In 1999, Horizon, a new computer accounting system, was rolled out across Post Offices nation-wide despite glitches experienced during an earlier pilot test. Financial discrepancies at several post office branches were reported shortly after the roll-out. The ensuing Post Office Horizon scandal is a blatant miscarriage of justice in which hundreds of sub-postmasters were wrongly prosecuted privately and publicly for theft, false accounting and/or fraud.
Postmasters were falsely accused of theft, false accounting, and fraud. A 2014 forensic report called Horizon "not fit for purpose" due to its errors and yet countless sub-postmasters were wrongly prosecuted continuing until 2015.
People's lives were ruined: jobs were lost, families split up, some were forced into prison and some felt compelled to take their own life.
Countless sub-postmasters were wrongly prosecuted.
The recent mini-series documentary by ITV has done well to highlight to many the injustice faced by sub-postmasters and mistresses across the country because of a faulty IT system. Whilst it has made many aware, some were already fighting for justice. This includes myself. For years I have been vocal to the Government about the need for justice, compensation and compassion for those whose lives have been ruined by this scandal.
Following an Urgent Statement in Parliament on the 08th of January, I made clear the Horizon system’s problems should not have led to grossly unjust treatment of sub-postmistresses and sub-postmasters who suffered loss of everything, whether prosecuted or not, and raised the local case of former Goring-by-Sea postmistress, Cheryl Shaw, who lost everything because the Post Office could not be bothered to understand the failings of their system. Week after week, she received a report that money was short, apparently missing. She topped up the growing losses with her own money. Instead of being able to remain a loved local shop owner in Goring by Sea, she had to sell after losing thousands of pounds.
The Post Office indicated it was her problem alone. It was not. They knew it was not. Most of the victims avoided prosecution by paying in their own money. I pointed out how the number of cases going to court rose from ten in 1997 to nearly 80 four years later in 2001.
During the Urgent Statement, Alex Chalk, the Justice Secretary, informed the House that he was considering bringing a bill to parliament to quash the remaining 800 convictions with a “simple bill”.
In 2015, I listened intently to a forum of sub-postmasters regarding the "mysterious and erroneous transactions" being recorded against sub-postmaster's accounts in recent years. They recognised something was wrong and the fact that so many sub-postmasters, who had to go through a process of vetting and registration to be in such a trusted position, were being accused of theft should have immediately alerted anyone involved. The Post Office's response to these errors and the concerns of sub-postmasters nation-wide, was a clear indication of a company in complete disarray. The managers responsible should have known the decent hard-working people running post offices would not suddenly go crooked on that scale.
Like other injustices, I have been committed to fighting for justice since first becoming aware of the scandal.
I have been a longstanding supporter of the Post Office All-Party Parliamentary Group. The Horizon Scandal has long been a primary part of the APPG’s work, a leading coalition of voices within Parliament calling for sub-postmasters and Post Office workers to receive the justice they deserve.
In recent years work has included high profile meetings with senior Ministers and representatives of the Post Office and involved groups including, in 2020, with Nick Read, then CEO of Post Office Limited.
I have been grateful for cooperation with the Communication Workers Union who have been an effective representative body for sub-postmasters and Post Office workers throughout.
I was one of the first and longest standing supporters of the Justice For Sub-postmasters Alliance (JFSA) within Parliament. They have been an effective voice outside of Parliament and a stalwart support for MPs since 2009 when 30 of the victims met for the first time and the campaign for justice was born.
In 2014, I supported an Adjournment Debate in Westminster Hall on the Post Office Mediation Scheme during which colleagues from across the house expressed severe concern that the Post Office Board was reneging on its commitment to a fair resolution to the many individual cases caught up in the scandal.
In March, 2020, I listened to the harrowing details brought forward by many colleagues during a debate on the Post Office and Horizon Software injustices. It was humbling to hear of the fortitude and dignity these Post Office workers have displayed whilst enduring so much in their ongoing quest for justice.
In September 2020, the government established a public inquiry into what happened. The inquiry, originally scheduled to end in 2022 continues to actively look into the scandal and is now expected to conclude later this year.
The inquiry issued an interim report on 17 July 2023 which can be read here: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2023-07-17/debates/23071736000013/PostOfficeHorizonITInquiryInterimReport
For many decades, I have been a member of the Howard League for Penal Reform, dedicated to less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison. The Howard League’s Journal of Crime and Justice in December, 2023, included the article “Harm, injustice & technology: Reflections on the UK’s subpostmasters’ case”. That disturbing account was written in 2022. Why does it take until 2024 for effective steps towards action. I would encourage all to read.
In 2022, I supported an Early Day Motion to include those 555 litigants who won civil proceedings against Post Office Ltd in 2018-19, stating that they should not be excluded from the Post Office Horizon compensation scheme and urging the Government to put in place an external compensation scheme that is outside the scope of the Post Office and provide this group with the redress they not only deserve but are entitled to. A copy of the EDM can be read here: https://edm.parliament.uk/early-day-motion/59315/post-office-horizon-compensation-scheme
The exclusion of these litigants from the compensation scheme is having and will continue to have a direct and devastating impact on these individuals and their families, especially as they exposed the scandal against all odds and have been left with the legal bill for doing so.
I want to have confidence that Ministers and senior people in business, whether suppliers or customers, will pay attention not to glossy reviews saying how good things are, but to investigative journalists who say how bad things might be for the innocent.
Those who were forced to plead guilty when they were not must be reimbursed the money they had not taken.
Those who lost their livelihoods and savings, who were forced into prison and whose lives were tragically altered or halted must have compensation.
I renew my call for sub-postmasters and mistresses involved in the Post Office Horizon scandal to be exonerated and for there to be a simple "mass appeal" against their convictions.
The Horizon system was established for one purpose before being adapted for another. We know faults were common, some being named after the office where first confirmed. Examples included the Dalmellington bug and the Callendar Square bug. It was wrong to believe in the infallibility of a technological system: a Titanic error.
Until those innocent people have justice, we cannot and should not sit quietly.
Many constituents were in touch requesting that Paula Vennells CBE, who was CEO of the Post Office when hundreds of operators were prosecuted, be stripped of her honour (CBE).
On the afternoon of the 9th of January, Ms Vennells issued a statement saying she was returning the award given to her in the 2019 New Year’s honours with immediate effect.
Many will welcome this sensible decision.