Post Office Horizon inquiry set to be given statutory status with wider powers

by Jeremy

The government inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal is made statutory with the power to compel witnesses and evidence. According to Sky News, the government will soon announce that the current inquiry led by Sir Wyn Williams will be given statutory status, widening the powers available to the former High Court judge. Such a move would temper fears among victims and campaigners that the existing probe is a “whitewash.”

The government has repeatedly said the inquiry will remain non-statutory to ensure it comes to a speedy conclusion – even as recently as a debate in the House of Commons last month. But pressure has been mounting from subpostmaster victims of the scandal, politicians, journalists, and an increasingly incensed public.Post Office Horizon inquiry set to be given statutory status with wider powers

The Horizon scandal saw the Post Office blame and prosecute sub-post managers for financial crimes when unexplained accounting shortfalls appeared in their branches’ computer system. Soon after the system was introduced in 1999, sub-post managers began experiencing inexplicable losses.

A total of 736 were prosecuted, with many sent to prison, and many thousands more had to use their own money to make up losses; many were sacked, and livelihoods and lives were ruined. Subpostmasters always claimed the computer system could be responsible for the errors, but the Post Office always denied this was possible. A High Court judge ruled in December 2019 that the subpostmasters were right.

In 2009, Computer Weekly told the stories of seven sub-post managers affected by the problems, which led to many more who had suffered losses coming forward (see timeline below for Computer Weekly coverage of the scandal).

Since 39 subpostmasters had their criminal convictions overturned in the Court of Appeal on 23 April, there has been intense media coverage. After years of campaigning, the subpostmasters have finally caught the public’s attention. There have so far been 47 convictions overturned.

The subpostmasters and their supporters have always demanded a statutory inquiry. They want the people that made the decisions that led to the scandal to be identified.

Such an inquiry likely looked following Boris Johnson’s promise of one following the December 2019 High Court ruling that vindicated sub-post managers. However, the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry that was subsequently announced does not have the status of a statutory question, meaning it cannot compel witnesses to attend. This has been described as a “whitewash” by subpostmasters and “a cynical cop-out” by campaigning peer James Arbuthnot.

The Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA), which campaigns for justice for those affected by the Horizon scandal, refused to participate in the inquiry believing the current plans will allow the government to “brush it under the carpet”.

The JFSA called for a judicial review of the inquiry. In March, JFSA founder and former subpostmaster Alan Bates sent a formal legal letter, known as a pre-action protocol letter, to Paul Scully, the minister responsible for the Post Office in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), informing BEIS of plans to take it to court over the matter.

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