The Horizon Post Office scandal continues to dog its many victims
You may have thought the Post Office Horizon scandal was over, and that it had been dealt with. It isn’t. It hasn’t been. The plight of the subpostmasters, wrongfully accused by the government-owned Post Office of stealing money when it was actually the new Horizon accounting system that was to blame, has horrified the country.
It clearly horrified the Prime Minister too, because he said on the day of the verdicts: “…we’ll have to make sure that people get properly looked after because it’s clear that an appalling injustice has been done”.
So what have the government/Post Office been doing about it? First, the government has set up an inquiry (which is now, after the scathing judgement of the Court of Appeal, a statutory one) under the chairmanship of retired High Court judge Sir Wyn Williams.
Second, just as Parliament went into recess, it was announced that those who had had their convictions overturned could apply for up to £100,000 in interim compensation. This was an acknowledgement that the story was a shocking one - but it was also an attempt to reduce the claims for malicious prosecutions that will inevitably be made.
Who would buy an organisation which had this awful reputation for skulduggery and deceit?
Alongside, the Post Office has set up a compensation scheme for wronged subpostmasters, called the Historic Shortfall Scheme, which is slowly – oh so slowly - is beginning to pay some of the smaller claims. But – and this is shameful – the 555 subpostmasters who brought the matter to light by taking the brave step of taking the Post Office to court, are expressly excluded from that shortfall scheme.
This is because, in their bitterly contested litigation where the judge described the Post Office’s obstinate denial of the problem as, “the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the earth is flat,” the subpostmasters were forced (having run up legal and funding fees of £45 million) to settle the action on unfavourable terms.
Sir Wyn’s inquiry is forbidden from looking into this, despite the duress applied on the subpostmasters, their inequality of bargaining power as against a taxpayer-backed Post Office, and the fact that when they settled the case the subpostmasters did not know (because the Post Office kept it secret) that the Post Office had been advised in 2013 that false evidence had been given against the subpostmasters. The settlement should be set aside.
So where does this leave the Prime Minister’s words? I can tell you where it leaves the 555 subpostmasters – impoverished, many bankrupt, many having lost their homes and some their family (having been told by the Post Office that they must sack their apparently dishonest relations who worked for them), and, appallingly, some dead through suicide or illness brought on by this shocking story. Many of the group litigants were not convicted – they reluctantly paid the Post Office, so that the recently announced compensation is not available to them. The Post Office is keeping their money.
Quite apart from the issue of morality, this jeopardises the government’s eventual hope of selling the Post Office as a going concern.
The Post Office could, if circumstances were right, act as the vibrant heart of both rural and urban communities, even acting as a bank in those many areas where banks have closed their branches, or as a government portal providing essential services. But who would buy an organisation which had this awful reputation for skulduggery and deceit? It is in the interests of the government, as well as being the right thing to do, to give full and proper compensation to all those wronged by this awful saga.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.