A decision to grant new powers to the inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal has been welcomed by campaigners and politicians.
The UK’s biggest miscarriage of justice saw subpostmasters wrongly convicted of offences such as theft and fraud because of the Post Office’s defective accounting system.
The Government confirmed on Wednesday that the inquiry, led by retired High Court judge Sir Wyn Williams, will be converted into a statutory inquiry next month.
This will give it the power to compel witnesses to appear or risk jail for non-attendance, and to compel the disclosure of documentary evidence.
But the move means the inquiry’s report is not expected until autumn next year, more than a year after originally planned.
Business minister Paul Scully told the House of Commons: “Sir Wyn (Williams) and I are both of the view that the context for the inquiry has changed in the light of the Court of Appeal’s judgment and that now is the right moment to convert the inquiry to a statutory footing.
“Therefore, I can now inform the House that with the agreement of the Prime Minister I will convert the inquiry to a statutory footing on June 1 2021.”
The announcement comes nearly a month after 39 former subpostmasters who were wrongly convicted of theft, fraud and false accounting because of the Post Office’s defective Horizon accounting system had their names cleared by the Court of Appeal.
Jo Hamilton, who was one of 39 to have their convictions quashed, said that giving the inquiry statutory powers was a “massive step forward”.
The 63-year-old, from South Warnborough in Hampshire, was handed a community sentence at Winchester Crown Court and had to pay the £36,644 shortfall the system had incorrectly found.
She told the PA news agency: “We have called for statutory powers and it’s come so it’s a massive step forward, it’s a really big thing.
“But we need compensation for the others in the group and we also need to know the terms of reference before we start dancing in the street.”
Labour MP Darren Jones, who chairs the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, said giving the review statutory powers was a “victory” for campaigners.
But he said Sir Wyn should be given the power to set its terms of reference.
He added: “The review’s remit has been extended but crucial issues around compensation and accountability still need to be addressed.
“The Post Office-Horizon scandal has seen subpostmasters and postal workers suffer grievously and be victim of an appalling miscarriage of justice.
“It’s vital those affected receive proper compensation, that those who were responsible are held accountable and, finally, that lessons are learned to ensure that something like this can never happen again.”
In a statement Sir Wyn said the terms of reference had been the “subject of consultation and discussion with me”.
He added: “There can be no denying that the judgment of the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) in R v Hamilton and others, understood in the context of the judgments of Mr Justice Fraser in the civil litigation between subpostmasters and Post Office Ltd, has generated important lines of enquiry some of which were previously undisclosed.
“Against this background, the powers available to a statutory public inquiry are necessary to support a proper assessment of all the relevant facts.
“Having digested the judgment of the Court of Appeal and returned to the judgments of Mr Justice Fraser over many days I made the request to Minister Scully that he should convert the inquiry.”
Paula Vennells, who ran the Post Office between 2012 and 2019, confirmed she is willing to appear as a witness to the inquiry.
She said in a statement: “It is beyond doubt there are serious and unanswered questions as to the manner in which subpostmasters were wrongly prosecuted.
“All those involved in any way have a duty to those subpostmasters and their families, who were innocent victims, to ensure that this can never happen again.”
Ms Vennells oversaw the organisation while it routinely denied there were problems with its Horizon IT system, instead accusing subpostmasters of stealing money.
But the Court of Appeal overturned convictions for 39 former subpostmasters, paving the way for 640 others to have convictions quashed.
Following the scandal, the former Post Office boss said she was “truly sorry” for the “suffering” caused to subpostmasters who were wrongly convicted of offences.
Ms Vennells, who was an associate minister in the Diocese of St Albans, announced at the time that she would also be stepping back from her regular church duties after the Horizon scandal.
She also quit non-executive board roles at high street retailers Morrisons and Dunelm.
Nick Read, chief executive of the Post Office, also welcomed the announcement and said the company would “co-operate fully” with Sir Wyn.
He said: “There can only be closure for victims of the Horizon scandal by establishing a comprehensive picture of what went wrong.”