Minister seeks to downplay ‘whitewash’ fears over Horizon scandal inquiry

A judge-led inquiry into the Post Office Horizon accounting scandal must not become a “whitewash”, ministers have been warned.

MPs from across the political divide insisted sub-postmasters affected by the scandal must be heard by the review chaired by former High Court judge Sir Wyn Williams.

Hundreds of postmasters were wrongly accused of false accounting and theft following problems with the defective Horizon IT system.

While some were sacked or made bankrupt, others were prosecuted and jailed.

Speaking in the Commons, Conservative MP Marcus Fysh (Yeovil) said: “I welcome the establishment of the inquiry but can the minister please assure us that this is not going to be a whitewash.

Yeovil MP Marcus Fysh
Yeovil MP Marcus Fysh

“Many sub-postmasters in my constituency are very anxious to know that.”

Business minister Paul Scully replied: “Yes, I can assure him that it will not be a whitewash. I am determined to get the answers to the questions that we need.”

Last year the Post Office paid a £57.75 million settlement after more than 550 claimants brought group legal action over the Horizon system, which was found to contain software flaws that caused financial shortfalls in the sub-postmasters’ branch accounts over a number of years.

The Post Office also last week conceded 44 appeals by former sub-postmasters to overturn convictions linked to the scandal.

Asking an urgent question on the decision, Labour former minister Kevan Jones earlier called for a full public inquiry.

After twenty years of seeking justice, subpostmasters deserve so much better than an internal review of Post Office. Only a judge-led public inquiry with appropriate powers can answer for subpostmasters and ensure this horrendous episode is never repeated.

— Kevan Jones (@KevanJonesMP) October 5, 2020

Mr Jones said “not a penny has been paid out” for historical compensation claims before criticising the Government’s judge-led inquiry examining the scandal, adding: “It may have a retired judge at its head but he does not have the power to summon witnesses and cross-examine them – a full public inquiry is needed, without that we will not get to the truth of this national scandal.”

Mr Scully said the Post Office’s historical shortfall scheme has received more than 2,200 claims and they are being assessed.

On the inquiry, Mr Scully said: “We have Sir Wyn Williams as a former judge at the head of that, he will be an independent chair to ask the questions, be able to push back at Government, push back at the Post Office and get evidence.”

Mr Scully said it would be a “backward-looking” review which can seek evidence, adding: “I believe this is the inquiry – albeit on a non-statutory basis – that will actually get the answers but do it in a quick way that will hopefully satisfy the sub-postmasters to get the answers they want.”

Tory Lucy Allan (Telford) called on the minister to “commit to determining who knew what and when during this shameful saga”.

She added: “How did a respectable organisation like the Post Office, a major software company like Fujitsu and the great and the good in the civil service and ministers from all parties fall prey to group-think on such a grand scale, that despite this computer error occurring across the country it was assumed the only possible explanation was that all sub postmasters affected were dishonest?”

Tory former minister Andrew Mitchell added: “It is clear, is it not, that a monstrous injustice by the state has been visited upon these poor post masters and poor post mistresses, leaving us all, I would hope, extremely uneasy.

“By refusing to allow the inquiry even to consider the compensation they should be given, isn’t the Government which owns, funds and directs the Post Office in danger of making an already truly dreadful situation even worse?”

Tory MP Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) sought assurances from the Government that the voices of victims will be heard as part of the inquiry.

He said: “Can (Paul Scully) assure me that my constituent Maria, who is one of the victims of this scandal, and all the other victims, will be able to give evidence to this inquiry, they will be heard and that we will get a conclusion to this inquiry within the next year?”

Mr Scully responded: “It’s up to Sir Wyn Williams how he wants to frame that inquiry, but it’s absolutely set up for people to have their voices heard, for sub-postmasters to have their voices heard and reported back within around a year, so absolutely.”