ladkin, Littlewood, Mason, Newby, Rogers, Thimbleby, Thomas,  Digital Evidence and Electronic Signature Law Review 18 (2021) 18. https://journals.sas.ac.uk/deeslr/article/view/5240/5083

The Law Commission presumption concerning the dependability of computer evidence, Ladkin, Littlewood, Thimbleby, Thomas, Digital Evidence and Electronic Signature Law Review 17 (2020) 1. https://journals.sas.ac.uk/deeslr/article/view/5143

Stephen Mason and Daniel Seng (Eds.) Electronic Evidence 4th Edition, Institute of Advanced Legal Studies for the SAS Humanities Digital Library, School of Advanced Study University of London 2017, https://humanities-digital-library.org/index.php/hdl/catalog/book/electronicevidence (5th edition forthcoming 2021).

Robustness of software’, Peter Ladkin, Digital Evidence and Electronic Signature Law Review 17 (2020) 15. https://journals.sas.ac.uk/deeslr/article/view/5171.

The Hearsay Rule in Civil Proceedings 1993 Law Com. No. 245.

Evidence in Criminal Proceedings Hearsay and Related Topics 1997 Law Com. No. 216.

The Guardian Podcasts on Janet Skinner’s experience, by Anushka Asthana and Richard Brooks.

https://www.theguardian.com/news/audio/2021/may/10/exposing-the-great-post-office-scandal-part-1

https://www.theguardian.com/news/audio/2021/may/11/the-post-office-scandal-part-2

BBC Radio 4, 11-part Podcast by Nick Wallis, The Great Post Office trial https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000jf7j/episodes/downloads


Monday, 31 May 2021

JFSA encourages members to sign up with solicitors ahead of inquiry decision

Alan Bates from the JFSA (l) and Sir Wyn Williams (r)

The Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance may have inched closer to participating in the Post Office Horizon Inquiry  - but there's still one big red line stopping them from getting involved.

Over the weekend, Alan Bates, founder of the JFSA, sent a note to his mailing list, telling members about his "introductory" meeting on Thursday last week with Sir Wyn Williams, the former High Court judge who is chairing the inquiry. The (remote) meeting was also attended by Kay Linnell, a forensic accountant who has advised the JFSA for more than a decade, David Enright, a partner at Howe and Co solicitors and Sam Stein QC, who we recently saw in action representing a number of Subpostmasters at the Court of Appeal.

Mr Bates says the JFSA's participation in the inquiry remains dependent on the issue of compensation, telling members:

"If, as with the original review, the issue of compensation is specifically excluded then it is pointless us taking part, every other issue is secondary to what we are rightfully owed and which has been taken from us."

Sir Wyn apparently made no promises. According to Mr Bates, Sir Wyn:

"stated that he would be preparing a Statement of Approach No 4 which will probably be available in 14 days once key participants have made submissions to him regarding their view of what path the Inquiry should follow. Be assured our legal team will be making a submission, as no doubt will those of POL [Post Office Ltd] and BEIS [the government Business ministry which technically "owns" the Post Office on our behalf]."

Remember last year a senior government source told me civil servants within government didn't want any sort of review or inquiry at all - "they wanted it all to go away".

According to Mr Bates' reading of the inquiry's new powers, Sir Wyn can address at any issue surrounding the scandal he deems important. Mr Bates told his members: "one comment I do recall from the meeting with him is that he hopes to do so ‘Reasonably, Sensibly and Proportionally’."

Whilst the JFSA's position has not formally changed, it seems as if last Thursday's whites-of-their-eyes meeting at least persuaded Mr Bates and his advisors to keep talking, for now.

And if Statement of Approach Number 4 delivers the goods, the JFSA could well be in. In fact, in his note, Mr Bates suggests his members might want to contact Howe and Co in order to be ready to apply for core participant status to the inquiry. 

To help them do that, added to the JFSA note is an FAQ from Howe and Co. It is also immensely helpful for any lay person wondering exactly how statutory inquiries operate. 

I have reprinted the FAQ below and included the email address for Howe and Co at the bottom of this post, should anyone reading this think they might want Howe and Co to look after their application to be a core participant. As with everything of this nature, this website does not recommend one course of action over another, it just reports it. Other law firms are available.

Howe and Co's FAQ, via a recent JFSA newsletter:

• What is a Statutory Inquiry?

A Statutory Inquiry, simply, is a powerful form of public inquiry, established under the Inquiries Act 2005, and operates under the rules set out in that Act.

A Public Inquiry is a way of independently assessing the facts, events and circumstances which gave rise to a particular failure or problem. They also examine the background of that failure, and make recommendations about how bodies or organisations can improve their performance or prevent a failure or problem from reoccurring. A public inquiry will investigate key issues, taking into account evidence from the documents and witnesses to the facts.

A statutory public inquiry, as opposed to a government review or non-statutory inquiry, is a more formal process (with set legal rules about evidence and witnesses, for example).

• What are core participants?

A core participant is an individual, organisation or institution that has a specific interest in the topics to which the Inquiry relates. They have specific rights and roles as set out in law. Core participants have special rights in the Inquiry process.

Core participants' special rights include receiving early disclosure of documentation, including documents not made public, being legally represented and making legal submissions to the Chair, suggesting lines of questions to witnesses, suggesting evidence to be obtained, and receiving advance notice of the Inquiry's report(s).

It is not necessary to be a core participant in order to provide evidence to the Inquiry.

The Inquiry's Chair will decide who can be designated as a core participant, based on the applications made to him. He makes decisions according to legally-defined rules, but has wide discretion and can take a large number of factors into account.

• What is the role of Sir Wyn Williams?

Sir Wyn Williams is the Chair of the Inquiry. Sir Wyn retired from his role as a High Court judge in 2017 and has undertaken a number of similar judicial and legal roles since his retirement. In conjunction with the Inquiry's dedicated lawyers, he will be the head of the investigation and will be responsible for the procedures of the Inquiry and responsible for drafting its report(s). The Chair's role is comparable to a judge in a legal case, but with a duty to properly and fully investigate the issues to which the inquiry relates.

The Chair of an inquiry is responsible for making key decisions on the setting up and operation of an inquiry. Those decisions relate to:

an inquiry's procedural rules; the granting of core participant status to individuals and organisations; which witnesses to call; requiring that documents be disclosed to the inquiry; finance and timetables of the inquiry; and recommendations, and interim recommendations.

The Chair will also be involved in the selection and appointment of panel members (see below).

• Who are the Chair's panel, and how are they selected?

We do not yet know who may be appointed to the panel. The Inquiries Act 2005 permits an inquiry to sit with a panel. The JFSA can make representations to the Chair as to who panel members should be.

Whilst the decision on panel members  ultimately a decision for the government minister, that minister is under a legal duty to consult with the Chair on panel members' appointment.

The Prime Minister withdrew a proposal to appoint a panel member to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, after Howe & Co objected on behalf of their core participant clients about the panel member's professional history, Now, the Grenfell Tower inquiry's panel contains an architect and health and safety practitioner, as well as a panel member with experience in social housing and local government.

• What are the powers of the Statutory Inquiry?

One of the most significant advantages of a statutory inquiry over a non-statutory inquiry are the powers that are granted to it.

A statutory inquiry has the ability to compel witnesses to attend and give evidence, as well as power to require a company, body, individual or institution to provide documents to it. A non-statutory inquiry has no powers to compel anyone unwilling to comply or engage with it.

A statutory Inquiry can commence criminal action again any person or organisation that refuses to cooperate with it.

• What is the aim of the Statutory Inquiry?

The aims of the Statutory Inquiry are set out in its Terms of Reference. Last week the JFSA forced the Department of Business to change and widen the Terms of Reference.

The Terms of Reference are ultimately the responsibility of the Minister responsible for the Inquiry, in this case the BEIS Minister. In practice, the Terms of Reference are usually set based on the recommendations of the inquiry's chair or proposed chair.

It is usual for the Chair to consult on the contents of the Terms of Reference, including with those who are or who may be core participants (see below for core participants). Once the Chair has considered the representations placed before him by the relevant interested parties, he will make a recommendation to the Minister.

The JFSA will be seeking to press Sir Wyn Williams to widen the Terms of Reference further and to interpret the current Terms of Reference so as to ensure that the Objectives of the JFSA are fully and properly investigated.

• How will it work?

At this stage, it is too early to say exactly how the Inquiry will operate day to day. It is likely that the Inquiry's business will be conducted through a mixture of written submissions and live, in-person (or remote) hearings.

We will be meeting with the Chair to discuss this and the JFSA's concerns shortly.

Some inquiries, dependent on their nature, divide and sub-divide their work into separate topics. Core Participants are usually given the chance to make written submissions on a topic, and subsequently make oral submissions at a hearing through their nominated barristers. The Inquiry will call for witness evidence (through witness statements) from the Core Participants, on their general experiences, or more specific questions to direct the evidence sought.

The witness evidence will be considered by the Inquiry's legal team, and some witnesses will be called to give live evidence. This means that, for example, we can expect to hear witness evidence from staff from the Post Office and Fujitsu, as well as from relevant government departments. We also can expect that subpostmasters will be asked to provide witness statements, and that the Inquiry will want some subpostmasters to appear live.

Lawyers for core participants are given advance access to documents and the witness statements of other core participants. Prior to a witness appearing before the Inquiry, core participants are able to submit specific lines of questioning for each witness based on their role and their witness statement.

• Who can attend?

Public inquiries are just that, public. The manner in which the hearings take place is dependent on how the Chair constitutes the inquiry, but the Inquiry proceedings will be accessible to the public.

Whilst COVID restrictions will undoubtedly impact whether public hearings can take place, the Inquiry's business will be publicly accessible. Public inquiries are usually livestreamed on YouTube, and the transcript of each day's proceedings are published online along with any evidence heard.

• What evidence will the Statutory Inquiry consider?

The evidence considered by the Inquiry will be dependent on the nature of the Terms of Reference set. However, the Inquiry and the Inquiry's chair has broad powers to request documents, and legally demand them if necessary. We can expect a wide range of evidence to be considered by the inquiry, including documents provided by core participants and evidence from experts.

• Will I have to pay for legal representation?

No. The Inquiry rules set out that legal representation can be paid for from public funds if certain legal tests are met. Howe + Co are experts at obtaining funding for its clients in Inquiry proceedings, and they will assist the JFSA members in obtaining funding for legal representation.

• Will I be liable for any costs if I complete the Core Participant form?

No, you will not be liable for any costs by completing and returning the form.

By completing the form, you agree to instruct Howe & Co to represent you before the Inquiry. At the start, that work will include applications for core participant status, and an application for public funding. You will not be liable for the costs any work done as part of the Inquiry process. Howe & Co will not seek to recover any legal costs from you.

• Will I be able to claim any money, such as expenses, as a core participant?

Yes, subject to your being granted core participant status, the rules do allow the Chair to reimburse expenses incurred in Inquiry business. That is subject to a number of legal tests, with which we are able to assist you.

Inquiries, generally, reimburse the costs incurred by core participants as part of their participation in the Inquiry, for example if they are called to give evidence.

• Can evidence presented to the Inquiry be challenged, and if so how?

Yes. One of the most important roles of core participants, and their legal team, is to consider and challenge evidence presented to the inquiry by institutions such as the Post Office, Department of Business and Fujitsu. 

Where a witness appears to give evidence to the Inquiry, core participants are given advance disclosure of their evidence. Core participants are then able to suggest questions to be asked of the witness or to have their own advocate ask questions of the witness.

Where institutions or organisations, such as the Post Office, provide evidence, core participants will be provided it in advance. You will then be entitled to suggest questions of those witnesses, through your legal team.

Other than suggested questions and proper consideration of disclosure, along with your legal team, core participants make legal submissions to the Inquiry at various points in the Inquiry's processes. That legal argument is often based on evidence, including disputing evidence provided by other core participants.

Additionally, the documents provided to the Inquiry by core participants, including you, can be used to challenge or dispute evidence currently before the Inquiry.

The more members of the JFSA who agree to be core participants, the stronger our voice.

• When will the Inquiry report?

By July, we expect Sir Wyn to publish an interim report, based on the work he and the Inquiry have completed to date.

The Inquiry is currently scheduled to deliver its final report in 18 months. However, the JFSA and Howe + Co will be pressing the Inquiry to deal with important issues and issue interim reports as the Inquiry progresses, rather than waiting to give all of its findings and recommendations in its single final report.

ENDS

The address the JFSA gives for anyone looking for more information about Howe and Co's offer of representation is postofficescandal@howe.co.uk

Friday, 28 May 2021

Johnson wants accountability AND compensation for Subpostmasters


Boris Johnson

This week Boris Johnson appeared to agree with the evolving position of the Business Minister Paul Scully* to agree during Prime Minister's Questions that all Subpostmasters who have been left out of pocket by the Post Office should be fairly compensated.

In response to a question from Seema Misra's MP, Jonathan Lord, the PM said:

"we are determined to ensure that postmasters and sub-postmasters are fairly compensated for what happened"

It's hardly unequivocal, but when put in the context of the question it reads much better. Here is the exchange in full:

Mr Jonathan Lord (Woking) (Con)

"On behalf of my constituent Seema Misra and other wrongly convicted sub-postmasters, I am grateful that the vital inquiry of Sir Wyn Williams into that scandal has now been given more teeth. However, there is widespread concern, shared by Post Office CEO Nick Read, that the compensation received by the sub-postmasters who were party to the civil litigation at the High Court was simply not fair. I urge the Prime Minister to ensure that those civil litigant sub-postmasters will be included in the anticipated Government compensation scheme."

The Prime Minister 

"I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue—a tragic case of injustice. I have met some of the postmasters and sub-postmasters who have been affected by that miscarriage of justice. As he knows, the Government were not party to the initial litigation, nor the settlement that was agreed, but we are determined to ensure that postmasters and sub-postmasters are fairly compensated for what happened."

Emphasis mine.

Jonathan Lord MP

Mr Lord is a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Post Office, which Paul Scully attended on Wednesday evening. I asked Mr Lord both about the question he asked the PM and what he made of Mr Scully's performance at the APPG:

“It was a great opportunity to urge the Prime Minister that there should be proper compensation for the Subpostmasters who were civil litigants at the High Court, and I think that the PM’s response was reasonably positive.

I was also pleased that Paul Scully agreed to be the main guest of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Post Office on Tuesday evening. It would not be right for me to quote extensively from the private exchanges that took place. However, I have permission from the Chair to report that Minister Scully received frank and robust comments and very searching questions from each of MPs and Peers present on behalf of Subpostmasters and that he listened extremely carefully to all of the points that were made.”

Mr Lord's question follows on from Lucy Allan's question to the PM on 24 March to which Boris Johnson agreed the people responsible for the Post Office Horizon IT scandal should be held accountable. The exact exchange was as follows:

Lucy Allan MP (taken from the British Sign Language replay of the debate on parliamentlive.tv)

Lucy Allan (Telford) (Con) 

"My constituent Tracy Felstead is at the Court of Appeal today, along with 41 other sub-postmasters. She is seeking to clear her name in a grotesque miscarriage of justice: the Post Office Horizon scandal. The Court has heard about the “institutional imperative” to back a flawed IT system and to convict sub-postmasters, destroying the lives of decent men and women in a ruthless determination to protect the Post Office come what may. Taxpayers will be picking up the bill for this multimillion-pound reckless wrongdoing. Does the Prime Minister agree that, in order for justice to be truly done, those responsible for this failure and its cover-up must be held to account? Does he agree that heads should roll?"

The Prime Minister

"I certainly understand my hon. Friend’s strong feelings on this issue, and her campaign is shared by many Members across the House. That is why we launched the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry, which has made quite fast progress. Yes, we do want to learn the lessons. Yes, we do want to make sure that the right people are held to account for what happened and that the Post Office never repeats a mistake like this."

Again - my emphasis added for clarity.

Now two High Court judgments and a Court of Appeal ruling have put beyond doubt that Very Bad Things happened to a large number of people, the two outstanding issues are accountability and compensation. The Prime Minister has agreed with campaigning backbench MPs he wants to see people held to account, and now, that he wants to see everyone fairly compensated. The only remaining resistance appears to be from the Whitehall officials (the one who a government source told me didn't want any inquiry at all) who have the most to lose by allowing the Prime Minister and the campaigners to get their way. I hope the PM's endorsement of the campaigners' position makes a difference.

* During a debate to announce the new statutory footing of the Post Office Horizon Inquiry, Mr Scully said: 

"On the group litigation settlement, I have talked about the fact that it was a full and final settlement, but I understand exactly where the right hon. Gentleman is coming from. That is not within the scope of the inquiry, but we will continue to look at what we can do to give a fair settlement of compensation for postmasters in the different tranches of the stages of the civil and criminal cases."

 **********************

This blog is crowdfunded. I am also currently writing a book called The Great Post Office Scandal which will be published by Bath Publishing this autumn. If you would like to buy a pre-sale copy, I would be very grateful. For more information, please click here.

Wednesday, 19 May 2021

Sir Wyn's statutory super powers and scope revealed

Paul Scully MP

Sir Wyn Williams' power-pack upgrade to the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry was announced in parliament today by the Business Minister Paul Scully, who said it will now: "be able to compel organisations to provide documents and witnesses to give evidence, under oath if necessary."

He said many more things about it, and I have reprinted the speech Mr Scully gave, and the debate it engendered below. You can also read it here on Hansard.

There have also been changes to the scope of the inquiry, which are listed here. The most interesting sentence says it is the inquiry's job to: 

"Understand and acknowledge what went wrong in relation to Horizon, leading to the civil proceedings in Bates and others v Post Office Limited and the quashing of criminal convictions"


Lord Arbuthnot

This covers a multitude of sins. Indeed Lord Arbuthnot, who has campaigned for years to support Subpostmasters, said:

"Clearly this is an improvement, but gaps remain. For example, the inquiry will obtain “all available relevant evidence from Post Office Ltd, Fujitsu, BEIS and UKGI” – but there is no mention of those who used to work for Post Office Ltd, Fujitsu, BEIS or UKGI. 

A case in point is Susan Crichton, who used to be the Post Office’s legal counsel. Is she covered by this, and does she have a non-disclosure agreement with the Post Office which the Post Office could be obliged to waive? That is far from clear. What about Chris Aujard who replaced her, but who no longer works for the Post Office, or Angela van den Bogerd?

And the huge gap is that of compensation. The Minister may be right to say that an inquiry cannot of itself make legally binding recommendations about compensation, but he is wrong to say that therefore it has to go through the courts. If the government or a government-owned entity behaves badly (let alone as spectacularly badly as both have done in this case), it can and should compensate those whom it has wronged. It doesn’t have to wait to be sued.

Finally, Paul Scully said that he wants to get the Post Office onto a good footing for the future. Yes, we all want to see that, but he won’t achieve that while this burning injustice, and the absurd distinction between compensating those of the 555 litigants who have had convictions overturned but not compensating those who have not or who may not have been convicted, remains." 

Seema, Janet and Tracy

Paul Scully acknowledged that it was because of the Court of Appeal's recent findings that the inquiry was being upgraded to a statutory footing. Seema Misra, Tracy Felstead and Janet Skinner were three appellants who led the way in requesting the Court of Appeal consider their prosecutions to be an affront to the public conscience, which the court duly did. Today their solicitors, Aria Grace, issued a statement, saying:

"Seema Misra, Janet Skinner and Tracy Felstead listened with interest to the announcement by Minister Paul Scully... and the numerous positive responses and comments of MPs from all parties to that announcement. Between them, our clients waited 44 years for their convictions to be overturned.

They are pleased that the inquiry under Sir Wyn William will now be a statutory inquiry with power to call witnesses. They feel strongly that no one has yet been held to account or even properly investigated for those massive miscarriage of justice which took place over two decades.  They hope very much the Enquiry will remedy that

They are disappointed that the Horizon Group damages settlement itself is outside the inquiry’s scope, although note that events leading up to the settlement may be investigated.

Each of them looks forward to giving evidence to Sir Wyn’s enquiry and so helping to ensure nothing like this can ever happen again. The personal damage to each of them and hundreds of others is immense.”

Sir Wyn Williams

Sir Wyn Himself posted a very interesting response to the minister's announcement on the inquiry website which included the statement:
"There can be no denying that the judgment of the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) in R v Hamilton and others, understood in the context of the judgments of Mr Justice Fraser in the civil litigation between sub-postmasters and Post Office Ltd, has generated important lines of enquiry some of which were previously undisclosed. Against this background, the powers available to a statutory public inquiry are necessary to support a proper assessment of all the relevant facts."

Chris Head
Chris Head, a former Subpostmaster and energetic campaigner, also gave the upgraded inquiry a qualified welcome, saying it is a "step in the right direction". He added:

"I also appreciated the apparent change of tone in the Minister's responses today. He seemed a lot more sympathetic towards affected Subpostmasters than in previous despatch box appearances and we have to give [the government] the benefit of doubt and see what they deliver. It is important we keep their feet to the fire as this should have all started last year and could be well on the way to conclusion already. The terms of reference still do not go far enough."

For MPs and campaigners, properly compensating everyone including those who were involved in Bates v Post Office is essential. Chris has a solution:

"The minister, after meeting Nick Read could have said that those 555 Sub Postmasters can enter into the scheme and be calculated as though they hadn't been part of the litigation and will receive the difference from what they have already been awarded - all equal and fair!   
The other worry for me is Post Office is controlling this entire scheme without any independent or outside scrutiny and once those in it join and Post Office offers its findings they aren't able to take a legal route. We need an independent oversight by the likes of Second Sight or similar to ensure the Post Office is being fair and above board in its approach (not sure if it has that word in its vocabulary)."

There is an excellent photo of Chris in this Yahoo finance piece which also carries a statement from Paula Vennells welcoming the inquiry. She says:

"It is beyond doubt there are serious and unanswered questions as to the manner in which subpostmasters were wrongly prosecuted.

All those involved in any way have a duty to those subpostmasters and their families, who were innocent victims, to ensure that this can never happen again.”

I can imagine those words will stick in the craw of many people reading this. Current Post Office CEO, Nick Read said:

“There can only be closure for victims of the Horizon scandal by establishing a comprehensive picture of what went wrong. 

As I have said previously, Post Office will support and co-operate with any inquiry the Government sees fit to convene, and I welcome the announcement that Sir Wyn Williams’ inquiry will now move to a statutory footing. Post Office will continue to co-operate fully with Sir Wyn and his team.”

Alan Bates
And what of Alan Bates, the founder of the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance, who is currently boycotting the inquiry? Yesterday he was quick to take credit for the changes, telling the BBC:

"The Department of Business repeatedly rejected my calls for a statutory inquiry until I threatened a judicial review."

Adding:

"Merely announcing a statutory inquiry is not enough. I and hundreds of other sub-postmasters will not tolerate a toothless and hamstrung inquiry. We will be demanding an inquiry with adequate terms of reference that will allow it to get to the truth and to examine all of the injustices suffered by sub-postmasters and their families."

Alan has not yet responded to a request for comment, but as one wag said, "now that it is statutory your mate can be called whether he likes it or not." That would certainly be interesting.

Kevan Jones MP wants the inquiry taken out of the BEIS ministry's control. He says:
“I welcome the Government’s announcement that the Post Office Inquiry will now be placed on a statutory footing.

However, the terms of reference and scope of the inquiry must be expanded to include the following: Post Office Ltd’s prosecution function, matters of criminal law, the Horizon group damages settlement, the conduct of current or future litigation relating to Horizon and/or the engagement or findings of any other supervisory or complaints mechanisms. Only then does he have a chance of bringing all relevant parties into this review.

Moreover, as BEIS owns and directs the activities of Post Office Limited and may be found culpable in many respects, including the conduct of its Ministers who were supposed to be providing oversight, it is it not vital for public confidence that the owner of the Post Office is not also the owner of this Inquiry. It therefore must be passed over to the Ministry of Justice.”

Mark Baker
Finally, serving Subpostmaster and Communications Workers Union national organiser Mark Baker noted:
"the language is not overtly explicit about accountability but Sir Wyn has enough to work with within these term of reference, I believe, to establish who the guilty parties are and who knew what and when. I see no reason why he could not make some recommendations to the CPS, as Justice Fraser did, based on some of the things he will extract from his revamped inquiry if he suspects a criminal act has taken place.

I think this gives the campaigners what they have been calling for and I hope they all now fully engage with Sir Wyn."

I am very much looking forward to seeing Alice Perkins, Paula Vennells, Mark Davies, Susan Crichton, Alwen Lyons, John Scott, Jarnail Singh, Simon Clarke, Brian Altman et al give evidence, if that comes to pass. I would also like to see some people further down the food chain being cross-examined, too - eg the Post Office investigators who told Subpostmasters they were the only ones having problems with Horizon.

Today's full parliamentary statement and debate follows:

Post Office Update

With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to update the House on changes to the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry. Over a 20-year period, the Post Office Horizon computerised accounting system recorded shortfalls in cash, which were allegedly caused by sub-postmasters, leading to dismissals, recovery of losses and, in some instances, criminal prosecutions. I know that Members across the House are aware of the terrible impact that this has had on affected postmasters and their families. The life-altering implications of these accounting errors cannot be overstated.

The Post Office Horizon IT inquiry, led by Sir Wyn Williams, was launched in September 2020 as a major step towards righting the wrongs of the past. The inquiry was established on a non-statutory basis to enable the chair to work quickly to establish a clear account of the implementation and failings of the Horizon computer system over its lifetime. 

On 27 April, I made an oral statement to the House following the decision by the Court of Appeal on 23 April to quash the convictions of 39 postmasters who had been convicted for Horizon-related shortfalls. As I said then, the Government recognise the gravity of the court’s judgment and the scale of the miscarriage of justice that it makes clear.

Sir Wyn and I are both of the view that the context for the inquiry has changed in the light of the judgment by the Court of Appeal and that now is the right moment to convert the inquiry to a statutory footing. Therefore, I can now inform the House that, with the agreement of the Prime Minister, I will convert the inquiry to a statutory footing on 1 June 2021. I have also agreed that Sir Wyn will now have more time to undertake his work. The inquiry is now expected to report in autumn 2022, rather than summer 2021.

Together, these changes will give Sir Wyn the powers and the time that he needs to conduct an in-depth analysis of the decision-making processes that led to the Horizon scandal. He will be able to compel organisations to provide documents and witnesses to give evidence, under oath if necessary. It is now for Sir Wyn to consider his next steps, and I expect that he will provide more information on his proposed approach soon. In the short term, the inquiry will complete its planned engagements through May, but public hearings that had been expected to take place in June will be delayed.

I have always said that the inquiry should proceed quickly to get the answers that postmasters and their families are seeking. Sir Wyn has gathered a lot of evidence from key parties and engaged with many affected postmasters; I have therefore asked that he provide a progress update to his original timeline of summer 2021, to make public the progress to date and any initial findings. I hope that still more affected postmasters will choose to engage with Sir Wyn as he continues his work on a statutory footing.

The inquiry’s overarching aims—to ensure that the right lessons have been learned and to establish what must change—will remain. However, there will be some changes to the terms of reference in the light of the Court of Appeal judgment. I have today notified the House of the updated terms of reference in a written ministerial statement.

I thank Sir Wyn for his quick progress on the inquiry to date and for taking the time with me in recent weeks to consider the next steps for it. I am pleased to confirm that he has agreed to remain as chair of the inquiry for the next phase.

Finally, I note that converting the inquiry to a statutory footing and proceeding over a longer period will, of course, have cost implications, but I assure colleagues across the House that they are being fully considered with my colleagues in HM Treasury.

The Horizon saga has wrecked lives and livelihoods. We cannot undo the damage that has been done, but we can establish what went wrong at the Post Office and ensure that nothing like it is ever allowed to happen again. The events surrounding the dispute have long been shrouded in darkness, and this Government are determined to bring them into the light. The landmark Court of Appeal judgment changed the context for the inquiry. Following it, the Government did not hesitate to act to give the inquiry more teeth and equip Sir Wyn with more powers. To affected postmasters and their families, my message is that we are listening and we will get to the bottom of this appalling affair. I commend this statement to the House.



Seema Malhotra 

I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) is not able to attend today but, like me, she welcomes today’s statement, including the much belated conversion of the inquiry to a statutory footing and the extension of its scope, although we believe that it does not yet go far enough.

This is indeed the largest legal miscarriage of justice in our history. It is estimated that there have been 900 false prosecutions in total—each one its own story of persecution, of fear, of despair, of families destroyed, of reputations smashed, of lives lost and of innocent people bankrupted and imprisoned. I thank and congratulate everybody who has campaigned over so many years—for more than a decade—to reveal the truth, including the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance and the Communication Workers Union. I also congratulate right hon. and hon. Members across the House who have fought for justice for their constituents; I mention in particular my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who has worked tirelessly on the issue.

The campaign for justice has been long fought, and there is still a long way to go. The Minister’s announcement is a step in the right direction. The Labour party and the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance have always said that the inquiry must be statutory, but less than a month ago in this Chamber, four days after the Court of Appeal’s decision, the Minister rejected calls for a statutory inquiry on the grounds that it would take “three, four or five years”—[Official Report, 27 April 2021; Vol. 693, c. 254.]

Can he tell us what has happened to change his mind?

The horrific miscarriage of justice did not happen overnight. For a decade, we have known that there were serious problems with the Horizon system, but the Post Office denied all wrongdoing, pursuing the victims and imposing huge lawyers’ fees on the claimants. Even after the High Court ruling vindicated postmasters in 2019, the Government refused to act. The next step has been delayed and victims’ lives have been disrupted by this Government.

It is important to remember that having a statutory inquiry is not, of itself, justice. There remain a number of urgent questions for the Minister that he did not answer a few weeks ago. The Government are the Post Office’s only shareholder, yet time and again, the Post Office was allowed to abuse its power over postmasters. That was the finding of the Court, and it is a really important point. Will the Minister acknowledge the Government’s failure of oversight and due diligence with regard to public money? Will he apologise to the victims and their families today? The postmasters were criminalised for a culture that assumed technology is infallible and workers dishonest. How will the Minister change that, and what are the implications for the management of human teams relying on AI or computer algorithms?

We welcome any new powers for Sir Wyn and the review. It was reported—and this seemed to be in the statement—that Sir Wyn will have the power to summon witnesses to give testimony under oath and to force the Post Office to hand over documents. Can the Minister confirm that, and will that power apply to any other entity or organisation from which evidence is sought? While the terms of reference have been updated, they do not seem to reflect the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central previously. For example, compensation still appears to be out of scope of the inquiry—why? Who has been consulted on the revised terms of reference?

Fujitsu was the one that provided faulty software. An independent investigator, Second Sight, drew attention to that as far back as 2013, yet the Government do not appear to be doing anything to hold Fujitsu to account. Instead, the Horizon software has been renewed, rewarding Fujitsu with a new £42 million contract. Will ongoing Government contracts with Fujitsu be reviewed? Paula Vennells led the Post Office during this time and was honoured with a CBE, along with a long list of others. Is it right that she and others continue to be honoured?

The Minister has referred to a “full and final settlement” for some postmasters with the Post Office. However, he will know that of the £58 million settlement approved in the High Court case, only £12 million will go to the victims, with the rest taken up in legal fees. Does the Minister agree that they should be considered for appropriate compensation?

The JFSA and Labour want there to be a public consultation to guarantee that the inquiry will deliver for all the victims and provide conclusive answers. The Post Office is a Government-owned company that has been found to be at fault. It is vital that the Government act to improve the corporate structure of the Post Office, to prevent this kind of thing from ever happening again. It should never have been allowed to develop into this scandal, but all we can do now is ensure that we get to the truth, that those wrongly convicted get justice and that lessons are learnt.

Securing this statutory inquiry is a big victory for sub-postmasters, trade unions and justice, but despite the Government’s U-turn, this is only the start. The Government have failed to live up to their responsibility to prevent this scandal from occurring, and they have, until today, stood in the way of justice. I urge the Minister to apologise, to own the Government’s mistakes and to start work to ensure that justice is served and that a scandal of this magnitude can never happen again.

I did not want to interrupt the hon. Lady, but Mr Speaker would be annoyed with me if I did not point out that she has taken a minute longer than she ought to have had, and that is a minute that will not be taken later today by some other Member who wishes to speak.

I send my best wishes to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah); I understand why she cannot be here. I appreciate the response from the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), and I will try to answer some of her questions.

The hon. Lady talked about Ministers’ role in this. Clearly, the role of our Department, Government and Ministers will be included in the inquiry. We do want to learn the lessons, and that will be the case, but as we have seen from the judgment, the Post Office consistently maintained that Horizon was robust and was misguided in its approach to the issue, leading to the decision to prosecute these postmasters. We pressed management on issues regarding complaints brought by postmasters about Horizon and received repeated assurances that the system was reliable. As I say, the inquiry will look into that.

In terms of the Government’s response, we clearly recognise the impact that convictions have had on individual postmasters and their families. That is why the Prime Minister and I met with a small group of them last month, to hear directly from them. They had some incredibly tragic and terrible stories, and I can understand why they find it difficult to trust anybody in this regard after many, many years of difficulty and the impossible situation that they and their families have been in.

On Horizon itself, the Post Office is looking into that. It cannot, unfortunately, just switch off a system and change midstream, but clearly it will be looking to work on the successor CRM—customer relationship management—system. Yes, the terms of reference and the statutory footing allow Sir Wyn to compel people to give evidence and documents, and there are sanctions on them if they should fail to do so, under the Inquiries Act 2005. One of the reasons for that, as we move to the second stage and, I hope, engage more sub-postmasters to give their stories, is that we want to give them the confidence that people will be giving their evidence. I must say that, to date still, everybody involved in this whom Sir Wyn has asked to do so has given their full undertaking and worked on it. Nobody has resiled from the inquiry, but it is important that we do this.

On the terms of reference in relation to compensation, an inquiry, whether statutory or not, cannot determine liability in itself—that still has to be done through the courts—but sub-postmasters clearly can raise, and I would fully expect them to raise, the issue of the losses and difficulties as they outline the difficulties they have had. On Fujitsu, as I have said, clearly the Post Office will be looking at what it does in further compensation, and that will include Fujitsu. There are criminal investigations going ahead, so that is outside the scope of the inquiry, but the GLO—group litigation order—settlement was a full and final settlement. The Government did not have a part in the litigation. It is not part of the inquiry itself, but none the less, this is one part—an important part, but one part—of making sure that we get to the bottom of this and get sufficient justice for the postmasters so badly affected.

I warmly congratulate the Minister on his statement, and I think it is fantastic news for sub-postmasters. I would like to thank the Prime Minister for meeting sub-postmasters, including my constituent Tracy Felstead, and for understanding the terrible injustice that they have suffered for so long. Can the Minister assure me that compensation will be paid to all those affected, including those who were party to the horrendous struggle that was the group litigation? Does he agree that these sub-postmasters should not be penalised for shining a light on the conduct of the Post Office, and they should not be required to fund the pivotal judgment of Mr Justice Fraser, without which no convictions would have been overturned? Can he please agree with me that compensation must be fair to all sub-postmasters?

I thank my hon. Friend, who has been really dogged in her championing of Tracy Felstead and many others who have been affected. I was pleased to meet Tracy—who gave such tragic testimony—alongside the Prime Minister. On compensation, the Post Office is engaging in the compensation process. I will, in my regular meetings with the Post Office, make sure that we keep on top of that, because we want to ensure justice and fair compensation for all who have been affected.

It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan), who is a member of the all-party parliamentary group on post offices. I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement, and I welcome the statement that the inquiry into the Post Office’s Horizon scandal is to be put on a statutory footing—something for which MPs across the Chamber have been calling for months. However, if this is the case, it should have been set out properly by the UK Government in Parliament, not briefed beforehand to the press.

The Horizon scandal has been a serious miscarriage of justice, potentially carried out knowingly. It is a grave injustice that some, sadly, have taken their own lives and others have been imprisoned. The SNP has repeatedly called for a judge-led statutory inquiry, and the Minister and I have had discussions on this previously. Entire lives have been ruined, and it is critical—critical—that no stone is left unturned in securing real justice for those affected. The UK Government must agree to meet all costs as a result of any compensation due, so that the post office network is not impacted. We must not lose sight of that. We absolutely welcome the statutory inquiry, as I have said, but we must also make certain that those responsible are held to account. This is really important.

I want to thank the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, the Communication Workers Union and the long-standing members of the APPG, who have fought tirelessly for this outcome. I look forward to seeing the Minister next week in my capacity as chair of the APPG, when he comes to talk to us further.

I always welcome meeting the hon. Lady, and I congratulate her on her work for the all-party group. I appreciate her support for this change and I absolutely agree with her that we have to make sure that in getting justice and righting the wrongs of the past we do not jeopardise the future of the Post Office, with the social value it gives, as well as the economic value, for so many people across this country. We must make sure that we restore confidence for not only future postmasters within the network but its customers, so that it is there for many years to come.

I am delighted that the Minister has announced that we will get the full public inquiry that we have needed for so long, to finally draw a line under this tragic fiasco and get to the truth. Following his and the Prime Minister’s recent meeting with a few of the sub-postmasters caught up in this debacle, including my constituents Mr and Mrs Rudkin, does my hon. Friend agree that the sub-postmasters are ordinary, honest and credible people, who have been caught up in incredible events that were not of their making and not their responsibility, but which have had a massive detrimental effect on their lives and the lives of their families?

Let me again thank my hon. Friend for his work in raising the case of Mr and Mrs Rudkin and other postmasters, and he is right. Mr Rudkin was one of the leading witnesses who blew a hole in the evidence and this led to success for those postmasters in various stages of the court case and, unfortunately, Mrs Rudkin was left to carry the can in her experience as postmaster. She is very typical of many postmasters who have been affected: ordinary people who are stalwarts of their villages, towns, communities. That is why we must redouble our efforts to seek justice and fair compensation for them.

I thank the Minister for an advance copy of the statement. My Select Committee and I called for this inquiry to be on a statutory footing from the beginning and so we welcome the statement today. However, if I have understood it correctly, the terms of reference are still being decided by Ministers and not by the independent chair, Sir Wyn Williams—why?

No, that is incorrect; this is being done in collaboration with Sir Wyn. I spoke to Sir Wyn shortly after the Court of Appeal’s judgment and comments. He asked for more powers—not just statutory ones but to be able to look further back—and that is why we made changes. Although the inquiry would not explore matters of substantive criminal law, which of course should be decided by the criminal courts, he felt that he could look at this better, first, within the statutory footing and, secondly, with some of the changes to the terms of reference that we have expanded today. That was done in collaboration with Sir Wyn.

Just a few weeks ago, I asked about this at Prime Minister’s questions, so I thank the Government for listening and I welcome the statutory footing. Justice and peace of mind is one thing, but adequate compensation for the victims is another. Fujitsu must not be let off the hook. What assessment has the Minister made to ensure that Fujitsu contributes to the fund to ensure that people who are still hugely at loss are properly compensated?

I thank my hon. Friend, a former postmaster himself, for that. He absolutely understands the situation and has been a dogged champion. We did say that if things should change, we would change. Things have clearly changed as a result of the Court of Appeal judgment. He raises a pertinent point about Fujitsu. It is for Post Office Ltd to work out the terms of compensation around this issue, but I am sure it will hear what he said and raise that incredibly pertinent point as redress is sought.

I thank the Minister for his statement. I also give him credit: in the 10-plus years that I, the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) and Lord Arbuthnot have been campaigning on this issue, this is the first time that a Minister has admitted that when things go wrong he will change them. 

It is right that we get full disclosure of the facts and justice for those who have been wronged. May I ask the Minister about disclosure? Will that include the ministerial submissions from the Post Office throughout this scandal and the role of the Government shareholder on the board of the Post Office? That is key to the reasons why things were not questioned. Also remember that in 2019 the Post Office spent £100 million of taxpayers’ money defending a civil case that was, frankly, completely indefensible. 

I stress one last thing to the Minister. I know that Ministers like to hide behind the Post Office, saying that this is its fault. It is not: it is a wholly owned company of the Government. The Government have to take responsibility for some of this; they cannot just blame the Post Office.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman, who has rightly been pushing on behalf of postmasters in general for a number of years. 

Yes, nothing is off the table. We want to get justice and answers for people, and that clearly includes the role of the Government and shareholders. The fact is that, yes, we are the single shareholder through UK Government Investments, but that allows Post Office Ltd to work operationally independently of the Government—otherwise, there would be no point in splitting it that way. None the less, as I say, our representatives on the board have been asking that question. We were assured that Horizon was robust in all these areas. None the less, within the inquiry those questions will no doubt be asked and I expect them to be answered.

I warmly welcome my hon. Friend’s statement and the work being undertaken by Sir Wyn in what is now a statutory inquiry. It is right that the inquiry should look at how on earth this was allowed to happen in the first place—most pertinently, why the Post Office and Fujitsu completely ignored the red flags being waved by trusted sub-postmasters across the network. 

Compensation will be key. Sub-postmistress Isabella Wall from Barrow lost her home and business and was left with nothing. Can my hon. Friend guarantee that fair compensation for those who have been completely wronged through this process will be the focus of the Government?

Through you, Madam Deputy Speaker, I pass my best wishes to Isabella Wall; I can only imagine what she and her family have been through. We will continue to talk about these issues over the next year, as the inquiry goes through.

Yes, the inquiry looks at what went wrong and goes back historically to give confidence to those affected and in the future network. But clearly we want to make sure that postmasters get fair compensation as well as justice.

I thank the Minister for finally recognising the need to make this a statutory inquiry. As he knows full well, at every turn the Post Office has done everything it can possibly do to defend the indefensible. The inequality of arms in terms of legal representation has enabled these persecutions of innocent hard-working men and women. What discussions has he had with the Treasury for funds to be put aside to ensure that these innocent victims get fair and equal representation in this now statutory inquiry?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who has been persistent in standing up for postmasters. 

The situation has been going on for 20 years—a long, long time—and it is so important that we get to the bottom of it. Clearly, we have already been speaking to the Treasury, which has supported the Post Office in a historical shortfall scheme, and we will continue to do so. It is so important that people get fair redress and compensation and that we put the Post Office on a good footing for the future. Although this issue has been going for 20 years, I should say that Post Office Ltd now, under chief executive Nick Read, is determined to look positively to the future while standing up and supporting us in getting the answers about those last two decades.

I was a member of the Select Committee that in March last year heard really distressing accounts from Post Office staff, including constituents of my hon. Friends who were wrongly convicted of discrepancies, and we heard about the devastating effect on their lives. I am really pleased that the Minister, the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have heard about that for themselves, and I really welcome today’s action. I also heard from Binley Wood’s sub-postmaster, Shailesh Patel, who tells me that he has increasing amounts of hours’ work for reducing commissions. What steps can Minister take to ensure that the Post Office properly looks after its staff who perform such a valuable role in our local communities?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend about the role that post offices play in communities, which is all based on postmasters. I speak regularly to the chief executive and other people in Post Office Ltd and fair remuneration for postmasters is absolutely at the heart of our discussions to ensure that they keep adding social value.

You know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I am not the sort of man to stand here and say, “I told you so,” but on 20 June last year I told the Minister that this was exactly what was going to happen. I hope that the work Sir Wyn Williams has done thus far will not be wasted and will not have to be repeated. The Minister also knows that of the £58 million settlement given to sub-postmasters by the Post Office, £46 million went in the payment of legal fees. Those legal fees were only necessary because the Post Office sought to defend a case that it should not have been defending. If the Minister really wants to reset the relationship between the Government, the Post Office and sub-postmasters, he could do no better than to give an undertaking today to give that money back to the postmasters.

First, I can say that the work of Sir Wyn to date will not be wasted. That is exactly why we are converting the inquiry into a statutory inquiry rather than stopping and starting again—to allow him to continue his work until we get to phase two. On the group litigation settlement, I have talked about the fact that it was a full and final settlement, but I understand exactly where the right hon. Gentleman is coming from. That is not within the scope of the inquiry, but we will continue to look at what we can do to give a fair settlement of compensation for postmasters in the different tranches of the stages of the civil and criminal cases.

I thank my hon. Friend for his statement. I welcome the changes to the Horizon scandal inquiry, and I think it will help those seeking justice and compensation. I think it will also help boost trust in the inquiry. Trust is central to a thriving Post Office and trust is necessary for people to take on the role of sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress with any certainty or security. If people do not take on a Post Office licence, then post offices will disappear from our high streets and the critical role they play in our communities will be lost. How will my hon. Friend work with the Post Office to rebuild that trust to ensure our post office network serves our communities long into the future?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. My uncle was a postmaster. I remember him retiring and putting his savings into a post office in Leicestershire many years ago, pre-dating the knowledge of the Horizon situation. I wonder whether he would have done that again years later. That is why it is so important that we get these answers and get that settlement to give former postmasters justice. It is also really important—I know this is happening—that Post Office Ltd recalibrates its relationship with postmasters to ensure they feel a valued part of the company as well as the community, rather than distant stakeholders.

The last time the Minister came to the House, I asked him if full legal costs would be compensated. He said then that he would lean in on that and ensure everyone was adequately compensated. It may be that his idea of adequate may not be same as those affected, so I ask him again: will full legal costs be included in compensation packages?

As I say, compensation packages are a matter for Post Office Ltd and we will continue to work with it on that. Post Office Ltd is working with wronged postmasters to determine how that compensation package should look.

I know my hon. Friend understands the financial and emotional suffering that this process has caused many postmasters and their families, including some of my constituents, and I welcome this statement today. Is he able to reassure the House that the Government will do everything within their power to encourage affected postmasters to come forward and engage with the inquiry so that their voices can be heard?

Absolutely. It is incumbent on us all, and I really hope that we can give confidence to sub-postmasters—not just those who have had their convictions quashed, but wider members of the group litigation. All postmasters should feel some confidence that they can come forward, tell their stories and know that we hat we are determined to get them answers.

The Post Office scandal is one of the gravest miscarriages of justice in this century. It destroyed many lives and families, and justice must be given to these families in full. While I welcome the premise of a statutory inquiry, will the Government address the limited remit of the inquiry, which does not cover compensation or the accountability of managers in this scandal?

To be fair, the accountability of managers will absolutely be in the inquiry, because that is part of the expansion of it. Sir Wyn can now look right the way out to the settlement of the group litigation and ensure that it is not just about the wrongs of the 20 years, but the lead-up to that civil case as well. I have answered the question about compensation in as much as an inquiry, statutory or not, cannot determine liability in itself. That needs to go through the courts, but I dare say that postmasters giving evidence will share their experiences of their financial losses, as well as the emotional impact on them and their families.

The behaviour of the Post Office and the failures of Fujitsu have destroyed the lives of many hard-working and innocent postmasters. The Minister is clearly right to put this inquiry on a statutory footing, but what will he be able to do to ensure that, whatever the inquiry concludes, the Post Office acts on those recommendations and the report is not simply allowed to gather dust in a drawer?

Part of the inquiry is to measure whether the Post Office has put into place the things that it has promised to do as a result of the civil litigation and the many, many pages of evidence and comment by Mr Justice Fraser. There are many areas there that should put the Post Office on a firm footing for the future relationship with its postmasters. This part of the inquiry is testing whether they have done so already.

Last week, we received news that Barclays was closing its last branch in Ammanford, the main town in my constituency, leaving only one remaining bank—a fate shared by all the market towns in my constituency, some of which have been left with none. That leaves the Post Office the last remaining financial provider of everyday vital services for our communities. That fate is, I would imagine, shared across the whole of Wales and the rest of the UK. Is it not time to give sub-postmasters the option of being recognised as employed workers, as opposed to independent contractors, so that they are remunerated properly for the vital role they play in our communities and as a means of righting the wrongs served upon them by the Horizon scandal?

The Post Office speaks regularly to the unions and to postmasters in general. Two postmasters have been elected to serve on the board, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to talk about access to cash. The Post Office has good plans to pilot new ways of access to cash to replace the last bank in town, an issue that he rightly articulates.

As a former chair of the all-party group on post offices, I welcome the Minister’s announcement that this inquiry into the absolute disaster of the Post Office-Horizon IT issue will be put on a statutory footing. This issue has already damaged the lives of many people and shaken confidence not just in our ability to have effective public sector software contracts, but indirectly in our justice system which, because of wrong information, delivered wrong verdicts. The opportunity to provide redress for many of those involved is surely vital for us all. Will the Minister confirm that all possible technical advice will be provided to the inquiry so that some of the technical issues, such as the data library and so on, will be exposed—and, above all, who knew what? Will he also confirm that the role of the National Federation of SubPostmasters will be looked at closely to see what alarm bells it sounded and what communication there was between it and Post Office Ltd?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Sir Wyn will look at both those things—he will look at those alarm bells—because that is so important to learn those lessons. We cannot learn them any other way, so he is right to do that. Clearly, with this being a computer software issue over two decades, Sir Wyn is getting the technical advice that he needs, and he will always have that support from us. We will make sure that he gets whatever he is asking for in terms of technical support.

Serious concerns have been expressed about the conduct of many of the private prosecutions that led up to the 900 or so wrongful convictions of innocent sub-postmasters, including some of my constituents, so why have the Government declined to accept the Justice Committee’s recommendation to introduce a binding and enforceable code of standards for private prosecutors and an inspection regime that would have identified these abuses at a much earlier stage? Will the Minister now accept that recommendation?

The private prosecutions themselves, and the use of private prosecutions, are not within the scope of the inquiry, but clearly the way that the Post Office investigated this absolutely is. The Post Office has not used a private prosecution since, I think, 2013 and has pledged not to use them, but we will always look into the systems of prosecutions. As I said in my last statement, there are clearly wider lessons to be learned for the justice system in general.

I thank the Minister for his statement. On behalf of my constituents on Anglesey, I welcome the news that those wrongly accused will not face prosecution. I have many happy memories of spending time as a child at my great-grandfather’s post office, and I have seen at first hand how vital the role is that postmasters play in the community. Will the Minister confirm that the recommendations from the inquiry will be used to be ensure that this travesty, which has torn apart lives, including those of people such as Margery Williams and Noel Thomas, both of Ynys Môn, will never happen again?

Yes, I assure my hon. Friend, regarding Noel Thomas and Margery Williams, that we must right the wrongs for these people and for many, many others. I just want to correct her on one thing because, yes, the Post Office will not be prosecuting any more, but we clearly have to get through the judicial process for the many, many people who have been prosecuted and to see exactly how many of them have been prosecuted with Horizon being a significant factor in the prosecution. The Court of Appeal has a lot of work to do following this statement.

I welcome the Minister’s change of heart. It will provide much-needed reassurance, as he mentioned, to sub-postmasters, including my constituent, John Bowman, whom I mentioned to the Minister previously. What will happen now for the sub-postmasters who have lost everything so that they have the financial confidence to get evidence to Sir Wyn’s inquiry? If they cannot afford to give that evidence, if they require legal support, what work is the Minister doing with the Treasury to ensure that those postmasters who have lost everything, including, in some cases, their homes, have the funding available to take part in this now statutory inquiry?

We absolutely want sub-postmasters to give evidence. There is obviously a cost implication in extending the inquiry and making it statutory. I am working through that process with my colleagues in the Treasury, and we want to make sure that everybody and anybody who has been affected can come forward to give that evidence with confidence, no matter what their financial situation is.

My sympathy goes to everyone affected by this appalling scandal. Looking to the future, does the Minister agree that one of the best ways that we can support sub-postmasters and the post office network, which means so much to our constituents, is by using it to deliver more Government services? Up to now that been made difficult by EU procurement rules, which we can now change?

Those are exactly the things that each Government Department that has traditionally used the Post Office will continue to explore. None the less, the Post Office does not necessarily just need to be limited to Government services. There are plenty more things that it can do to modernise and ensure that it better reflects customer demand. I push the chief executive Nick Read on this point, although he does not need pushing on it because he is very front-footed on the situation himself.

I welcome the move to a statutory inquiry, but also note the extension of the timescale for the inquiry; it has been extended, I think, by some nine months or so. John and Pat Moir had a post office in Winlaton Mill in my constituency and were caught up in the Horizon scandal. They are now constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), who had hoped to ask a question herself. Mr and Mrs Moir have spent more than a decade fighting this case and fighting to clear their name. Clearly they welcome this inquiry, but what assurances can they have that it will work to the timescales, so that they and others can see the outcome before more time passes?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to ask that question. One of the key reasons why I originally set it up as a non-statutory inquiry was to ensure that we were not overly burdened with bureaucracy and the need to “lawyer up”, which tends to extend statutory inquiries to three years and beyond. I have said to Sir Wyn that I do want an interim report to the original timescale, so that we can show the public progress, but we are going to have an extra year to ensure that extra evidence is considered. We will hold him to time as best we can, but we do want to ensure that we get the answers.

The importance of the Post Office has increased in every community across this country, especially as high street banks continue to close, as is the case in Radcliffe in my constituency, where there are now no banks. Does my hon. Friend agree that postmasters truly are the backbone of the Post Office, that it is those postmasters who have delivered such vital services up and down the country, particularly in towns such as Radcliffe, Whitefield and Prestwich, and that we need to strengthen that relationship? Does he therefore share my concern about the way in which many have been treated by the Post Office through this scandal?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is what is so galling for the postmasters who had those roles in the past. They were the stalwarts and the backbone of their community; the stigma of being accused of false accounting or fraud must have been so unbearable, as we know from the incredibly tragic testament that we have heard. As well as getting answers on that, we want to reset the relationship with postmasters so that they can go back to being the centre of their community, adding such social value, and bringing and keeping communities together.

I am sure that the whole House will join me in welcoming the fantastic news that the sub-postmasters wrongly accused across the UK will no longer face prosecution, meaning that this hugely difficult time for them is finally at an end. I shall always stand by Rother Valley’s hard-working sub-postmasters and postmasters. It is incredibly important that full and timely justice is served. Will my hon. Friend therefore commit to holding the Post Office’s feet to the fire, ensuring that it studies carefully whatever recommendations may arise from the inquiry to ensure that this can never ever happen again?

This is the end of the beginning. Clearly, there is a long way to go to ensure that we get the answers, but in holding the Post Office’s feet to the fire, I do not want to add stigma to the Post Office moving forward; for the reasons that we have heard today, post offices are right at the heart of all our communities, so it is important that we have that day zero to reset the Post Office’s future relationship with postmasters and its communities while getting answers, justice and fair compensation for those who have been wronged over the last two decades.

I do welcome the statement, but it has taken far too long for it to happen. My constituent was held responsible for missing funds, charged, convicted and sentenced to 13 months in prison. It cost her not only her home, which she had to sell to meet these debts, but her marriage. She was left penniless and had to move out of the area, and is understandably concerned that nearly 40% of the compensation awarded is just swallowed up by legal costs. As others have said, that has to be addressed. My constituent has lost everything. What does appropriate compensation look like for people like her?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman’s constituent will feel confident in coming forward and outlining her case and those financial losses, exactly as he has described, so that Sir Wyn can take a holistic view. On compensation, as I say, the Post Office now needs to ensure that it works with the postmasters and addresses issues such as Fujitsu, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) talked about earlier, and that it compensates all these wronged postmasters in a fair way.

My hon. Friend will be well aware that the overwhelming majority of men and women who run our post offices are small business owners who work extremely long hours and have to deal with extremely complex and different sets not only of accounts but of transactions. Given the circumstances that have arisen under the Horizon scandal, what actions will he take to ensure that the position is rebalanced between those small business owners and the vast monolith of the Post Office, so that we get justice for everyone running these businesses?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That process is already taking place under the leadership of Nick Read, who comes from an independent supermarket background, where he managed to grow a culture very similar to the relationship that he describes wanting to see in the Post Office. That is why I am confident that, if we can get these answers and get recompense, justice and fair compensation for those who have been wronged, we can recalibrate the relationship between Post Office Ltd and the sub-postmasters—those small business people in their communities that my hon. Friend mentions.

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