The Post Office scandal has been well-reported. Over the last few years, there have been powerful podcasts, books, articles and the near continual reporting of the scandal by Private Eye for well over twenty years. The scale of the injustice has shocked us all. It has resulted in us questioning our judicial system, our politicians and indeed how such a miscarriage of justice could, for so long, remain unresolved.
The thousands of sub-postmasters and mistresses who have been accused of fraudulent accounting, forced to make up non-existent shortfalls and even convicted of crimes they did not commit has shocked the entire system to its core.
The Business and Trade Select Committee, of which I am a member, is holding a public inquiry session on the Post Office and Horizon Compensation scheme this week. While this has not yet taken place at the time of writing, by the time you read this we will have questioned the Government and other stakeholders to gain a greater understanding of this scandal.
The aim of this session is to understand the process of redress for victims, to scrutinise the Government’s most recent announcements about overturning convictions and speeding up compensation payments, and to identify what went wrong with the Horizon IT system and why so many people kept quiet.
This short session of the Select Committee is accompanied by Sir Wyn Williams’ Post Office Horizon IT inquiry, which is set to go into the minutiae to understand why so many people were so badly let down. From my point of view, the Business and Trade Select Committee’s approach must not be one of grandstanding but one that asks the questions that millions are asking across the country.
First, who at the Post Office and Fujitsu knew there was a problem and when? When were the CEOs, company directors and members of the board informed of the problems and what action did they take? These dates are perhaps likely to be more surprising than one would imagine, meaning that both Post Office and Fujitsu should release the minutes of their board meetings for wider scrutiny and understanding as to how much of this scandal was a cover-up.
Second, the wrongful convictions must be overturned as quickly as possible. It is frustrating that Parliament has taken so long, but there are understandable limitations to politicians involving themselves in the legal process especially when it comes to overturning a court's decision. There must be a careful consideration of the role Parliament plays while also considering whether a new short-life body can be set up to address those who have been so clearly wrongfully convicted. Whatever the solution, it must be quick to decide and simple for those engaging with the process. Postmasters and mistresses have waited too long for justice and they should not be denied any longer due to complexity or bureaucracy.
Third, the compensation arrangement, the Horizon Shortfall Scheme, for those who were neither convicted nor part of the GLO action but had to cover shortfalls, must be a streamlined process. While considerable money has been paid out, the application process remains lengthy and complicated, and compensation can be subjected to tax demands. Recent announcements are positive, but do not tend to take into account the demographic of those applying for support. The added need for legal advice is just as unwelcome.
Finally, once those so badly impacted have had their convictions overturned and compensation paid, we can look to restructure the whole system and identify those who were so badly in the wrong, refusing to question their officials as to why thousands of innocent people were being prosecuted across the country. This sorry affair has made a mockery of our judicial system, destroyed the reputation of a once great British institution and worst of all, has made life a living hell for men and women who sought to help their communities by providing a much-needed local service.