A statutory public inquiry will be held into the Post Office Horizon scandal, the UK government said today – and MPs want to know why Fujitsu has largely been out of the limelight in the case so far.
The existing inquiry, chaired by retired judge Sir Wyn Williams, has no legal powers to force witnesses to give evidence, raising fears it would not be able to scrutinise people such as ex-Post Office CEO Paula Vennells if they decided not to co-operate.
Junior business minister Paul Scully told the House of Commons today: "I will convert the inquiry into a statutory footing [sic] on the first of June 2021."
"The Horizon saga has wrecked lives and livelihoods," continued the minister, reading from a prepared statement. "We can't undo the damage that has been done. But we can establish what went wrong with the Post Office and ensure something like this is never allowed to happen again."
MPs listening were not convinced. Darren Jones, Labour MP for Bristol North West, asked: "We welcome the statement today. However, if I've understood it correctly, the terms of reference are still being decided by ministers, and not by the independent chair, Sir Wyn Williams. Why?"
The minister said Williams had asked for extra powers, though his inquiry "wouldn't explore matters of substantive criminal law."
As the Post Office is wholly owned by government, many inside and outside Parliament have asked what the government did to rein in the hundreds of false prosecutions carried out by internal Post Office investigators aided and abetted by Japan-headquartered IT contractor Fujitsu. A civil claim for damages was settled by the Post Office in December 2019, with most of the money going to lawyers.
Fujitsu cannot hide forever
During private prosecutions Post Office and Fujitsu staff lied to courts across the country for 15 years, deceiving judges and juries into believing the Fujitsu-made Horizon accounting and stock control IT system was infallible. In reality Horizon was full of bugs and generated huge accounting shortfalls.
Even though managers inside the Post Office were repeatedly warned about the bugs making their prosecutions legally unsafe, the evidence was covered up – and wrongful prosecutions continued regardless. 39 convictions were overturned in April, with up to 400 more potentially being quashed after the Post Office wrote to them all.
Duncan Baker, Conservative MP for North Norfolk, poured scorn on Scully's suggestion that formally clearing subpostmasters of criminal convictions was enough compensation for the scandal's victims, saying:
I think justice and peace of mind is just one thing, but the matter of compensation for the victims is another and Fujitsu must not be let off the hook on this. What assessment has the minister made of ensuring that Fujitsu contribute compensation to the funds and make sure that those people who are still as we know hugely at a loss are properly compensated?
Scully prevaricated, murmuring: "He raises a pertinent point about Fujitsu. It's for the Post Office… to work out the terms of compensation and to build an issue around that. But I'm sure that [the subpostmasters] will hear what he said and absolutely raise that incredibly prevalent point, as they – as they seek redress."
However, the minister appeared to concede later that anyone from the Post Office or Fujitsu who was found guilty of crimes over the scandal could be punished by being made to pay compensation directly to their victims: "But we'll continue to look at what we can do to get full and fair settlement of compensation for postmasters in the different branches, of the stages of – of the civil cases and indeed the criminal cases."
The minister also mentioned that the Post Office was looking to replace Horizon with "a successor CRM system moving forward", something that doesn't quite square with the £42.5m Horizon contract extension given to Fujitsu in April. If the contract sum was payable upfront as a lump sum it could be very useful – if, for some reason or another, Fujitsu faced a sudden need to pay out several millions of pounds.
Kevan Jones, Labour MP for North Durham, summed up public feeling about the scandal by telling the minister: "Remember that in 2019, the Post Office spent £100m of taxpayers' money defending the civil case. In a case which frankly was... completely indefensible."
He concluded: "I know ministers like to hide beyond the Post Office [and say it's] their fault. It's not, it's a wholly owned company of government. Government's got to take responsibility for this." ®