Post Office ‘doing all it can’ to help sub-postmasters hit by Horizon scandal
The Post Office is “doing all that it can” to help those wrongly convicted of theft, fraud and false accounting, an inquiry has heard.
Between 2000 and 2014, more than 700 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses (SPMs) were falsely prosecuted based on information from the Horizon computer system, installed and maintained by Fujitsu.
In December 2019, a High Court judge ruled the system contained a number of “bugs, errors and defects” and there was a “material risk” that shortfalls in Post Office branch accounts were in fact caused by it.
Since then, many SPMs have had their criminal convictions for theft, fraud and false accounting overturned.
Post Office hopes that its proactive engagement with the points raised by human impact witnesses demonstrates its commitment to hearing the voices of postmasters
On Friday, during an inquiry into the scandal, those representing Post Office Limited (POL) apologised for the “suffering and damage caused” to those affected.
Kate Gallafent KC said the organisation followed the evidence given by affected workers earlier this year, saying it made for “uncomfortable” and “chastening” listening.
It was set out that 255 “action points” have been identified, 28 of which involve allegations about current and former POL staff, relating to “inappropriate” pressure being put on postmasters.
Ms Gallafent said POL “genuinely wants to investigate those allegations”, urging postmasters to provide more information about them.
She added: “Post Office hopes that its proactive engagement with the points raised by human impact witnesses demonstrates its commitment to hearing the voices of postmasters, engaging with their concerns, and doing all that it can to resolve them both for the sake of the individual concerned and to ensure that such issues do not arise again.”
The inquiry also heard updates on a series of schemes created to compensate victims and others caught up in the scandal.
The Historical Shortfall Scheme (HSS), set up for all those not included in the initial group litigation or those who had been convicted of criminal offences related to their time with the Post Office, was created with an application deadline of November 27 2020.
As of Thursday, offers had been made to 1,976 cases (83%) with payment being made in 1,600 of them, amounting to £34.5 million, the inquiry heard.
In August, chair of the inquiry Sir Wyn Williams had said a delay in determining whether to process late compensation applications has been “wholly unacceptable”.
Ms Gallafent set out: “POL fully accepts the chair’s conclusion that the delay in determining whether outstanding applications received after November 27 2020 should (or could) have been accepted into the scheme was wholly unacceptable and POL apologises for its part in this delay.”
She said late applicants can join, with 224 waiting to find out, but must explain why they could not join by the deadline.
A Group Litigation Scheme was also set up to provide further compensation for claimants part of the initial High Court action who were not eligible under the HSS.
Ms Gallafent also said 81 convictions that have been overturned on appeal, with interim payments made to all but three of them.
She went on to say POL has received non-pecuniary claims from 31 claimants who had their convictions overturned, making offers worth £4.5m to 19, with further offers potentially by the end of this year.
In some instances, those bugs (in the Horizon System) had the potential to and indeed did affect the integrity of sub-postmaster branch accounts.
The inquiry also heard an opening from Richard Whittam KC, on behalf of Fujitsu, who apologised for the Japanese firm’s role in the “sub-postmasters’ suffering”.
He said more than 30 million records – electronic and hard copy – going back 25 years have been collected to assist proceedings.
Mr Whittam also set out that Horizon is a “large, bespoke and highly complex system” developed “in conjunction” with the Post Office.
He went on: “Fujitsu acknowledges that there have been a number of bugs, errors and defects within the Horizon System, and that, in some instances, those bugs had the potential to and indeed did affect the integrity of sub-postmaster branch accounts.
“No complex IT system will ever be completely free of bugs, errors and defects.
“It is for this reason that processes governing the identification, communication, escalation and resolution of bugs, errors and defects were put in place between Post Office and Fujitsu.”
Nicholas Chapman, representing the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), called the scandal “grotesque”
He said: “The Department, and the Government as a whole, recognises that it too must be held to account.
“If it was at fault in any way, it will not shy away from admitting it. It is determined to learn the necessary lessons and will continue to make sure that where change is needed it is implemented.”
Phase Two of the inquiry, which was established in September 2020, is examining the procurement, design, pilot, roll-out and modifications of Horizon.
Evidence will begin being heard on Tuesday.
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