The UK government has resisted calls for statutory public inquiries into the Post Office Horizon scandal in which subpostmasters were wrongly prosecuted over accounting flaws in Fujitsu-built software.
Following last week's Court of Appeal ruling which quashed 39 convictions of Post Office employees, MPs today pressed the government to hold a full public inquiry into the matter.
Shadow minister for science, research and digital Chi Onwurah told MPs that the government's inquiry into the Horizon scandal, announced in September 2020 and to be led by former High Court judge Sir Wyn Williams, would be toothless and could even lead to a whitewash as postmasters had been clear that they would fail to recognise and participate in such an inquiry.
"We need a statutory inquiry with genuine subpoena and witness-compulsion powers and a specific remit to consider compensation claims. Whilst we have the greatest respect for Sir Wyn Williams, his inquiry has no real powers and key questions about compensation for criminal prosecutions of subpostmasters and the responsibility of civil servants, and government are outside its remit," Onwurah told Parliament.
39 Post Office convictions quashed after Fujitsu evidence about Horizon IT platform called into questionREAD MORE
Scottish National Party MP Marion Fellows and Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen echoed the calls.
"Given the huge miscarriage of justice now fully exposed, including the 10-year attempted cover-up by the Post Office itself, only a full public inquiry, and an independent compensation panel for the victims, will now suffice to finally lance this boil," Bridgen said.
Speaking for the government, Paul Scully, minister for small business, consumers and labour markets, told MPs that a statutory inquiry, under the Inquiries Act of 2005, would take too long as the average length for such proceedings was nearly three-and-a-half years.
"In terms of the non-statutory inquiry, at this stage, Sir Wyn Williams is getting all of the support from each of the parties that he's investigating and if that changes then our thoughts, our advice will change. But at the moment it's working well, and he's getting the cooperation that is required," Scully said.
He said that he expected that inquiry to report back in the summer, in order for the government to provide feedback to subpostmasters.
Last week's Court of Appeal judgment refers to an earlier civil High Court judgment from Mr Justice Fraser, who savaged the Post Office's claims that the Horizon system, which dates back to 1999, was sound.
For example, the Receipts and Payments Mismatch ("RPM") bug was found to be affecting 40 branches back in 2010, when Post Office prosecutors were jailing their own employees for accounting shortfalls generated by Horizon. The court found even the Post Office itself didn't believe subpostmasters "were exploiting the bug intentionally," but the Post Office pressed on with prosecutions.
The Post Office Horizon saga is one of the biggest scandals to hit public-sector IT management in the UK in the last 20 years and has been subject to a BBC Panorama investigation, with journalist Nick Wallis revealing evidence of the extent of the cover-up. ®