Jessica Raspin discusses the Horizon Post Office scandal and its devastating consequences for Sub-postmasters.
The Post Office Horizon scandal may well be the largest miscarriage of justice in our history. As Chi Onwurah MP stated in the House, there were over 900 prosecutions, each one with its own story of dreams crushed, careers ruined, families destroyed, reputations smashed, and lives lost.
What led to this occurring? Between 1999 and 2000, the Post Office introduced a new IT system, known as Horizon, which would carry out transactions between the Post Office Limited and the individual branches. However, Horizon was defective. Money was disappearing from many of the Sub-postmaster's accounts, leaving huge holes, which only kept growing. Sub-postmasters who contacted the helpline were simply told the system would sort itself out.
Many sub-postmasters took drastic steps to cover these holes, including investing their life savings and selling their homes. No matter what they did, the gaps in their accounts continued to grow. When these sub-postmasters went to the Post Office for help, they instead found themselves accused of theft and false accounting.
The Sub-postmasters could not find the faults in their systems and were unable to receive help from the Post Office as their helplines were closed. If the Sub-postmasters didn’t close their books each night, they were unable to open again the next day. This meant the Sub-postmasters were in a position that they could be nothing but close their books, and therefore make false accounts.
In the initial proceedings between Sub-postmasters and the Post Office, they were contractually unable to have legal representation. The only representation they could access came from the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, which was funded and owned by the Post Office Ltd itself.
The Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance has been campaigning for over a decade to get the truth on this matter. The High Court ruling in December paved the way for justice for some, but the mediated settlement means that the truth remains hidden. If the case had gone to further trials, it would've exposed transference of operational risk to sub-postmasters, persistent denials, and coercive behaviour, which was then exposed by Panorama.
The campaign upon this matter within Westminster itself has grown greatly, to now make it a major issue with regular time in the Chamber and Committee hearings. For example, the Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Select Committee are in the process of holding their own inquiry into this. Many Parliamentarians have done important work to draw attention to this issue and to raise the plight of Sub-postmasters in their own constituencies.
In February, the Prime Minister committed to a public inquiry, but we know now that this is mere to consider whether the Post Office has learned the necessary lessons. We don't just need to learn lessons, but we need an inquiry to get to the truth.
A judge-led inquiry, which the Labour Party is backing, would have the power to summon witnesses, to compel to Post Office to cooperate and the power to refer lying witnesses to the Criminal Courts for perverting the course of justice.
Politicians from across the House are united in their calls for a judge-led inquiry, with Conservative MPs being amongst those calling for a judge-led inquiry rather than a public inquiry. This matter has united Parliamentarians from parties across the spectrum. The Government needs to listen to these Parliamentarians and announce a judge-led inquiry.
These Sub-postmasters deserve answers, they deserve justice. Many have had their lives ruined by no fault of their own. The only way these sub-postmasters can get the justice they deserve is by a judge-led inquiry.