Falsely convicted postal workers must be ‘fully compensated’, says committee

The Post Office and the government need to speed upcompensation payments to workers who were victims of the Horizon IT scandal, according to a report by an influential group of MPs.

MPs from parliament’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) committee have expressed concerns about the time taken to make settlements to former Post Office operators who were wrongfully convicted as a result of errors in the company’s computer accounting system.

They have warned that compensation needs to be concluded urgently, as many of the former Post Office workers affected by the long-running scandal are elderly, some have already died while awaiting redress, while others remain at risk of losing their homes.

The committee began holding hearings in 2020 about the Horizon IT scandal, one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British legal history, and has now published an interim report. The committee has paused its hearings as the public inquiry into the scandal has got under way.

In recent days, the inquiry has heard the moving testimony of people prosecuted by the Post Office about the impact of their wrongful convictions on their lives, and the resulting financial hardship.

The public inquiry, chaired by the retired high court judge Sir Wyn Williams, is part of an investigation into the scandal.

Between 2000 and 2014, the Post Office prosecuted 736 post office operators – an average of one a week – based on information from the Horizon IT system, which was installed and maintained by Fujitsu.

A group of 555 former workers won a high court battle against the Post Office in December 2019, when a high court judge ruled that Horizon’s system contained a number of “bugs, errors and defects” and there was a “material risk” that shortfalls in Post Office branch accounts were caused by the system.

Dozens of former Post Office workers have since had their convictions for theft, fraud and false accounting quashed by the court of appeal.

Some of the convicted workers were sent to prison, others lost their livelihoods and their homes. Many went bankrupt, and some died before their names were cleared.

The group of 555 who brought the legal action were awarded £57.75m, but the vast majority (£46m) was swallowed up in legal costs, leaving only about £20,000 in compensation for each person, which MPs said the victims view as “inadequate”.

At the time of the high court verdict, the government decided this group could not apply for compensation through another scheme, known as the historical shortfall scheme (HSS).

The MPs condemned how this had led to the “perverse situation” that workers who were part of the legal action faced receiving less compensation than others.

“It is clearly entirely unacceptable that the group of 555 victims who first brought this scandal successfully to court are being left in a worse position than those who are being compensated thanks to their action,” said Darren Jones, chair of the committee.

“There is no valid reason to exclude the 555 from being fully compensated and the chancellor must come forward with the required funding now.”

The MPs expressed concern that over 570 sub-postmasters who were wrongly convicted as a result of Horizon have not yet come forward to begin the process of overturning their convictions, despite attempts by the Post Office to contact them.

They are calling on the government to create an independent body to serve as a “trusted first point of contact” for those who were wrongly convicted.

The Post Office has previously said it cannot afford to foot the huge clean-up bill for the scandal and the government, the service’s only shareholder, has confirmed the taxpayer would step in.

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